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Podcast Episode 54: Keturah McCottry





All successful leaders in todays new world of work understand this: the path to innovation and excellence is within harnessing the collective wisdom of their team. And, that’s exactly what our guest, Keturah McCottry-Smith has done so seamlessly. As a people leader spearheading initiatives to drive cultural growth and transformation, Keturah notes, it’s not just about having a vision, it’s about creating an environment that encourages and values the contributions of every team member.


When tapping into your team members to contribute to the projects you’re leading, ideating, or anything in between, you’re tapping into a wellspring of diverse perspectives and ideas. The unique experiences, skill sets, and perspectives can lead to the innovative solutions you are seeking. And, the contribution enhances the sense of ownership and commitment to the initiative(s).


In this episode, Keturah shares a plethora of golden nuggets even beyond the team contribution aspects mentioned above. In fact, we’re diving into:

  • The importance of being open to change and allowing yourself to see the signs of how this change might be exactly what you’re in need of. Keturah made some big career pivots and it’s led her to where she is today!

  • When your organization puts a project on hold, Keturah shares the importance of not letting your effort toward that project die out – keep it in a place where you can still contribute while not losing focus on more timely work. (pssst… the intention behind this is something you want to listen to!!!)

  • Keturah shares her KEY tool to guiding her team – her North Star document – how to create it and use it… GOLD!


And, so much more.


Excited to have you tuning in with us today. Don’t be shy – feel free to share this with the people leaders in your circle.


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TRANSCRIPT


Aaron: Keturah, thank you for coming on today. Just a pleasure to, to meet you and get to talk to you. I've had a chance to do a little bit of background research and just the work that you do is super interesting and I'm curious to learn so much more. So thank you first of all for coming on.


Keturah: Thanks for having me.

I'm super excited to be here right now.


Aaron: So kind of in the green room, before we recorded this, we were talking a little bit about your journey and I guess that's where I'm interested to start. You know, I looked at your background and digital product management, delivery implementation products like, but now you're learning and development manager.

So I guess my curiosity is how did you get here to the place that you're in today?


Keturah: It is really interesting because this idea of learning and training has pretty much been the baseline in my career this whole time, all 15 years of a corporate career. And I didn't really look at it that way. You know, getting into tech space.


Kind of accidentally and doing the project management and working in software as a service for all these years, I gravitated to roles within teams or just even impromptu, just helping people and learning a lot about. Anything that you put in front of me, a system, a tool, a process, and really being able to convey that to others, and that's how I ended up training.


I ended up training on software systems at my company and moving to another team that was responsible for assisting other teams with their projects. I began training more teams in the company, and I ended up consulting, hr, HR on learning management systems, on training, and then I started getting under the hood of the policies and processes for human resources, and that is how I ended up in a learning and development role.


Because it was like, wow, I'm an individual contributor. I'm working in learning management system with hr. I'm training people and people come to me for the things related to training, related to the software, and now related to people, sorts of training. And that's how I ended up in learning and development.

I had to make a decision with my career. It was either going to go deeper into the tech space, moving into product teams, getting more into product management, or moving into people direction. Which gave me the opportunity to talk to more people. You know, I went from working on one team to being a resource for the whole organization, and that's what I get to do now and I really enjoy it.


Aaron: Tell me more about that as, as you get to be a resource for the organization, that's a big scope and for a lot of the learning and development leaders and managers here, there's 1,000,001 things that you can be doing. Where do you focus your priorities?


Keturah: The priorities, one they often shift really comes down to what the workforce needs and what the business needs.


So the highest priorities are actually determined by executive leadership, and then they're presented to me and I developed a strategy for it and. It comes down to what the people are asking for as well. So I have to balance what the business needs with what the people are asking for at all times, and being able to find a sweet spot to giving everyone what it is that they need.


And also what drives my focus and where I put my efforts toward are who's ready. There are some teams and individuals who are like, yes, let's get this done. I wanna focus on that. And there are some teams who are like, oh, I'm kind of busy right now. Can you check back in a few months? So it's a lot of pivoting that I do and to keep things flowing and not going against the grain.

I go where I see the majority lights are green, you know, instead of trying to pivot and push people in a direction they're not ready to go into. I find the quick wins and I go for the path that is clearest when it comes to getting the work done. And that's how I found success.


Aaron: Tell me more about that balance, because I imagine from our work with other organizations, it's hard because the requests and the demands that come from the teams and the employees and the business needs can be.

Very just in time. I need this now, which is in a large contrast to the business strategy and the overall direction. How do you balance that like structural strategy with, as you said, the quick wins and the things that people need? Like how does that, how does that get balanced in an effective way?


Keturah: I honestly rarely ever totally put something down.

I have a list of the top few things that I know the business really needs, so when they cycle back around to it, I have something prepared or something I was working on. I keep a running list of things I'd like to achieve and address so that when I complete something and they say, oh, hey, we are not gonna do this anymore right now, we're gonna table it.

I don't bury it. It's still in the back of my mind. It's still in my discussions with my department, and that's how I balance that.


Aaron: Can you gimme an example of one where you had it ready to go and then it had to get put on the back burner, then it was brought back up just to like kind of conceptualize it.


Keturah: Yeah, so I rolled out a new onboarding plan, a policy strategy for the organization where we moved information for teams onto our intranet and leveraging our learning management system for. All of the content that they were utilizing for onboarding and some professional development, some role specific training.

And we were rolling out team by team, here's your training plan. We're gonna add you to the intranet, we're going to set you up in e-learning, we're gonna assign this information to your employees. And when it got really busy, it's like, okay, don't, don't do this anymore. Right now the teams don't have time.

You have to put it down. And work on something else. But even though that was something I needed to put down, I continued to refine the process. I continued to keep a running list of teams that I needed to work with. I continued to have the strategy in mind and on paper so that it didn't just fall apart and cease to become a formal process in our onboarding strategy.

So that's one way that I do it. Another example is, I had was responsible for a partnership sort of program for our new hires, and that became a real, a real high, high priority at one point. And I was told to create the information, get it all together, we're gonna present it to executive leadership, and then it was radio silence.

I didn't have approval yet. I didn't know if it would be approved, but ultimately I kept on with. The plans for the program as if it was approved. I kept refining it, I kept keeping it. I kept discussing it, and I didn't let it get under a pile of other things that I had to work on so that when it went from everything's quiet to how fast can we get this going, I was able to get it going in a timeframe that they wanted to.

And this is the type of thing that I learned from being in project management for so, You know, when I worked with clients and clients would disappear, we would want an update from them. We would give them a timeframe. They wouldn't respond, but you could never just ignore them. You had to keep going as though they gave you the next update.

You had to keep emailing them. You had to keep checking in on them, because what would happen is you wouldn't hear from a client for two months and then an internal stakeholder on their end. Would reach out and say, why isn't this done? Get it done, and then it comes over to us like, we need this done next week.

So I learned that not getting a complete yes or a green light right then does not mean it's gone away. It's just probably tabled. So it's better to just kind of put it to the side, understand it's going to come back around and don't just abandon it completely.


Aaron: It's such a important point, especially for other learning development talent leaders to say like, Hey the things I heard from this is, treat your executive team and the business like a client and a no green light right now, or a, a pause or a no does not necessarily mean it's, it's a no forever.

It means it's probably a no for you know, anywhere between a quarter and a year.


And so don't lose sight of that. Keep it, fresh in your mind. And for somebody who's in your role at a size company that's growing, how do you, what are some ways you keep it fresh?


You keep those things fresh so it's not just like, oh, six months later, what the heck was that? Where did I put it? Like, what do I do with it? Like, how do you keep it so that you can go back to it and feel confident in, in moving on it quickly when you're asked to move on it tomorrow?


Keturah: Spreadsheets. Spreadsheets are my best friend. I love to use OneNote. I will list the ideas, list the plans, but very important, a project definition document. A project definition document acts as your true north for any project. So when I'm asked to do something to keep everyone on the same page, I fill out a document that talks about what we're going to achieve, why, what's included, what isn't included, the risks involved, and the people who should be a part of it.

In a RACI chart, I really brought my. Project management background into this role as well. Instead, we should put formality around our projects. They are real projects. You know, people may not look at HR and the HR function as a very tactical, strategic part of the business, but it is. So would I do a project?


I want to have that documentation because, so if I do put it down, I can go back and say, right. That's exactly what we're supposed to be doing because it's documented, but then also continuing to talk with the team about what we want to do. It's very aspirational. I don't stop talking about the things that I want for the team and for our workforce.


And I talk about it to almost anyone who would listen. I had this idea and I think we should do this, and I'm really excited about it to get other people excited because then they'll start talking about it and then it becomes something that's more real and it gives people. It gives them, you know, hope and encouragement to know that there's someone who's really thinking about what the next steps look like from a people perspective at an organization, and to share it with them and to ask their opinion.


So that's how I keep my things alive. I meet with my teammate every week. I meet with my manager every week. We continue to ideate. We meet as a team every month. Our department managers meet together about every two weeks, so we continue to talk, discuss, brainstorm, and that's how we keep things alive, even if we can't execute on them right away.

Yeah,


Aaron: I love those. I love those two or three things that you said. One was like that project document, the, the what, the why, the what's not included, who's included, like the key stakeholders, just so that like, because I can imagine going into a, a list of brainstorm notes or an old Google doc to say, oh, what do we do here?

And what's the purpose of it? But having that. Like key header documents. Say,


Hey, here's why we initially put this together. Here's what it's about. Here's what we're going after. And who that's, it's simple, but it's like a really crucial step and highlights the importance of doing it in any project because you don't know when a project might get shelved or, you know, when you need to go back and provide clarity to others.


So I think that's just such a great. Way to give clarity to yourself, but also to give clarity to others as you engage and rule others. And I love that you said like, share and ideate, like don't stop sharing and ideating. Just because it's not happening doesn't mean you can't talk about that as the vision for the future of what you want.

We were talking earlier about the the new world of work and you mentioned it's it's lonely. It's lonely going towards the new world of work. And, and then I think about your role as someone who's creating an inclusive workplace and educating employees on how to be allies. And how does your work in creating this allyship and inclusiveness align with this new world of work that you see?


Keturah: It's the approach I take in working on program programs related to. Diversity efforts and allyship, you know, and seeing it in the past. There's this, we're going to hire someone from the outside to come in and talk to our organization about these things and what they should be doing. And when I ended up getting into the work, my approach was let's bring our people together because it's really about people engagement.


Regardless of the subjects the recognition that we're doing, the ultimate goal is to let's listen to our people because, well, we hired these amazing people and I'm sure they have things to share and we can really tap into that and help to really strengthen our company culture. And I think that is really what this new world of work is about.


You know, we're spending more time at work with our coworkers and with our families, our friends. And when things got really isolated during the pandemic, it was how do we bring people together and talk about things that matter? When people were feel really feeling lonely at work, like they were just failing because they were trying to navigate their, their families and the pandemic and things that were happening, and they just felt so lonely.


And I said, you know what? Our programming should be about the people. For the people. Let's find things they're interested in. Let's talk, let's listen to them and give them a platform. That is at the very basis and core of all the programming I do, how do I get the most amount of people together about things they care about or things they want to learn about in an environment where they feel safe, that they can be their authentic selves, and that they can really take something away or ask the questions they really want to ask or say the thing they were afraid to say.


Just to turn around and hear other people say the same thing or relate or reach out after and make connections, and I think that's going to be important going forward.


Aaron: How does that intersect with the concept of company culture and then a layer, one more thing on top of that and business performance.


Keturah: So a company's culture. I say is in their people and how connected they feel to one another outside of their job function and how they feel about the company overall in the direction that it's going in, in terms of how they're treating their people and how they are enabling their people to come into their roles at work as their whole selves and.


Allowing the space to say, we're going to offer this to you. We're going to take this time to invite you to something that you can discuss yourself or talk with others outside of work, outside of your job Function is something that will strengthen our company culture. Because it helps people feel a sense of belonging, and that's really what company culture is about.


For me, belonging, it's not about the right kind of people with the right kind of background, with the right kind of this or that. You know, it's really about people feeling proud and accepted and like they are really contributing to a business, whether it's their role, but then also the talents and skills they have outside bringing that in there too.


You know, makes them feel like they can really be their authentic selves.


Aaron: I love that word.

I'm loving the word belonging. And I like how you started to define a little bit of pride and acceptance and contribution, and I guess what I am wondering is how do you, in your role, like what are the things that you're doing on a tactical level to foster and create that belonging in the organization?


What's worked and what hasn't worked?


Keturah: So what's working is just making it available and being honest and transparent with people about what we're trying to achieve, what we want, and showing up for them the way that we say that we will. I'll ask people, can you be a part of this program where I'm asking you to talk about your workplace experience as a person in a marginalized group?


And then people will feel nervous, you know, I don't know if I'm gonna say the right thing, and I will say, I'm here for you. Let's talk about it. Let's talk about how you would like to your challenge, how you would like to present what you're going to say, and let's work on this together and mean it.


Then people will agree and show up, and that's what works the most, offering the space. Giving people the opportunity to give input on what they want to talk about, but not leaving them there alone to tackle it alone. Because a lot of these things are very sensitive and what's working is really saying, I am here every step of the way.


We are on this call. We'll talk about it. We'll talk about it every week until the event, to help them feel comfortable stepping out and being brave and talking about themselves and their experiences. And that is what's been working the most. And honestly also me being really invested in what I'm trying to do, the ideas, I'm really passionate about them.


I put the work into it and then I bring that to the workforce. I'm not just saying, oh, let's just do this to check it off a list or a box. I'm really invested in it, and that's been kind of contagious. You know showing up and really wanting to be mindful of others in the sensitivities. One of the things that I always say when I do programming for people in marginalized groups is if I'm asking people in marginalized groups to participate instead programming, I always ask them, is this okay?


Are you okay with doing this? Because I understand that we don't wanna put the onus on the marginalized to be the ones to educate. So any chance that I get, I am going to stand in a gap and put together any research that I can find on my own and then ask people, is this okay? Do you have any feedback?


And if they want to take a larger role, absolutely, but we're not taking an angle of, well, you must be the one to do this. We want people to feel empowered and inspired on their own to step up and do more, and that's what's been working for us.


Aaron: What are some examples of programs or initiatives you've done that have implemented that?


Because I'm trying to, like, I get it conceptually, but I don't, I can't see how it plays out in an organization.


Keturah: So, you know, we'll have a, a calendar of events that we want to get through for the year. And one brand new thing that we did that I was just incredibly, incredibly excited and proud for was we started a pronouns workshop.


And in my free time, I, I'm always looking at, you know, what's the latest and greatest thing that I can do to help anyone, anywhere I go to panels, I go to conferences, and just places where I can learn how to just be better in my role, how to engage more. And I thought, It would be a good idea to offer a pronouns workshop to the workforce where we can go over, you know, what these topics mean and really explain very important topics as it pertains to people who identify as LGBTQIA plus.


And I said, okay, I'm going to do all the research that I can do. I'm going to go, I got the idea from a panel that I went to and I said, I'm gonna look, reach out to the people I. I'm going to find anything I can find, and I'm gonna take a stab at putting together a presentation because I didn't wanna ask the people who were identifying as L G B T Q my company to, can you tell us what we should know about pronouns?


I said, that's not okay. You know, there's so much research that we can do and things and resources that we can find. So I put together a presentation on my own. I said, I'm gonna put together this presentation and then I'm going to get people's opinions and feedback and incorporate it, and I'm going to host a presentation and invite, because my sentiments was, I'm not going to ask this marginalized group to step up and be the one to put together this education.

I'm going to do that in solidarity. I am going to do that, and that's what I did and it's been an amazing presentation and experience. We've had people come in and other people present it. We've had someone on a team revamp the whole thing and we'll be presenting a brand new one, and I'm just really excited that it took off.


And that I was able to help people feel more comfortable and the feedback that I got from people who were like, I really wanted to learn this. They just wanna be, you know, a better support for people in their lives, for people at work. And that's how, that's how I approach nearly all of the programming.


Aaron: It's an awesome process you know, from a learning and development perspective, because you can't be the all knowing and the all doing, and you can't do everything that everyone wants. But the things that you can do, I love that you say like, Hey, I'm gonna do the research. I'm gonna develop it myself, and then I'm gonna invite others to provide feedback and insights, like do the work, invite others.


Then what you said is like you allowed others to own it and take it from there. And I think that's such a critical element for it to live on. Besides for just like Keturah plugin, like her pronouns workshop, everyone's gotta attend. No, no. It's like, let me invite and include others in this process and then let me let go of it.


And give it to other people to revamp, to do on their own, to lead so that it can live beyond you. Because as a team of one, I'm assuming it's gonna be hard to, you know, to continue to do it all yourself.


Keturah: Yes. And there's so much that I am trying to do and letting things that I've created go for other people to manage is amazing.


I never wanted the work that I do to be what you said. Oh, it's Keturah, it's Keturah's thing. You know, I want people to bring their input. I want their feedback. And being able to let someone own something and not micromanage them or keep checking in about is really let them do what they would like to do with it.

I feel, for me is a total win because that just allows us to do more. It shows how people can feel inspired and want to be a part of the work that we're doing and what we're offering. It doesn't feel like it's a lip service sort of a thing. You know, we're really taking the care in it and it shows when people say, you know what?


I want to sign up for that. I want to make my contribution because employee resource group work is employee led. So it really comes down to what the employees are capable of doing, and I always encourage them to work on what they're passionate about and also to work, do what they can. Not just do this because I told you to, or do an element of any project that you don't like doing.


You know, maybe someone doesn't like being a host or maybe someone doesn't like writing. Documentation about something. I invite people to work on what they actually organically like doing. If you love doing research, great, you'll research the topic. If you love talking in front of an audience, wonderful, you can be on this panel or host the panel.


So we really invite people to do what works for them, and that is where we've also seen success.


Aaron: Oh, it's huge. It's inviting and letting go is a huge, huge way to create. Allow other peoples to take ownership and to, you know, create the organic growth that is the more sustainable type of growth of ideas within an organization.

I just think it's beautiful. I guess I'm now curious just what are the next things that you're tackling? What are the next two or three big ideas or big inspirations that you're going after at


Keturah: Well, wow. I am, well, the things that I hope to do that they're not on my immediate roadmap right now, but expanding on our people partnership programs, and I use the term partnership because we have this idea of mentorship and.


Mentorship often is a one-to-one sort of thing. And I created a program for new hires, and it's really a partnership program more than mentorship because it's essentially groups of new hires. Working with someone who's worked at the company for a while, like when they start, and I want to do more with partnerships, with creating connections between employees, peer-to-peer programs where people can get together and learn about each other, talk about their job functions, talk about life outside.


That is one of my ultimate goals and next steps. One, because the people are. Asking for it. And also too, because it makes such a difference in the comradery and what people can learn from one another, so I'm working on that. I'm also working on leadership training, which I'm really, really excited about because I learned that leadership is something that I feel very inclined to do.

And then, And stumbled across that and really am passionate about and want to continue in that avenue. So that's something else that I'm working on. And also just, you know, continuing to give more opportunities for people in the company to just show us who they are because they really, really, really make the company, you know, and.


I've been at RAID and see now for 10 years, and the one thing that everyone can say is it is the people, the people, the coworkers, you know, I mean, That really, really makes the experience. We have some of the most talented, kind, dynamic people I've ever worked with, you know, in my career. And being able to work with those people and help them all the time and to continue to think about ways to make their work experience more robust.


That's, that's, that's, that's at the top of my list. It really is.


Aaron: Oh, I love to hear that. Thank you. This was just a really wonderful conversation and it highlighted some. Uniquely tactical ways to get buy-in, to get ownership, to get engagement. And it starts with inviting and allowing. And so I, I just love it.


I think there's a lot of people listening that can learn a lot from these simple steps where we don't have to over-engineer and overdo what we can develop and then invite And so Keturah, thank you for sharing your time, sharing your insights, your perspective, your stories with us. And I'm just grateful for you.


Keturah: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.


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