One great employee is worth a handful of other mediocre candidates. Yet, admittedly, top-quality candidates are pretty rare and hard to find. Traci Wilk has the strategies to make them come to you instead of you to them. In this episode, she joins host Andrea Hoffer to share those with us. Primarily responsible for the organizational development and growth initiatives at The Learning Experience, Traci extends her expertise to help us how to successfully recruit top team members as franchise owners and, most importantly, keep them. She shares her insights about company culture, which aspects you should value, and the three things you need to look for in potential candidates beyond the typical experience. What is more, Traci then reveals some of the challenges when it comes to hiring in the corporate world and how to overcome them.
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How Franchise Owners Can Recruit Top-Quality Employees With Traci Wilk
We’re going to talk about how to successfully recruit top team members as a franchise owner. For those of you that know my background, you know that I owned a franchise location of The Spa Concept for many years. As a franchisee with a team of 35 employees, I struggled with attracting top-quality candidates and keeping them. I eventually discovered new ways to approach recruiting that helped me to be successful, but I wish I had known what to do back then. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a true rockstar in HR and Talent professional. At the time that we met, she was stepping into the role of Senior VP for People at the franchise company in The Learning Experience. In the few years she’s been in this role, I’ve watched from afar the changes that she’s made to build a culture and team at The Learning Experience.
I want to start off by telling you a little bit about this impressive woman, Traci Wilk, Senior VP for People. Traci is primarily responsible for the organizational development and growth initiatives at The Learning Experience. She and the People team are focused on ensuring our brand vision and values, blend to create the ideal employee experience. For over many years, Traci’s career has spanned across multiple industries, leading teams at Fortune 500 and major progressive brands in varying stages of growth. Her passion for talent planning, change leadership, organization design, and people development is what led her to The Learning Experience.
Prior to joining The Learning Experience, her work experience included leadership roles at Starbucks Coffee, Coach, Rag & Bone, Bolt.com, and Delia’s. She attended SUNY Albany as an undergraduate in Psychology and received her Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology from Fordham University. Her husband and two teenage children, Ryan and Alexa, relocated to South Florida from New Jersey, and she does not miss the Northeast winters. Welcome, Traci Wilk, Senior VP for People at The Learning Experience.
It’s nice to be with you.
Thank you for being here with us. We’re excited to learn from you. Could you start off by telling us a little bit about your background and how that led you to The Learning Experience?
I had my degree in Psychology, had every intention of becoming a psychologist. I find that many that eventually move into a role in Human Resources tend to get there accidentally, which is what happened to me. While I was in graduate school, I took on a part-time job at a company as their first HR Administrator, doing a lot of the paperwork, benefits, payroll and some of the more foundational tasks. What happened was this was a startup company. I found that as the company grew, the need for employee relations, support and organizational development support became very apparent. I found that what I was learning in graduate school, which I was attending at the same time, I was applying to the workplace.
I quickly decided I was going to make that pivot from becoming a therapist to being an in-house resource that is focused on the employee experience and helping people to become more self-actualized in the workplace. That’s what led me into HR. My first two roles were at startup organizations, then I left and went to two larger scale organizations: Starbucks and Coach. I went back into the startup world. I feel as though I’ve truly come full circle at The Learning Experience, which is an established company. The company has been around for many years. However, when I joined, the company was going through some significant organizational change and bringing in new leadership. It was ripe for somebody to come in and help shepherd us into this next phase of the organization. We’ll talk about that more as we progress, but essentially that is what led me here. All of my roles previously had been in New York City. This is my first time working in a state outside of New York City, in Florida. I’m happy to be here. This has been a terrific move for me.Unless the leaders are really role-modeling and practicing their core values every day, it doesn't really take hold. Click To Tweet
I know when we first met and you first came to The Learning Experience, one of the things that you were working on were the core values. Could you share about that and the values that The Learning Experience embraces?
I’ve worked in companies that have had core values and others that did not. I often find that sometimes even though you have a set of values that what the culture of an organization is like, unless the leaders are role modeling and practicing these values every day, it doesn’t take hold. When I came to The Learning Experience, one of the things that I recognized was we had a number of long-time employees that had been here from the very beginning. They had a legacy with the organization. They helped build the organization, mixed with a set of newer people to the organization. In some cases, I noticed that there was an opportunity for more collaboration between the different teams and even in terms of the different styles and what people bring into an organization.
I have always held a belief that those that have been here for a long time or been with the company for a long time are essential because they represent a lot of the tradition, a lot of the values, and what built the company to begin with, versus newer people that come into an organization. I felt that if we work together as a complete leadership team and put together a set of core values that celebrated the contributions that everybody makes into an organization, whether you’ve been here for 10 years or 10 days, your ideas are of equal value.
We purposely created a set of three core values. One is an innovative mindset. Our second is a collaborative spirit. The third is community impact. The innovative mindset is all about bringing new ideas to the table. It’s very on the knows, but the name of the company is The Learning Experience. That is something that is inherent in our brand. We want people to come in with new ideas, iterate on ideas that have worked for us for a long time, and constantly be thinking about how to improve and make things better. The collaborative spirit was with the intention of bringing different groups together and knowing that if we work together, we’re going to get there faster. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The community impact is inherent to our brand, The Learning Experience, and the impact that we make within our communities, our focus on philanthropic efforts. As we continue to build centers throughout the country and globally, we want to be thinking big and globally, but focused on the individual communities and how having a center in the middle of a community can enhance the community spirit. These are the values that we put into place. They have taken hold. We do find that we use them as a filter to make important decisions, whether that’s hiring or thinking about who will promote. I’m pleased with those. It took a lot of work to get to those three, but they do illustrate what we’re trying to achieve.
This next question may feed into everything you shared with us or maybe there’s something that you can build on with it. You said that the core values provide this filter in all your decisions, including hiring. When you are hiring for The Learning Experience, what are the top three things that you look for in potential candidates beyond the typical experience needed? Do these three values the top three things that you’re looking for?
They are. If I had to think about three key elements or attributes that I’m looking for in a candidate, that would be a good fit for us. The first is self-awareness and a high degree of emotional intelligence. It’s a close cousin to some of those core values, but it’s somebody that isn’t afraid to be vulnerable, to understand where in the past they may have taken a risk, failed and how they course-corrected. In an interview, people are trying to put forth the best version of themselves. For me, a big part of that is being able to interpret a humility that they may bring into the role, mixed with a confidence that comes from having been there before, having come into different roles, and met some similar challenges to what they would experience here. Those are some of the main attributes that I’m looking for.
The second is very similar also to an innovative mindset, which is a growth mindset. It’s understanding that there is always a different way to look at a situation. The thing that we never want to hear from somebody is, “This is the way I’ve always done it. This is the way it’s always been done.” Thus, we should continue along that vein. There needs to be elements. You don’t want to lose who you are as a brand and what makes you great, but having the ability to consistently think through, “Here is something I did,” and being able to have the elements of hindsight to think, “Here’s how I could have done it differently to even have had a better outcome or a faster outcome.”An innovative mindset is a growth mindset. Click To Tweet
The last thing that I look for when we’re hiring in the corporate office, one of the things we talk about a lot here is this notion of a T-shaped employee. T-shaped employees are those that have a broad view of a function and all of the different elements in that role, and can be strategic and think through all of the factors that may help us to get the initiative accomplished. Coupled with that is the ability to go narrow, deep, to roll up your sleeves and to understand a situation from the ground up, and to get that context. If we have leaders, when I say leaders, it doesn’t necessarily mean a people manager, but anybody coming into the company, we want you to have that leadership mindset to be energized by getting into the weeds, digging deep and drilling down into an issue in order to affect change. Those are the three things that I’m most interested in talking to candidates about.
Would you say that this has changed over the years for you of what you look for in candidates, or even has it changed as you moved from one organization to another?
It’s not that these things weren’t always important, but as I have grown in my career, I have seen what has made people successful and what has hindered them, it has become much more glaring. Perhaps in the past, we may have been much more focused on a specific experience or technical skillset that somebody brings into a role. That is often critical. To me now, I see that’s what gets you entry into a role, but in order to then be successful, you have to have those other attributes. I have changed my line of questioning in my interviews to be less focused on the technical parts of the role. As I’m interviewing a candidate versus maybe the hiring manager who I know can assess whether they have that technical skillset. Earlier in my career, I spent a little more time in those conversations, focused on those technical skills and not as much time on these other elements. That pendulum has swung in the other direction.
Different things become important as we learn more and grow more. What would you say are some of the challenges that you’ve run into when hiring specifically for the corporate-owned The Learning Experience locations?
We have about 350 centers, many more in development, and the majority of our centers are franchised. However, we do have about 10% of our centers that are corporate-owned. What has worked about that model for us, at least from a people perspective, is that we can pilot and we can try things and establish best practices in our corporate locations, which then we can offer up to franchisees as examples of best practice, “Here is what has worked for us. You may want to try the same.” When we focus on our corporate locations, I think that number one on a more technical level is oftentimes when we use job posting boards to find teachers, let’s say, in our centers, the filter is quite wide.
What will happen is you go into the job posting and you see who’s applied. You may have 200 applicants for one role and there are people that maybe don’t have the requisite skills or they’re not looking for a teacher job, but they’re flooding an inbox with the resume. Sometimes when you’re dealing with hourly positions and an applicant tracking system, there’s often spam in there, so there are those elements that from a technical perspective, we try to help them out with and setting up filters that will naturally only put resumes into those jobs if they have the requisite experience and qualifications for the job.
As I think about it, that’s on the technical side. As I think about it from a leadership level, our center leaders that are running the centers and are responsible for making sure that their centers are fully staffed, what they often run into is only focusing on recruiting and sourcing talent when they have an opening. What I try to talk to those teams about is that you need to be thinking about talent every single day. Setting up best practices and setting up disciplines so that you are always consistently thinking about elevating the talent within your center is something that for those that do it, it works. They constantly have a pipeline of great talent that is ready to step into any role, and then they can become exporters of talent.
They may have teachers that can then become center leaders, and they are focused on development because they know that they have a pipeline of A-list talent that’s ready to come into those roles. Getting ahead of it and it also keeps you fresh. One of the best practices that we try to teach people is to pick a day each week and focus that week on not only meeting and looking at talent, maybe that’s applied to your role but also proactively looking at those that may not be applying for jobs and looking for that passive talent. Talking to your best employees and saying, “How can I find more great people like you?” Making that part of their everyday leadership tasks is critical. Oftentimes, setting aside that time every week to do it is what seems to work.
We say the same thing for our clients, “You always want to be recruiting.” When I was a franchisee, once I learned that, that’s when things started to change for me as far as being more successful. Would you say that culture is embedded in the hiring practices? Not just for the corporate, but also for the franchise locations?
I do. The core values and culture stem from the top. When we bring new franchisees into The Learning Experience, a big part of their immersion is immersing them in the values, and talking to them about what makes a great franchisee and what makes a great center leader and great teacher, and using those as filters for making hiring decisions. We embedded within the franchisees themselves as they come into the company. It’s been interesting for me. Most of my background as we discussed has been in retail HR.
The Learning Experience and supporting franchisees from a People and Talent perspective have been new for me, but it’s such a great challenge and interesting. Because of joint employer legislation, we can’t get overly involved in their hiring practices. However, as mentioned, we can share with them our best practices and what has worked for us. I see, as the Head of People, my role to provide the tools and resources for our franchisees to be successful. A big part of that, if we take the approach of our culture, our values, and what makes The Learning Experience a fun place to work, and encouraging the franchisees to utilize that as a means to attract talent to their centers, it’s a win-win.
What are some of the biggest challenges that you see these franchisees running into when it comes to hiring?
As a franchisee, they’re trying to get their business off the ground and there’s a consistent conundrum that I think that they come into and have to learn the lesson for themselves. It’s this notion of you get what you paid for. They are trying to start the business. They’re trying to keep their expenses as low as possible so that they can see profitability faster. Oftentimes, that equates to not wanting to invest in top-tier talents. What we try to explain to them is that if you hire at the bottom of the pay scale, you’re not going to be able to attract the type of teacher you want in your centers. The one that is going to essentially increase their enrollments.If you hire at the bottom of the pay scale, you're not going to be able to attract the type of teacher you want in your centers. Click To Tweet
They have to take the long view upfront, which is difficult when every dollar counts and they’re trying to manage labor. Particularly in childcare, there are certain ratios that have to be met within the classrooms. It’s getting them to understand that investing in more experienced teachers and in employees, and often paying more than you may have wanted to pay when you are putting your projections together is going to help you in the long run. You’ll reduce turnover. You’re going to create stability in the center. When you think about what drives parent enrollment, which is the primary metric that we’re looking at in our centers, it is all based on the quality of teacher that you have there. The biggest challenge is getting their buy-in to understand that notion.
That’s an important advice for any franchisee of any brand. Do you have some advice for the people leader of a franchise brand? What advice would you give to them to help their franchisees to be successful?
Using that as a thread, when we do our initial immersion and training with franchisees, that case study is something that we talk to them about upfront. We’ll talk to them about franchisees and that maybe had made that mistake upfront, and they could have got to profitability a lot faster if they focused on finding top-tier talent and weren’t afraid to pay them as such. As a People leader, as you think about the immersion and the training of your new franchisees, that needs to be a primary element. The other is there may be, in terms of training, a lot of focus on sourcing and the do’s and don’ts of interviewing from a legal perspective, but something that needs a lot more attention is teaching them the value of assessing candidates accurately. If there are red flags in the interview process, you need to trust your gut because the interview is the person putting forth their best self. If there are things in the interview that are causing you to think, “I’m not quite sure,” you need to dig in and delve a little bit deeper because there is no more important decision that you make than who to hire. Those are some of the important elements.
I appreciate everything you’ve shared. If anybody is interested in learning more about The Learning Experience franchise, or even learning about working for one of The Learning Experience locations, what’s the best way for them to get information?
I would direct them to our website, TheLearningExperience.com. We are developing centers at a velocity that we have never seen before as an organization. A ton of opportunities for franchising and for roles within our centers. If you go to TheLearningExperience.com/Franchising, it’ll take you directly to a place where you can learn more about what that looks like, and also to submit your contact information. If you go to TheLearningExperience.com/Careers, it will also take you to a list of roles within our corporate locations. It will give links to franchise locations as well as here in our corporate office in Deerfield Beach.
Thank you so much, Traci, for joining us. I feel like we’ve got a lot of great information from you.
I’m happy to do it. Thank you for having me.
Thank you, readers, for joining us. Stay safe and happy. Have a great day.
About Traci Wilk
Traci Wilk – SVP People
Traci is primarily responsible for the organizational development and growth initiatives at The Learning Experience. She and the People team are focused on ensuring our brand vision and values blend to create the ideal employee experience.
For over 20 years Traci’s career has spanned across multiple industries, leading teams at Fortune 500 and major progressive brands in varying stages of growth. Her passion for talent planning, change leadership, organizational design, and people development is what led her to The Learning Experience. Prior to joining TLE, Traci’s work experience includes leadership roles at Starbucks Coffee, Coach, rag & bone, Bolt.com and Delia’s.
She attended SUNY Albany as an undergraduate in Psychology and received her master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Fordham University.
Traci, her husband and two teenage children Ryan and Alexa relocated to South Florida from New Jersey and she does not miss the Northeast winters!