The finalists for WashingtonExec’s Pinnacle Awards were announced Oct. 8, and we’ll be highlighting some of them until the event takes place virtually Nov. 12.
Next up is HR Exec of the Year (Small Company) finalist Jennifer Bailey, who’s chief people officer at Cognosante. Here, she talks key achievements, future focus areas and shaping the next generation of industry leaders.
What key achievements did you have in 2019/2020?
My biggest achievement was navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, we worked with our program teams to transition our employees to remote status. We needed to ensure that they not only had the necessary IT supports and access to do their jobs, but also that the transition did not impact program performance, customer satisfaction or employee productivity. Once that was complete, we focused on ways to remain deeply engaged with our employee population.
Within one week, we launched weekly “Lunch and Learn” sessions on various topics, including COVID-19 updates, physical, mental and financial wellness, and balancing the demands of work and distance learning. It has been invaluable for our employees to come together every week on screen to share information and experiences, as well as to have a regular touch point with our founder and CEO, who attends every session.
We do have some employees who must perform their job duties on site, so we needed to make sure we were up to speed on all of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-required COVID-19 precautions, and that we had the equipment, the policies and the processes in place to ensure their safety.
We focused not only on protecting our employees, but also on supporting them if they or their immediate family were directly impacted by COVID-19. That included providing emergency paid sick leave for eligible employees, although Cognosante was not required by law to do so.
Finally, as a company, we believe in supporting the communities where our employees work and live. To that end, we initiated a fundraising campaign for Direct Relief, an organization dedicated to supporting frontline health care workers through the delivery of protective gear and critical care medications. Our employees raised over $10,000, which was then matched by our CEO. We ultimately raised $21,440!
We have hosted 31 Lunch and Learns, which has proven to be a phenomenal employee engagement initiative. Without COVID-19 forcing us to be nimble and creative, we may not have discovered this hidden gem of an initiative.
What are you most proud of having been a part of in your current organization?
There have been a lot of challenges in 2020. The company had to address not only COVID-19, but also a very emotionally charged social unrest. Responding to situations like this is a challenge for all HR professionals, but I am especially proud of our company’s response. We drafted a very sincere letter to employees to communicate our own shock and dismay at events around the country, and to reinforce our values of diversity, inclusion and equality.
Through our employee engagement committee, we offered employees an opportunity to identify organizations in their own communities dedicated to promoting racial justice and equal opportunity. The company set aside $50,000, and ultimately selected 11 organizations around the country to receive financial donations to further support their missions.
At such an uncertain time, I am proud that we could offer our employees this avenue to take action on behalf of Cognosante and have a direct impact in their own communities
What are your primary focus areas going forward, and why are those so important to the future of the nation?
We are focused on ensuring that our hiring practices reflect our commitment to a diverse workforce. We have set aggressive goals for hiring veterans, military spouses, and persons with disabilities. We recognize that the opportunities we give our employees are paid forward to our customers and to the rest of the nation.
Our veterans and their families deserve the best of what America has to offer, and Cognosante is committed to ensuring they are aware of the opportunities we have and that they feel welcomed. Differently-abled citizens — especially service-disabled veterans — also deserve the opportunity to contribute their talents to the American workforce. We provide meaningful career opportunities, and in turn, we benefit from the tremendous talents that they possess.
Our recruiting and retention practices focus on identifying transferrable skills, making necessary accommodations for candidates and employees with disabilities and striving to create a rewarding culture that recognizes the uniqueness of every employee.
Our goal is to create an accessible experience that the full tapestry of the American population can take part in. I will be monitoring our hiring goals over the next 15 months to ensure we are exceeding industry averages.
What has made you successful in your current role?
I started in HR early in my career and have served in many different roles. I have led new employee orientations, managed benefits, filed I-9s and served as a recruiter, before transitioning to HR business partner. Because I have filled many HR roles myself, I have insight into the challenges my team members face every day. I know how I wanted to be led in those roles, and I try to provide that leadership and empathy to my team.
HR is so much more than hiring and benefits. I have been successful in my role because, as an HR business partner, I quickly learned how all the business functions were interrelated and now I’m able to think strategically and holistically of all the ways HR can promote corporate growth.
I have learned about corporate strategy, financial planning and marketing as well as the needs of individual programs. Having these two perspectives — the individual HR employee perspective and the high-level corporate perspective — have helped me to lead my team and align our support to our overall business strategy.
Lastly, I have a strong role model and someone to emulate. The company’s founder and CEO Michele Kang leads by example. Her drive, determination and work ethic is what I chase each day. Her example is what pushes me to be a successful leader at Cognosante.
How do you help shape the next generation of government leaders/industry leaders?
To shape the next generation of leaders, we need to create an environment in which employees want to show up and do the best they can, to achieve a mission greater than themselves. That means creating a range of opportunities that are best suited to as many employees as possible. It also means mentoring employees and facilitating an organizational culture that values teamwork, integrity and leadership.
Leaders develop and thrive when they have the space and confidence to do so. Our CEO Michele Kang started Cognosante above her garage with little more than her grit, a plan and enough confidence to lead. Today, through various HR and employee engagement initiatives, we create a range of opportunities that are shaping the next generation by encouraging their creativity, welcoming their ideas, providing training opportunities and letting this new generation lead as often as we can.
As a company leader, Michele challenges me to empower my team to be audacious in our ideas for how to positively impact the business. She sets a strong example of courage in leadership, and I strive to follow it every day.
What’s your best career advice for those who want to follow in your footsteps?
Find your voice and perfect your craft. Always be learning and become known as a person who can offer expert advice or counsel. Remain true to who you are as a person, and always do the right thing with the company’s best interests at heart. If you do those things, you will never go wrong.