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Ideas and insights for today’s people-centered leaders.

The last 18 months proved that strong HR leadership is needed more than ever. In this profile series, we celebrate the HR Super Leaders that led their organizations through tough times by harnessing their HR superpowers—daring, vision, empathy, strategy, and connection—and proving that anything is possible when you put your people first. Learn more about the other HR Super Leaders and take our quiz to find out which one is yours! 

Meet Matthew Smith, Head of People Analytics at Altria, a producer of products for adult consumers. Drawn to challenges that require critical thinking and creativity, Matt moved into HR analytics after working in engineering and information systems. It was analytical, it was technical, it was relationship-based—he jumped in feet first. Outside of work, you can find him smoking barbecue, collecting bourbon, and spending time with his children. 

Looking back at 2020, what was a business challenge that you and your team had to overcome?

Our company had been very traditional and office-based, so the pandemic brought on several challenges. Our knowledge workers became fully remote and we had the added challenge of keeping manufacturing up and running while installing safety protocols. 

My team was heavily involved in accelerating feedback gathering for management. We did five times the number of employee pulse surveys, and each time we iterated and enhanced the questions by incorporating feedback. We also got really good about just asking, “How are you doing?,” to try to connect with employees, which seemed to resonate very well. We could see what was really impacting the folks and their top concerns, and it allowed us to react too. 

How did your team incorporate those employee voices into solving challenges last year?

HR is a relationship-based function, first and foremost. You have to have empathy to be in it, and you have to have an inherent drive to support and help others. My team and I love to surface insights that help HR understand and react to the people across the organization.

For example, the Benefits team was able to incorporate the feedback we gathered into proposals to allow the company to raise the amount of reimbursement we would get for homeschooling children. We were able to raise the floor up several thousands of dollars in order to help purchase things needed for homeschool like a desk or computer. Additionally, our insurance company opened up EAP access. So, if you were having problems with your situation, you had someone you could talk to. Enhancing our benefits to think about mental health during the crisis was something our benefits team implemented and they used feedback from our pulses and others to do that.

That’s great to hear. Will people analytics also help with Altria’s return to work planning? 

We have a 100 year-old company that is now allowing folks to choose if they want to stay remote, if they want to be hybrid, or if they want to come into the office full-time. People analytics is crucial here. 

We’ve been working to install new data to understand and classify the new hybrid workforce. We have to know who’s coming in the office, who’s remote, who’s hybrid. 

The reason this is important from an employee-based perspective is that we see there’s a trust curve that needs to be achieved to make this successful. If I’m hybrid or remote, am I treated the same as someone who’s going back to the office? Am I having the same opportunities? Am I having the same, similar, or better options to be promoted, to change to a different job, to have the ability to do something new, if and when I need to do it? And without that trust, then we’re not going to be successful because those hybrid and remote workers will either leave or they’ll want to come into the office and it’ll kill the whole thing.

It sounds like Altria has a great data-driven culture. How did you achieve that?

Getting the right information to the right people at the right time is paramount with us. We learned that we needed to bring insights to leadership in ways that they traditionally consume information because they’re very busy. We also created partnerships with other analytical areas. 

We also found that when we’re working with the C-suite, we need to give the summary and outcomes first, and then let the conversation get into the data. This way, further questions are asked in which we’re able to go back and do the deep dives, or we’re able to do the summarization in ways that really showcase the data-driven work we’ve done. 

Visier imagined five HR superpowers that guided leaders through the last 18 months. What’s your superpower, Matt?

I think it’s Connected. I love to elevate my team and put them in positions where they can shine. And they impress me every day.

This year, I’ve spent more time coaching and mentoring as part of my role than I ever have before, and our team is extremely high performing and productive as a result. I’ve spent a lot of time elevating others and allowing my team the ability to live within our structure, with the protection they need to push themselves to do great work. And it’s been an extremely enlightening thing for me because traditionally I like to get in and get my feet wet and be very technical and very detail-oriented, but stepping back and letting them run has been great.

Take the HR Superpower quiz to find out your strongest trait!

What’s your mentoring style?

Let me give an example: I had someone who was doing some analysis and they were getting stumped. I knew what to do, but I backed up and started asking questions, “How are you thinking about this? Why would you do this? Why would you do that?” And I watched them become the person that I wanted them to be. I watched them have the aha moment of trusting that I wasn’t going to let them fail, but I also wasn’t going to let them get by easily with just the answer here. And they did wonderfully. They created a presentation that went all the way up to the top of the house with me giving very little feedback on it. It’s very rewarding for me to watch them grow in their career, knowing that it was me releasing control that allowed it to happen.

Any other ways your team has made you proud the past year?

I have four direct reports and a few dotted lines, and what I’ve noticed is they as a group and individuals are different people now—they have grown. We had one person who was in Talent Acquisition who has moved from just doing reporting to now coming up with insights. And when I talked to them a few weeks ago, they were explaining to me that early on they felt they had imposter syndrome. But because of the work we’re doing, and how we’re treating our employees, they moved past that and realized they were always good, they just didn’t have the confidence at the time to really do it.

They are different in how they approach problems and how they think about their work than they were a year ago. It was serendipitous—one day I started to talk to them and I realized, wow, this shift has happened. Sometimes you grow amazing talent when you’re working with somebody and you just don’t even realize it. It’s remarkable.

About the Author

Grace is a content marketing coordinator at Visier, where she helps create and organize ideas. She has experience in a variety of marketing roles, including social media and event management. Outside of work, Grace enjoys writing fiction and walking with her dog, Pippy.

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