S03 E03: Engaging & Managing Expectations of Gen-Z Employees

In the third episode of the third season, we have with us Angela Cheng-Cimini, SVP, Talent & CHRO, Harvard Business Publishing, who discusses the role of technology in garnering the pulse of Gen – Z employees.

About Angela:

Angela is a seasoned people leader with extensive experience in the HR space.  Prior to her current role, Angela has worked with many large-scale organizations like Pepsi co, Hasbro, Nestle waters, Clear motion, Crabtree and Troop HR.

She brings with her over 25 years of HR experience, both as a generalist and specialist. Having worked across multiple sectors like consumer product goods, professional services, tech as well as non-profits, her skills are truly unparalleled.

Angela has shepherded businesses through all business phases like – start-up, growth, and maturity. She believes that organizational growth is only bolstered by a people centric approach and her work is reflective of that too.

An alumnus of Cornell university, Angela is also a Certified Forbes HR council member.

Here’s a gist of what Angela speaks about in this video:

  • How Gen-Z employees start their journey of association with an organization right at the interview stage. Professional development and a clear career growth path is key to them even before joining the organization. They now ask tough questions like how the organization can invest in their talent & connect them to their career aspirations not just in the present but also in the future.
  • How Gen-Z employees are growing and getting into the workforce in uncertain times and demand attention on components other than basic salaries. They are aware and invested in initiatives like mental health, autonomy, transparency, diversity and inclusion etc.
  • While the Gen-Z work forces are tech savvy and adapt to remote-hybrid structures well, they also crave social interaction and validation. They face a unique challenge in learning soft skills that other generations learnt while being in office. The key here is delivering the learning and development to them in bite sized consumable formats that they can customize based on their speed. Older ways of one way talking and lectures for 30 mins to an hour will not get the desired outcomes.
  • Mid-level managers are the key to creating great culture and bringing the most out of employees. Once they feel supported and are empower with tools to flourish, only then they can become torchbearers who spearhead your organization towards a great company culture.

Catch all this and more with Angela Cheng-Cimini in S03 E03 of CultureClub X and do read the transcript for the full episode below.


Nicole – Hello, everyone, and welcome to then latest episode of Culture Club. I’m your host, Nicole Patrick. And in the third episode of this season of CultureClub, we have with us Angela Cheng-Cimini SVP, Talent and CHRO at Harvard Business Publishing.

Prior to her current role, Angela has worked with many large scale organizations like PepsiCo, Hasbro, Nestle Waters, ClearMotion, CrabTree, and TroopHR.

She brings with her over 25 years of HR experience both as a generalist and specialist.

Having worked across multiple sectors like consumer product goods, professional services, tech, as well as non-profits, her skills are truly unparalleled.

Nicole – Angela has shepherded businesses through all business phases like Startup, growth and maturity. An alumnus of Cornell University, Angela is also a certified Forbes HR Council member.

Welcome again to CultureClub X’s video cast on Gen-Z and the evolving workplace culture. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to have this conversation. Yes, of course.

So before we start, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your organization?

Angela – So Harvard Business Publishing is actually part of Harvard Business School, and we were spun off because we originally wanted to really protect the editorial independence of Harvard Business Review. And since that time, we’ve evolved to a three pronged organization where in addition to the press and publishing, we also have a corporate learning unit.

So we help the Global 2000 solve their greatest organizational problems. And we have the higher Ed group, which helps universities and colleges promote their own case studies and develop them for distribution, as well as obviously using the Harvard Business School case study method and apply that to universities all around them.

Nicole – Wow, that’s amazing. And I’m sure working with Harvard, you really do have a good intel on Gen-Z, so this can be very exciting for us and exciting for our viewers especially. So why don’t we get into it?

Our first question and idea is that Generation Z already makes up 24% of the global workforce. What do you think are the necessary policy shifts that people leaders should make to their company culture to accommodate the Gen-Z employee style of working?

Angela – I think there are several prongs to this. The first one, and we’re seeing it even in the the interview stage is a focus on their professional development. So even before they’ve gotten the job offer, like even before they’ve gotten through the second or third interview, they’re asking questions about what job am I going to have in the next two, three years?

What is my career path if I aspire to run the Department someday? Angela, if I want your job, how is your organization going to help me get there? So organizations have to be really ready to articulate all the ways they’re going to invest in their talent and help them to meet their career goals.

It’s not just about hiring someone for the job they hold today, but the job that they aspire to hold five or seven or ten years out.

Angela – One of the great things about HBP is that we have a really robust career pathing model, and we sort of call it choose your own adventure. Where can your skills be applied?

It’s not just in the role that you are in today. It could be in a completely different team. It could be in a completely different country. And all organizations need to be thinking forward like that. The other thing that organizations need to be thinking about is attention to mental health. This generation is growing up in a time of a lot of tumults, right?

We have the pandemic as they’re entering the workforce. We now have this war. We have all of the anti-hate crimes that are affecting all different parts of our marginalized communities.

Angela – And they’re really interested in knowing what we’re doing to make sure that they can bring their whole selves to work. So companies that don’t take care of their employees beyond the job that they’re doing are missing out on really leveraging what people can bring to work. The other thing is an emphasis on good with a capital G. They want to work at organizations that have purpose, that have meaning. They’ll take a pay cut to work at a place that’s really having an impact in the world, not just making widgets. One of the things I love about working at HBP is that we’re a nonprofit and that’s mission driven. Right.

Angela – We are trying to bring leaders into the next generation of enlightened thinking, and it’s something that really motivates candidates that we talk about. The last piece, I would say, is transparency. Right?

There no longer is. Well, that’s above my pay grade. You hearing about all the legislation around pay transparency. This generation demands answers and explanations. No longer can a corner office just come out with tablets from a mountain and say, this is how it will be done.

They want to know why. They want to know how they want to be able to iterate that thinking. So companies that aren’t willing to engage in those conversations with their Gen-Zers will see them leaving to go to an organization where they can be here.

Nicole – That’s really interesting. And I think it’s interesting how they’re just so involved in their company workplaces and that they want not only do they want to stay there for a long time and see where they can be in five years from now, but also making sure that these companies are doing good and are speaking to who they want to be. So it’s very interesting to think about

Nicole – Boomers are retiring, millennials are becoming managers, and Gen-Z is comprising the majority of the workforce. From your perspective, what is the modernization required in the area of learning and development that would help organizations to cater to the growing needs of the Gen Z workforce?

Angela – So my thinking around that is we have to be able to meet them where they are. Right? They’re digitally and technically very savvy, and they’re also still early stage in their careers, but they’re still cultivating networks.

So not everything can be virtual, not everything can be remote. They crave social interaction and they crave a lot of it. Isolation is something, particularly through the pandemic that hurt them harder than perhaps any other generation because they have not yet established the support systems that people have been working for 20 or 30 years have.

Angela – And especially if you’re new to an organization, you can’t only just make friends with the one person who’s on the screen with you. Right? You have to be able to cultivate lots. So in terms of learning and development, you have to be able to deliver training in lots of different media.

It also has to be asynchronous. Not everything needs to be live in real time. They want it to be snackable. Right? Think about tweets 144 characters. Right?

They have to be in digestible amounts. You can’t do a large lecture hall and talk to them for 2 hours. You probably can’t even talk to them for 60 minutes. If you’re going to do a lecture, do it in half an hour. Otherwise, do it on slack, do it in an email, do it in video so that they can watch it on their own time, or they can speed you up because they’re keeping up with you.

Angela – So in terms of learning and development, we really have to think much more about the learner, which is a huge shift. The audience is so important, and this group has a very particular way in which they receive information. Their attention span is a lot shorter, and there are so many more content choices that are competing for their attention that if you don’t grab them with that hook, they’ll go somewhere else and they’ll wander.

So there won’t be the stickiness of learning and development. So we’re taking a lot of the training content that we have and trying to convert that into the new technology platforms that they are much more comfortable with. Right?

So we are developing them into smaller videos. We’re trying to put them into apps so that they’re much more personalized so that they’re like, yes, I’ve got that one. I need to focus here. Right? It’s not just one size fits all Gen-Z is anything but one size fits all.

Angela – Highly personalized, high touch, definitely. As a people leader, what have been your major learnings from your experience in handling the Gen Z workforce in a hybrid workplace setup, and what, according to you, are the best ways to bring out maximum productivity from the Gen-Z employees? Actually, I’m not sure that they’re unique in this, as I scan organization, which clearly spans people fresh out of school to people who are on the cusp of retirement.

I actually think that in terms of the future of work and the way the workplace supports them, I think the needs are universal. People want agency, so they want autonomy to say how they’re going to work, when they’re going to work, how much they’re going to work. Right?

They’re not signing on for the 80 hours work week job. Investment banks are throwing ridiculous amounts of cash to freshly minted MBAs because they know they’re going to be making them work 100 hours a week.

And they’re not taking the bait because work life balance is important for them. They want to have stability in the organization, and yet they also want them to be agile.

Angela – So they’re not as risk taking as previous generations were because they’ve seen what instability can do for their emotional health. So again, I think organizations that have a solid foundation, which is not to say that there isn’t a place for tech startups and risky environments, but as a generation, I’m finding that they really want to sign on for a place that’s going to be there for a while for them. But again, I think all employees want a place that’s stable, that gives them autonomy. They also want access to information, which again, I think speaks to all generations, but in particular in the hybrid workforce, nobody wants FOMO, right?

Nobody wants the sense that there’s something going on in the office while I’m working 300 miles away. So we have to make sure that access to information is Democratic. So you have to be able to find it posted somewhere. It has to be in an email, it has to be somewhere in a confluence page.

You have to record that meeting. Right? You have to think about all the different ways in which people consume content, not unlike the way we talked about the L&D.

Angela – So I think actually all employees are looking for those facets.n And if an organization can do that, well, that means they’re appealing to all the different audiences that they employ. It’s really interesting. I never thought of it that way. But in a way, we all really just want to belong somewhere and feel, you know, that we understand everything that’s going on. So it would make sense that they would feel no different.

Nicole – We’ve heard a lot about the decentralization of company culture practices from HR only to manager-centric. In your opinion, how can managers become amplifiers of culture for Gen-Z employees, as opposed to the sole HR custodian?

Angela – So clearly, being an HR, I feel this one deeply. Right? Whenever a program becomes an HR program, it’s almost destined for failure, right? You really need uptake. You need people to buy in. And managers, especially mid level managers, are taking so much of the brunt, right?

They have to execute whatever’s coming top down, and yet they’re the barrier and the buffer for the front line folks that they’re trying to lead. So we’ve been starting to focus on them and really hoping and reaching out for them to make sure that they feel supported for them in their role never not even thinking about how many performance management reviews have you had? Have you talked to that person about that performance issue?

Angela – How come your revenue is emerged? Let’s just talk about you because we’re asking so much of you. And so once that group feels supported, once they feel heard, once they’ve been given the skills to balance and juggle all of those complicating needs, then they become multipliers and amplifiers of your culture.

You really have to have them brought into what it is you’re trying to accomplish. So if you don’t meet their basic needs, then it does become an HR program. Then culture is owned by HR and you can’t find ways to exponentialize the work that you’re trying to do around community, the work that you’re trying to do about inclusion, or any of those things that we know are really important.

Angela – Gen-Z is more vocal than previous generations. So they’re going to demand of their managers. I need more feedback, I need more access to you. I need you to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing so that I can understand how I can fit into that picture. So again, making sure that managers themselves are feeling supported, that their needs are met. So then they can take care of other people.

It’s not unlike when you’re on the airplane and they say you’ve got to put your mask on first before you help other people. We have to take care of managers first so that they can then take care of their people.

Nicole – That makes complete sense. Very good analogy. It works. So Gen Z in particular is a vocal workforce who are open to tech adoption and are highly opinionated. How can people leaders pay attention to Gen-Z’s  pulse and constantly keep them engaged? How can managers who are from a very different generation use tech to get actionable insights for the same?

Angela – So your question about tech is really interesting to me because I’m not sure that tech is the only solution, right? I think actually the primary way that managers can keep Gen-Z’s engaged is frequency of communication and then choose your method.

Sometimes that’s going to be through Slack, sometimes it’s going to be asynchronous through email, sometimes it’s going to be in a meeting or a conference call.

But I think it’s really about the frequency of the communication. You can’t only touch base once a month. In fact, Gen-Z’s want once a week and they want to be able to access their manager today.

Angela – Now, my mobile phone is available in case people want to text me because I almost always have that available to me. But my Slack is constantly going off because I make myself available to people on my calendar. If there’s a white space, people are free to take that up as well.

So again, I think it’s just about accessibility and frequency and it’s not necessarily that technology is the answer. So if you’re continuing to make sure that you’ve got those lines of communication open. That’s how you can make sure that they’re feeling engaged again.

We’re addressing the sense of FOMO. We’re taking care of their mental health because we’re just taking a minute to say, how are you doing today? And I think particularly as we’re spending so much more time on video leaning in and saying, hey, you know what?

You didn’t participate as much as you used to or you seemed real quiet, or I saw you wrinkle an eyebrow picking up those cues and then following up later. Are all those really personal touch points that Gen-Zers appreciate, right?

They don’t want to hear the feedback a month later. They don’t want popping up in their performance review. I mean, I would say that was true for all employees, but they are in particular really craving that instant feedback.

Angela – Again, that’s their life, right? They want likes, they want follows, they want retweets, they want reshares, and when it doesn’t happen, there’s a negative chemical release.

We’re like, how come no one’s paying attention to me? So we have to be constantly feeding into that to make sure that they know that they’re being thought of and taken care of. So not sure that tech is the answer. I do think it’s frequency of communication that’s more important. Yeah, that makes complete sense.

And probably a lot of the tech that like you said, the tech that’s in their everyday lives is what’s fueling this.

Nicole – Wow. Very interesting. Well, that’s a beautiful take on this topic that is definitely still evolving. Angela, I was going through your profile earlier, and I saw really amazing recommendations, and the constant in them was that you’ve never compromised on your values and that you’ve always been a strategic partner for your coworkers.

And your answers today were truly reflective of both of those traits. Thank you. I’m so glad to be here. I hope that there was good take on value for your watchers today. Oh, yeah, definitely. And thank you for your time, Angela. This has been such an enriching experience for all of us.

I’m sure our viewers will definitely agree. And before we finish up, will you please let our viewers know how they can connect or reach out to you in case they want to have a quick chat or share their thoughts with you?

Angela – Oh, absolutely. Linkedin is probably the easiest way. I think I’m the only Angela Cheng-Cimini out there, and again, Harvard Business Publishing, so I’d be happy to hear from any of your viewers.

Nicole – All right, great. Thank you, Angela, so much for helping us understand the needs of such a dynamically, changing topic. It was such a pleasure to have spoken with you and to get to know you better.

Angela – Thank you so much, Nicole. Yes, definitely.

Nicole – That’s all we have for you in this episode of CultureClub. Until next time, this is your host Nicole signing off.