It’s always a pleasure to interview HR experts across the United States, but from time to time, there comes one that really stands out. It’s not always for their title, nor the endless list of roles and responsibilities they’ve held, although, in the case of Chris McKinney, both of these are present, but what sets him apart from the rest is his presence. Our interview with Chris McKinney, Director of Human Resources at Sprint Mart, perfectly displayed what every HR manager should aspire to. Our conversation dove into leadership & staff management, company culture, training, performance management, payroll, and the Coronavirus situation. In this interview, we looked back over the last 3 months of the crisis and looked ahead to the future of human resources.
Excellence in HR
Chris has spent over 10 years with Walt Disney World working within talent management, as a performer, events manager, and many more roles. He now works with Sprint Mart leading the strategic planning and operation elements of Human Resources for a suite of four different employer identification numbers (EINs) based out of Ridgeland, Mississippi, in a suburb just north of the capital city of Jackson.
What their customers know them for is a locally owned and operated chain of gas stations with convenience stores attached. The company spreads across three states (Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana), has 90 locations in total, and roughly thirteen hundred employees. One of their EINs manages the quick service franchise food outlets, while the other maintains the distribution of fuel to their Jackson Metro stores. The last is a smaller one which handles some of the ownership capabilities. Chris is the leader of the HR strategy and operation for the entire organization.
The Future of Human Resources Begins with Excellent HR Management
It was a pleasure to interview Chris McKinney; he is a true role model for aspiring and experienced HR managers and has a wealth of knowledge to share. When looking to the future of human resources, it’s crucial to have excellent HR managers leading our teams. So, what makes an excellent HR manager? Skill, experience, and taking a human approach to Human Resources are some of what is required. Let’s dive into Chris’ journey a little further…
Can you share with us the transition you went through and what led you towards human resources?
Chris spent 10 years as a Walt Disney World resort cast member in central Florida. He shares that this was a strong foundation for understanding how to lead a world-class operation. The nuggets of learning he gained were invaluable in showing him what it took to be the absolute best that he could be.
Towards the tail end of his career, he shifted into training and learning development. From there, Chris took on the role of facilitator at Disney University. This is what allowed him to step into more of a training and leadership role. Chris found himself asking, ‘what’s the next thing that I can do to push myself to take my leadership to the next level?’ It was out of this curiosity that led him onto his path with Sprint Mart.
Chris’ experience and background are fascinating and full of insights and inspiration. For more details on his time at Walt Disney World and his journey into human resources, watch the full interview.
Looking Back at the Coronavirus Pandemic – Tips for Managing Staff in a Crisis
When the work from home order spread across the United States, Chris’ team was fast to act. They were one of the essential businesses in which the majority of their employees are unable to perform their job in a work from home setting. Due to this, they needed to find a way to ensure their employees felt safe and supported throughout the thick of the pandemic.
Here’s how Chris’ team navigated the storm:
- Approaching Employee Anxiety with Empathy
- Taking Quick Action in Uncertainty
- Mastering Leadership
- Offering Extra Support
- Applying the Human Approach to Human Resources
Although Chris and his team acted quickly to adapt to the ‘new norm’ of working, there were a number of challenges they needed to overcome as a business. Navigating the pandemic storm required digging deep. Take a look at how they did it.
Approaching Employee Anxiety with Empathy
The Coronavirus pandemic added extra stress and anxiety to employees and managers across the world. I was curious to find out more about how Chris and his team had navigated these uncertain times.
”Employees were anxious and nervous about the situation. After they would spend six to eight hours with us, they would go home and consume social media and news just like anybody else. ”
Chris shared that this was one of the main challenges they faced. Every day, employees would come into work with a new level of anxiety that required a diligent, consistent, and empathetic approach to their questions and what they were dealing with. Reinforcing to their employees the ways in which they were attempting to keep them safe, helped calm employee nerves.
It was common throughout the crisis for employees to be wondering, ‘am I safe?’ and ‘What’s the status of everything?’. Keeping the lines of communication open between managers and staff was a crucial piece to the puzzle
Was there anything that came up, in regards to employee anxiety, that you weren’t prepared to deal with?
As the anxiety level ebbed and flowed, Chris shared that the concerns of the employees tended to be centered around what came through in mainstream media. Although this was one of the main themes they had to deal with, managing employee leave was another that brought forward it’s own challenges.
”The biggest challenge has been navigating the appropriate times to allow someone to take a leave that may be outside of our typical policy when there’s very little guidance as to what might be a high risk demographic or guidance as to how employers are just supposed to navigate this, it’s very unexpected for everybody.”
Taking Quick Action in Uncertainty
Chris was quick to act upon watching the developments of the pandemic situation. Early on, he informed his team that things were about to change. Together they would be embarking on a new challenge that required them to band together. As a business, adjustments needed to be made. Solid leadership during this time is something that was key for the company in navigating the new venture.
”There’s no rule book; we may have some advice on furloughs and reduction of hours and various other things, but we knew there would be decisions that we would be forced to make that would impact people’s lives.”
Admitting you are sailing in uncharted waters is essential to navigating through them. A key to strong and positive leadership is being able to express honestly and openly with your team; this is something Chris did very well. Although they all agreed that no foundation yet existed for how to navigate a crisis of these sorts or roadmap for how to get through it, they knew that taking everything in stages was best.
How did you lead your team in the early stages of the Coronavirus crisis?
”I empowered them by letting them know there would be decisions required out of all of them that they may not feel comfortable with. I gave them the freedom to make the decision when they were forced to. And, if it was incorrect, we would regroup and stay closely connected to each other to discuss.”
Chris needed to ensure that the managing team felt confident and supported in the event they had to make uncomfortable decisions. Also, keeping an eye on the CDC recommendations as far as guidance for essential businesses, fell under his leadership role. Keeping employees safe and protected on the job was essential for Chris and his team.
Apart from the logistics of a leadership role, what’s been a key to connecting with your staff and making sure they feel supported?
Much of the time, all employees really need is to feel heard, understood, and their emotions and feelings are recognized. For Chris, adaptation is key to being able to meet the needs of his staff.
”We’re learning as we go. It’s been a challenge for everyone, especially, as you said, the essential services are there on the front line trying to manage everything. So definitely, anxiety would be the highest. For them to know that they can go to someone and just have that ear to speak is vital.”
What do you feel makes a strong leader? Which qualities are required to lead a team through a crisis?
”We all have to step into it. We have to lean into our leadership role because we are the only ones who are gonna get our organization through a crisis situation. And I know that’s vague and ambiguous as it relates to leadership. But when we start asking ourselves, what do we think about a leader, or what do we feel when we’re working with a great leader? It is that feeling of acknowledging that they didn’t have all the right answers, but they were committed to making sure that we were taken care of and that we got through it together.”
The role of a leader isn’t easy, let alone in a crisis situation. Chris not only exemplifies what it means to be a good leader in a logistical sense. He also models how communication and connection is an essential element in leading a successful team. Chris’ positive attitude and outlook towards the pandemic was a key element to the company’s ability to more easily navigate through the COVID-19 challenges.
”The only way we’re going to emerge on the other side of this stronger than we are today is by growing into the role that you are currently assuming. That is why we call our store managers, team leaders specifically because we want them to lead a team of people.”
Is a leadership role for everyone?
Everyone can lead, although, in difficult times, many leaders tend to shy away from making tough decisions. This was one of the challenges that the company needed to work through, Chris shared.
”We had some experiences early on where we would have some leaders of operations shy away from making decisions and just want someone to tell them what to do. Throwing your hands up or crossing your arms and saying, well, someone’s gonna have to tell me how to do this, simply doesn’t function.
Chris and his management team understood that there were certain circumstances where team leaders would require additional guidance. But, what wouldn’t contribute to the successful navigation of the crisis was if leaders would shy away from their role. Chris led his team by taking the human approach to human resources. He acknowledges that we are all human and are prone to experience anxiety, discomfort, confidence issues, etc. Approaching every situation with empathy is something Chris feels is essential to the future of human resources.
Offer Extra Support
Letting your management team and the staff know that you’re there to listen to their concerns is essential. Chris shared the importance of communicating with his team and empowering them to take responsibility for their role.
How did you let your team know they had extra support?
The power of encouraging words is incredibly valuable for lifting a team up during a difficult time. Chris shared with me the many things he told his team to help lead them successfully through the struggles. These encouraging words were one of the ways he showed extra support.
”We’re navigating this together. But I promise you, we’re gonna get through this. There’s no evidence throughout human history to say that the human race isn’t going to exit this pandemic on the other side, being stronger and or better than it is today. We’re all in it together. We all have the freedom to make incorrect decisions, but we’re all going to support one another to be able to be better the next time that we have to make a decision. But that doesn’t give anyone the excuse to slink back from leadership right now.”
My conversation with Chris brought up many valuable insights and reflections, some of which included:
- A good leader empowers their employees.
- The way to move through a crisis is by putting one step in front of the other.
- We don’t need to have all the answers or know what to do.
- Keep the lines of communication open and honest.
- Ask employees what you can do to support them in a particular moment. Responding to their needs right now is key.
We’re all learning at the same time how to navigate the ongoing crisis situation. This new norm is not something that many of us have experienced; it’s definitely a challenge.
Take the Human Approach to Human Resources
I’d like to close off this section of tips for managing staff in a crisis with the most important quality to what makes an incredible human resources manager. Taking the human approach to human resources is a theme that repeatedly came up throughout our interview with Chris McKinney. It’s precisely the secret sauce that sets apart an HR manager from an HR expert leader. For more information on how Chris applies a human touch to his management, watch the full interview.
The Future of HR
Human resources have evolved over the years, and those managers who have kept up and are successful have navigated through their share of stormy waters.
We’d like to leave you with some final inspiration that Chris shared with us.
“Speaking to other human resources leaders, it doesn’t take me to tell them that they are, and have been some of the most important aspects of an organization’s operation or strategy in getting through this. COVID 19, doesn’t only necessarily impact the cash register or the processes behind accounting, rather, it impacts the people that make your business run every single day. There are human resources leaders out there who are doing things that inspire me every day.
I would say to the entire community, keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t shy away from the opportunity that we have as high-value contributors to organizations. Embrace it so we can really prove right now the value that human resources strategy and ideas can bring to an organization when we are faced with a situation that impacts so much of the business. But really the core of it is the way it impacts the people” Chris McKinney