HR Tech Interview with Jeff Cates, Chief Executive Officer at Achievers

Journey into Tech

Hi Jeff. Welcome to our Interview Series. Please tell us a little bit about your role and responsibilities in your current company. How did you arrive at Achievers?

I held a variety of roles in the tech industry prior to joining Achievers. Most recently, I was President and CEO of Intuit Canada ULC. Before that, I led Apple Canada’s enterprise business as General Business Division Manager. Earlier in my career, I spent nearly 15 years at Hewlett Packard Enterprise(HPE), most notably serving as the VP of PSG Consumer, where I was responsible for the P&L for HPE’s PC and Entertainment Devices. However, one thing that these distinct organizations all have in common is that they helped me realize my passion for building world-class cultures centered around authentic appreciation and empowering employees.

At HPE and Intuit Canada, I especially learned a lot about great leadership and was inspired by how these companies not only pioneer innovative technologies but also innovative employee experiences. At Intuit, I had a great mentor, former Intuit CEO Brad Smith. He taught me that employees, customers, and shareholders are the air, water, andfood of any organization. The philosophy he lives and leads by is that happy, engaged, and informed employees innovate on behalf of customers, thus creating happy, engaged, and informed customers. Then, existing customers spread the word to prospective customers, making happy shareholders. This lesson from Brad has really stayed with me over the years and has become my North Star.

Furthermore, I’ve been really inspired by HPE’s founders, the godfathers of modern management. They were incredibly focused on getting to people’s hearts. What does this look like in practice? They always provided free breakfast dailyto empower teams to mingle and create connections. Furthermore, HPE empowered employees to develop employee resource groups (ERGs) to ensure people of diverse genders, races, ethnicities, and religions etc. had a place to express their ideas, challenges, and experiences, thus allowing them to feel more at home in the workplace. And they enacted these initiatives long before every company had a DEI pledge on its website and free meals to pull workers into the office.

Leveraging inspiration from great leaders that came before me and my experience in tech, I continued to cultivate my passion for building engaged, happy workforces by joining Achievers in 2019 as CEO and President. In my role, I’m focused on building company growth and market strategy, including Achievers’ international expansion. However, I’m a fervent believer in servant leadership and that the most successful companies are run by humble CEOs. So, a lot of my day-to-day is ensuring I lead with transparency and remain open to connecting with employees when it’s needed, to play my part in nurturing a culture of belonging (and therefore innovation) at Achievers.

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What is Achievers and how does it benefit the HR community?

Achievers is the leading employee voice and recognition solution software; it transforms how organizations recognize, reward, and engage their employees and closes the gap between the promise of values and living those values through its technology.

Founded in 2002 as I Love Rewards, Achievers grew from a rewards system to an all-in-one engagement platform that integrates with a suite of tools, applications, and an ecosystem of technology partners, including Workday, SAP SuccessFactors, and Microsoft.

Two Achievers solutions (offered as part of the Achievers Employee Experience Platform) that have proven incredibly effective in helping companies boost employee morale and reduce attrition by celebrating and supporting every worker include Achievers Listen and Achievers Recognize. Achievers Recognizeis a unified, highly customizable online solution that facilitates peer-to-peer recognition across the entire organization. However, this solution goes far beyond your typical peer-to-peer recognition platform in areas such as the management of years of service awards, birthday celebrations, results trackers, and more. It’s also unique in that it moves away from the typical cash prizes most rewards and recognition platforms provide, instead empowering employees to select a meaningful reward from an outstanding rewards marketplace with a catalog of thousands of options. Achievers Listen is a voice of employee product that collects input and measures impact. The product was designed to address the market’s need for shorter, more regular survey cycles instead of emphasizing annual reviews and ensuring employees can trust the survey and feedback outcomes. These solutions give HR leaders the innovative tools needed to ingrain employee recognition and feedback in their corporate cultures, thus empowering them to build a workforce of productive, happy, and engaged employees.

Every organization is investing in HR Technologies to improve employee experience. Do you think business leaders really understand the science and philosophy behind employee experience management?

For the most part, I don’t think CEOs are studying workforce science. They operate from intuition and are guided by the team they surround themselves with. Their level of focus on culture and creating a sense of belonging determines their motivation to invest resources in following best practices and establishing policies that create the environment that ultimately shapes the expectations for leaders in their company and their commitment to the employee experience.

Tell us more about your employee recognition platform. What are the unique features of this platform that assist HR teams do better with employee data?

The Achievers Employee Experience Platform is built to adapt to the needs of a changing workforce. With the flexibility and agility our platform provides, companies can connect employees and build a culture of belonging –no matter where they are in the world. One strategy to increase employee recognition is employee nudging, which is a notification or signal that provides information to help leaders use their technology and time most impactfully. Serving as a real-time coach, this technology can recognize trends and offer actionable suggestions to help foster a culture of belonging, recognition, and inclusion in the workplace. An example of this in practice could be nudging managers that they recognize women 80% of the time on their recognition platform, suggesting they send a “well done” to a male teammate. This simple reminder has the power to skyrocket manager effectiveness and workplace belonging, upleveling employee productivity in 2023.

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Innovative businesses now rely on psychometrics to improve organizational development goals. Could you tell us about the benefits of leveraging psychometrics in a scientific manner?

Psychometrics can be used as a powerful tool, but only if companies are willing to invest in it. Leaders who implement psychometrics into a companywide system demonstrate that they’re thinking about the company holistically. The benefit of psychometrics is that it reveals the behavioral style and profile of an employee, which helps leaders understand their employees’ strengths in ways that will be helpful in coaching where they are at their best. If used properly, psychometrics can help not only increase engagement, but build a sense of community and belonging in a workforce. Psychometrics also give managers a stronger understanding of employees’ personal preferences and can adapt changes in the workplace to accommodate employees’ needs. However, psychometrics must be personalized to each individual employee to see more engagement and usage of this medium.

Are HR managers biased in voicing their feelings and opinion about improving employee experience? Are they blind-sided with too much data recommendations related to a cohort?

Several areas have evolved and shifted over the last 3-4 years that demand HR leadership’s attention now more than ever, like strategizing remote talent reviews, identifying the technologies that best empowers virtual workforces, diversity and inclusion practices, and crafting corporate responses to pressing social issues. HR leaders are benefiting from an increased focus on the employee experience, in part brought about by the war for talent, high attrition rates, and now managing engagement in a downturn. More analytics are becoming available, so that we don’t need to just measure perception (e.g., engagement scores) or outcomes (attrition) and can actually measure and coach against practices that will help guide for a better employee experience. Now, technology can provide the data-driven insights needed to guide a manager to take action to welcome a new employee or recognize an existing one. These innovative features can result in tangible steps taken that improve the working relationship between managers and their teams.

How would solve the problem of quiet quitting and employee dissatisfaction? Any insights that you would like to provide to CHROs?

First, managers need to recognize the signs of quiet quitting before an employee is halfway out the door. This will help them learn to be proactive instead of reacting. So, what’s a red flag of quiet quitting or burnout to look out for? One obvious red flag is when an employee starts canceling or participating less in meetings, not volunteering for work they used to excel at, and missing deadlines when they are typically punctual. Once a change has been spotted, a manager must address it. This can be done by reaching out to the employee and creating an open space for them to express how they’re feeling and share their personal situations without judging or criticizing. If the worker is still reticent, managers may need to show vulnerability by opening up about their own experiences. It truly is about building that connection, belonging, and actively listening to what employees need and want and meeting them where they are.

However, one open conversation is not enough to bridge employee-employer relationships and nip quiet quitting in the bud. Managers and HR leaders must adopt an ongoing strategy to help their workforces thrive. Executing this approach is possible by acting on feedback from regular employee surveys and ensuring recognition initiatives are a key aspect of your employee culture.

What would be your recommendations to business leaders looking to change the way CHROs use HR Tech stacks in their organization?

Innovating can be overwhelming when you’ve got multiple pieces of technology, and you’re trying to remember which one you need to complete a task, how to use it, and where it is located. So, in general, I think HR leaders are seeing their workforces struggle with a bit of tech overload. Luckily for frustrated employees and HR leaders, it’s now possible to take a more consolidated approach to employee management and experience platforms. For HR leaders, accessing tools in one place means the data needed to build a powerful workforce can be found in one place, too, empowering these hardworking professionals to unlock invaluable insights seamlessly. Example? Microsoft Viva. This robust tool can look at your Outlook calendar, inbox and Teams and say, “This is where you spend your time. Oh, and by the way, here are some things that you probably want to follow up on this week.”

Microsoft, as one company, can bring together different apps and then unlock these recommendations and surface them without a user having to jump between apps to help employees be smarter and more impactful. This feature is a prime example of the critical benefits of consolidating HR tools.

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Your take on the future of AI-based HR and people management services. What’s next for Achievers in the coming months?

We are at this exciting point in our history where the heavy lifting of rearchitecting our product is now paying off with significant increases in innovation. I expect to see more usage of natural language processing (NLP) to drive user-generated content personalization, along with inclusion bias coaching. We will continue to focus on simplifying the massive amounts of data and feedback our highly active usage platform provides, as we currently do with our voice of employee feedback reporting. Lastly, you will continue to see us test generative AI in various areas to improve the member experience. Exciting times are ahead!

Thank you, Jeff! That was fun and hope to see you back on HR Tech Series soon.

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Jeff Cates serves as CEO and President of Achievers, an industry-leading employee voice and recognition solution that accelerates a culture of performance. After being named CEO in April 2019, Jeff quickly led Achievers to new products and global growth. Jeff’s passion for creating environments where employees can do the best work of their lives has helped Achievers receive multiple employer awards: Top 50 Best Workplaces™ in Canada, Best Workplaces™ for Women, and Best Workplaces™ for Inclusion.

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Achievers’ employee voice and recognition solutions bring your organization’s values and strategy to life by activating employee participation and accelerating a culture of performance. Achievers leverages the science behind behavior change, so your people and your organization can experience sustainable, data-driven business results.