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Appreciating Human Capital: Laura Queen, Founder & CEO – 29BISON

Laura Queen, Founder & CEO of 29BISON, joins us today on Real-World Branding. With more than 25 years of experience in human resources and administration at the executive and leadership level, Laura Queen oversees 29BISON’s advisory services, organization design, talent assessment, and coaching activities. 29BISON are Human Capital Advisors for the Middle Market. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating! 

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Bill Gullan: Greetings, one and all. This is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique brand consultancy. We thank you for joining us to hear from today Dr. Laura Queen, who’s the Founder and CEO of 29BISON. What Laura does is fascinating, and it may seem at least on first blush to be one or two steps removed from our normal content here, which, first of all, I think that’s good, but secondly, I think the more you listen to Laura the more you’ll see the connection point.

Bill: We met Laura because we have a shared interest in how M&A or sort of private equity deals live up to the promise of the deal thesis and our research and our work has led us to conclude that there’s often at least in the branding realm, that’s one of the reasons why sometimes deals don’t maximize their full potential. Often, the branding considerations, the big questions related to branding are either made sort of too quickly or too slowly.

Bill: Laura believes, and her career and her company is testament to the fact, that often the human capital side is also not an area of focus necessarily at the highest levels of the deal and, consequently, there is some breakdown or some lost potential in that transition or in that integration, and so Lauren, pardon me, Laura’s company is really focused on advising the investment community, both during the due diligence as well as the integration processes associated with M&A to make sure that organizations are mindful and deliberate about how they retain and fully sort of activate their human capital.

Bill: Enjoy Laura Queen.

Bill: Speaking via the wonders of the interwebs, we have Laura Queen with us today, the Founder and CEO of 29BISON. Laura, thank you so much for spending time with us.

Laura Queen: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Bill: I should say Dr. Queen, you’re classing up the joint here at Real-World Branding with your credible erudition. To that end, why don’t we start a little bit with your own journey educationally, and then through your career and kind of some of the milestones and inflection points for you that have sort of led to the businessperson you are today and what you’re doing day in and day out at 29BISON?

Laura: Awesome. I would love to tell you that it was all a planned journey, but to be –

Bill: Of course.

Laura: Quite honest, my undergrad degree and my major, actually, was all on a bet. I had decided I as going to go away to college and major in pre-law and economics as a dual major, and middle of my freshman year, I had this really wonderful professor who said to me, “You really should be in psychology”, and I said, “No, I really don’t want to be.” Long story short, after what I call the double dog dare, I actually wound up changing my major and culminated with a dual degree in I/O psych, industrial-organizational psychology, and managerial finance, and kind of bounced around. I am a perpetual student, both in and outside of the work environment, and absolutely adore being in a classroom, both as a teacher and as an academic researcher.

Laura: I love bringing that work, all of that information, back to the business that we do, and many years later decided it was time to go back to school. My husband said to me, “Well, you always said you wanted to be a doctor. It’s a little late to go to med school, so how about do something different?”

Bill: Are you called Doc around the house? Or I’m sure you even need this sort of label of respect within your family life?

Laura: Yeah, you know it’s really funny about that is I actually don’t use that nomenclature, although it’s funny. My undergrad alma mater every time they send me something in the mail, it comes as Dr. and Mr., which infuriates my husband.

Bill: Well, my wife is a psychologist and a professor, and so we have the same dynamics in our household. The three degrees that you’ve assembled over the course of time, professionally I know you began on an HR track and coming through formal wear business and electronics business into technology, then sort of back into consumer with QVC, then into the pharmaceutical realm. Could you tell us a little bit about how you went from place to place and kind of how your professional journey unfolded?

Laura: Sure. Actually, really early in my career, I started in finance. I spent a number of years doing small business finance, and then in the public sector. I would say it’s really my public sector experience that informs who I am as a professional in what we do, interestingly. There was a period of time where I worked for a county health and human services organization, servicing and providing assistance to economically underprivileged individuals and dislocated workers. In the first four years there, I did fund accounting for them. The last four years with them, program services and administrative kind of work where we developed job search, job readiness, career training, brought in-house English as a second language, adult basic education, and other kinds of educational capabilities to help bring people back into the workforce.

Laura: It was after that that I actually created my HR career and found myself really riding the wave. There are times I say I’m more like Jellyman, just kind of going with the flow. I love the challenge of learning new things. In my entire HR career, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time doing things like systems implementations, writing project plans and creating handbooks and policies for multinational and global organizations. In retail organizations, leading aspects of certainly recruiting and other kind of training, learning, and development kinds of capabilities.

Laura: In the semiconductor world, I spent time working with multinational organizations who had assembled themselves as part of an acquisition strategy, which was really interesting. I think I would say that that’s probably the first time I really had the opportunity to touch on what real mergers and acquisitions looked like, and both the things that can work really well in integrating organizations, and unfortunately, where companies tend to fall off… I’ll say sort of fall off the wagon with respect to managing through an entire integration process. They leave people behind and they actually leave gainful opportunities on the table to see real economic and financial value through their transactions.

Bill: Right, and we’ll get into that today because you sort of funneled your way into a focus on being advisors for the investment community around human capital. I think where you and I connected, and I think our listeners are finding your background to be super interesting, although a couple of steps removed from what we typically deal with in the branding world here, but I think our connection was forged based upon Finch Brands has done a lot of research into why M&A doesn’t take in some cases.

Bill: One of the reasons we found and really colors a lot of the work we do here is that often the brand equation and sort of the key brand choices that are made in the wake of M&A activity are either made, I’m not sure if this makes sense, but too quickly or too slowly. Either way, they’re not made in a way that really sort of enables the deal thesis to be realized. People are focusing in the wake of a transaction on operational integration and they’re focused on in some cases product integration. They’re focused on client communications. It seems like that you also believe, and I’ll let you express it far more eloquently that I ever could, that one area often where value is destroyed or deals are not all that they could be is on the human side. Could you speak to that and sort of why that’s become a professional focus for you?

Laura: Sure, and I absolutely agree with you a hundred percent. I think that they… Deal integration can happen both too quickly and too slowly in various ways. Often, we see that organizations are focused on, and rightly so, on the customer-facing and finance portions of the business and tend to spend less upfront time evaluating where there are opportunities and potentially risks involved in a transaction in other aspects of the business. Some of those are, I would say, very traditionally HR related, people related, human capital related. In other cases, they’re things like systems and the artifacts of culture and methods of communication. Without paying attention to those things, you leave opportunity on the table to realize both the deal thesis, I think, and creating a platform or establishing a framework for what growth or the achievement of the intended outcomes could and should potentially look like.

Laura: Yes, I agree with you. I think that these are places where you and I have connected with each other very specifically, particularly on the aspect of this work that relates to the people component of those transactions, both in the… I’ll say even in the pre-due diligence phases, but certainly due diligence through closing, and then the integration process where culture, values, practices, processes, the interface with the technologies that are being utilized in an organization, all of those things, values, the language and behaviors that are used to create expectations in the work environment come together.

Bill: Right. We often find in the wake of whether it’s a private equity investment or a merger or a divestiture, whatever it is, that there’s certainly a lot of focus placed on a leader or a couple of leaders who may provide some fresh input, and then there’s obviously a lot of focus placed on the efficiencies that come through the deal, and that’s corporate speak for saying that there’s some resources that are shed and folks move on if there were redundancies and stuff. To your point about culture, we always believe the best brands are built inside out and it is the people, both those who are still there and those who are added who are the carriers of the brand idea to customers and to one another and the enrollment piece and sort of cultural development of a new organism that may have changed shape or changed scope is so critical toward the brand taking hold.

Bill: What is it in your work… Where does brand and human cohesion and cultural development… where’s the intersection point there? Particularly in the M&A world?

Laura: I believe that it happens in a couple of different places. First of all, there’s… culture is about all of the artifact, all of the experience. The human experience, the customer experience, the vendor and supplier experience, all of those stakeholders of an organization. How they’re treated, what their interactions begin and end with. How they look, how they feel, and so paying attention inside of a transaction to all of those intersection points with human beings is a really important aspect of what you’re doing. Being intentional about it I think makes a real difference, and in our experience, some organizations are much more intentional about creating culture and creating the experience of their organization for people internally and externally than others are. As you well know, cultures can be created both intentionally and unintentionally.

Laura: I think the other thing that we have experienced is the idea that very often in the dealmaking space, there is a focus on a number of stakeholders. It could be shareholders, it could be suppliers, it could be customers very specifically. Less attention tends to be focused on the people inside of the business in a holistic way. What we’ve found in our experience is there is untapped knowledge and opportunity for real gain and real measurable, purposeful, and I would say really great outcomes that live in the knowledge and the experience, the day-to-day touchpoints inside of the business if their voices can be unlocked. Those things are everything from really traditional culture and kind of brand elements. In other cases, they are things like just tactical, tangible things, actions that can be taken inside of an organization immediately using the knowledge of individuals, and I’ll give you just a really quick example of this.

Laura: We were working with an organization going through their due diligence process just prior to close and we spent some time talking with about 20% of their workforce. One of the things we learned from this workforce and asking them these questions was, what would make this a more productive work environment for you? What they shared with us was this idea that if they had a better Wi-Fi, they would be more productive. We got curious. We knew from our own experience that you couldn’t get a Wi-Fi signal in their building to save your soul, so you weren’t going to get a phone call or be able to send or receive email messages. There was something more to it, so we got curious and asked them more about it.

Laura: What we learned was it was an FDA… an FDA-regulated facility, and so part of the work that they had to do was making sure that they were in compliance from a GMP learning standpoint. The company itself had moved forward with an electronic LMS. The LMS itself needed a strong Wi-Fi bandwidth to download upload both the audio and the video for the learnings they had to participate in. The individuals in this facility were having to physically leave the workforce and go either to a public place where there was a Wi-Fi hotspot or drive 10 miles down the road to another corporate facility in order to be able to participate in this required training.

Laura: When we did a quick back of the envelope calculation for them for every single training they were taking, this organization was losing five hours of employee productivity time, and they were creating risk because people were in their own vehicles during work time traveling from one place to the other, but without taking the training, they were also putting themselves at a compliance risk because they were required to take this GMP training and document that the training had been taken by all of the individuals in the past.

Laura: Immediately, just in hearing the voice of these employees who really wanted to do a good job, we were able to go back to the acquiring organization and say, “Listen, first thing you should do is put in a set of Wi-Fi repeaters so that they have better signal strength in their organizations. It’ll boost productivity.” The employees felt great because they were able to demonstrate through their own interests in making sure that they were more productive in the work environment that they were also interested in contributing to the acquired organization. They felt through the process that their voices had been heard because action was taken almost immediately after the closing.

Bill: Right, and that’s powerful and sounds like a small thing. Not a small thing, and I’m sure kind of the sort of rank and file team member who’s part of that rat race probably builds a little bit of resentment and annoyance in addition to all the lost productivity and sort of the things that you can quantify. When it comes to sort of I guess traditional HR resources in the organizations with which you consult, I guess these become your partners, is there something about the difference between sort of deal time versus business as usual that might leave an HR generalist a little bit overwhelmed or sort of underprepared for the scope and scale sort of M&A activity and the investment-associated HR functions?

Laura: It depends on the organization, certainly. We work often with relatively small organizations who don’t have dedicated HR professionals inside of their work environment. They’re either using PEOs very often, or some other member, like a controller or an office manager who also has other kinds of responsibilities will also have the HR responsibility. In most cases, they just don’t have the technical expertise to handle full-fledged due diligence through integration. We come in and supplement that, both at a strategic level and at the tactical level. We’ll help organizations do everything from evaluating the alignment of the deal thesis to the work that’s being done through the people portion of the integration, all the way through the very tactical pieces like making sure that you have moved payroll to a new payroll provider as of day one and folks that are impacted will be paid. We do all of that.

Laura: In larger organizations, what we often find is that there is not a dedicated HR resource to managing through the M&A process or any transaction process, whether it’s divestiture or transition in the business, this work is often happening on top of the regular day-to-day jobs, which are also taking up a hundred percent of their time. It can become a really daunting task for them, and oftentimes they’re not prepared. There hasn’t been great education inside of the organization for a variety of reasons.

Laura: It may be that this is the first transaction they’re going through, and they don’t know what they don’t know, so you don’t know what to ask. You’re not sure what to look for. You’ve never been a part of the process before, and it takes somebody that has both experience and a holistic view, a view of the entirety of the organization, not just the more transactional HR component parts of moving it through this process to be able to identify where there are opportunities for real gain and where there are potential pitfalls or compliance risks. We offer a lens into that, and we try to partner with the folks in the organization who have these responsibilities, whether they’re assigned the HR function or not, to educate them so that the next time they go through this process, they feel more confident and competent at managing through this process.

Bill: I can imagine an HR generalist who’s accustomed to filling some open seats through talent acquisition and maybe managing employee benefits and some onboarding work that may over a period of time become fairly rote, all of a sudden, there’s an acquisition and all that comes with that can be quite a shock to their system I would think given to your point, potentially the lack of experience with it and sort of coaching and guidance. I guess that’s where you all come in.

Laura: Yeah. There’s those more traditional transactional kind of components, but there’s also the component that speaks to things like, how is it if you have a synergy target that’s HR related, that’s people related, for example, you go through the process of understanding who needs to remain in an organization? How it is you retain them strategically? How do you assess for talent? How do yo look at the structure of an organization at 30 days post transaction? 90, 180, or 360 days post transaction? The needs of the business at those intervals are very different than they are at day one. How do you go through that process of understanding what makes the most sense, both tactically and strategically in terms of organizing your workforce? Then, of course, there’s a whole set of legal complications, implications for the changes that you make.

Bill: Right, it makes sense. Let’s assume that a process… Our research and experience related to M&A indicates that for those who are sort of team members within organizations that are coming through something like this, there’s a mixture of hope and fear and of opportunity, but also uncertainty. If something is really well managed in the way that 29BISON helps manage human capital processes here, what’s the upside kind of? What’s the desired and most-positive end state related to both the organization as well as to the deal? What’s the ideal picture look like when a process like this is well managed? What are the benefits to the company?

Laura: Ideally, if you are an acquirer, the ideal state is to have someone like us in either pre- or right at the very beginning of the due diligence process. Getting a lay of the land, understanding what exists on both sides of the transaction, going trough the process of side-by-side comparison, and raising issues and concerns that can be addressed through communication to both sides of the transaction represent potential risks that could be mitigated as you move through the process. Understanding how technologies and policies and processes can be harmonized so that it is a more streamlined process.

Laura: We always advocate to the extent that it’s possible prior to a transaction, spending time with the employees on both sides. Learning their voices, knowing their interpretation and the behavioral viewpoint of the culture of the organization. How is it that they represent the behaviors of the value of the organization, for example, or what are the expected behaviors? What is the language we use to define and describe who we are, what we do, how we operate? Playing back those similarities and differences as you move through the process. What we’ve learned is that you unearth opportunities, as in the story I shared earlier.

Laura: You also, merely by giving a voice to people in the organization, you enlist their knowledge, their understanding of the business, and you engage them toward the change, which helps to overcome to some degree some of that fear because you’ve created trust by establishing relationships with them, but you also enlist their knowledge in the movement forward, the creation of change in that organization, and they’re much more willing take at face value the decisions the business makes. Whether they’re in their favor personally or not, at least they feel that they’ve been done with full knowledge rather than done with the hubris that could happen from their perspective at the top of an organization where their experiences haven’t been shared.

Laura: Certainly there’s the piece after closing that happens that is more about the integration component. How do you bring all these pieces together? How do you manage the post-closing communication to folks? What is it that needs to happen to clean up the differences between two organizations coming together that might operate somewhat differently? Certainly, the reconciliation around things like, how are our value structures? What are our missions and our purposes? Where are they different? Where are they similar? How is it we reconcile what that looks like? How can we all be onboard so that we’re moving forward with one mind, one voice, one set of expectations about what the future should look like?

Bill: Sure, and very powerful. I’d be remiss if I didn’t briefly ask about some branding in your own sort of professional life here. I know that you all have recently come through a branding exercise and 29BISON is sort of the outcome here. Could you just for a minute I guess sort of reflect on that and tell us about what 29BISON sort of means as a name and talk about the brand that you represent today?

Laura: Sure. Fundamentally, we chose the brand 29BISON for a couple of reason. One was because, to be quite honest, we wanted to engage people in a conversation, and creating a brand image that invited people to ask us a question about who we are and what we stood for was really important to us. We also had the real pleasure of working with a brand consultant that helped us gather feedback from our clients that informed our thinking about how we represented us, our culture and the way we interacted with people.

Laura: Eventually, we got to the place where rather than having a set of value statements, it became more important to us to create the personification of a brand that helped people understand what working with us might look and feel like. The bison became that. It’s a symbol of resilience, it’s a symbol of community. They live in herds. The older bison will move back into the female portion of the herd to provide solace and community, security, and leadership, and we feel strongly that that’s one of the things we bring to the work that we do. We were able to give him, because we have our own bison, his own personality, which is very much reflective of who we are. People often ask where the 29 comes from, so it is the atomic number of copper.

Bill: Interesting.

Laura: It represents… as an element, it’s one of the few elements that is infinitely renewable and it is the way we feel about the people that we work with, the people that are important from a human capital standpoint in the work that we intend to do with organizations. Certainly for us in our own business, people are incredibly important to what we do and how we represent that work for our clients.

Bill: Cool. Very cool story, and cool company that’s focused on doing really important things that may often, as noted, be overlooked or given short shrift within an important process of the sort that you work in.

Bill: As we close, and this has been awesome, Laura. Thank you so much for your time and your insight and sharing some of your beliefs and experiences. As you’ve navigated this really fascinating career, have there been a couple of, I don’t know, maxims or words to live by or things you’ve learned along the way that you might want to share with those who’ve been inspired by your career path?

Laura: The thing that I share with people most frequently is this idea about being open to evolution. I think it’s all too easy to plan with intention exactly what we want, and if we’re not open to the experiences or the doors that open along our way, we potentially miss an opportunity. I think what has served me well in my own career is focusing myself broadly in one direction, but allowing that sometimes you need to take a right or a left turn and it may feel uncomfortable. You may have to buck up against some of those challenges, but I’ve learned such a tremendous amount by really going through an open door that just presents itself to me and evolving through that experience. I encourage people to explore that path.

Bill: That’s terrific. Thank you and great thoughts to internalize. It’s always fun to hear different people’s perspectives on… as with you, often the journey is filled with sort of happy accidents as well as intentional directions, and so that’s tremendously helpful.

Bill: Laura Queen, Dr. Queen, we’ve been so grateful for your time and input.

Laura: Bill, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity. We love partnering with you guys.

Bill: Thank you. You as well. Have a great day.

Laura: My pleasure. You as well.

Bill: Many, many thanks to Laura Queen, to Dr. Queen for her time and insights. She’s a perfect example of I think what we find in evidence a lot here on Real-World Branding, which is really incredible and successful professionals who have taken various routes, often nonlinear, to the places where it really light them up and that the market needs and everything else. Laura’s a great example of somebody who was really activated in her academic study by a particular set of topics, and then over time got closer and closer to perhaps where she was meant to be or where her talents are most sort of fully realized. 29BISON provides such great value for investors or deal folks or senior leadership in the wake of deals, helping to make sure that human capital keeps up with and delivers on the promise of why these deals happen in the first place.

Bill: Three ways is always to help us on Real-World Branding. We’ll go fast because, boy, I’m sick of saying this over and over again. If you’re going to do it, let’s do it, and if not, I’ll keep it shorter so it doesn’t occupy too much time. Three ways, subscribe. Make sure you don’t miss one. Rank, rate, and review. That helps us get found and it helps us also apply the feedback, and then dialogue. Let’s connect on Twitter, @billgullan, @FinchBrands, with new ideas, with comments, with ways to make this more valuable. In that spirit, we will sign off from The Cradle of Liberty.

About The Author: Bill Gullan

Bill Gullan is the President of Finch Brands. His nearly 30-year (ugh!) career in branding has revolved around naming, messaging, M&A brand integration, and qualitative research. He has been with Finch Brands since 2001.

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