Becoming an Employer of Choice

Connex Staff |

A decade’s long streak of growth finally came to an end, with the annual average engagement rate dropping 2% in both 2021 and 2022 according to Gallup. 

Perhaps even more concerning is that during the same period, the average percentage of actively disengaged employees – those who are outright disgruntled and disloyal because their workplace needs go unmet – rose by just as much. While some may be quick to blame the shift on the isolating factors of remote and hybrid schedules, the reality is that these declines persisted across in-person positions.
Surveyed criteria that declined the most were: 

  • Clarity of expectations
  • Connection to the mission or purpose of the organization
  • Opportunities to learn and grow
  • Opportunities to do what employees do best
  • Feeling cared about at work

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. As the same Gallup report adds, these figures are only averages. There are many organizations that managed to double their rate of engagement during even our most stressful, uncertain, and trying quarters across the past 3 years, with Gallup 2022 Exceptional Workplace Award winners averaging 70%. We sat down with several Connex Community members to better understand how they were shaping the employee experience and addressing those engagement criteria most other businesses are struggling with.

Chicken Soup for the Corporate Soul
JSX is an independent and rapidly growing air carrier service specializing in point-to-point flights within and between six states, and more importantly, they act as an interesting case study in what it means to really be employee-first. Kevin Horan oversees what would typically be considered their HR function, which they’ve dubbed Corporate Soul. “We believe our crewmembers – and everyone is a crewmember, not just those who fly – are the Soul of our company,” explained Horan. “Without them and all they do to put our customers first, we would not have the differentiated product that we do, and would not enjoy the success we are seeing.”

Unlike many organizations both within and without the aviation industry, JSX hasn’t faced the same labor sourcing, retention, and employee buy-in challenges. Horan attributes this to their exceptional culture and the consistent investments they’ve made in doing right by their crewmembers. “The biggest investment we have made is in our time,” clarified Horan. “As an entrepreneurial organization, we value every crewmember’s thoughts and opinions, and our leaders spend a tremendous amount of time in the field, working alongside our teams to unearth issues and address them on the spot.”


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JSX’s hands-on approach to frontline engagement and immediate problem-solving echoes sentiments shared from several Members at this year’s Connexion event, and seems to be a reemerging best practice. Doing so not only speaks to employees’ desires to feel valued at work, but makes practical business sense – if any group within the business should be tapped for feasible, common sense ways to maximize efficiency and team satisfaction, it’s the frontline employees performing the work every day. Those more personal interactions also provide an excellent opportunity for JSX leadership to celebrate company successes and missteps with staff. “We all make mistakes, and as long as they’re not horribly detrimental to the enterprise, we should celebrate those as well. If people are afraid to make mistakes,” Horan cautioned, “then you will never evolve.”

Enablement of Individual growth is another factor behind JSX’s success, and one that gives employees an opportunity to do what they do best. They begin that process very early in the employee lifecycle, spending significantly more time in the selection process than most other businesses. “We try to have fun with candidates,” Horan explained, “while carefully observing what’s natural for them.” This analysis helps JSX better understand the personality, desires, and possible friction points of employees, allowing the organization to place them in teams and roles where they’re most likely to succeed. The focus is more on cultural alignment than specific skill competencies, as those can be refined during onboarding and early career job skills training.


Investing in Employees
Katie Parenti, Chief Human Resources Officer for Allspring Global Investments, is a kindred spirit to Horan: “I’ve learned the importance of getting the right people in the right roles – and quickly.” Allspring Global Investments is a large asset management, investment, and financial services organization that was divested from Wells Fargo in November of 2021 and soon after purchased by two private equity firms. Allspring took the bulk of their 1,500 employees and assets with them when they left, creating a rather unique “startupat- scale” environment. While the core business was mature and highly functioning from the start, departmental leaders like Parenti had to feverishly build out processes, tools, and procedures to formalize all the necessary administrative and operational support structures.

One of Parenti’s first major strategic goals was to build a first-class employee experience that could meet the needs and wants of today’s workforce while simultaneously encouraging steady cultural growth. “It’s a work in progress,” explained Parenti, “but one that we chip away at a bit more each day. We’re constantly working to construct the culture we want to create, and trying to get that brand out there and recognizable to top talent.” Accountability, strategic vision, and communication are all critical components of that culture and are centrally represented in Parenti’s approach to HR.

“I told Allspring in my interviews that if they were looking for just transaction and execution, I’m not their person. That will be handled, obviously, but it’s not where HR’s value is derived.

Parenti added. “I still sometimes call people and receive a timid response, and I need to clarify that nothing is wrong – HR isn’t just calling you when you’re in trouble. We’re working to build HR exposure and real partnerships with the other arms of the business.”


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Those partnerships are strengthened by seeking out the voice of the employee. “We may come up with recommendations or plans as an HR team that we think would be great,” continued Parenti, “but then we go out and conduct focus groups or bring people to the table to ask them if our plans resonate the way we expect them to.” Parenti likened the process to testing a product, and stressed the importance of engaging employees in candid conversations about what the company is doing in the present, where it’s headed in the future, and how that aligns with what individuals want out of their work experiences and careers. The process demonstrates Allspring’s commitment to employees’ holistic wellbeing, while also providing an avenue to clarify expectations and connect the work individuals do each day to the organization’s mission and purpose. “It’s a dual bottom-up and top-down approach,” explained Parenti, “whereby C-suite sets the strategy, but we engage each level to ask what they’re seeing from their seats, what it’s really like to experience that strategy, and what they’re noticing is missing.”

JSX has taken a similar approach, with Horan arguing that “communication and a willingness to adapt and change have been the keys.” “We make regular communication the norm during the interview process,” expounded Horan, “and then continue to check-in with employees through quarterly allhands meetings; calls with the CEO and Executive Team; monthly calls with each large workgroup and their department heads; station tours three times a year where executives visit each location; and even weekly newsletters that are focused on culture.”


Room to Grow
Having an aggressive communication strategy, no doubt helps address several of Gallup’s criteria, but it’s hard to overstate the gravity of “opportunities to learn and grow.” According to a 2023 report by career planning and recruitment firm Zippia:

  • 92% of employees reported that training and development programs made them more engaged.
  • 76% of employees are actively seeking opportunities to expand their careers.
  • 68% of employees listed training and development as the most important company policy.
  • Businesses with strong learning cultures had an increased retention rate of 30-50%.

Each of those figures is well understood by Jeff Reid, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer for BOK Financial. Reid has spent nearly two decades with the organization, rising through their HR ranks. He’s been a part of expanding the scope, utility, and strategic value of BOK Financial’s HR department along the way. “We want employees to see their contributions in the overall success of the company,” explained Reid. “We encourage employees to own their career development, and we help them create a tailored plan to ensure they are on the right path.

To that end, BOK Financial has invested in flexible development tools and resources that have resulted in numerous internal mobility success stories. “We’ve seen several individuals take steps in their career journey that include roles and opportunities they originally didn’t know existed,” continued Reid. That flexibility is enabled through a network of on-demand development curriculum that blends resources like LinkedIn Learning, getAbstract, and internally produced self-guided coursework. BOK Financial also partners closely with Harvard School of Business – and others – to provide employees with leadership and soft-skill learning opportunities. “Our programs help them identify areas of needed improvement, which is particularly helpful for uncovering blind spots they may not have known existed,” explained Reid.


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Where to Start
Reid and his team use a variety of methods to assess trends, engagement, retention, development and much more, allowing them to course correct as needed. Robust people analytics can assist strategic HR leaders with responding to today’s labor trends and tailoring the employee experience more optimally, but there are simpler, less costly ways to begin. As Reid explained, they’re also getting tremendous value out of direct employee survey responses: “We send a new employee survey at the two-month, four-month, and ten-month marks. At two months, we’re asking about what attracted them to BOK Financial, onboarding, and if the role matches what they expected; at four months, we’re asking about the support they’re receiving and the connections they are making across the company; and at ten months, we’re determining if they have a clear understanding about development opportunities and resources, and if they feel they have career mobility options.”

Horan shared his advice, focusing instead on the ways in which leaders show up: “You must understand that you cannot engage employees from afar. You need to walk the talk and spend time on the frontline to show your people that you care and that you understand what a day in the life is really like.” We’ve heard this sentiment across a variety of our Think Tanks, Panels, and Thought Leader interviews – fancy portals are nice to have, but what really resonates with an employee is demonstrating you understand their position. “Be vocal about what you learned from them,” added Horan, emphasizing that true, bi-directional communication signals a genuine appreciation for their contributions.

“My mantra is to be globally consistent and locally flexible,” added Parenti. “It’s important to have all the policies you need and a consistent framework, but how that gets applied on a daily basis needs to account for the actual human experience. As long as it doesn’t violate regulations, we as leaders need to be responsive and flexible.” Allspring’s approach mirrors how BOK Financial structures development in that it seeks to create an environment flexible enough to meet the needs of employees in different, more personal ways.

Parenti closed her interview with particularly powerful words of wisdom: “I remind my team that nothing is set in stone – we’ll roll out what we think is best, but if it doesn’t play out how we intended, we’ll modulate. And, as long as we do that in accordance with employee voices, [HR] builds credibility for the business because you’re showing employees that you’re listening in a concrete way.”



Kevin Horan
Kevin M. Horan is an experienced HR executive with over 37 years of global HR experience, primarily in the aviation industry. Currently he serves as the Chief Corporate Soul Officer for JSX a pioneering company in business and charter aviation. In this role he oversees Human Resources, Talent Acquisition, Corporate Learning and Development, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and Community Relations – with a team that is focused on not only growing the business, but establishing the brand as “standout” for their focus on engagement, culture, communication, talent development, and diversity and inclusion.
Outside of his aviation work, Kevin has been very involved with Educate!, a US non-profit focused on education reform and entrepreneurship in West Africa, where he currently serves as an advisor after having been Board Chair for 5 years. He also volunteers as an advisor to other education focused non profit organizations in the US.
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Katie Parenti
Katie Parenti is the chief human resources officer at Allspring Global Investments. In this role, she leads a team across all disciplines of human resources (HR), including talent acquisition, HR operations, data and analytics, and compensation and benefits. Katie and her team of HR business partners serve as trusted advisors for all employees and executive leaders.
Katie joined Allspring from BlackRock, where she specialized as an HR business partner. During her tenure at BlackRock, Katie supported the client, investment, and exchange traded fund businesses. She also acted as the interim head of employee relations for the Americas. Katie has extensive experience working for leading financial institutions in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Before BlackRock, Katie held several positions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, including as a senior vice president and chief operating officer (COO) for corporate banking, as a senior vice president and HR executive for the global markets group, and as a director and business support manager representing the office of the COO in the EMEA region. She began her investment industry career in 2001.
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Jeff Reid
Jeff Reid joined BOK Financial in June 2004 and currently serves as the Chief Human Resources Officer focused on human capital attraction, development and deployment, performance management, succession planning, process improvement and other high profile initiatives. His journey with BOK Financial started in a Senior HR Manager role where he developed and rolled out the Talent Acquisition and Talent Management initiatives and later added business partner support and other areas of focus.
Prior to joining BOKF, Jeff spent 9+ years in professional recruiting focused on retained and contingency level searches and 10+ years in banking. Jeff received his Bachelor’s Degree in Finance from Georgia State University. Jeff lives in Tulsa, OK with his wife Denise and his son Jackson and spends most of his time at the ice rink watching Jackson play hockey or routing for the Georgia Bulldogs.
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