Soni-Basi (1)

Edelman Global Chief People Officer Soni Basi

Soni BasiGlobal Chief People Officer

How do you earn, manage, and keep your employee trust? Soni Basi is here to explain why we need to start valuing authenticity, vulnerability, and throw away our cookie-cutter approaches. Soni is the Chief People Officer for Edelman, a communications company with an extraordinary reputation for being a global PR agency of choice, and explains how she uses a powerful combination of people skills and analytics to achieve success. Soni tells us about what she values in job positions, the importance of having a creative license, and how even performance management can be shifted to meet your personal values and goals. We hear about the outcomes of a low level of perceived trust, what employees are beginning to value, new expectations being placed on employers, and the potential results if these standards aren’t met.


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Episode Transcript



[0:00:06.1] RS: Welcome to Talk Talent to Me, a podcast featuring the most elite talent leaders on the frontline’s modern recruitment.


[0:00:12.8] FEMALE: We actually want to understand the themes of someone’s life, we want to understand how they make decisions, where are they willing to take risks and what it looks like when they fail.


[0:00:22.7] RS: No-holds-barred, completely off-the-cuff interviews with directors of recruitment, VPs of global talent, CHROs and everyone in between.


[0:00:31.1] FEMALE: Once I went through the classes and the trainings and got the certifications through diversity and inclusion, I still felt like something was missing.


[0:00:39.7] MALE: Talent acquisition, it’s a fantastic career, you are trusted by the organization, you get to work with the C-Suite and the security at the front desk and everybody in between and everybody knows you.


[0:00:53.0] RS: I’m your host, Rob Stevenson and you’re about to hear the best in the biz, Talk Talent to Me.




[0:00:59.5] RS: Talking talent with me today on the podcast is the global chief people officer over at Edelman, Soni Basi. Soni, welcome to the show, how are you today?


[0:01:09.0] SB: Hi Rob, I’m doing really well, thank you. Thanks for having me on the podcast.


[0:01:14.5] RS: Yeah. I’m so pleased to, it’s a delight to get to chat with you because Edelman has been putting out some really interesting research as well as you have this role that I do so enjoy speaking with because you have really interesting and unique challenges that you get to solve and face every day. So I’m really glad to have you here. 


I know Edelman pretty well because there was a brief time when I was finishing up my PR degree when I was like, “That’s where I want to work.” That is like my dream job. It didn’t happen that way but here we have connected anyway, so it worked out in the end and I would just love to set some context for the folks at home.


Would you mind sharing a little bit about the company and then we can get into you and your role as well?


[0:01:48.0] SB: For sure. Well, first of all, I’m delighted to hear that that was a career choice that you considered. I think we have a lot of people who aspire to be a part of Edelman and I’m just so excited to be able to lead the function, knowing the type of reputation that we have as a firm of being the tops in terms of the PR industry.


So for those of you who don’t know too much about Edelman, we’re about 6,500 people strong around the world and we’re the number one PR agency globally. So we actually just have won a number of awards in terms of being the PR agency of choice for many clients around the world as well.


So in terms of my role for the organization, I’m the global chief people officer. So I have had the responsibility since May of this year to lead the function end to end as it relates to how we engage, develop, reward and attract our people.


[0:02:43.7] RS: How did you wind up here in this role at Edelman?


[0:02:47.1] SB: Yeah, maybe I can like rewind the tape a little bit and just walk you through how I got to where I am today because I think you don’t always know where you’re going to land when you start your career after you’re finished with college, right? So we have these high-level kinds of ideas of what we’re good at and I always knew that I was somebody that loved understanding people and understanding cultures.


And I ended up doing a Ph.D. as a result in social psychology and my minor is actually in statistics and so I feel like I bring a really interesting combination of people and analytics to the table, which is a marriage made in heaven when you’re talking about HR roles because we have to be able to bring data to the table.


When you’re talking about just what leaders might think of soft people stuff, if you can back it up with data to show why you’re making the decisions you’re making or the recommendations you’re making, it’s a powerful combination. So having that degree led me into a career where I actually cut my teeth in professional services for the first seven years of my career and I wore multiple hats as a consultant. 


You know, as building business, I was meeting with C-suite leaders and talking to them about employee engagement and job satisfaction and their survey results from global employee engagement surveys. I was creating new initiatives for the organization that we could sell as well and that span of seven years working in a small professional services firm that was family-owned, kind of really laid the foundation for me to join as the chief people officer today at Edelman, which is also a family-owned business in professional services.


Between there and now, I’ve had a number of roles at large global organizations that have again, not be anything that I truly planned. I went to Schering-Plough Pharmaceuticals first because they were a client of my consultancy at that time, which is now a part of Willis Towers Watson, they were clients of ours.


When they asked me to join, they asked me to build a corporate university and do behavioral competency models and executive development, things that I had no idea how to do but they saw in me the potential and the possibility and I think that was one of my first kind of the takeaways as a leader, is sometimes, people see potential and possibility in you that you may not see in yourself and if they think that you can do the job, you know they’re going to have your back, right? 


So I took that leap of faith and moved up to New Jersey where I’ve been for the last 16 years working as an internal within corporate America versus as a consultant. So I lead learning and development for Schering-Plough Pharmaceuticals. I saw them through two mega-mergers when I took a step out of my career, which is not something that a lot of us feel comfortable doing but I was adopting my son at the time and I decided that it was the right time to take a little bit of a step out and before I joined the Estee Lauder Companies.


So for about nine months after you know, a merger, I joined the Estee Lauder Companies in a global role in talent management. Again, that is space I had worked on specifically but an area that I really wanted to explore and the Estee Lauder Companies was a fantastic learning ground for me because again, had been a family business for so many years, had recently iPod and was ripe for so much that needed to take place in the talent function there.


Estee Lauder took me to Allergen Pharmaceuticals through a networking connection and people that I’d known from the past at Schering-Plough Pharmaceuticals and I had a chance to lead end-to-end talent. That led me to AIG, where I was also leading end-to-end talent until a time came up when I got a call about this role it was too fabulous for me not to have a conversation with someone who knew me really well and they said, “We know you would never want to leave AIG.” 


I was happy, I was doing good work that I really enjoyed, “But we think we have the perfect role for you, and would you be interested?” so I said, “Let’s have the conversation” and I couldn’t be more delighted. One other thing I know I have been speaking for a few minutes here about my career journey but one other thing that I just wanted to mention is when I talk to interns, often, which I do during the summer months about their careers and about getting started in their profession.


I always highlight to them that I am where I am today as a result of one interview and one job and that was my very first interview and job as a consultant and international survey researcher. Ever since then, everywhere that I’ve landed has been because I knew someone who thought I was a great talent and they brought me to their organization.


So while I had to interview individuals before I came into the organization, I never had to go through another job process again. So I just share that because when you show that you can do great work, you show how passionate you are and you build a network, I think your career can take you to many places.


[0:07:54.6] RS: And yours certainly has. Your background is as colorful as your blouse, thank you for sharing all of that and you’re a dream interview subject because there are so many different paths to go down here, and that last call out about how your roles have come from your network, I had the same experience in my career and I think it’s so underrated because in the same way, I have not had to go through interview processes of not had to tune up my resume and it’s not nepotism because what it is, is trust. 


It’s like, you have delivered for someone previously and they’re like, “Okay, they’re going to do it again, I don’t risk my professional network by bringing them in. In fact, I look great by bringing them in because if they do well, it makes you look good as a referrer.” So I just wanted to echo that callout, work your network as much as possible, keep in touch with people, deliver, and build, trust and your career will take you to fascinating places. 


In addition to the networking aspect, I’m curious, when you look back on all of those moves you made, if there are any common themes in how you chose a particular role.


[0:08:54.6] SB: Yeah. So first of all, I think, I just want to hit on one of the things that you mentioned, which is about earning trust and that’s one of the things that we talk about quite a bit at Edelman is that action earns trust and I’m sure at some point, we can talk a little bit more about our trust barometer work that we do and I can tell you a little bit more about what we’ve been finding on the employee side but I just wanted to echo that for you for a moment because you’re spot on. 


When you earn the trust that can get you into a lot of places. When you break down trust, that’s when the doors just don’t open for you in whatever industry you’re in or whatever it is that you’re trying to do. In terms of what I was looking for from different roles, I was always looking for one, a challenge. So I wanted to be in an organization or in positions where I felt like the work that I could do would be challenging, would be rigorous and it would also be valued as a result, right?


So that’s related to the second thing I was looking for in my career, which was I’m not somebody who really just enjoys like, tweaking around the edges of processes that are going really well. I like to shake things up and I like to create things that are new and different but really, meet the needs of the organization that I’m working for. 


Third, I was always interested in a global role, I’ve lived around the world as I was growing up and my parents moved a lot even within countries and so I love meeting people and so I knew and I wanted something that was global and the fourth thing that was always important to me was to have creative license and a lot of organizations in a lot of industries don’t allow for that. 


In my point of view as a leader for this function is that you can’t have a cookie-cutter approach like you can’t bring one thing that every other organization is doing to your organization because it may not be best fit and people react and respond to things that are cool and hip and also, that are aligned to where the world is headed. 


So that was really important to me and I think with ever leader I spoke to, I said, “Look, I do need a role with creative license” which I don’t think a lot of people in our profession always do or think about this profession.


[0:11:15.1] RS: Yeah, perhaps not, perhaps there’s this sense that maybe, some of these problems are solved or there’s a playbook that’s worked before that you should use again but you would not prescribe that approach?


[0:11:23.9] SB: No, I wouldn’t prescribe that approach. Now, I don’t intend to do things differently just for the sake of it either, right? So that’s not the right approach like performance management is performance management is performance management but the way you roll out performance management, how you talk about it like I remember when I was at the Estée Lauder Companies, right? 


We had because it was a creatively different organization, I took a lot of license in terms of how we marketed and it was like stunning visuals that we would put out for anything related to our people initiative and one of the taglines was, “Great performance looks good on you” right? Or maybe it was good performance looks great on you, something like that, which was that play on words around performance and the industry and connecting those dots. 


But those types of things and they resonate with your client, which was our employees. So even within a cookie-cutter approach like performance management, you can take a marketing sensibility to it. 


[0:12:22.5] RS: I love that line of copy, good performance looks great on you. Let’s talk about that, you were made for PR. I do appreciate that turn of phrase. I’m glad you mentioned the trust barometer report because I wanted to ask you a little bit about that. I think there are some really interesting insights in there. For the folks at home, we will put a link to it in the show notes so you can peruse it at your leisure. 


But would you mind sharing some context around where the report came from, what went into it, and anything surprising you learned from it? 


[0:12:49.4] SB: Yes, absolutely. I am happy to. One of the pride and joys of our firm is the work that we do on trust. We’ve been known as the leaders in the space of trust for over 20 years and I’m so glad that we do this work because it is used by leaders and organizations and in governments and so on around the world. So the report that I was going to speak to, which I think would be most relevant to the audience listening today is related to employee sentiment. 


So we just recently came out in about September of 2022 with our most recent results based on 7,000 points of input from employees in seven different markets, about a thousand people per market that we studied anywhere from China to the United States. So we have a good mix of Asia, Europe, and Latin America and so on that have been covered in this study. I think the focus of the report or the focus of this particular trust barometer work was to understand what is really driving employee sentiment within organizations. 


If I think back to the last two years of how much has shifted in organizations, it’s been incredible, right? So you start, I mean, you could even rewind the tape a little bit to the Me Too Movements, then you have the social justice movements, you had Asian hate in the United States to the war in Ukraine to the pending energy crisis or maybe not pending like current energy crisis in parts of the world and so all of these dynamics have been coming up in the workplace recently because the workplace has been our source of community. 


If you think about what COVID did to a lot of people, it like shrank your community into these smaller segments where you are connected through your laptop all day and night to people that you work with and so the workplace over the last couple of years has really become the source of community for people and is actually what we found in the report is actually a more powerful source of information but also trust than our governments, NGOs and a lot of other places where you might think people would normally go for information and that they would trust. 


So the workplace is actually trusted more than any other place and there is more and more of a request from employees that their employers are showing up and filling the gap where governments may have failed them, right? So when you talk about issues like in the United States, Roe v. Wade for example, where they might feel the government is failing them. They are expecting their employers to step in and be able to pay for solutions that they might need in terms of family care and so that’s what we’re starting to see and that’s showing up in the trust work as well. 


[0:15:38.8] RS: What is the outcome of a low level of perceived trust? 


[0:15:43.4] SB: I think the outcome of a low level of perceived trust for an employer is a lack of engagement. I think what we have found with a lot of the work that we’ve been doing is that there is a lot of worry out there among employees right now. They are concerned about the recession. That they are concerned about pending job losses because we’re really not any longer in the great resignation. 


We’re now starting to brace for, every company is starting to face head wins and so there is worry. Related to that, there is, “Am I getting the development that I need?” The skills that I may have needed two years ago versus what I need two years from now are a little bit different. So all of these are kind of related to this level of worry. So if your employer isn’t able to step up or isn’t able to gain the trust of your people, I think you are starting to get the sentiment of loss of engagement. 


We’ve heard about quiet quitting, right? So even if I don’t have the opportunity maybe to go somewhere else at this point in time because maybe jobs are not as available as they were about 12 months ago, then maybe I am not showing up fully anymore. So this connection between my values and my company’s values and how articulate the company is being and sharing what they stand for like do you stand for women? Do you stand for LGBTQIA+ rights? 


Like what do you stand for and am I connected to it is becoming so much important for every company and I’m sure recruiters are hearing it all the time. The recruiters that are listening to your podcast or the talent professionals, I am sure they’re hearing it all the time from the external world like what are you doing for corporate citizenship, what are your stances on X, Y, and Z, tell me a little bit about your DEI initiatives. 


So those are now like expectations that companies are doing something about those topics that are of importance to an individual. 


[0:17:42.5] RS: I can see why trust is so important to Edelman not merely as a company value but also there is this data from our resident recruiters that decision here. So I am curious what maybe you’re doing at Edelman and then what advice you would give to recruiters at large, what can companies do to increase levels of trust between their employees and the organization? 


[0:18:04.2] SB: Yeah, there’s probably a few things. One I would say, which we touched on earlier I think is most important is the action earns trusts. So the more you can do to showcase what you stand for as an organization and what actions and behaviors you’re taking, the more likely you are to earn trust. If you have failed in terms of the trust equation with your people at some point in time, the easiest thing to do really is to have a listening session. 


To really listen, not insert your points of view but to bring some of those colleagues into the room, which requires you to be vulnerable as a leader and you can do this whether you’re a leader of a team or you’re a leader at large. I’ll just maybe pause and just share a personal story, you know, speaking of being vulnerable. In one of my organizations, I was running the overall employee engagement survey as the head of talent for the organization. 


When we got the results back, I had one of the lowest scores on the team within HR. My team’s scores were some of the lowest and it was a moment for me that like really step back and say, “Well, what in the world is going on here?” so instead of being embarrassed or feeling embarrassed by it, I saw it as a moment to pull the team together. I was one year into my role and there were a lot of things that I didn’t know were happening. 


It was a large team and so it gave me a moment where I said, “Guys look, these are the scores, these are the survey results and I don’t want any of you to feel like this isn’t a place where you don’t feel engaged and excited to come into work. So let’s fix it together like let’s have an open conversation about what’s happening, what do you need, what do you want to see?” and from there like we turned that ship around. 


To a place where people were seeing like for seven, eight years, they hadn’t had a career move and I didn’t know that going into the role, right? So we started doing career moves like simple things that were keeping them from being excited about where they were working. So I digressed a bit though, you know, just to give you that sense of like holding listening sessions and then following through can be really powerful ways to gain trust. 


Then depending on the role that you’re in as you are listening, I would say having those skip-level meetings with employees, with your leaders if you can, or asking for those can be really powerful ways just to build trust at different levels especially if you feel like maybe you don’t have always the visibility for the work that you are doing. 


[0:20:39.2] RS: Yeah, it’s well pointed out that you don’t have to guess what it is people want or whether they perceived that they’re lacking, right? You can elicit this information from folks. 


[0:20:48.3] SB: That’s right, yeah. Absolutely and people love to tell you what they would like to see but you have to create an environment where they feel open to speaking up as well and I think that is a big part of trust as well like confidentiality is sacred. Like there are certain things as leaders that you have to be able to espouse and really stand behind, things like confidentiality, things like I am authentically here because I want to hear from you and I am here because I want to make changes. 


If people don’t feel like they have an environment where they can speak up, they won’t and you’ll know that as a leader, right? Because you are the only person you’ll hear speaking as yourself. 


[0:21:29.5] RS: Well Soni, I wish we had more time. This has been a fantastic conversation but we have meetings to get to, podcasts to record, et cetera, et cetera. So unfortunately at this point, we have to wrap up. This has been so illuminating, thank you for joining me and for being yourself and sharing your experience with me. I loved learning from you today. 


[0:21:46.5] SB: Oh, thank you so much for having me Rob, this was great. 




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