Nelsa and Scott are joined by Tonda Furgeson, the current President of RPI, to discuss how previous ventures have provided the framework for outstanding employee engagement and recognition platforms. Challenges and victories surrounding COVID-19 are discussed, as well as plans for new organization directions. Listen to the podcast below, or continue reading for the full transcript.
[00:00:07] Welcome to the C.A. Short All-In Employee Podcast, and I'm your host, R Scott Russell, with Nelsa Webber, and we're so glad that you've joined us today. Let's dive in.
[00:00:27] Nelsa, I am so excited we're back for another show already.
[00:00:30] Yes, this time is going by so quickly since the Daylight Savings Time has changed.
[00:00:36] So it is spring. Spring has sprung.
[00:00:40] So, yeah, I'm done with this winter now, so I'm ready for some warmth. I need the kayaks out. I need the bike.
[00:00:48] Let's go out. I got the back of my neck burnt over the weekend
[00:00:52] recently from Sunshine. I'm ready.
[00:00:55] That just means I'm ready to do it right first.
[00:01:00] Listen, today, we're not even going to touch on hot topics today Nelsa, because we have a fantastic guest that I'm very, very excited about bringing to the show.
[00:01:10] All right. Yeah, hot. Yes, that's what it is. We've got a hot guest on the table tonight.
[00:01:16] So I'm very, very excited. She is going to be joining us in just a moment. And just to give you an idea, she is the current president of Recognition Professionals International. And, you know, I was the past president last year. Last year, I was president. I'm officially a past president. And Tonda Ferguson is joining us today.
[00:01:39] And I believe we've got Tonda on the line. Are you there, Tonda? I am so excited to be here, my dear friend.
[00:01:47] Now, Tonda and I've known each other for many years, a great number of years. And I'm so excited that you're joining the show today and talking to me. Nelsa, this is my co-host, Nelsa, and she's on the show.
[00:02:02] Thank you, guys. Thank you.
[00:02:04] So first things first. We'll get this out of our way. So, Tonda, just tell us a little bit about you first. Now I know, but for the listener, they don't, obviously. And Nelsa this will be kind of Eye-Opening for her. But talk a little bit about yourself in your career, where you spent the majority of your career and a little bit about where you're at today.
[00:02:25] OK, well, first of all, I'm very excited to be here with the two of you and just a huge fan of all the work that C.A. Short does and said this is quite the honor for me to be here. We've given you a little bit of background on me. That's kind of unusual. But I think it's really shaped who I am today. I was working for an airline, Braniff Airways, if many of you might remember that airline, a blast from the past. And I had worked there for six years. I flew all over the world and I just was so I just loved working there. Well, in May of 1982, Braniff went bankrupt. And one day I had a job I loved and the next day I did not. And so I was so blessed that I managed to get on with Southwest Airlines in August of 1982. But I think the big lesson that I learned from working at Braniff was we have to appreciate our jobs every day and we need to love them. And when people would sit around and complain about their jobs so many times and many times I did ask them, what would you do tomorrow if you didn't have that job? I mean, if it was ripped out under your feet today, how would you feel? And so I think that that little voice has always kind of gotten me a lot. And I think it's so important for companies to appreciate their employees, but it's equally as important for employees to appreciate their companies and the great jobs that they have.
[00:04:11] It's definitely a two-way street.
[00:04:14] So I started along a wonderful career at Southwest Airlines. Thirty eight years. But I always joke that I was one of the people that didn't really want to go there. I was happy where I was. And so it's kind of forced into the door. But it was a blessing, a blessing in disguise that I didn't know at the time. So 38 years at Southwest Airlines would be eight years. Thirty eight years retired in September. And covid just you know, it impacted all of our lives. The airlines were truly impacted. And so I decided to go ahead and take a bit of early retirement and now trying to figure out what to do with myself.
[00:04:59] And I love recognition. I love doing special things for people. And so I'm still trying to find my niche along the way.
[00:05:09] And I haven't given up on listening to webinars and listening to positive speakers and all of that. So being with RPI now is just it's a wonderful organization, but it's also filling a gap in my life right now. So I'm very grateful for that. But this is my 10th year to be part of RPI. I got my certification 10 years ago and it has served me well. And for all of those who don't know, RPI offers a certification program. There's four courses and you take those and then you earn your certification. And my boss at Southwest at the time, my leader, she encouraged me to get involved with RPI because we were getting ready to we were looking at building a recognition platform or something. We didn't know where we were going and great company, wonderful culture. And because we were so giving and so wanted to recognize our employees, you can imagine if you don't put a handle on that, it could get way out of control. So you have this leader doing this, this leader doing that, and then perhaps an employee transfers and their leaders not doing as much. So all of a sudden they're a bad leader. And it's not about that at all. There was just no consistency. There was no equity. And of course, none of that was intentional at all. So when I got my certification and I remember one of the things I learned in RPI, one of the things they recommended is that your recognition budget should be anywhere from half a percent to at least one percent, maybe a little more of your overall budget up your overall salary. So I'm sorry, your gross salaries. So it's like, well, isn't that interesting? So I just trotted back to Southwest Airlines, called up my friends in finance and say, how much do we spend on recognition? And little did I know that opened the biggest can of worms because, oh, my gosh, it was being coded differently from department to department. We didn't have a handle on what all we were doing. And so to me, that just spoke more, the need for a recognition platform. So I am just a huge, huge supporter of recognition platform. For looking for consistency, tracking your budget, knowing what leaders are recognizing their employees and those leaders who aren't. It just goes on and on and on. So huge, huge supporter of that. One of the interesting things that came about that out of all of that is one of the things that I also learned through my CRP was that recognition should be a day to day and formal and informal. And so I started taking a little inventory of what we had at Southwest that we could track. Of course, at the time, not everything could be tracked. And here we are, a great company known for our culture. And when I put it all to paper saying what we could track, we were recognizing about a half a percent of our employees. Wow. Through our formal recognition programs like the president's award of the top performers, all year top performers.
[00:08:56] And so that was just two eye openers for me there.
[00:09:02] We don't know how much we spend. We're not recognizing who we want. That's not saying that leaders weren't doing their own thing and employees were being appreciated and recognized, but. We didn't really have, like, a good structure, a good structure in place, it was just ad hoc and done in a more non organized manner, right? Yes, very, you know, and not one tool either.
[00:09:26] It was this. However, they could do it, I guess, basically.
[00:09:29] However, and I would say in the frontier, I was like, almost, you know, you get employee of the month here, you may get a car and the next one you may get a free pizza. Let me listen to that extreme. But it was whoa. So we just started working. And one of the things, for the most part, those leaders in the field really appreciated that structure. Because when it came time for employee of the month, employee of the quarter, they were always scrambling as what to do. And so we set up a very organized programs for that. And regardless of the size of your location, the employee, the month employee of the quarter, they all got the same thing.
[00:10:18] And we moved to a points based system with our recognition platform and.
[00:10:29] We always said, which I think is so good, I mean, we have there are so many generations in the workplace today and they all appreciate different things. And so we kind of one of our little tagline was, you have the freedom to choose the recognition that has the most meaning in your life. So working in an airline, we gave away a lot of free airline passes, you know, that you can give to your friends. And that was a great thing. And our employees appreciate that. But you also may have the single mom who really can't even afford to buy something for her child for their birthday or is struggling. So and not everybody, you know, could really travel and appreciate the gift to travel as much. So that's why we set it up where you could get your points, you could get the travel if you wanted it, or you could get gift cards or merchandise. And so we just had a lot of options for our employees. So I, I think that has was a wonderful way to go. And then along comes this thing called covid shuts everybody down. People aren't in the workplace anymore. So it's harder than ever to recognize your employees. But if you have these online platforms and you're still able to do all of that digital recognition, I just think that's gone a long way. So I was very blessed that Southwest had all of that when it hit. So big, big supporter of that.
[00:12:15] So tell me a little bit about so so just so we can align our listeners a little bit. So you are now you've retired from Southwest.
[00:12:23] I retired. You never retired from Southwest. It always lives in your heart.
[00:12:28] Right. So you're taking and you're not having to go into an office anymore. Right. I'm not know where you and you were in Texas, but you're not there now.
[00:12:40] You have migrated I have migrated to Florida. And actually, I worked remotely almost for the past two years of my career at Southwest. I was planning to move to Florida. I was going to start retirement. My husband and I, we were going to move down here. And unfortunately, right before I got ready to retire at that time, I lost him to cancer. And so I came on to Florida to live out our dream. And Southwest was so flexible with me and let me continue to work remotely. And so when everybody was scrambling about working from home and everything, I'm like, it's great.
[00:13:27] It's just not that hard. And I miss the people definitely for sure.
[00:13:33] You miss the interaction with the people. But, you know, just thank goodness for Zoom and all the you know, just we're in a good place in the world. Technology was that we can still still see faces. Cause, you know, I miss the hugs and just hugs and the smiles and being able to do fun things with your coworkers, but. But we got to we got to take what we have and make the most of it.
[00:14:02] So you now so so one of the things so so you started that journey with Southwest and really looking at creating that consistent recognition model and that. So you spent the least probably, I would say, the last 10 years of your time with Southwest really working in recognition, working in that area of engagement, recognition, etc.. Right.
[00:14:25] Well actually in 1985, only three years into Southwest, I started I was so blessed to be able to start the Employee Communications Department at Southwest. So I started the Communications Department work directly and the Executive Office for Herb and Colleen. Herb was a founder of Southwest Airlines. So I got all of that wonderful exposure to two of the world's greatest leaders, in my opinion, and then with employee communications. Then it kind of morphed into a lot of work working on culture. Our 20th anniversary was coming up, 1971, and we started a culture committee and I was one of the founding members of the culture committee worked on that. And so as we grow as a company, you kind of started then we had a person come in and then they were over our culture. But then I still did a lot of the communication, started writing more for our CEO, helped on executive communications.
[00:15:35] And I worked on that to the very till I retired on executive communications.
[00:15:42] And so still really worked on even though we had a culture department, I worked closely with them. My work started shifting a little more to engagement. People started talking about maybe engagement little more than culture worked on the employee survey. And I just think the employee surveys, also big, big supporter of surveys. And I mean, how do you know if you have good recognition programs in place, if you're not asking your employees? And so we would always ask that. And our employee surveys and we got where we were surveying quarterly. And one of the questions, for instance, would be received recognition from later in the past seven days or something like that. And so I think that I think you do need a survey to track your recognition efforts or even focus groups with employees today, focus groups with Zoom and everything.
[00:16:45] And it's so easy to just grab employees from around the system and and, you know, and just ask, how are they feeling with recognition and everything?
[00:16:55] And can I ask you a question right there? Jump in and just ask.
[00:17:00] I think that's so important when you get you know, we talk about buying all the time and there are things that we do. But then can you expound on that for our listeners once you do a survey or focus group, how did you all take that information and apply it so that way it makes your program more effective?
[00:17:20] Well, I think that is a great question, because a lot of people do surveys and then they never share the results with their employees. And that was one thing that we really, really worked on. And we did use an outside survey company at the time. I think Southwest just recently brought it all in-house. But I remember them telling me the survey company that we worked with is when you ask a question, it's like tossing the grenade. And so do not ask a question and a survey that you're not willing to act upon.
[00:18:03] And so we would share the overall results with all of our employees and then each department would share their own individual results, then with their respective departments, so. And of course, you know, a lot of times there were the naysayers that tried to come up with reasons why we thought, you know, why employees answer that way. And in industry, you have to look at the environment that she served in at the time. And sometimes, like, for instance, Southwest is highly unionized. And so depending on what type of contract negotiations we were in, say you just had to look at all of that. But if you want to improve the employee experience in the company or you want to know how your recognition programs working, you just have to ask your employees. And a survey is just such a great way. And I think our employees appreciated being asked their partner in that company. And you can always assume that they're happy or what they're happy with. And so big, big, big supporter of employee surveys to go along with knowing whether your recognition efforts are working, how many people and we're talking about a large organization like you, how many people at Max, do you think from an employee standpoint, where you getting feedback from and having to manage recognition for a large employee base? Right. Yes. Southwest before covid. I don't even know what they are at today for sure, but we were at sixty thousand plus. And when I started doing employee communications and when I was hired at Southwest, we had three thousand I think we had three thousand employees and about 30 airplanes and we grew to sixty sixty thousand plus and like seven hundred airplanes.
[00:20:01] US and the history, the history right there.
[00:20:05] I mean we will show just some history.
[00:20:08] So I know, I know I'm just entrenched in the whole story about Southwest and how you grow from something like that and to what it is today, because we're old enough to remember when it started, Scott. Well, I certainly and Southwest and I share the same age, so I get to ride alongside their age, I guess. But, you know, I'm a big fan of that airline always actually coming from Nashville. It was my favorite airline and still is to this day.
[00:20:37] By the way, I get to Denver recently on my nonstop out of Charlotte. So that was fantastic. I guess what after all these years, I used to tell Tonda I flew there to Savannah.
[00:20:49] She goes, no, you didn't.
[00:20:50] You didn't, because we didn't fly to Savannah, Georgia, there back to fly the savannah. So I flew all those years.
[00:20:58] I swore it was the worst, but now I can at least say it will be Southwest will always my favorite. I know some things have changed over time. Of course, I don't think you can do the peanuts anymore. Right.
[00:21:10] The peanut allergy, allergy, allergy people.
[00:21:13] I loved my peanuts, but just just you know, it's great to hear from you in that perspective, too, because just talking about the feedback of the employee, of course, to your point, I think you said it very well.
[00:21:26] Don't ask a question that you're not going to act on or you don't want the answer to how I always say that as well. If you don't want to know the answer, don't ask the question, though. It because it can open up cans where it will lead you down other trails.
[00:21:41] Right. But that's how you can effectively know, especially when it comes to engagement recognition, what's working. Right. Of course, there are measurable goals within your platform and within the organization, you work with. There are measurable goals to look at engagement, but to really know what is working with your employee base. It's great to go out there and get some feedback and just get that feedback. You have to. You have to. You have to. So now let's we've learned a little bit about you and your history with Southwest, which even I didn't know is thirty eight years, I guess I lost.
[00:22:13] So I know I'm only thirty nine and you've been with them thirty eight.
[00:22:19] So, you know, you stowed away I guess as a child. So one of the coolest things. Let's shift gears just a little bit though. You are currently the president of RPI, which is Recognition Professionals International, recognition.org. And you and I, I think came to the board right about the same time, pretty close to it. And it's an amazing organization. And I love my time with the organization. Couldn't couldn't shake that at all. That's a wonderful thing. And now you're leading that organization. And there's been some exciting news recently. And I just wanted you to fill us in on what's going on with RPI, what's happening from the let's get it right from the president.
[00:23:01] Like that's hot off the press. And it's a very busy year at RPI.
[00:23:09] And, you know, one of the things that we didn't want to be tone deaf and the world of recognition changed immensely despite. Last year, I mean, all companies changed so much and we were trying to find a way that we could continue to offer good value to our members, knowing that they struggled and they had all these unprecedented challenges and just where do we go from here? And we had the opportunity to we to enter an affiliation agreement and it may lead into a full merger. But this year in 2021, we're in an affiliation agreement with an organization called the Incentive Marketing Association, and they're a much larger group than RPI. And so we just know that it's going to help expand our network, for our members and their members, just increase the education opportunities with more webinars. And we're just going to have a whole stronger voice. And I am deals more alike with gift cards and a lot about incentives. And so I think they're made up of people who sell the gift cards and sell those products. And so I think they will really benefit and enjoy hearing from the RPI side. We're made up of people we call practitioners. Those are the people who say practice recognition and an organization. And then we have solution providers. And Scott at C.A. Short, of course, is a solution provider. So it's just a wonderful thing. I loved it when I first joined RPI and I was like, well, isn't this interesting how these two groups come together? And I loved how our solution providers learn from each other. They weren't competitive. I mean, it was just such a wonderful, constructive environment.
[00:25:20] I don't know if you cantell Jeff he's not competitive because, you know, he's still competitive. But but you know it's a great learning experience because we do come together and you get to sit in the room with most of the people you would never sit in the room with. Right. And so we do all learn from each other and our relationships last.
[00:25:39] I mean, that's what the other great thing about that organization is. These are relationships I take with me forever.
[00:25:45] They're not just in the time that I'm a part of the board, etc. It's truly long lasting relationships and people who know what we do for a living and what world we all live in, in the recognition world, well, may it it may be competitive, but I would have to stay competitive with a huge amount of respect.
[00:26:03] Yes, that's very so.
[00:26:06] I think so. I just love that. So we're really looking forward to kind of, like I say, expanding the scope with IMA. And they are actually didn't get to have an in-person conference in 2020, nor did RPI. We did a virtual. But they are going to do an in-person conference in August this year, August 9th through the 11th in Fort Lauderdale. And so our members will receive a great discount to that and will be able to present some tracks on the IMA summit.
[00:26:45] So I'm ready to be in person anywhere you want me to go.
[00:26:49] I would be I think many people are, Scott, and they're doing a wonderful job already, already working on the conference and sharing a lot of the safety measures being taken with, you know, eating outside, the rooms are going to be very socially distance, masks required, all of that.
[00:27:11] And but, you know, there will still be people who aren't ready. And we still have a lot of education online. IMA does as well as RPI. So still a lot of great information on the webinars. And one of the things that RPI is really, really proud of, they talk a lot about the seven best practice standards following those and having a good recognition program.
[00:27:37] And that's what you learn a lot about when you take your CERP classes, you're certified recognition professional classes. And every year we honor best, best practice winners in the seven best practice standards. And in the past, in recent years, I guess we just started doing this probably last year, Scott. We started giving those companies that out of those seven best practice standards who excel, who achieve everything required in that standard, like a little kind of like a badge or emblem to use and their website like you seen best place to work and use that. And so it's just a way another way to know, so if I was an employee looking for a job, for instance, I could go out and see that C.A. Short is outstanding when it comes to recognition, got their companies. And so that is just another way that helps employees choose.
[00:28:40] It's an identifier for a positive for what you believe to be a more positive work environment. [00:28:45][4.8]
[00:28:46] Yes. Yes. So we're very excited about that. And I think the seven best practice standard awards are open right now for companies to enter. You can get an award and each of the seven and then we have a best overall for placing in all seven of those. And so it's a it's a wonderful thing.
[00:29:10] And, you know, I think as as recognition, folks, we're so focused on giving recognition to others. But it sure is nice to receive some yourself. And just that confirmation that, wow, what I'm doing is right. And and I am a best practice candidate here and we are doing good things. And so I think just that affirmation is it's just really good for everyone. And best place, best practice standards are just a wonderful way to.
[00:29:41] Well, we believe in those those seven best practice standards. I mean, we work with all of our clients, with those actually we preach those quite a bit and all of our communications as well.
[00:29:52] And it's pretty exciting. I mean, there's a lot going on over at RPI this year. Maybe other people might think, wow, it's probably quiet after covid know the organization, things moving along and they could not have a better leader in Uganda this year.
[00:30:09] Well, thank you, Scott. That is a you're just born for it. And I think your experience is going to do great things in that transitional moment for the organization. Now, there's still at recognition dog, right? Nothing.
[00:30:22] Yes. We're going to say that we will keep the domain name. We're in the process. One of the things we'll do is move change platforms for our website. We of course, when you do that, we want to try to clean it up. So there's a lot of work to be done there, but there is just a wealth of information out there. And to become a member of our API, it's just such a small financial investment and just well worth it. Well, I agree.
[00:30:54] I agree with you. For many of us, especially in my early days there, it was it was for education. I was trying to find knowledge and education and recognition, trying to figure out what other people were doing, trying to figure out what should we do coming from my Verizon days and a large, large enterprise organization as well. And really, RPI is the home of all those things when it comes to the recognition efforts. I mean, they're the number one and the main ones, but I've ever seen organization out there. And so it's very exciting to see sort of that that merge of ideas from incentives because some people do work on build another. In some instances it could be a sales and incentives and it's other. But I think that there's a lot of cross pollination. And I think I'm only excited for the future.
[00:31:44] And I think people really do have to all companies have to think of recognition as being a strategic initiative. Right. And you just have to and it's not just a nice to write it. Right. Imperative strategic initiative. And I think RPI helps you. I mean, they gave you the blueprint for it and it's not starting from ground zero. You just have the opportunity.
[00:32:11] My dogs totally love it.
[00:32:13] I hear a standing ovation that so I just can't say enough about RPI and how it served me and the work that I was doing at Southwest Airlines.
[00:32:27] And I just continue to see great things from people who are part of RPI.
[00:32:33] That's awesome. That is awesome. So that you know and that's exciting. I think I think your you know, your finger is on the pulse of that industry right now and what's going on in recognition and what's changing. Right. There's been so many there's a lot changing when you think about it. I mean, this in person work to virtual work. And how do we do some of these? How do you create that special moment of recognition when the person's at home and you never see them? And and do they feel as appreciated not having that interaction with a leader the same way? I think lots of new challenges have presented itself in the last year. And I think it'll be years to come before we sort of sort of read through all of those and figure out, OK, which are best practices, new. Practice, right? What are some new things you must do now? Why is it even more important today to tell somebody the details of their recognition? Because when you're not together, I mean, just setting somebody thinks doesn't have the same impact, right? Because what are you thanking me for? I need to know exactly what you're what did you exactly do? And so I think we're seeing a lot of the old things that we we all thought were good ideas are now really coming to light as these are truly best practices to make sure that recognition has the most impact it can have. And we know from being around this industry for so long that recognition impacts the bottom line. It impacts your culture, it impacts the dollars you bring in and the dollars that go out. And to your point, I look at it the same way. If if I'm going out to get a job, I want to work where there's a great culture and where I do know I'm going to be recognized for that and that there's value. So it's great to look at an organization when you are job hunting, make sure you're asking those questions. Do they have a robust program? Do they have an engagement platform? Are they doing other rewards based for that?
[00:34:32] I mean, because that adds up, right. That adds up on top of just compensation and benefits. It's kind of nice to see what they've done. So I love it. I'm very excited for what's going on with RPI this year. I'm excited to get involved in the best practice awards. We did support a client who won last year. So we were very won overall and I did win the overall. So we've got we're thrilled and I think we've got some more entering this year. So so we'll keep supporting that effort. And I'm already packing my bags for Fort Lauderdale. So I don't know the first year, but I'll be packing my bags. So we're about to wrap up with our time today. But we all we have a question we like to ask our guests. And so we have to get your opinion on this so there's no right or wrong answer. But it is the all-in employee podcast we'd like to know. Is Tonda, from your perspective, how do you describe an all-in employee? What makes that employee all-in?
[00:35:35] I think that's a great question. I love the whole concept that you all are even looking at that, and I think it does have to go back to just the whole engagement of an employee and what drives that engagement. And I know that's what people are really looking at a lot. I think that an all in employee to truly be all in, I think you have to really, really understand your company's purpose and their vision and what makes them successful. And then you have to know how, because we all contribute to that, regardless of your position at a company. And so what do I do every day that brings helps my company fulfill its purpose and to live up to its vision. And then I think that's just a great way to to you build your recognition programs around that you recognize the behaviors that the company needs to meet those goals.
[00:36:39] So being all in is understanding that, understanding your company goals. What makes a company successful? Southwest always did a great job of explaining the financials to employees, and I think it's so many smart employees when it came to the financials. And so it's not it's not just about showing up to work every day. It's just so much more than that being all in. And we actually had a question, which I think is a great question on employee survey is at Southwest Airlines. This is my it's a it's a job. It's a career. It's my calling. And I over the top scores always. It was my calling. And so you can't have a calling and feel that your calling is being answered unless, you know, the purpose of the company will set that up.
[00:37:43] And that's a different response than what we've done before will say career or a job.
[00:37:49] Where do you and that's a survey for you right now.
[00:37:52] But I really do believe there's a lot more being studied and studied and written about purpose-driven companies and like the purpose of Southwest Airlines. So simple. But it's to connect people to what's most important in their lives through friendly, reliable, low customer service. And so. Every company has to have that purpose and everything you do should be built around that purpose. So big believer in purpose-driven, recognizing the behaviors that help your company reach its goals to live out its purpose.
[00:38:29] So I'm actually a new believer, and you must be thrilled that you could generate nuggets today. Yeah, really great. We love it when we don't talk a lot to. That's wonderful. We like our guests to do all the talking. Right. So we love it when the guest just rolls on.
[00:38:52] And I'm sorry I was nervous. I can't imagine you're not nervous.
[00:38:59] You did a great job today. Thank you, guys. It's I'm very passionate about this topic, so I can talk a lot about it. And my dogs are passionate, too. They are very passionate.
[00:39:11] Hey, thank you for being our guest. I love it. Thank you guys so much.
[00:39:15] What are you doing at RPI in one way or the other? I know. I'll see you soon.
[00:39:19] OK, sounds good. Thank you. Have a great care. Bye.
[00:39:30] Thank you for joining us on this short all an employee podcast. Scott and I will see you next time.