Lessons from an unsettling year help forge future path for four CEOs

Top Workplaces leaders assess long-term changes in their organizations resulting from the pandemic and social justice movement
Clockwise from top left: Maria Gomez, president and CEO of Mary’s Center; Hugh Frater, CEO of Fannie Mae; Amy Wright, CEO of Macro Solutions; and Michael Huppe, CEO of SoundExchange

In March 2020, as the coronavirus began unleashing turmoil across the globe, most leaders would have never expected that more than a year later, they’d still be managing a virtual workforce, coping with the loss of employees or making adjustments for a post-pandemic new normal. Nor might they have guessed that the death of a Black man in Minneapolis at the hands of police would propel the nation’s employers to make racial justice a common workplace priority.

The Washington Post’s Jena McGregor spoke with four leaders from the region’s businesses about how the events of the past year have changed their organizations — and themselves. They spoke about the new approaches they have taken in their workplaces, the lessons they’ve learned about leading people and turned introspective about the ways in which our world may be forever changed.

Our winners are a longtime mortgage executive; one of the founders of a community health center; an entertainment industry lawyer turned CEO; and the owner of an information technology and management consulting firm. We selected the winners using our annual survey with partner Energage. The study asks employees at hundreds of Washington-area companies to evaluate their bosses and selects the highest-ranked leaders from each category. The excerpts from our discussions have been edited for length and clarity.

Hugh Frater

CEO, Fannie Mae
Fannie Mae CEO Hugh Frater at his offices in Washington.

Q: What particular challenges did your employees have to deal with amid the economic impacts of the pandemic and this crazy housing market?

It was an especially unusual year for us in a couple of respects. In dollar terms, this was our biggest volume year. We supplied $1.4 trillion in liquidity to the mortgage market. We processed 1.3 million cumulative forbearance plans. In natural disasters, we have helplines that we stand up to help borrowers understand what their options are. This was like a natural disaster, a gigantic nationwide cat-5 hurricane all at the same time. There were times in March and April and May [last year] when people thought the world was going to end. And everybody in our company was showing up 24/7. I’ve never been more proud of the people in this company than I was during the past year. The workload has been extraordinary. Add to the mix George Floyd’s murder. After everything else going on, all the other stressors, an incredible crushing volume of business, add that to the mix. It was just like a punch in the gut.

Q: How did your company manage the fallout from those events?

A week after that may have been the lowest that a lot of people had felt, maybe in their lives. In our C-suite, we’ve got some senior African American leaders who are just outstanding. They were the ones who instantly said this is different, and we’ve got to treat this differently.

Maybe we’re starting from a fortunate place because we are a majority-minority company. We live with these things daily. One of the programs that we’re proud of that will expand a lot in the next couple of years is something we started called Future Housing Leaders. The mortgage industry is largely old White guys. If you look at demographics over the next couple of decades and you look at how homeownership is going to change — the fastest growing group of homeowners is Hispanics — the industry needs to look more like the people it’s supposed to serve.

It’s our belief that if it does, that will help with some of the issues around access. It’s been observed that lower-income borrowers are less likely to refinance as quickly as White borrowers. How do we change that? How do we make sure they can benefit from monetary policy in the same way White homeowners do and keep money in their pockets? One of the biggest differences in accessing credit is the availability of closing costs and the down payment. Are there things we can responsibly do? There’s not the same level of intergenerational wealth. Are there responsible ways to close that gap?

Q: What has surprised you about leading during the pandemic, or from your employees?

I’m an amateur guitar player, and we’ve incorporated music into some of our communications. People really, really, responded to it. I guess it’s a humanizing thing. I can’t play perfectly all the time and I make mistakes, but what the heck? Right after George Floyd’s murder [prompted protests] I played “The Times They Are A- Changin’ ” by Bob Dylan. I played a Bollywood song for the Diwali Festival of Lights Celebration.

As an old White guy, there’s so much that I don’t know because I’ve never had to face it. I’ve never had to live it. I found out about the Greenwood massacre [in Tulsa in 1921] by watching “The Watchmen” on HBO. They taught none of this stuff in school. There’s a terrific book called “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein, about how the federal government sponsored neighborhood segregation. They insured mortgages where there was segregation written into the homeowner’s association or into the deeds. The federal government did that. We’ve been living with those effects for decades. I think there’s just been this great awakening, I hope, for our country.

Maria Gomez

President and CEO, Mary’s Center
Mary's Center founder Maria Gomez at their community garden in Washington.

Q: How did you have to adapt your workforce to deal with the pandemic?

We’ve been doing telehealth for several years for patients who were shut in, who had mental health issues or were hard to reach. But we weren’t doing it at that level. Getting the community at large to trust telehealth was one issue. We had to advocate to the city to make sure that people could have bigger broadband. People just assume that the rest of the world is online. This is not necessarily true for people who have Internet for a month and then they have to stop it for six weeks because there’s no money.

Q: What did you do to help employees who were disproportionately affected by the pandemic?

It’s not like we could buy the greatest and latest things that were available. But one of the things that we did for sure was to make sure that we fought — and we had to fight — to get PPE [personal protective equipment]. In the beginning, remember, those weren’t available to the hospitals, much less us.

The staff worried the most about two things. One was about getting sick. And equally was about losing their jobs. Remember, for many of our staff members here, their partners or their family members are also essential workers. They are in construction. They are babysitters. They are cleaning houses. Many of those jobs were abolished. I think the staff was hungry for reassurance. They were looking for some person in their lives that could bring a little bit of sanity and also hopefulness — that provided a lens for a better future.

I’m not trying to be poetic here. I don’t have a crystal ball. But my goal was to make sure that there was hope for the future because that’s what people needed. One of the things I said was our staff will stay up day and night. We will search through every cubbyhole of resources to make sure that no one — no one at Mary’s Center — will lose their job. I can make that promise.

Q: In what ways did you tap into Mary’s Center’s mission as a leader over the past year to help motivate employees?

It’s the essence of the organization. When people come on board at Mary’s Center, they’re reminded every day of what the mission is, what the values are, how the organization got started. They wear it on their sleeves. We hire from the community. A large percentage, almost 80 to 90 percent of the population that works for Mary’s Center, lives in the community where the patients come from. They live in the same neighborhood. Many of us don’t separate our work from our own personal lives. I think that I lean on that a lot.

Q: As we come out of this, what will be some long-term changes?

It’s a relief for some of our staff to not have to hassle every day coming to work. I think that certainly some version of teleworking is going to stick. The assets that we have here, like the actual brick and mortar — are we really going to need all of that? We’re going to have to think about our benefits package — how can people be at home and not have to use their paid time off for certain small things? Right now we’re sort of on the clock.

One of the things that we know is that one of the highest suicide rates in the country is among health providers. They’re overworked. They see so much pain. At Mary’s Center, unlike a hospital, people are not dying every day. But we’re seeing all of the devastating problems right now of being poor. [Patients] have a child in jail. They have another child that was bitten by a rat. Another family member that’s about to be evicted, or lost their job. The provider’s taking all that in and going, ‘Oh my God, what do I do with all of this?’ Providers have so many resources we offer them for referring people on these issues, but the issue of poverty is so overwhelming that their compassion can get exhausted.

Michael Huppe

CEO, SoundExchange
SoundExchange CEO Mike Huppe at his offices in Washington.

Q: What kind of impact did the pandemic have on your organization?

We are a tech-first company. We are digitally based. In the pandemic, our mission kind of became crystallized. It took a greater sense of urgency because in many cases our artists needed us to survive. There were many artists for whom we became their only source of income. They couldn’t even do house concerts, for God’s sake.

Many of the biggest streaming platforms pay us to use the recordings and then we pay it out to the artists and the labels. Streaming is now in the neighborhood of 80 to 85 percent of U.S.-recorded music revenue in the United States. Even without the pandemic, we might have had a bigger year than the year before. But with the pandemic, lots of people were streaming a lot more.

Q: What were some of the things you did to keep employees feeling connected?

We try to re-create the morning chats around the coffee room by having a Slack channel where people are randomly paired up once or twice a week, just for 10 minutes in the morning. It’s a way to take the place of when you might just bump into someone in the hallway and strike up a conversation. I personally tried to reach out individually to different people up and down the ranks. No agenda, just: “How are you doing and how are things going? What challenges are you feeling now?”

Q: What new policies or benefits did you implement to help employees over the past year?

I made clear to the C-suite on down — basically all managers — that we really need to take a people-first, employees-second approach. These are employees, but they are people before that. I wouldn’t call it a policy, but sort of clear directive from the top that we need to accommodate people’s unique situations and be very flexible. We also did things like we expanded our mental health benefits. We expanded the hours that people could tap into that. And then we went a step further and actually allowed that to even be expanded to their family.

Q: What things do you think will change about your workplace as you reopen and move into the new normal?

We have pretty good technology, but it needs to be top of the line to allow for distributed collaboration. In some of our conference rooms now, we’re installing these cameras that you put in the center and it moves around the room. It knows who’s talking and puts the camera on that person; we have virtual whiteboards where you can have someone on a whiteboard in the office but it gets translated visually to someone who might be online. We have to keep being at the cutting edge. But we have to be smart about how we run hybrid meetings. Right now everyone’s on Zoom and we’re all equals. It is a completely different exercise to have half the people in the room and then three people on the video monitor. We need to train people and get them really thinking about how hybrid meetings are different.

Amy Wright

CEO, Macro Solutions
Macro Solutions CEO Amy Wright in Memphis, Tenn.

Q: How has Macro Solutions fared?

We were lucky because when covid happened, the government had to continue to function. So we really didn’t lose work. We had to think of how to do our work in a different way. And so that was the challenge. We had a continuity of operations plan in place but never could we have predicted a pandemic. We had to pivot very, very quickly and move most of our consultants that work for civilian agencies home. The work that we do for the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies, a lot of that work remained on-site. They had to go to work and we needed to support them the best way we could with PPE. We had a couple of people that got covid, and unfortunately, one of them died.

Q: How did you cope with that?

We regrouped and did as much as we could on our end to make sure that our employees were well-informed. We, of course, reached out to his family to see if there was anything we could do to be helpful in the process. But it’s not easy, it never is. It was incredibly sad for the company. It’s heavy. It weighs on you, because you think: “Was there anything more that could have been done?”

Q: You have a “consultant care” program — what does that offer people?

It’s really about what can we do to make your experience working for us better. Whether that’s because you have parents living in another country and you really needed more time off than we had allocated or need more training to be better at your job, it’s really about having a person consultants can reach out to who is really on their side. We make it very clear that this is a different type of job — that we really don’t expect them to be involved in in the day-to-day management of these employees. What is in their scope of work is to call and say: “Hey, how are you doing? How are things going?” It does take time, I think, for any employee to feel like they can trust that person. But that’s where it’s incumbent upon us as a company to make sure that we empower the person who’s in that job to do what we say we’re asking them to do — and not give them tasks that would interfere with that level of trust.

Q: What lessons did you learn this year that surprised you about leadership?

I have found that as a company, there’s still a real need for a sense of community. That won’t change — it doesn’t matter if you work remotely or you’re in an office, the need to belong is really important. Even though we’ve always been an ­employee-centric company, it was challenging because everyone was dispersed all over the place. We’ve also learned a lot about crisis management in the last year. We had a plan in place, thank goodness, and it worked, but there was so much more to this crisis than you could have even anticipated.

We were having daily meetings in the beginning, and then we were able to drop back to weekly meetings, but we still have it right now going on. Covid permeates through every single thing you do. Are people working well and working efficiently? Do they have everything they need? Are they safe? Is there anyone having an issue? I really have learned the resiliency of people. It’s been a heavy year, but it’s nice to see that people can process and come out the other end of it and still laugh a little.

Jena McGregor covers the workplace for The Post.

Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Monique Woo.

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