Four Top Workplaces chiefs offer lessons on crisis management

The leaders discuss how, for the third year in a row, they navigated economic and social turmoil

From left: Daniel Turner, TCG; Jo Ann Jenkins, AARP; Anthony Pierce, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld;  Kevin Bennett, Caribou
From left: Daniel Turner, TCG; Jo Ann Jenkins, AARP; Anthony Pierce, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Kevin Bennett, Caribou (André Chung for The Washington Post)
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Leading their workplaces during a prolonged pandemic, a nationwide social justice movement, political upheaval, global supply chain disruptions, historic inflation and staff turnover is tough enough. But four Washington-area leaders are being recognized not only for managing their organizations through crises, but keeping their staff happy and confident in their leadership at the same time.

The Washington Post’s Terence McArdle and Lisa M. Bolton spoke via email with four Washington-area leaders ranked best, by virtue of their employees’ votes, in organizations in largest, large, midsize and small categories.

Named top leader in the category of largest organizations with 1,000 or more employees is Jo Ann Jenkins, chief executive of AARP, the membership organization that advocates for people 50 and over. Prior to her appointment as president of the AARP foundation in 2010, Jenkins served as chief operating officer at the Library of Congress. Before that, she served in various roles in the Housing and Urban Development and Transportation departments.

Anthony T. Pierce, partner in charge of the Akin Gump law firm’s D.C. office, is top leader in the category of large organizations with 500 to 999 employees. A longtime litigator, Pierce has expertise in several areas, including health care, government contracting and telecommunications.

Daniel Turner, president of TCG, a D.C.-based firm that provides IT services to the government, is top leader in the category of midsize organizations with 150 to 499 employees. This year, Turner was recognized at a summit of CEOs as among top 100 leaders who use business as a force for good.

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And Kevin Bennett, CEO of Caribou, a D.C.-based digital platform that shows how vehicle owners can refinance their loans at lower rates, is top leader in the category of small organizations with 149 employees or less. Asked recently by an auto finance publication for his company goals in 10 words or less, Bennett said: transform customers’ financial relationships with their cars.

Rankings were based on polls of thousands of employees at Washington-area organizations conducted by survey company Energage. The responses were edited for length and clarity. The leaders discussed challenges they faced over the past few years and what’s new on their horizons.

Largest

Jo Ann Jenkins

CHIEF EXECUTIVE, AARP

Q. What are the biggest challenges you faced this year?

Our biggest challenges relate to what the new hybrid work world will mean for our business, staff and volunteers.

We are still adjusting. We have only been back in the office a month [as of May], but it is going as well as can be expected. We are all learning. We have adopted a hybrid model with Mondays and Fridays as telework days and Tuesday to Thursday in the office. We also provide managers with the flexibility to adjust telework schedules for their teams as the need arises.

Internally, we are focused on issues around bringing employees back into the office, figuring out policies and procedures around managing a hybrid workforce, and ensuring that we continue to put the safety of our employees front and center and how we will retain and recruit the talent we need to fulfill our mission.

Externally, we continue to anticipate and respond to challenges our members face, particularly as it relates to the high cost of prescription drugs.

Q. How were operations at your organization affected by the Great Resignation? What changes did you make to retain existing employees and recruit new ones?

First, I like to call it the Great Reflection — not resignation. In 2021, we had very low turnover. We were able to keep our employees working during the pandemic, and they were overwhelmingly grateful to continue earning a paycheck while they saw many of their friends and neighbors lose their jobs or have their hours cut.

Leading through an unprecedented time of uncertainty

In 2022, we saw those numbers [of turnovers] rise as staff reflected on what is important in their lives. Even though our numbers are relatively stable, we experienced higher turnover in certain job categories — customer experience, data analytics and cyber. The Great Reflection goes beyond economics — it’s about re-imagining our lives. The pandemic gave the entire country time to reflect on our lives at the same time and ask if we needed a change. And the resounding answer was yes.

What they want is closeness to family and friends, experiences that create memories with those they love. Leisure travel and a desire for more education and training — mostly for self-actualization and personal growth, but some also for job-related purposes. So, as we move beyond covid, as an employer, we’re exploring ways that we can help them meet those needs.

Q. Many organizations have been scrambling over the past year to fill vacancies not only from the Great Resignation but from a massive wave of retirements. Is AARP seeing an influx of new members or existing members inquiring about retirement?

During the early part of the pandemic, people delayed either changing jobs or retirement. Later on, we saw an increase that can be attributed to a cumulative effect of people delaying and then deciding to make a change. But that leveled off and returned to below normal rates. We’re now seeing that many people who had retired are looking to move back into the workforce amid greater demand for workers.

Q. What new initiatives are your teams rolling out for 2022?

One of the areas we are really focused on is developing policies and practices that promote healthy longevity — including mental health. As an employer, we recognize that the workplace is an important determinant of health and longevity. Employers who are able to articulate an employee value proposition centered on total health and well-being across the life course, one that goes beyond traditional wellness programs, will likely see significant dividends in terms of retention, recruitment and their bottom line.

So, we’re continually looking at ways to add to our existing leave and benefit programs — paid caregiving leave in addition to vacation and sick leave; an additional individual holiday; webinars focused on cooking, travel and other topics to add fun and fulfillment; and more informal activities and events for staff in the office.

Large

Anthony T. Pierce

PARTNER IN CHARGE, AKIN GUMP LAW FIRM’S D.C. OFFICE

Q. We’ve all been through one crisis after another in the past two years. What are the biggest challenges you faced this year? How do you keep yourself motivated and how do you keep your team and staff motivated?

Returning to the office safely and reconnecting personally with clients and employees as the pandemic yo-yoed up and down [were the biggest challenges] ... Keeping a safe and positive workplace culture served us well the past two years. We kept ourselves motivated by focusing on the fact that we have a business that provides much-needed services for clients with legal issues and helps to provide for the well-being of our employees. The pandemic never changed the fact that clients need legal services, and our lawyers and staff work hard to provide those services.

Q. How is your team adjusting to the hybrid workplace?

In myriad ways, as it should. There are folks, like myself, who come in every day, and others who follow our three-days-a-week minimum. I’m old school, so I hope lawyers and staff choose to come back more often than not, as I see a lot of tangible and intangible benefits to seeing your clients and colleagues in person. However, I think the hybrid workplace is here to stay.

Q. Washington is clearly a very competitive market for lawyers and lobbyists with several local firms bringing in new partners and associates and even starting new practice groups this year. How were operations at your organization affected by the Great Resignation? What changes did you make to retain existing employees and recruit new ones?

Making sure that our employees see clear opportunities for professional growth whether that be at the firm or, with the firm’s assistance, elsewhere, is the key. That, and treating your employees fairly, is the best you can do. The Great Resignation is another business challenge that all businesses need to view as an opportunity to reconnect with and help your employees.

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Q. How are world events like the war in Ukraine impacting your workplace?

Any time you see the unnecessary and unprovoked killing of human beings, it will impact your heart and soul, not just your workplace. Our firm has rallied with donations and pro bono support for the people of Ukraine, as we have done in response to other situations in which our legal skills and money can help people.

Q. Describe your crisis-management style. Who are some of your role models for leadership in crisis management?

There are many role models one could cite in history. I, however, would like to highlight our chair, Kim Koopersmith, who has done a great job in this pandemic and is a role model for law firm management. She has taken a calming and reassuring approach to the pandemic while focusing on making sure our business and those of us who help her lead it have the tools to be effective in a crisis. Having us focus on ensuring that our employees were safe when — early on and even now — the health experts didn’t know for sure how this would affect any of us was a big part of her approach. We also quickly gave our lawyers and staff the tools to work remotely so that clients weren’t left without service on important issues, including legal issues associated with their own responses to the pandemic. As the leader of our D.C. office, I found those two tactics by her, among others, to be a good guide for myself as I approached issues associated with the pandemic.

My personal style in a business crisis is to mind the mainstays of your business — the clients and the employees — because they need you, and you need them to weather the crisis. In a crisis, panic is a leader’s worst enemy, and taking an inclusive approach that gathers ideas and solutions from key constituents helps you avoid panic.

Q. What are the biggest challenges that you anticipate your organization will face in the next few years?

One of the many challenges to come out of the pandemic is the lack of in-person connection among the junior lawyers. While we’ve been hugely successful in maintaining regular connection virtually, we’ve now had three associates classes in the pandemic who have not had the advantages of running into their colleagues as they walk down the hall or gathering for a Friday night happy hour or stopping by a partner’s office for some quick advice, etc. I think we’ll continue to see that challenge as we try to get folks back in the office. Beyond that, it’s vital that we continue to focus on and connect with our clients as they navigate what is, hopefully, the end of the pandemic and the economic challenges that appear on the horizon.

Q. What advice do you have for attorneys who are just entering the D.C. job market?

No different than when I entered: Focus on learning the skills of good lawyering. Find a few good mentors and always remember that you are in a service business. Good service to clients and good treatment of others must be mastered early on and will serve a lawyer well throughout their career.

Midsize

Daniel Turner

PRESIDENT, TCG

Q. How have you taken care of your employees during the tumultuous times of the past few years?

TCG offered expanded sick-leave benefits, provided at-home covid tests for every employee and their families in December 2021. Benefits were in time for Christmas, just as they became unavailable to many. We provided mental health support resources, hosted virtual social events and made it feasible and a cultural “given” that employees would take time off to take care of themselves and their family to offer a sense of connectedness and normalcy in what was a stressful time for our entire society. In doing so, each TCGer was able to be their best possible self while at work, and their best possible self for their family.

Q. The pandemic has put most companies into crisis mode the past two years. But things were especially rough on you and your family with medical crises. How did your team help you through that?

In March 2020, my wife was diagnosed with severe aplastic anemia and received a lifesaving — though terrifying — bone marrow transplant in April 2020. My employees learned about her condition days after I did and supported me and my family in our journey. When my heart stopped six times one day in December 2020 and I got an emergency pacemaker, they stood behind me and gave me exactly the community engagement I needed during my convalescence. Our crises were significant but ultimately nobody in my family died and we both recovered without significant life changes. Not everyone during this pandemic or last year’s societal reckoning has been so lucky. Remembering how fortunate we are and working hard to help others who were not as fortunate has given me and my family — and TCG in general — a measure of meaning and gratitude. We consistently work to improve the world around us by adopting or maintaining local parks, helping those in our community who are undergoing food scarcity, and participating in civic engagement, among other efforts.

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Q. You’ve always allowed your employees to work from home if they wanted to, but had them travel to clients’ workplaces. During the pandemic, your employees conducted virtual visits to clients. Do you expect to return to in-person visits?

TCG has always had a geographically dispersed workforce, with staff either working at their client’s site full time, working from home full time, or hybrid. We have an office but it’s only used for meetings, servers and filing. For now, all TCGers are still working from home full time. Internal teams — Happiness, IT, HR, Sales, etc. — will stay home indefinitely, as they were before the pandemic. Our clients may decide in the future that they would like our staff to work alongside them on-site; at that time, we will work with our clients to provide our employees with maximum possible flexibility and telecommuting options. Our government clients are now more open to the idea of working from home and to the hybrid workplace. We’re glad that we will be able to provide this option to more staff and thrilled with the efficiency, effectiveness and lifestyle benefits it offers to our clients and staff.

Q. What is the Employee Happiness Department?

Our four-person Employee Happiness Department is led by our Vice President for Employee Happiness, Elizabeth Banner. Elizabeth sits down twice a year with every employee, who talks about what they enjoy doing and training [they’d like to have] to keep them happy and satisfied... The [company offers] Catoctin Getaway, a vacation home on 28 acres farmhouse and a lodge built in the 1920s... Any employee can book it and use it!

Q. Like many other companies across America, TCG was affected by the Great Resignation. What was the competition for employees like?

Fortunately, TCG has not been greatly impacted by the Great Resignation. However, we have had some employees who have taken advantage of substantial salary increases or have left for other reasons, and we have found that recruiting new employees has become more difficult of late. Small or midsize government contractors cannot compete with large private businesses who offer salaries/benefits that far exceed anything allowable when your client is the government. What TCG can and does compete on is company culture. We have always and will continue to focus on offering employees real work/life balance, a family-friendly and supportive corporate culture, numerous professional development opportunities, quirky perks and mission-driven work — benefits these large companies often choose not to provide.

We have lately been able to increase vacation time, offer sabbaticals, provide more time to vote and for jury duty, and double our parental leave, but those changes weren’t in response to the Great Resignation. We are constantly tweaking our benefit package, and those were the latest areas.

Small

Kevin Bennett

CEO, CARIBOU

Q. How have inflation and the global supply chain issues — which caused vehicle prices to soar — affected Caribou’s auto refinancing business?

During the pandemic, a really interesting shift took place around people’s relationship with their cars. Car prices — and more recently, gas prices — soared, shining a spotlight on the total cost of owning a car. At the same time, cars have remained the connective tissue that enables mobility and brings people together. This makes our mission of improving people’s financial relationship with their car absolutely critical. With inflation at historic levels, saving people money can be so important for individuals and families when the price of everything feels like it’s increasing every day.

Cars are one of the largest assets a person owns, but they often feel like a liability, costing upwards of $10,000 a year. Compare that with the fact that car prices, not to mention the price of gas, have skyrocketed. Our goal is to give people control over their auto financial life. This starts with quick and easy auto refinancing that saves our customers over $100 a month on their car payments (on average) and continues with money-saving offers on auto insurance as well. We saved one customer $500 a month on their auto insurance alone. These savvy financial moves often save customers $5,000 to $10,000 over the lifetime of their loans.

Looking ahead, we plan to double down on this commitment to save people money by leveraging our partnerships to give more people access to competitive rates, and our technology to make the process faster and easier.

Saving people real money and making it easy is our goal. We’ve already helped over 60,000 customers in the last few years and we’re just getting started.

Q. How have covid and the many other crises affecting workplaces changed the way you view your employees?

The last two years have... changed people’s ideas about work and what the future of work looks like. We’re a values-led company and two of our values are See People as People and Take Care of Each Other. Through covid, we’ve not only more than doubled our team size, Caribou has doubled down on empathy and flexibility for our team members.

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We couldn’t be more proud of our team and the work we do to help people every day. That’s really all the motivation we need.

Q. How are world events like the war in Ukraine impacting Caribou?

The invasion of Ukraine has been met with a great deal of anger and sadness at Caribou. Caribou has donated to the International Rescue Committee, which provides support for displaced families from Ukraine and those impacted by humanitarian crises around the world.

The war has also had enormous macroeconomic effects. Gas prices have soared. Supply chains have been further disrupted. All of this has made saving money even more important for consumers. We’re grateful that we have the opportunity to make a real impact on people’s lives through the money they save with Caribou.

Q. Describe your crisis-management style.

Stay calm, stay grounded and focus on clarifying the problem. Lean on your mission and values. Our mission and our values have been the compass guiding us through the past two years. Our mission is the clear purpose and commitment we made to helping people. It’s what makes our work truly important. Our values are the commitment we make to each other as a team to... commit to the mission, move quickly and bravely, seek truth and get better every day.

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