Carrie Thomas: "I was not planning to go back to consulting but Nua changed my mind"
An employee compensation expert, an avid traveller, and a new team member at Nua Group, in this interview, Carrie Thomas shares her thoughts on the employee compensation space, the biggest challenges compensation professionals are facing, her sabbatical at Yellowstone National Park, and why she misses her hometown Tucson, AZ.
Welcome to the team, Carrie! Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got interested in employee compensation?
I majored in psychology at UC Berkeley and, about halfway through my studies, the reality of student loans set in… so I added a more “practical” minor in business administration. A bit by chance, compensation seemed to fit where the two fields overlapped – and my very first job was working for a small compensation consulting firm. It was a great opportunity to get familiar with the space and learn from highly experienced people.
Employee compensation is an important area that allows companies to align their business strategy with the people strategy – it can make a positive impact on the company's culture and bottom line when done right. I was hooked: through employee compensation management I could make an impact both on the lives of the employees and the success of the companies I worked with.
What do you enjoy most about working in compensation?
The best thing about working in compensation for me is about starting a project with a client, building the relationship, and having a partnership all the way through to the end of the project and beyond - so that you can see how results play out and the impact the work makes.
As an example, I once worked with a client that was essentially a brand new company (a spin-off): we developed the full range of total reward programs from scratch, and it was exciting partnering with them to see the programs come to life. The company has now grown to thousands of employees, and the programs we developed are making sure that the employees are taken care of and that the business is thriving and investing in the right areas.
What's the most fascinating aspect of your job?
For me, it’s learning about other people's jobs - I love learning about different types of work, and the wide array of careers I never realized were job possibilities is fascinating to me.
In a few random examples, I’ve recently worked with different clients who have food scientists, forensic engineers, and museum exhibit designers as a part of their team.
What is one of the biggest challenges compensation professionals are facing these days?
In this market, where several large players seem to have limitless cash at their disposal, one of the biggest challenges is how to best compete for employees. Helping companies think through their total rewards strategy – how it aligns with their business strategy, the employees they need to attract/retain and what matters to those employees – is critical.
Compensation professionals need to keep in mind that monetary compensation is important, but it's only a slice of the value a company is providing to its employees. It's a real challenge to figure out what role compensation plays in the overall total rewards package, and what other aspects - such as the company culture or learning and growth opportunities - can be highly valued by employees.
With the growing pay transparency and resources like Glassdoor and Blind and crowdsourced salary benchmarking spreadsheets circulating on the internet, how can companies navigate the pay increase requests?
This added transparency puts a lot of pressure on companies to be able to explain their compensation programs. It sounds stressful, but it doesn't have to be. What companies need to do is ensure that their compensation decisions are explainable - typically through having an understanding of the work completed across the company, and a compensation structure in place. The good news is it's in the employer's own interest to have an understanding of the work being performed and ensuring that they are rewarding employees consistently across types of work/employee groups.
Once the right programs are in place, the next important step is to train managers to implement programs consistently across their workforce. Companies should also develop a process for completing pay equity analyses to make sure that everything works as anticipated.
What is the biggest mistake employers make when it comes to employee compensation?
One of the biggest mistakes we see often is developing compensation strategies based on what your competitors do, rather than based on your company culture and values. The fact that, for example, large tech companies offer a certain compensation program or benefit to their employees doesn't mean that it makes sense, is affordable, or sustainable for your company.
Another common slip-up we see in smaller/growing companies is not proactively defining their total reward strategy and some core guidelines for total reward programs. The result is often that related decisions - ranging from assigning job titles, setting pay, adding perks - are done on an ad-hoc basis with little consistency. These programs are often not reviewed holistically until this inconsistency becomes a significant pain point for the company.
Having worked in the compensation space for over 20 years, you recently took a sabbatical and spent some time at Yellowstone park. Can you tell us more about that?
I feel like I'm one of the luckiest people in the world because I had the opportunity to take a year off to travel, and then spent five months at Yellowstone. There is a lot to be learned just from getting outside of one's normal environment, whatever that looks like.
At Yellowstone, I worked in the reservations team, helping people plan their vacations – it was great to share my knowledge of the park, and help them plan an amazing time in Yellowstone. During this time, I was also fairly cut off from technology - a really nice break from all things digital. It was a very different change of pace: after work you could hike, drive to view wildlife or play cards, and that's pretty much it. :)
We sometimes talk about the Bay Area bubble, and you know it's there, but you don't feel it until you get some place that is completely different: with a different lifestyle, food, and day-to-day routine, and really take your time to feel it. I think there is a huge value for anybody to do that once in a while.
From a business perspective, while it can be stressful for an employer to let their employee take a prolonged period of time off, there is value in it both for the employee and the company. A sabbatical can help employees broaden their perspective and bring it back to the workforce while the employer - in the meantime - can practice succession and think about scenarios when the given employees leaves the workplace for good and how they can mitigate that risk.
We've heard that it was not part of your plan to return to compensation consulting after your sabbatical and now you are working at Nua. Tell us what happened there. :)
That's right - I was not planning to return to the consulting world when Nua Group reached out to me. Nua's values around standing with companies where people matter, focus on collaboration, and offering challenging and interesting work to employees resonated with me.
I really loved the component of Nua’s value statement that defines success by the project outcome, rather than the scope of the work - I think that's a very effective way of truly putting your clients, the solutions you're developing for them and their outcomes as the top priority. It was also an exciting opportunity to get back into space with high caliber experts, and work with a fantastic group of people..
What are you focusing on in your work at Nua?
I'm excited to help clients solve problems that are often more complicated than they look on the surface. One of the areas that I have a lot of background and expertise in is job architecture and job leveling – helping companies understand the spectrum of their jobs and how different jobs contribute. Developing this understanding and a consistent way to describe work across the company is a critical foundation for compensation programs – it’s hard to be confident you’re rewarding a job appropriately if you don't know what the work and its impact are. It’s also an incredibly important first step in helping managers and employees better understand career path opportunities across the company.
I also do a lot of work helping clients develop their total reward strategy, assess their competitiveness in the market, and design salary structures and incentive programs.
You are originally from Tucson, Arizona. What do you miss most about your hometown?
The smell of the desert after it rains, it’s amazing! I wish they could bottle it somehow. :) And the Sonoran Desert overall, especially the saguaros and stargazing. There are regulations minimizing light pollution in Tucson, and you can see the stars really clearly any time of the year - I love the Bay area, and the fog and the city lights, but it’s definitely harder to see the night sky.
In the all-important food aspect, I miss Sonoran Mexican food, and Eegee's - an icy slushy drink - clearly made for the desert and absolutely delicious.
What's the most memorable trip you've ever made?
The first time I went to Africa was absolutely magical: I went on a few wildlife safaris and the diversity of wildlife, and full natural ecosystems in Kenya and Tanzania are absolutely fascinating!
If you are interested in Carrie's Yellowstone experience, check out the photos below: