Interview with SmileDirectClub's Chief People & Diversity Officer, Cheryl DeSantis

As SmileDirectClub's (SDC) Chief People & Diversity Officer, Cheryl DeSantis has global oversight of 4,100 employees across Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand. In this interview with Lester Tan, she shares:

  • How SDC's human-centric approach is based on connection, empathy, and wellness;
  • Campaigns such as 'Its Okay' that help team members navigate their personal life and professional life; and
  • What an organisation can do to be a place where talents want to join, stay, and grow.

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As SmileDirectClub's (SDC) Chief People & Diversity Officer, Cheryl DeSantis has global oversight of 4,100 employees (and counting) in areas such as talent acquisition, compensation & benefits, team member relations & engagement, HR information systems, and learning & development, and of SDC’s business across the globe, specifically in Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.

With that amount of power and responsibility on her shoulders, she leverages it more than well to ensure that not only SDC's consumers get the chance to smile, but also SDC's employees the power to, because she believes that people—real, multi-dimensional people—are what drives the organisation forward to greater heights.

Q Cheryl, your career started out in advertising, then communications before spearheading the HR function across Mars and now SmileDirectClub. What sparked that switch? How fulfilling has the journey been so far?

When I first graduated, I really envisioned myself in a public/external marketing communication type of role. I got my undergraduate and graduate degrees in this area. However, the longer I was in the workforce, the more the people side of the business intrigued me. I had also been an athlete, and part of sports teams all the way through college, and the HR side provided the opportunity to be a coach, and a player in service of developing teams to win. This really appealed to me.

Luckily for me, I had a mentor who gave me the confidence to make the jump as I was starting anew in this space at a very high level. She encouraged me, and gave me a lifeline should the switch not work out for either side. Once I made the move, there was no looking back. I loved developing, motivating, and inspiring others to be their best. The journey thus far has been remarkable.

Being in HR inspires me every day as I work to bring the best experience to our people and workplaces.

Q Having been with SmileDirectClub since 2018, you’ve been on a mission to lead with a 'human-centric mindset'. What does that entail for your HR strategy and direction, and how does it cascade into your people initiatives?

At SmileDirectClub, our mission of democratising access to a smile each and every person deserves is core to what we do. We change people’s lives every day. We know that leading with a human-centric mindset not only makes us congruent with our mission, it is also a game changer in retention. Engaged and happy team members help make happy and satisfied customers. The foundation of our people & organisation strategy is built is upon recognising that what drives this organisation forward is our people – real, multi-dimensional people.

Our strategy is based on bringing more empathy, joy, fulfilment, and happiness to our team members as we know when people feel seen, heard, and respected, they thrive. And when your people thrive, they deliver a better customer experience which makes your business thrive.

We have created numerous initiatives over the years to ensure our team members feel connected, balanced, and heard. In fact, just recently, we:

  • Launched a 'Connection' playbook to support leaders with resources to ensure that team members feel connected to one another both in our physical and increasingly virtual environments;

  • Conducted empathy training, and introduced an operating principle called 'Create the Space', which carved out no-meeting times in the week, protected vacations and time off, and set standards for responding to emails during business hours versus all hours;

  • Put equal emphasis on the wellness of our team members. For example, we added two new values to our organisation values, referred to as the 'Nine Truths to Grin By'. These team-member focused truths take into account our new normal, and aim at promoting the importance of wellness and fun within our organisation – obviously important things to have when you are in a business of smiles!

These come to life for our team in Singapore in the form of allowing for dedicated break times for personal and family obligations, company paid COVID-19 vaccines in terms of the time and additional testing required, and team gatherings to ensure everyone is having fun apart from work.

We are currently in the works of curating new programmes, including, playbooks to educate and engage team members on important inclusion, diversity, and belonging milestones like Pride Month, Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Racial Harmony Day, and more.

We want to ensure our teams feel a sense of inclusion and belonging to the wider group, and love to celebrate key moments together as a team, such as a global townhall to celebrate our seventh birthday. Singapore joined in over breakfast, and our market leader answered any questions the team had.

All of these initiatives and rollouts are founded upon creating and improving the team member experience with the human at the center of everything we do. Our customers are at the center of our business, and the team members are at the center of our operation.

Q As part of this team member experience, we understand you're passionate about leadership, as well as inclusion, diversity, and belonging (IDB). Hence, you’ve lead initiatives like remote work, '#itsokay' campaign, Smilewell, listening sessions, for instance, at SmileDirectClub. Talk us through some of these, and how you’ve rolled them out.

The key pillars of our brand’s culture are collaboration, recognition, team member voice, and purpose. Creating and maintaining a positive work culture is pivotal to the growth of our team, and where everyone feels connected, heard, and valued.

At SmileDirectClub, the first step we always take is to listen with empathy. This is critical to any organisation, especially right now as we navigate our way to a new normal. We are focused on continuing to create safe spaces for open dialogue between leaders and team members. This summer, we hosted listening sessions with team members across the globe, and at all levels for discussion and feedback. It’s important to listen to all voices, and offer everyone the opportunity to participate.

We’ve found these sessions have gone a long way to ensure our team members feel seen and heard, and they give us ideas for further improvements we might need to make or actions we can take to enhance the team member experience. We rolled this out by introducing the intent and purpose which was to listen to the voice of our internal customer, and ensure their feedback was a key input into our overall strategy.

In April 2021, we also made a bold decision to embrace flexible and virtual work for good in order to meet the needs of our changing workforce, giving many of our team members the opportunity to work remotely, in person, or a combination of the two as they choose. This new policy allows our team members to attain a better work-life balance, whether that means attending their kids’ soccer games, enjoy family dinner, or sipping coffee while they work outside – from anywhere.

We work to live, not live to work.

This was a decision driven by listening to team member feedback, and being an agile organisation willing to pivot based on the data.

I want to also reference our 'It’s Okay' campaign. One insight we had through the months following the lockdown was that there was no going back on what we had learned about our collective humanity. From grief and confusion over the change in our lives, to supporting people as they lost loved ones, to seeing the day-to-day pulls on each person, it became abundantly clear that we could not lose this new understanding of the whole person.

We launched the '#itsokay' campaign to ensure our team members know that life happens, and while balance can be hard to attain, we want to support our team members as they navigate their personal life and professional life.

We have to make choices, and we wanted our people to know that it is okay to pick your family obligations, and have time for yourself in this new virtual world.

We haven’t stopped there. At SmileDirectClub, we are always listening to our team members to ensure we are creating and nurturing a culture where everyone feels that they can bring their full selves to work and where they feel their needs are met.

Q Given you’re a globally-present organisation, when you roll out initiatives such as these, how similar are they across APAC, Europe, and US offices, and what cultural/local changes do you typically make to the campaigns?

As a young, rapidly expanding business, ensuring we stay connected globally, and feel like one company is vitally important. We have implemented a few best practices to ensure we appeal to our global audience. The first is the establishment of communication points of contacts (or POCs) across our region. When we have company-wide communications, we engage with these POCs to review, and adapt to more local relevance.

On the HR side, we ensure we have global representation on our project teams to build the right solutions from the start. There are different labour laws that need to be understood, and some different ways to execute; and we leverage the knowledge and insight of our P&O teams to ensure we have freedom within a framework.

This usually means 80% of the content is for all, and then maybe 20% needs to be adapted to the local market.

Inclusion, diversity, and belonging are a priority for the business. We are a global company, which means that we have team members that represent various backgrounds, cultures, and identities. In order to support our global footprint, we have People & Organisation leaders in every country to ensure that we are reaching all of our team members in a timely, and relevant manner.

We recently launched monthly leader engagement kits. These kits include important updates and information from across the business including culture, marketing, and organisational topics. Representatives from every market contribute to the content in the kits to ensure that it is inclusive of all team members. This can include big market wins, local holidays & celebrations, anniversaries, and more. The kits are cascaded to leadership on a monthly-basis, and then shared with teams to ensure everyone is aligned, informed, and included, no matter what country you sit in.

Q No doubt, these show SmileDirectClub’s commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive culture for its workforce regardless of gender, ethnicity, and talents. What’s caught our attention is how groups like LGBTQ+ and working parents are not neglected. How does that work? What specifically is HR’s role as a driver of such initiatives?

It really stems back to creating a culture that is inclusive of every team member. It’s imperative that every individual feels like they can bring their full selves to work. In our People & Organisation function, we have an inclusion, diversity, and belonging team (IDB). In fact, we have an IDB council that is made up of team members from across the organisation that represent various cultures and backgrounds. This group acts as the conduit to ensure that we are celebrating and recognising all groups within our organisation, while also offering opportunities for team members to be educated around what matters to our diverse workforce. We create monthly playbooks to support, most recently LGTBQ+ History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and more.

For our working parents, we lean on our newest truth — 'Our Best Through Balance'. Our team members should not have to be penalised because they missed a meeting to go to their child’s school event, or soccer game. As mentioned before, we work to live, not live to work here at SmileDirectClub. I’m a working mom myself, and it’s important that we role model that balance to our team members, and provide transparency into that area of our lives. I make sure my team knows when I’ve got a soccer game to catch after work, so they feel equally as empowered to be there for the moments that matter for their families.

I believe HR’s role should be as an early seer and strategy setter. Stay on top of the trends, be connected to the needs of your business and then set forth a relatable and executable strategy.

It will require the whole business to make this feel real and authentic versus just words in an email. So HR needs to ensure there is business support, and then a forum such as our IDB council to ensure there is a broad perspective that shapes the delivery, and embedding of the initiatives.

Q With various recognitions like 'Best Company for Happiness, for Career Growth, for Work', it’s obvious SmileDirectClub is on the right track. Share with us how important is it for an organisation to be the right, and best, place for you and the workforce.

While having a powerful brand mission is important, the foundation is and should be focused on the internal community that makes up the brand. A company that fosters a strong sense of belonging amongst its team members by allowing everyone to feel that their voices and views are valued is imperative. Purpose and belonging can only be achieved if your workforce foundation are based on creating an inclusive environment at all levels.

The key pillars of the right company for me, is a place where there is genuine and authentic communication amongst its people – and where everyone has an opportunity to make a difference. I feel I belong at SmileDirectClub. I feel like my voice matters, and that I’m heard. This past year or so has been a challenging one for our team. Outside of the pandemic, our home city in Nashville, TN has faced a tornado, social unrest, and a bombing a few blocks from our headquarters on Christmas Day. Yet this became a 'uniter' for us, as we focused on caring for and supporting our team members, and going the extra mile for them to feel like someone at work has their back.

This sense of belonging is the secret sauce to creating a workplace where people want to join, stay, and grow.

What I have learned from all of this is that we need each other more now than ever. We have to celebrate the uniqueness of our team members, and ensure everyone feels like they are part of the team. I am happy to have been a part of a brand that is designed on exactly these ideals.

Q We can’t help but wonder—when all is good and well, it is in our human nature to slow down and, perhaps, take things for granted. That doesn’t seem the case for SmileDirectClub and its workforce, though. How does one manage fun while ensuring high productivity and efficiency are maintained across all business units?

Instead of considering 'fun' and 'productivity' as opposite things, I think that there is a strong positive correlation between 'fun' and 'efficiency'.

You must have heard the quote: "Work hard, play harder".

At SmileDirectClub, we put this vision into reality through our value 'We Smile Here'. For instance, there is a Spotify playlist that everyone can contribute to that’s played on the manufacturing floor, or another with our leader’s favourite podcasts. We host 'Coffee Connects' so virtual team members can network, lunch, and learn to feed our curiosity with a complimentary food credit to nourish ourselves too.

Additionally, we have made tremendous progress in increasing the team’s productivity and alignment on priorities through effective goal setting. We believe team members benefit from creating clear and focused development goals, and a plan to continue personal growth and advancement in the company. We do this by aligning the team on a common set of goals. Then each person needs to tailor their individual goals to support the common team goals to support the business goals so it’s aligned and connected.

Q Progress is continuous work, and there are bound to be some hiccups. Tell us, what are some of the talent challenges you have faced in the teledentistry industry? How do you overcome these challenges and attract the best talent of the business?

We are disrupters at our heart. So much of what we do as a teledentistry pioneer at SmileDirectClub is an industry first.

We need problem-solvers and agile innovators on our team. In many cases, we hire for traits like this over existing skills because curious minds can help us create the next generation of oral care.

Because the status quo does not work for us, we need people who want to break through, and create new ways in their area of expertise. So it can be hard to find people with that entrepreneurial and pioneering spirit across the board. However, the more we expand and grow, the more people say, I want to be part of this. And it is so worth it. It’s certainly fun and rewarding work, but it’s also challenging when you are changing an industry, and creating the highest level of customer experience in the market.

We talk a lot about 'big jobs early' at SmileDirectClub – it’s an exciting proposition for so many on the team to know they have the opportunity to make an impact from day one. To ensure all our team members feel energised about their work and their potential within the company, we have created career pathing plans for each and every team member. This helps them better understand just how much the company values them, and wants to invest in their development and career.

We’ve also learned it’s important to hire for resiliency as being on this rocket ship of growth requires an agility to pivot. There really is no better way to develop your skills than testing and learning, and we embrace that and recruit for that.

Q Before we go, SmileDirectClub promises to give its customers a lifetime of smiles. Share some advice for HR professionals: how can we ensure our workforce is constantly full of smiles 10, even 20 years down the road?

First of all, if you are still doing HR the way you did a few years ago, you need to stop and re-evaluate your position. HR needs to be a key driver of organisational strategy to ensure people are at the heart of the business strategy. Engaged team members or employees lead to an engaged customer experience.

Learn to be agile and move away from old bureaucratic HR practices. Listen to your people and evolve as the world evolves.

The old model of people in the office five days a week is gone. Make sure you understand the benefits of a hybrid model. And if nothing else, set your strategies on ways to increase belonging, and aligning your workforce behind your purpose. When people feel valued, and know where the business is going and why, they will be smiling every day as they do their part to bring your purpose to life.


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