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Why You’re Underestimating Employee Performance with Melanie Naranjo, Ethena

Employees are your organization’s most valuable asset–they’re also the most expensive.

As a result, employers want to ensure every penny is going as far as possible. That means maximizing the value of every employee and focusing on each team member’s ROI. 

So, how can HR leaders best support employees and build high-performing teams? Melanie Naranjo, VP of People at Ethena, joined the LEARN podcast LIVE from HR Transform and shared her insights on leadership development, maximizing employee performance, thought leadership in HR, and more. 

Embracing authenticity in thought leadership

Thought leadership can be challenging for HR pros. Since the field is so focused on risk mitigation and confidentiality, people are afraid to speak up. Melanie shares her advice for creating helpful content and engaging with other HR practitioners. 

“HR thought leadership is such a tough thing because you have to look at the broader context of HR, which is a field that has been so focused on risk mitigation for so long that HR professionals are scared to speak up because so much of what we do is confidential in nature and it’s scary to say something and maybe it gets misconstrued, taken out of context, or you inadvertently share something you weren’t supposed to,” she says. “I’m finding these are topics that need to be talked about. People wish HR professionals would talk about it more. Other HR professionals wish they could feel seen and validated.

“As soon as I started sharing my perspectives on LinkedIn, suddenly, there was a whole flood of community validating my thoughts and saying, ‘Me too.’ I thought I was alone. Thought leadership is this scary nuanced thing, but everyone has thought leadership within them. Just speak your mind and share your thoughts.”

Crafting meaningful, relatable content

Often when people try to build their online presence, they obsess over trying to go viral or posting about what other people want to hear.

Rather than chasing trends, Melanie recommends focusing on authentic storytelling and drawing from personal experiences and daily challenges. 

“Where people go wrong is that they spend too much time trying to figure out what they think will go viral or what they think people want to hear about,” she says. “People want to hear something unique. They want to see something they haven’t seen before. So my advice would be to genuinely write what you think in your day-to-day life, don’t try to go beyond that and figure out what people want. Pay attention to your thoughts throughout the day, a difficult moment that you had, or something that got you excited, and write about that.”

Melanie isn’t afraid to be vulnerable in her posts and share personal anecdotes or sensitive topics. 

“I wrote about terminations and how much they suck from the HR perspective,” she says. “I just said this is not fun for us. I know it might feel like we’re cold and heartless and it doesn’t matter to us. It’s horrible, but we’re not talking about it because it’s not about us; it’s about this employee who’s going through a 10x worse experience than we are. It was fascinating to see so many other HR professionals respond and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been feeling this way, but I didn’t have an outlet to talk about this because I didn’t want to make it about me.’ And it’s helpful to give HR professionals a voice and let them know they’re not alone.” 

Empowering managers for performance excellence

During challenging economic times, organizations tend to cut back on people and development initiatives. Employers are more focused on employee inputs rather than outputs.

Melanie advocates for a shift in leadership development, stressing the importance of equipping managers with the autonomy to drive performance rather than imposing prescriptive measures. 

“We’re in this precarious period where managers are being told to be super prescriptive, ‘I want you to fill out this nine-page performance rubric and make sure you can prove that every employee is doing everything they can,'” she says. “I think what we need to see more of is equipping managers with the tools they need to succeed but not telling them how to do this; giving them the tools and then setting them free.”

At Ethena, managers use three fundamental questions to assess team performance:

  1. If I could go back in time knowing what I know today, would I hire this employee again?
  2. If this person were to turn in their resignation today, how would I feel, panicked, relieved, neutral? 
  3. Is this person making my job easier or harder?

“Those are the only three questions you need to ask because they’re focused on outputs,” Melanie says. “What’s the value that this employee is bringing?

“If the value is high based on these questions, you’re good; we don’t need to talk. If the value is low, it’s time to have a conversation. I’m not saying it’s time to fire someone; it’s time to have a conversation about where things are going wrong. Why are the inputs not equating to the outputs that we are looking for?” 

Read more: LEARN Recap: Building High-Performing Teams

Translating HR initiatives into business outcomes

With economic uncertainties and shifting priorities, Melanie acknowledges the mounting pressures HR professionals face. From strained relationships with executives to budget constraints, HR pros must adapt to evolving dynamics. 

Melanie emphasizes the need for strategic communication, translating HR initiatives into tangible business outcomes to secure buy-in from stakeholders.

Instead of talking about turnover rates, employee engagement, or talent acquisition, talk about money and results to connect the dots for CEOs and CROs.

“I think that there’s a lot of opportunity and onus on the People function to communicate in more business terms to win people over,” she says. “Learn to speak to your audience in ways that would appeal to them, not to other HR professionals.”

Melanie shares this example of translating HR terms into business results:

“You know why we didn’t hit our ARR goal last quarter? Because of bad management. Do you know how I know that? Because this person flubbed this deal because they didn’t know about this thing and no one trained them on it. Do you know what could fix that? Some money for management training.”

Read more: Align L&D With Business Strategy: Maximize Organizational Performance

Employees are valuable assets for organizational excellence, but their development depends on effective leadership and an investment in continuous learning. Empowering managers with the autonomy to drive performance and translating HR initiatives into tangible business outcomes is essential to building high-performing teams.  

Stay tuned for the full podcast episode, available on Spotify on March 28th, to hear more from Melanie on leadership development, engaging compliance training, HR trends, and more.

Subscribe to the LEARN podcast on Apple, YouTube, and Spotify for more expert advice from the top leaders in tech.  


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Maile Timon

Content Strategist, WorkRamp

Maile Timon is WorkRamp’s Content Strategist. She has over 10 years of experience in content marketing and SEO and has written for several publications and industries, including B2B, marketing, lifestyle, health, and more. When she’s not writing or developing content strategies, she enjoys hiking and spending time with her family.

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