“Give Permission to Be Human” and More Insights from HR Advisor Cynthia Burks

On the second episode of "Happy Here," former Genentech CHRO Cynthia Burks shares about her experiences leading people and fostering psychological safety at work
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Cynthia Burks

Cynthia Burks knows how important it is for employees to be able to bring their full selves to work. 

As the former Chief Human Resources Officer at Genentech, a biotechnology company, she believes that the onus is on leaders to ensure that the workplace is welcoming to all employees.

“Leaders need to be intentional around creating an environment of inclusion, and they need to be purposeful in their engagement with their employees so that people do have that feeling of belonging,” Cynthia told Wisq CEO Jim Barnett in Wisq’s podcast, Happy Here, where Jim sits down with thought leaders from around the world to talk about how to help people be happy at work.

Improving the work environment is Cynthia’s speciality: In her 12 years at Genentech, she and her team narrowed the gender gap in senior leadership roles at the company thanks to a deliberate shift in companywide strategies.

Cynthia shared her expertise on how leaders can improve the employee experience and foster a sense of belonging at their organizations. Check out these highlights from Cynthia and Jim’s conversation to learn more.

Culture comes from leadership

Cynthia believes that a great company culture doesn’t just happen; it requires intentionality from everyone seated at the top of the org chart. “At Genentech, as I think is the case with other successful companies, culture was created through leadership. Leaders needed to be consistent in their actions. They had to call out behavior that wasn’t in line with the values of the organization, even when it was hard to do. Leaders reinforced the culture that the organization wanted to create and held people accountable for living up to those values.”

“Programs and policies play a role in supporting culture, too,” she continues. “Every new employee learns about the culture of Genentech from day one, through our orientation. We also have a leadership excellence program where we spend time with the most senior leaders of our organization and talk about our values and their meaning – not just for our employees, but also for the patients that we serve.”

"When I think about what my definition of belonging is, I think of it as the feeling that you are a valued member of a community. That you matter. That you're seen, and that people care about what you're doing." - Cynthia Burks

Employee resource groups can bolster inclusion

Cynthia has seen employee resource groups (ERGs) can have a big impact in a company’s overall strategy. “Some are very connected to the mission and work of the organization. For example, at Genentech, the employee resource groups provided perspective around how to reach certain populations. They worked to ensure that when we were researching potential therapies for patients, we were researching a diverse pool of people.”

Beyond the strategic role of many ERGs, Cynthia knows that they also help individual employees gain a sense of belonging. “If I think about what most influences my day-to-day experience at work, it's smaller groups that share something in common with me. So when I’ve had a bad meeting or a challenging experience, it’s nice to have a smaller group, like an employee resource group, where I can debrief. I think those groups are mini-cultures within an organization and they provide a place of belonging and inclusion support. That’s really important to the overall experiences of employees.”

Employees need psychological safety to do their best work

For leaders who want to create an environment of belonging, Cynthia cautions leaders not to overlook the importance of psychological safety. “If someone is worried about whether or not they can have real and meaningful conversations with their manager, that takes up so much mind space. It’s hard to do your best work when you’re preoccupied with other things.”

“I’ll give a personal example. When George Floyd was murdered, I got a text from my boss saying that he wanted to talk to me. He said, ‘I just wanted to see how you're doing. I imagine this could be a hard day for you.’ It didn’t take away my pain, but I felt seen and heard and safe, and I knew that I could have a conversation with him. I knew I could say, ‘Hey, I need a few minutes.’ It was just giving permission to be human. And to me that's what psychological safety is all about.”

Belonging is tied to feeling valued at work

As an HR leader, Cynthia has devoted her career to helping people find a sense of belonging at work. And to her, a sense of belonging is intrinsically linked to how well someone is able to perform their job function. “When I think about what my definition of belonging is, I think of it as the feeling that you are a valued member of a community. That you matter. That you're seen, and that people care about what you're doing. That there’s a sense of purpose. I know that people count on me. I know that what I do matters. And that translates into how I show up at work.”

Want to hear more great insights on how to help your employees find happiness at work? Check out the Happy Here podcast today.

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