For this Orfalea Alumni Chat, we’re fortunate to have Joanne Smith, EVP and Chief People Officer of Delta Airlines. During this interview, Joanne shares how her time at Cal Poly set her up for success, how she’s leading an 80,000-plus person organization during a pandemic, what makes an exceptional leader, and more.
By Christina Arthur
Once a year, the Cal Poly Accounting Club (CPAC) puts on its CPAC Fall Symposium, a networking event that provides accounting students with opportunities to connect with public accounting firms, industry companies, and government agencies in a social setting before fall interviews. Being Cal Poly’s largest accounting career fair of the year, the event is a way for students to meet professionals and learn more about their career options.
According to accounting senior and CPAC Vice President of Events Michelle Henderson, the main purpose of the Fall Symposium is for accounting students to talk with different firms to help them decide where to apply for internships. “Usually, the applications are sent almost directly after the career fair, either within that weekend or after,” she said. “So, it’s kind of of a kickstart to the application process.”
This year, things had to be done a little differently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, switching the usually in-person event to a virtual one on Zoom, which was a challenge that CPAC learned to overcome. “With converting it to a virtual space, everything had to change,” Henderson said.
In addition to crucial planning and execution logistics, she explained how even marketing the event became a challenge. In previous years, CPAC would promote Fall Symposium through in-person efforts such as boothing in the OCOB breezeway and classroom visits. “We had to try to do online classroom visits this time, which is definitely different,” she said.
Henderson stated that she believes the biggest challenge was learning how to adapt and be willing to change things constantly. She emphasized that trial and error was one of the main components of transitioning to a virtual event. “There are so many different versions of this event that have come to the table and have been taken back off,” she said. “You just have to be really flexible.”
This caused the team to be willing to communicate with the firms more than usual, Henderson added. “We’ve been more comfortable with just calling the firms to talk about logistics, and it’s made us learn to understand the event on a deeper level so that we can explain it to someone else.”
“We’ve been more comfortable with just calling the firms to talk about logistics. Planning it virtually made us learn to understand the event on a deeper level so that we can explain it to someone else.”Michelle Henderson, CPAC Vice President of Events
Accounting senior and CPAC’s Fall Symposium committee member Lesly Ruiz has the position of Venue and Logistics and dealt firsthand with converting this large event into a virtual space. She said that many of the team’s ideas circled around the question of “How do we make this as similar to what we do in person?”
With the Fall Symposium being an annual event, one element that Ruiz said she felt was missing was the ability to rely on previous years to figure out how to make the event run smoothly. “This [virtual format] is just something that we’ve never planned before,” she said. “For Fall Symposium, we were always able to rely on the year before, but this year is so different, so we didn’t really have that to go off of.”
Instead of simply focusing on overcoming the challenge of planning the event virtually, the team tried to think of ways that having an online setting might give them some type of advantage, Ruiz added. An example she gave is the component of allowing students to pre-schedule meetings with the recruiters, in replacement of physically walking up to a booth in person. “I think more than anything, this gives the students more secured time with the firms they want to talk to,” she said.
Ruiz emphasized that overall, teamwork was a key tool in making the virtual event happen. “Everyone on the committee has put so much work into this,” she said, “and that’s how I think we made such a quality event through an online setting.”
Both Henderson and Ruiz discussed how one of the most rewarding parts about the experience was learning to work together as a committee. They both shared how important it was for them to be put in a group of people who all work so differently but are able to achieve things together in a successful way.
“We all genuinely care about what we’re doing, and I’ve definitely learned that is the best way to have a good team,” Henderson said. “It reminds me, for my future career, to make sure I genuinely care about what I’m doing and to especially remember that when I’m working with a team.”
Another factor that kept Ruiz feeling confident in CPAC’s ability to put on a successful virtual event was the standard of Cal Poly’s reputation. “We’re Cal Poly students, we get so many recruiters, a lot of companies really value us in different ways,” she said, “so, for us to be putting on an event for them to come to, and putting so much time and money into it, we really had to make something good.”
“Everybody is looking for folks to recruit. We want to make sure that we’re still connecting with the students no matter what.”Rose Martinez, Moss Adams Regional Campus Recruiting Senior Manager
Not only was the shift to a virtual setting an adaptation for the members of CPAC and the 200 students attending, but the recruiters from more than 40 firms who participated in the event had to adjust as well. Regional Campus Recruiting Senior Manager Rose Martinez of the firm Moss Adams said that despite the drastic difference of this year’s Fall Symposium, the goals were still the same. “Everybody is looking for folks to recruit,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re still connecting with the students no matter what.”
Martinez said that her firm looks forward to coming to this event each year because they believe Cal Poly truly prepares the accounting students through the program itself, the faculty, and CPAC. “I think the events that CPAC puts on really helps the students,” she said. “By the time Fall Symposium rolls around, they’re always super polished, their grades always look good, and they have great communication skills. They understand that firms like us are looking for the well-rounded student.”
Martinez added that another thing she is always impressed by each year is how the accounting students get involved so early in their college careers. “I come to these events and I’m meeting freshmen and sophomores,” she said. “It’s so amazing, because the earlier we talk to them, the better.”
Associate of Campus Recruiting Jennifer Stoch of global network KPMG said that they have been recruiting at Cal Poly for many years. “I enjoy every student I meet on Cal Poly’s campus as they all show determination and passion for finding a career in Audit, Tax or Advisory,” she said.
She stated that through attending the Fall Symposium year after year, it’s clear to her that the students have a Learn by Doing mentality, which is also demonstrated as they start their careers.
Professors Tim Ridout (left) and Jack Wroldsen (right) have received the 2020 de Werd Faculty Award for Impact on Student Success!
The de Werd Award was established in 2018 by Orfalea College of Business graduate Jourdi de Werd (’80) to reward faculty members who repeatedly go above and beyond to help their students thrive. All recipients are nominated by the Orfalea College of Business Student Ambassadors, students who have witnessed first-hand the efforts of these faculty members to engage students in the classroom.
Both professors Ridout and Wroldsen will receive a stipend of $10,000 and will offer one workshop during the academic year on methods for maximizing student success.
“It’s no surprise that the OCOB Ambassadors selected Jack and Tim for the Jourdi de Werd Awards this year,” says Interim Dean Al Liddicoat. “They’re both very engaged in teaching, advising, and serving OCOB students. They prioritize being available to ensure our students succeed in the classroom and are prepared for their future careers! We’re so grateful that alumnus Jourdi de Werd provided this funding to recognize these professors.”
More About the 2020 de Werd Faculty Award Recipients
Tim Ridout is a second-time recipient of the de Werd Faculty Award. As a Cal Poly alumnus (’93), Ridout truly understands what ‘Learn by Doing’ is all about. He spent nearly 20 years working in Silicon Valley in high growth technology companies, then on the Central Coast in cleantech and in agriculture, providing financial and administrative expertise. He returned to Cal Poly in 2016 as a faculty member, and teaches accounting courses, both at the intro level and upper division. Ridout brings his 25-plus years of practical corporate experience into the classroom with a mentorship driven approach.
On Receiving the Award: “It’s a huge honor [to be awarded the de Werd Faculty Award], especially because I know where it comes from—the students. It is all about the students. The fact that it comes from the OCOB Ambassadors is an incredible honor and affirms I have created an environment and methodology for them to succeed. I’ve been in OCOB teaching and engaging students for only five years, but I’ve been “coaching” and developing professionals for nearly thirty. So to me it’s really not that different from building a successful team and coaching your teammates up. Success starts by being engaged in the moment during class. I need my students to come prepared and then I don’t allow anonymity. I’m going to ask questions and have them help me discuss concepts and the related application. This is how the real world works. I offer many real world stories (granted some of them are silly) in the classroom about my personal business experiences. I always try to follow up concepts with something that’s mine—something personal or relevant to make the concepts relatable. And what I’m told is the stories stick. Ultimately, whatever we do should always be about supporting student success. It is a simple, but important, barometer on decision making and class interaction: does this help student success, or not. If the answer is yes, you are on a proper path. ”
Jack Wroldsen joined Cal Poly in the fall of 2019 as a professor of Business Law. Wroldsen, however, is not a newcomer to the classroom. He began his teaching career teaching high school Spanish outside of Chicago before attending law school at Duke. He then practiced corporate law in Denver at a large law firm and a technology company before starting his own law practice catering to entrepreneurs. Before finding his way to the Central Coast and the Orfalea College of Business, Wroldsen taught at the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University and the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver.
On Receiving the Award: “It’s tremendous [to be awarded the de Werd Faculty Award]. I was shocked. It was very gratifying to be selected by the students. That aspect really means a lot to me. And it’s also really significant that Jourdi de Werd and Cal Poly stand behind student engagement. For me, student engagement is the whole approach. It’s not a strategy—it’s the point. It’s the main goal. I really value the students’ time and efforts, so I try to use class time efficiently and create meaningful, substantive assignments, not busywork. I think part of teaching boils down to the Golden Rule: treating others the way you would like to be treated. I certainly remember the challenges I confronted during college and try to be understanding of the realities that students face in their lives. You can study law by learning legal content, or you can study law by learning how to think analytically. I try to focus on an analytical approach that students can apply to any law they may encounter in their careers. So the focus is more on developing skills than accumulating knowledge. I spend quite a bit of time developing thought-provoking questions as opposed to covering information. The goal, at least, is to have interactive discussions about key questions as opposed to simply conveying information through a lecture format. For an organization to prioritize teaching, and especially to give the students a voice in how they are being taught, is really commendable. It’s a great honor to receive this award.”
Robert Park is a seasoned executive alumnus who began as an Orfalea College of Business student studying accounting and has now more than 25 years of business and financial leadership experience. In his current role, he serves as chief financial officer at Blue Jeans Network, an enterprise cloud-based videoconferencing platform recently acquired by Verizon Business.
Upon graduation from Cal Poly, Robert started his career at EY, and later served in finance and accounting roles at McKesson Corporation, PayPal, Chegg, and Practice Fusion. He has robust experience in leading hyper growth companies through complex transactions such as IPOs and acquisitions, and currently resides in the Bay Area with his wife and three young boys.
Recently, Orfalea Student Ambassadors President Sami Von Gober had the chance to sit down with him for the second installment of our Orfalea Alumni Chats series.
“They say you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes,” says Park. “So you have to own it. You know you made a mistake—don’t try to hide behind it and hope it’ll go away. Hit it head on. One of the things I’ve learned is that big, career limiting mistakes are survivable if you handle them properly.”
A Q&A with the assistant professor of management, covering her award-nominated paper, how new perspectives at work are more crucial than ever, and a novel approach to studying stress faced by newcomers in the workplace.
By Laura Maranta
Dr. Allison Ellis’ research focuses on how organizations build psychological and human capital resources to facilitate employee well-being and engagement, reduce stress for employees, and improve organizational functioning. In other words, she studies how people feel about their jobs, why they feel that way, and offers employers templates for success that can help their workforce.
Her background is in industrial and organizational psychology, and she began studying stress and well-being from the lens of a psychologist as an undergraduate student. “I was working in a psychology lab at UC Irvine and the study that we were doing was on how people physically respond to feeling stress,” she says. “I was fascinated by the idea that you could think something and your physical body would literally respond. This showed me how connected our mental and physical health really are and sparked my interest in the research I do today on employee stress and wellness.”
This interdisciplinary perspective is what eventually led Ellis to one of her current lines of research: newcomers to the workplace. It also led to the production of an award-nominated article on the topic in the Journal of Management, which is the top academic publication in the business and management fields. Each year, the journal’s editors give the Scholarly Impact Award to a paper it published five years prior, basing their decision in part on “the extent to which the article changed our way of thinking, how the article added to what we know, and the reach the article has had in terms of affecting ongoing work in the field.”
This year, Ellis and her colleagues were shortlisted as nominees for the prestigious award for their 2015 paper titled “Navigating Uncharted Waters: Newcomer socialization through the lens of stress theory.” The article explores the stress newcomers face when joining the workforce, and how their socialization process can be supported.
Ellis, too, was once a newcomer to the world of business. “As a graduate student,” she says, “I was taking a seminar class in organizational behavior at the business school at Portland State. The instructor, Talya Bauer, was doing research that focused on newcomers and their experiences at work and the onboarding process. Through our conversations we started to see that there wasn’t much work being done on newcomers’ experiences of stress and well-being, and we saw this as a research opportunity and so that’s what started this collaboration. It was definitely a process of two brains with different perspectives coming together and going ‘Hey we should maybe look at this in a more comprehensive way because it’s interesting and probably important.’”
We followed up with Ellis to chat about the impact of this article, her other work, and how her insights can be applied to businesses and employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Starting with your paper, do you think stressors for newcomers are things companies are already noticing? And now you are just giving them a metaphorical toolbox of vocabulary and skills to talk about what’s going on with their new employees?
I think a toolbox is one way you can think about it. When we think about work that has impact on how businesses operate, giving people that language or that toolbox, like you said, is a really key piece of it. One way I think about my work in general, and this applies to the newcomer experience as well, is to think about a bucket or suitcase you carry with you. There are experiences that help you fill it with things that are helpful for you, like resources, and there are things like dealing with a lot of stress and demands and maybe uncertainties, which can really drain those resources. When we don’t have the resources we need, be it support, confidence, energy, it makes it hard to take risks or speak up at a meeting or ask for help when you really need it. And this can be detrimental to new employees. I think both metaphors are helpful in translating our understanding of what’s going on to something organizations might be able to use.
“If you understand the landscape of what is demanding for people, or what is going to cause them anxiety or stress, you can take measures ahead of time to help make sure things don’t spiral out of control. As supervisors, we want to create learning opportunities for new people that help them gain confidence and gain the resources to be successful.”
How would you apply this information if you are in the role of a boss or supervisor to consider these stressors for newcomers?
I think that it just sort of helps you understand the landscape as a supervisor. It helps you consider the challenges for somebody starting off in a new role. Every time I start a new class it’s kind of like being the supervisor of a bunch of students in the classroom. And I think understanding the things that are going to cause students to stumble, or what might cause them to have anxiety around performance in this class, is useful. Knowing what those things are upfront helps me mitigate them early, so I think that translates to any supervisory role. If you understand the landscape of what is demanding for people, or what is going to cause them anxiety or stress, you can take measures ahead of time to help make sure things don’t spiral out of control. As supervisors, we want to create learning opportunities for new people that help them gain confidence and gain the resources to be successful. Focusing on that is really what you are able to do once you know what you are trying to avoid.
You also applied this knowledge to a recent study you did for a firm called Navis, which provides operational technologies and services in service of the cargo supply chain. What did you bring from your studies on stress and well-being to this project?
The work at Navis didn’t focus so much on newcomers. It was broader in that we were looking at wellness for employees overall. This context is challenging because the work is very time sensitive and critical, and there are already a lot of demands that people are facing. So we wanted to see how supervisors at the local level were supporting employees dealing with those things. Their People Success team had started some initiatives to build up awareness around issues of wellness, and we collaborated with them to explore what their workforce thought about Navis’ prioritization of wellness. We were ultimately able to make recommendations about how to focus and improve their programs. It was fun because it was working with an actual company, so the work had direct impact. I think that’s sort of the line or place I like to sit as an academic—doing work that is theoretically interesting and advances scientific thinking, like the Journal of Management paper, but also work that has immediate practical implications for an organization and how they do what they do. I wouldn’t want to theorize all day and never see any impact from my work!
Did this project with Navis entail learning about a completely different type of work-world for you, since it’s such a niche company?
I think they have such a unique context but some of the basic things translated. We still saw that some of the main things that were stressing people out were things that stress people out across industries—like workload, time pressure, inability to juggle work and non-work lives, lack of communication. So it was interesting because, while it seemed very specialized, I think the results were very consistent with what we see in the literature.
“In the U.S. before the pandemic, we were starting to see employee well-being becoming more of a priority for companies, because it’s a strategic advantage in terms of recruiting and retaining employees. Then COVID-19 happened and suddenly we’re seeing that, not only is it something companies want to prioritize, but it’s one of the most important things right now for people.”
How do you think this research can be applied to what we are seeing with the workplace right now, with regard to the pandemic? A lot of people have become new “work-from-home employees” and our stressors are changing.
It’s so intense. I really feel for all these people who are working from home and juggling multiple other roles and responsibilities. It’s also so interesting because I think, broadly speaking in the U.S. before the pandemic, we were starting to see employee well-being becoming more of a priority for companies because it’s a strategic advantage in terms of recruiting and retaining employees. Then COVID-19 happened and suddenly we’re seeing that, not only is it something companies want to prioritize, but it’s one of the most important things right now for people. So I think this has caused companies to consider not just work-life balance issues, because that’s huge right now, but also broader aspects of well-being, things like physical wellness—like what ergonomic set up you have at home, how is that contributing to how you feel, are you able to take regular breaks? Even simple things are more complicated, like supervisors having a gauge on employees’ stress levels. Now supervisors are asking, how do I check in with my employees about some of the things that go beyond work like their mental well-being? We know from research that supervisors who show caring and concern and help their employees deal with things at work and outside of work—those relationships really last and are more meaningful for employees. But it becomes harder to do that when you don’t see that person face-to-face. You might not notice if they are starting to slip into this withdrawal mode. And for new employees, I can’t even imagine starting a new job right now. It’s just a really challenging time and it has forced companies to start thinking about stress and well-being and how this arrangement impacts those things. In the long run I think it’s a good thing that companies are being forced to prioritize employees’ wellness. It was important before and now it’s even more critical.