Grassroots HR — In the Weeds and at the Table

Peer Practices
Written by Linda Luty

Florie Ellwein

Chief Human Resources Officer


With large budgets, human resources could have the luxury of vendor partners and consultants to create robust programs and impactful corporate initiatives. Absent the ability to bring in experts and outside firms, HR leaders must find ways of getting creative to equip teams for success and advance business objectives.

Jostens provides products, programs and services that help their customers celebrate moments that matter in academics and other achievements; but they do not have a large HR budget or the ability to bring in partners and consultants to drive their HR strategy and initiatives. 

Florie Ellwein, Jostens’ chief human resources officer, has taken what some might view as a disadvantage and turned it into a way to increase engagement and grow skills within the HR team – all while driving critical business initiatives. While large budgets for technology and programs may seem ideal to many, there are significant benefits of operating with “home-grown” resources and getting creative with what you have.

“The biggest surprise in moving from a large to a small company was the freedom that came with being agile, rethinking, and reinventing the status quo in a short amount of time,” said Ellwein.

Innovate, Iterate, Execute

Changing the way an organization evaluates performance is no easy feat. For example, altering the process for performance appraisals is often fraught with hand-wringing and red tape, especially if significant change is necessary.

When Jostens sought to change how they were evaluating performance, they were able to discuss with the executive team on a Monday, and then draft, edit, and share a final draft within weeks. “When the process was created in a way to solve significant talent gaps, it was easy to gain support and freedom to execute” said Ellwein. “The ability to make decisions faster allows an organization to quickly react to employee and market needs; it is the key to driving business results,” Ellwein continued.

Operating with a limited budget also means wearing many hats. “Sometimes we are working as HR business partners, and then in the next hour, we are working as instructional designers to create our very own manager training,” she said.

While this comes with more work, it also comes with benefits that have allowed Ellwein to better understand and partner with the business. Ellwein is not only “in the weeds,” but she is also “at the table” in creating and executing people strategies to enable the business. “It was important for me to change the brand of HR. HR is often used as the executor of strategies, rather than a driver and enabler of business strategies. However, by establishing strong talent practices, the organization began to see HR as a true business partner.

“All of our HR strategies are centered around supporting the customer, growing the revenue and growing profitability. What I tell my team is that everything that we do as an HR function has to drive and support those business initiatives. The challenge in front of us is how do we leverage our greatest asset (our people) to win in the market,” she continued.

Understanding and Leveraging Talent

Employee sentiment is a hot topic among HR leaders; operating during a pandemic, shifting business priorities, change management and communication efficacy have all been tested in the last year. Without a budget to contract with industry leaders in employee engagement surveys, Jostens leveraged internal talent to gather data on employee sentiment and learned about the talent and drive that was already present in their HR department.

As a first step, members of the HR team took some time to research employee engagement, and created the questionnaire using a free survey tool. Members of the HR team stepped up and used their skills to create engagement questions and analyzed the data to determine their total engagement score.

“I can bring any problem to my team and together we can work through it. In staff meetings, I bring up the challenge and say: ‘Here is this big rock that we have in front of us. Who wants to help move this rock?’ I think that’s the beauty of a small organization,” said Ellwein. 

Another home-grown initiative Ellwein and her team have found success in was creating a learning and development program that works for Jostens. Understanding that much of the learning their workforce needs is best done in a hands-on, on-the-job fashion, Ellwein and her team created a custom L&D program that creates a more authentic and approachable learning experience.

These training sessions, which were all created in-house, include slides with talking points, video clips found for free online, and TED Talks, to name just a few examples. The HR team creating these trainings started with the biggest topics which would deliver the most value to their leaders, and after receiving feedback on what would be the most helpful, they are able to continue to create useful information and teach with practical applications and real-time brainstorming.

Topics such as how to provide difficult feedback and how to improve engagement and build culture have been highly useful for leaders; the feedback has been critical to the success of this small but impactful L&D initiative, and it’s provided a new level of transparency to their leaders.

Expanding Horizons, Unlimited Potential

Limited resources come with unlimited opportunities at Jostens. Without a large budget for technology, Ellwein has found success by doing something quite simple: asking her team for help and to contribute in areas where they already have skills.

“What I've done is I've tried to turn the task back on the team: ‘We can't let budgets stop us.’ We must find creative ways of doing things, and deeper within the HR organization, there are people who are hungry for more, and they want to show their skill set, but they've never been allowed to or they've never been asked to before,” said Ellwein.

By activating talent within HR, Ellwein is not only helping the team accomplish business-critical objectives, but she’s also increasing engagement and expanding skill sets across the company. Some of the initiatives Ellwein’s team has taken charge of include updating their employee handbooks, which had discrepancies from state to state, and creating, proposing, and starting employee resource groups.

“It was amazing to see these things develop because people are hungry to do other things, to stretch, to learn. And unless you ask, I think the assumption was that people might not possess the skills, drive or bandwidth,” said Ellwein.

We can't be afraid of challenging employees to go out of their normal realm of scope to shine.


Small But Mighty

Ellwein believes that traditional KPIs are lagging indicators of data. Instead of looking to the traditional numbers, Ellwein focuses on engagement. Engagement has a strong link to talent attraction and retention, and it creates a domino effect that improves net promoter scores, productivity, and revenue.

More resources, technology and staffing would undoubtedly be useful, but Ellwein explained, “This work is possible to do with a small team, and not only is it possible, it drives engagement.”

As of a result of this work to expand the HR team to look past resource constraints, the HR team had the highest engagement in the company in Q4. Wherever an organization falls in resource and budget allocation, it is important to never lose focus on the most important asset in any business: the people.

By transparently communicating with the team, Ellwein is able to lead with confidence and engagement, and lacking a suite of HR tools and capabilities has only served to strengthen the skills of the team and the company.

“Be transparent with the team, share your goals and desires of what you want to accomplish; you'll be surprised by people who raise their hand, who want to help and want an opportunity to shine. I've been blown away by the talent. People are so engaged and energized by the ability to try something new,” Ellwein said.


Special thanks to Florie Ellwein and Jostens.

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