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How To Get Your Employees More Engaged? Meet Expert Hillary Feder

Hillary Feder is a trusted partner and visionary leader in shaping culture and employee engagement, and the client experience. She excels at unlocking the power of human emotion to bring people closer together and fulfill her company’s mission – making people who matter, feel like they matter. Her comprehensive process combines creativity with strategy, asking pertinent questions, intentional listening, and insightful analysis to present authentic recommendations for each client’s unique set of needs. She brings down-to-earth strategies that align with the client’s objectives, message, voice and brand. Her work nurtures relationships and provides tangible business results through greater stakeholder (employee and client) retention. She is an avid reader and chronic idea generator. Outside of work, you can find her with family and friends, in the kitchen baking, gardening, hiking or at the lake.

Hillary Feder

People may forget what you said, people may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou

Introduce yourself! We would love to learn about who you are!

My early years were stepping-stones on the journey to where I am today. I always created things when I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted on a shelf. From embroidering a shirt to baking sweets, I made things my own to make them special. I picked up my mom’s practice of remembering people on their special day -‒ sending a card, planning an activity, or baking something. Being with people I care about is deeply important to me – so much so that it is reflected in my company’s mission – to make the people who matter, feel like they matter.

My professional journey started at Boston University where I studied business with a major in marketing and organizational behavior. After graduation, I went to work in a department store’s buying program learning the ropes of merchandising plans, analyzing sell-throughs, and looking for trends. Four years later I was promoted to a senior buyer in women’s apparel, specifically petite sportswear.

Petite sportswear at this time was an emerging size range. Manufacturers made “wear to work.” My employer, Dayton’s, was a forerunner, and our customers quickly asked for weekend wear, which manufacturers were not making. Dayton’s leadership decided they wanted weekend wear “now” and created a path for me. I met with one of our store’s trend directors and our overseas offices to become educated on how to make something from nothing. I learned how to create specifications and a limited product line assortment that would fulfill our customers’ requests.

Fast forward to being a young mom standing in a toy aisle with my then three-year-old son, Joel, looking for a birthday gift for his preschool friend ‒ the youngest of three boys in his family. I couldn’t imagine what toy we would purchase that they did not already have. This was an aha moment.

I took my son to the coloring book aisle and told him he could pick any coloring book. We went to a craft store and I purchased a light box, a white t-shirt, fabric paint, and a magic pen. When we got home, I told Joel he could pick any picture and we would paint it on the shirt. I needed the light box because I was not an artist; I could not even draw a straight line with a ruler. I put the coloring book page between the light box and t-shirt and drew the dinosaur he picked onto the shirt. Joel told me what color and where and I painted. When we were finished, I added his friend’s name to the shirt.

At the party I watched my son proudly walk up to his friend with the package, telling his friend, “I made this just for you.” Then I watched his friend open the package with unbridled joy as he squealed, “Dinosaur,” and his mom pointed out it had his name on it. Deciding this was a success, I asked Joel if he would like to do something like this with a different picture for all his friends’ birthday party gifts.

I did this as a solution to a problem: finding just the right gift for little people that already had lots of toys. Soon other moms to asked me to make these kinds of t-shirts for their nieces and nephews as gifts and other little people in their lives. It was a satisfying creative evening outlet –perfectly timed to a departure from Dayton’s. I loved what I did at Dayton’s, but it wasn’t a good fit for raising my young family as I had visioned.

It did not take long for my sister-in-law, 14 years my senior, to suggest that I could paint on other objects to solve her gift giving needs: sweet 16 and graduation gifts. I investigated the local wholesale market, registered a business name with the state, and began creating my own assortment that would be meaningful for key personal gifting moments. I researched local companies that I could contract with for embroidery, engraving, etc.

It was my personal quest to find and create distinctive gifts for friends and family that would become valued keepsakes for recipients – to create something you couldn’t find on a shelf! A few short years into this endeavor one of my clients ordered a customized piggy bank and asked me to ship it. Since we shipped to a home address and the enclosure message was signed with a first name, I assumed the gifter was a friend or family member.

The person who received the gift called me the day she received it and informed me, “This was the best baby gift I have ever gotten. How do I open a corporate account?” I had received many gifts from work colleagues when I had my children, but they fell flat. I wanted to dig deeper and learn how to make the people who matter feel like they matter.

I asked the piggy bank recipient a few questions. She told me the whole story of how she and her husband thought they were having a girl, but instead had a third boy. She had received lots of cards, flowers, and clothes, but nothing as personal as this, and it struck a chord. The woman worked for a large brokerage house and thought it would be fitting to gift her clients with a personalized piggy bank when they had a baby. Another aha moment.

It set my wheels in motion. I thought: I bet there are other companies that might have an interest. The next stage of my business was born. I began serving companies with ways to recognize and honor the birth of children, sympathy for personal loss, send get-well wishes, etc.

Shortly thereafter my clients asked me to create mementos for all sorts of business recognition moments: safety awards, metric-based awards, company milestones, etc. I was told over and over that there were others doing this sort of thing, but my approach is different, and my ideas were different. I could see the opportunity to tie recognition to much larger parts of how organizations were run and how these organizations could reach people in a more personal way.

I became a researcher, marketer, creator, and chief strategist to assemble what was not readily available. One watershed event led to another, I began to study and understand what triggers emotion, the link between neuroscience and emotion. At the same time, I also worked to determine the details and elements I could add to “mementos” that would enhance their brand and set themselves apart from competitors.

The deeper I got into this the more I realized that often the person I was working with, who I assumed was an expert in recognition since that is what they were asking for help with, was not. In fact, it was most often not an integral part of their responsibility, and they just wanted to check the box.

I started asking more questions to understand the bigger picture inside their company. I wanted to make sure that what they were asking for fit into the bigger picture. There were many disconnects, and I realized I could do more for the people I was serving.

Clients began to understand how a series of moments create feelings and build culture. I initiated a process that pushed my clients to stand back and look at the bigger picture – how to generate more productivity from people, retain people, have people feel appreciated, nurture relationships, etc. This became the cornerstone of consulting, strategy development, coaching and program design portion of the company I lead today.

I partner with clients to build their cultures – cultures you can’t buy off the shelf and that are as unique as the organizations they exist in. In many ways, I am extending my life’s experiences ‒ and my earliest memories to continue creating ways that add to the richness and meaning of our lives at home and at work.

At the end of the day, I am curious and entrepreneurial at heart. I am an avid reader and chronic idea generator. Outside of work, you can find me spending time with family and friends hanging out, baking, gardening, hiking, and being by a lake.

You write blog posts, have contributed to a book and do some speaking. What inspires you?

People and caring for people. Today’s business environment is more complex, with a more diverse, multi-generational, technologically enriched workforce, and client pool. People view their work as an extension of who they are and when the workplace contributes to personal fulfillment and enhanced opportunities people give more, are more connected and bring their whole selves.

What kind of company do you focus your business towards?

I believe deeply that people – not machines, raw materials, or facilities ‒ are a company’s most valuable resource. Our work is focused on middle market companies and business operating units in larger companies in a variety of industries with a people-centric approach. While leaders believe this is important and sounds simple, they’ve discovered it is not always easy. These organizations have turned to me (or someone like me) as an outside resource for guidance.

The business environment is complex and often people, from individual contributors to senior leaders, are working with tight deadlines to create meaningful outcomes. At the same time, people by nature can be messy. Unlike machines people have feelings, and anyone with any life experience knows life is not always smooth sailing.

Tell us about a pivotal moment in your life that brought you to where you are today.

In 1997 Nancy, the Director of Physician Relations at Medtronic, asked to see me. She was planning a celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the first external pacemaker, a product that the company founder invented. She told me they were planning a celebration for 150 people and would like to know if we could make a pillbox in the shape of the first external pacemaker.

In my head, I knew I could do this. In my heart, I wondered if this would be the right “memento” for the audience. I questioned myself: do I execute what she has asked, or do I question a senior professional and possibly lose what would be a lucrative opportunity? I voted for getting the work done correctly.

I asked who would be attending the event. She looked me in the eye and said KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) of course and some company leaders. I shared with her my concern that this would not be the right memento based on what I have learned about KOLs in the time I had worked with her. They are seasoned in their profession (code for 50+ in age), traditionalists at the core (Brooks Brothers navy blue suit and rep stripe tie) and anything that makes the heart work to provide quality of life is a piece of art to KOLs. Therefore, I thought a pillbox in the shape of the first external pacemaker, if she expected them to use it, would likely not get used.

She sat back in her chair, thanked me, and asked what I thought we should do. I told her I needed a couple of days to think about it. A couple of days later I came back with this idea:

  • A replica size of the first external pacemaker

  • Dropped into a prism of acrylic (a prism shape allows you to see the front and back of an object at the same time based on the shape)

  • Have the inventor and company founder’s signature engraved into the acrylic (like an artist’s signature) and have them numbered 1 to 150 ‒ as a limited edition

  • Presented with a companion print piece telling the moving story of Dr. Lillehei from the University of MN approaching Earl Baaken, a scientific engineer and founder of the medical device company, to help him. When the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St Paul had brownouts (not enough electricity), Dr. Lillehei got blue babies, and he needed a solution.

Nancy accepted this as a brilliant idea, and we made 150 limited edition pieces. This memento captured attendees’ hearts. Medtronic went on to use this as an instrumental piece in their recognition program (not as a limited edition) for five additional years because it was something everyone wanted.

This gave me the courage to push for the best always and guide all our clients to touch their key stakeholders’ hearts as a way to deeply nurture relationships with those who are trusted and true.

What are your current goals for your business?

Creating work environments where people want to be. Where humanity exists. Where clear communication, meaningful recognition, and authenticity rule of the day. Today it is easy to automate so much through technology to make things more efficient, and the human gesture is too often lost in the shuffle. People need to be cared for in their work environment as people first and employees second.

You say that a current goal is to create a working environment where people want to be. Could you give a few examples of what would need to be implemented?

Creating a working environment where people want to begin with making those who matter to your organization feel like they matter. Creating this environment requires six key tenants that are embedded into how an organization works. When done well, people-centric practices more deeply connect people to each other and their company, which results in a working environment where people want to be. Company leaders will see more creative solutions, innovation, and greater retention.

These six core tenants create greater connectivity, engagement, and bottom-line success. The tenants are specific in how they contribute, similar to building a house. Your foundation must be rock solid, or you are building a precarious house of cards that will all topple down.

Communication. Clear, direct, and follow-through leads to success. Effective communication is the foundation that fosters a good working relationship while acting as a conduit to success.

Recognition. What gets recognized gets repeated. Create an environment where people feel valued and appreciated for their contributions. Recognition is not always about big milestone moments. Sometimes it includes the small, every day, accomplishments that can often get


Authenticity. Walk the Talk. When leaders walk the talk, the workplace more naturally aligns with and reinforces a company’s values and business goals.

Collaboration. Work together and work smarter. A collaborative environment encourages employees and teams to cooperate, share information, and recognize that the sum is greater than the whole of the parts.

Autonomy. Empower your people to work independently. People will also thrive with a healthy dose of opportunities to own their work.

Development. Encourage learning moments, not perfection. Empower people to take ownership, grow their knowledge and skills. Encourage calculated risks.

People-centric practices become like a living organisms within your organization. They become dynamic and need ongoing management. You will find their power reverberates to the bottom line through employee productivity and client commitment. How companies institutionalize people-centric practices to engage their entire constituency—employees, clients, suppliers, partners, the marketplace, and the community—determines in large part their ability to grow.

What are the most common issues companies face in the process of creating a corporate culture that drives success?

Creating a culture that drives success is somewhat like gardening. You plant seeds, and your water. The key to success is in watering regularly with just the right amount. The right amount often needs to be adjusted based on other influences (sun and heat, or rain and cold). Too much water and the plant will drown, not enough water and the plant will wither.

In the rapid-fire speed of today’s business environments, there are several issues that when not tended to on a regular basis affect culture. We think of these issues as the weight-bearing pillars used to build a house. These key pillars can only stand when there are core foundational tenants working in harmony underneath.

Lack of clarity. When communication is vague or has ambiguity. Roles and responsibilities are not well-defined. Feedback is infrequent or missing. What success looks like is not precise. All of these and more lead to an environment that creates barriers to a solid culture.

Lack of humanity. When you are unable to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their needs, it’s difficult to respond with compassion. People are often juggling professional and personal lives, and sometimes they just do not go together well. This can cause stress and affect their work. Supporting your team in their difficult moments with empathy will help them feel valued and cared for. Empathy fosters better communication skills and is a serious trust builder.

Lack of trust. When leaders tell their team what needs to be done and they as the leaders are not modeling it themselves, the leader losses their influence and experiences credibility issues related to values, respect, and trust ‒ all affecting culture. Actions need to speak as loud as words. By creating well thought out systems to track progress, transparency in communication, and appropriate professional development, organizations create trust. Trust is not something you get; trust is earned. At the same time, trust is fragile. A breach of trust takes longer to regain than it does to break.

Tell us how you advise clients to strengthen relationships.

Nurturing relationships is what we’re all about. The most basic tenant in this process is communication. The three most important aspects of that communication are frequency, purpose, and clarity. Make time for your clients and show you care.

While our roots are in creating meaningful, customized business gifts, we started asking deeper questions to ensure our client’s recognition was intentional. Their blank looks spoke volumes. They were rife with sales and marketing plans, but didn’t have a people engagement plan for motivating, encouraging, and honoring.

We responded by formalizing a process for assessing current practices, developing comprehensive strategies, implementation plans beyond recognition, and a method to measure and modify that takes into account the big picture. This process makes the people who matter most to their business—employees, clients, and partners—feel like they matter.

We also believe deeply in adding value beyond the work our clients transact with us. We create this value by working to deeply understand their organization and their industry, proactively thinking about where they are and where they are trying to go, and consistently presenting ideas. We are comprehensively thinking of our clients – even when they may not be thinking of themselves.

Tell us about your greatest career achievement so far.

Over the last 34 years, I have taken an idea, nurtured it, reshaped it, cared for it, watered it, and continued to reshape it with each new aha. The nucleus of what I do: making people who matter, feel like they matter, has not changed in 34 years. How that has manifested itself has changed dramatically to align with changes in the business climate and social norms. Perhaps that makes adaptation my greatest career achievement so far.

As an employer, what are your top 3 tips to get your employees more engaged?

When your people believe you care about them beyond the work they do, you are creating the conditions for greater engagement. Ideas to practice include:

Empathy. When you lead with your heart, hands, and head, you are positioned to treat employees like a person that you care about. People will always be people first and your employee, client, or supplier second.

Build in one-to-one time. A cadence which creates one-to-one time with each of your direct reports on a regular basis provides dividends. The actual time to set aside will vary. The point is to keep up with who they are as people, what is happening in their personal and professional lives, and their goals. This insight guides a leader to support their people in the most authentic and purposeful way.

Ask curious questions. Ask curious, open-ended questions and listen to hear. This approach opens communication that is not only motivating, but also generates creative and innovative ideas while strengthening the mind muscle.

Who inspires you to be the best that you can be?

First and foremost, my parents.

My mom was amazing at always remembering people’s birthdays and wedding anniversaries. She would spend hours in card stores looking for just the right card. When she found it, she would write their name on the gummy section of the envelope and drop it into a 12-month accordion folder. That person or couple would always receive a special card from her to honor their special day. You didn’t need to be someone super close to her; she did this for everyone she knew. She often told me others collect “things” (china, figurines, coins), but she collected “people” and the connections only people can make.

Who I am and the development of the “premise” of my business is a reflection of my mom.

My dad was also amazing in different ways. He was a retail executive, amazingly creative, and a critical thinker. If you went to him looking for help, he would ask you questions to push you to think more deeply about the issue and solve it on your own. Unless we were going to jump off a bridge onto concrete, he pushed my siblings and me to learn to think. This is a quality that has served me well. Entrepreneurs carve their own path, so independent critical thinking skills and the ability to reason about how much risk to take has been instrumental in moving me to where I am today.

Lastly, there are so many others who have played important niche roles from my husband to my children, friends, and business colleagues, and mentors. If you are open to opportunities and listen, there is always something to hear that will inspire you to be the best you can be.

How can people contact you?

They can learn more through our blog, connect with me on LinkedIn or drop me an email here. You can also visit my website here!


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