2021 Employee Experience Leader of the Year Finalists

Meet the 2021 Employee Experience Leaders of the Year

October 15, 2021 Employee Experience
Mike Prokopeak
By Mike Prokopeak

Reworked revealed the finalists and announced the winner of its inaugural Employee Experience Leader of the Year award on Oct. 15. The award, developed by the editors and researchers at Reworked.co, was created to recognize the work of senior leaders who are pioneers in the field of employee experience (EX).

For purposes of the award, employee experience is defined as the sum total of the elements, including workplace programs, management processes, technology and culture, that foster a positive and engaging workplace experience for an employee.

EX continues to gain momentum as the evidence for its positive impact on business outcomes mount. Results of a positive employee experience include higher workforce productivity, job satisfaction and employee engagement, among other outcomes.

The 2021 Employee Experience Leader of the Year Is ...

Tom Dewaele, VP and Global Head of Employee Experience, Unilever
Tom Dewaele, UnileverPHOTO: Courtesy image
The winner of the 2021 Employee Experience Leader of the Year award is Tom Dewaele, vice president and global head of employee experience, Unilever.

Dewaele leads a team of 1,500 employees whose mission is to create a positive and employee-centric workplace culture at Unilever, the 92-year-old London-based multinational consumer goods company behind such well-known brands as Dove, Lipton, Marmite, Hellman's and Ben & Jerry's. As the global head of employee experience, Dewaele's scope of EX services supports 149,000 employees across 190 countries in nearly all aspects of their employment, from recruiting and onboarding to exit and alumni support.

Done right, employee experience focuses on creating a great work environment that allows people to be at their best, Dewaele said in accepting the award.

"At Unilever, we believe people with purpose drive, and we believe that investing in employee experience is actually helping to create the environment where people can truly live their purpose," he said. "We focus as a function on just that: We try to make everyday simple, we try to make special days special, and we try to empower teams and individuals to thrive in a hybrid world of work."

Dewaele laid out four steps to successful employee experience, no matter the organization:

  1. Start from your customer — the employee — and design experiences from there. "Putting your employee right in the center of everything you do is the most important step," he said. 
  2. Rethink the way that you organize for employee experience. "There's quite a lot of parts of the organization traditionally that all touch the employee," Dewaele said. "We made a conscious choice to bring that all together into one organization, all with the same vision."
  3. Find the balance between technology and humanity. "Technology gives you the unique opportunity to do things at scale like you've never been able to do, but at the same time you cannot lose the human touch," he said.
  4. Continuously listen to the feedback of your employees. "It's a journey," Dewaele said. "It's not a one-time fix, so keep your ears to the ground and constantly listen."

Honorable Mentions

Honorable mentions went to four other award finalists:

Debbie Connelly, Chief People Officer, Hyland Software
Debbie Connelly, Chief People Officer, HylandPHOTO: Courtesy image

Debbie Connelly, Chief People Officer and Senior Vice President, HR, Hyland

Connelly joined Hyland in 1997 as the privately held software company's 25th employee. Since that time, she has helped lead the Westlake, Ohio-based company through 18 acquisitions, growing from a couple dozen employees to more than 4,000. Throughout that period of growth, Connelly has brought on a high volume of qualified employees quickly, while maintaining and evolving an employee-centric experience.

"Through those 24 years and especially the last 18 months, she’s been guided by her willingness to listen, enact change based on employee feedback, and enhancing programs, benefits and resources to meet the varied needs of Hylanders across the world," according to her nomination.

Michelle Dupont, VP, HR, Finning
Michelle Dupont, FinningPHOTO: Courtesy image
Michelle Dupont, Vice President of HR, Finning

In her role at the Canadian division of Finning, the world's largest Caterpillar dealer, Dupont oversees a team of nearly 150 HR professionals who serve 5,500 employees in a range of roles from front-line operations to corporate administration. That purview includes oversight of a range of functions at a critical time for the company, including learning and development, health and safety, benefits and compensation, labor relations and HR service delivery. But employee experience is the center point since she took over running HR.

According to her nomination, "Michelle realizes more than any other leader the importance of putting people first and how it is critical in maintaining a vibrant, diverse and successful company long term. Her passion for people and people-focused programs and decision-making is infectious. The projects, plans and efforts she has implemented in the past year, not only herself, but also by empowering her teams and peers through leading by example, has and will continue to result in a more engaged, loyal and committed workforce."

Nora Osman, Associate VP, IT, Montefiore IT
Nora Osman, Associate VP, IT, Montefiore ITPHOTO: Courtesy image

Nora Osman, Associate Vice President, IT, Montefiore IT

Osman oversees the IT Service Management Office at Montefiore Information Technology, a New York-based subsidiary of Montefiore Health System. In that role, her focus is raising the IT bar on customer service across the health system's 10 hospitals and 200 locations, including the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the Montefiore School of Nursing.

The last 18 months were a challenging time to be doing that work as health workers found themselves on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. Osman and team focused on communicating regularly with staff to understand their individual needs and challenges.

"In order to get amazing results in any organization, you need to first have very happy employees who want to do their very best each day," Osman said. "By engaging with them, helping them connect the dots and cultivating a culture of caring, not competition, you begin to achieve that goal."

Nicole Tate-Pappas, Director of Experience Management, Palo Alto Networks
Nicole Tate-Pappas, Palo Alto NetworksPHOTO: Courtesy image

Nicole Tate-Pappas, Director of Experience Management, Palo Alto Networks

Tate-Pappas leads a team of product managers and engineers focused on building internal applications that create a competitive talent advantage at Palo Alto Networks, a publicly traded Santa Clara, Calif.-based cybersecurity company. In that role, she has implemented a number of EX initiatives, including workflow automation tools that allow employees to get instant service and the deployment of a new digital workplace to connect the company's 15,000 employees.

Given the realities of a distributed workforce working in an increasingly hybrid and flexible fashion, Tate-Pappas focused on creating a human touch in the increasingly digital environment.

“It is critical that people managers are given tools to help them manage a hybrid work environment to ensure all team members are treated equitably and fairly, all while focusing on an experience that’s highly engaging to managers and employees,” she said.

Eligible candidates for the Employee Experience Leader of the Year were senior leaders who had been in their current role for at least one year. Judging was done by a panel of Reworked editors, with the winner and honorable mentions selected based on information provided through the nomination process.

All finalists were honored through a virtual awards ceremony at Reworked's Digital Workplace Experience event, which took place Oct. 14 and Oct. 15. 

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