Presented by Symba, #OpenUpTheWorkforce interviews feature executives advancing inclusion, diversity, and equity for the future of work. In these short audio-only episodes, we talk with the top about what it takes to develop and implement inclusive processes.
In this episode of #OpenUpTheWorkforce, Ahva speaks with Jeffrey Schmitz, the Chief People Officer (CPO) at Zebra Technologies. Jeff shares valuable insights on his career journey and the key strategies for fostering inclusion, diversity, and equity in the workplace. With his extensive background in engineering, product management, marketing, and sales, Schmitz brings a unique perspective to his role as a CPO. Listen here.
The three pillars for career success
Jeff's career path has been non-linear, transitioning from an engineer to general manager to other leadership positions, ultimately landing him in the field of human resources. He says, “Your degree isn't a life sentence. It's only a starting point.” Jeff focuses on three essential factors that have propelled his career and can contribute to a non-linear career path for others: hard work, a positive attitude, and being curious about the business. Jeff urges talent to ask questions to better understand how their company operates, such as its competitive landscape and its unique value proposition. This curiosity helped him transition from engineering to various business and marketing executive roles and ultimately to his current position as CPO.
Jeff believes his background in engineering, coupled with exposure to different environments and disciplines, has provided him with a valuable perspective. By immersing himself in manufacturing, R&D, and the back office, he gained a deeper understanding of diverse perspectives. This experience has cultivated empathy and openness to different approaches, contributing to his effectiveness as a chief people officer and facilitating the development of an inclusive workplace culture.
Overcoming challenges in DEI: putting the I before D
Jeff highlights two key challenges companies face in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion. The first challenge is creating an inclusive environment where diverse employees feel welcome and valued. Without this foundation, it becomes difficult to retain talent and foster a sense of belonging. To address this, Zebra Technologies focuses on building an inclusive culture through open dialogues, courageous discussions, and an emphasis on different perspectives. The second challenge is attracting and retaining diverse talent. Jeff emphasizes the importance of sourcing talent internally by leveraging diversity within the organization. Zebra Technologies encourages employees at all levels to be part of the attraction process while actively reaching out to external partners to bring in diverse talent. Additionally, the company emphasizes fair and unbiased hiring practices to ensure equal opportunities for underrepresented groups.
Leveraging internship programs to increase diversity
Zebra Technologies has a powerful internship program, which plays a significant role in its diversity and inclusion strategy. Jeff shares they’ve hired a fair amount of diverse talent through their internship program; “the benchmark is around 50 percent. We were slightly above that in our last class.” As Zebra Technologies improves its ability to attract and hire diverse interns, they are focusing on converting them into full-time employees. The success of the program is measured by conversion rates, as well as the development and long-term retention of interns.
One of the company's nine employee resource groups, called EDGE, creates a sense of belonging through a supportive community and encourages all people entering Zebra early in their careers, irrespective of age or experience, to connect with like-minded professionals within the organization. Zebra Technologies also offers various programs to develop interns' skills and provide opportunities for growth within the company. These include rotational programs within functional areas and specialized development classes. By ensuring interns have access to diverse experiences and development opportunities, the company aims to foster their long-term engagement and advancement.
IDE initiatives on the horizon
This year, Zebra launched a new focal point for their inclusion and diversity work which they call the 4 C's: Culture, Career, Community, and Customer. At Zebra, they prioritize fostering an environment where every employee feels valued and supported, and that correlates to the first C – cultivating a culture of belonging and continuous learning. Career development is the second, as they actively provide mentorship and sponsorship opportunities to help employees grow both personally and professionally. Moreover, their commitment extends beyond their internal efforts. As a tech company, Zebra is dedicated to driving more diverse talent into STEM fields, actively engaging with the Community (C number three) to achieve this goal. With 40% of their business in retail and a global channel partner ecosystem, Zebra recognizes the opportunity to support diversity and ESG work within their customer and partner community. The fourth C, Customer, represents their commitment to helping their customers raise the bar. These 4 C's are a rallying point for the next phase of Zebra’s inclusion and diversity program.
What do leaders need to do to #OpenUpTheWorkforce?
Jeff recommends introducing young people to career opportunities at your organization to make them aware of options and get them excited early in life. In addition, he re-emphasizes that “30 percent of the enterprise value is in the culture.” Jeff adds:
We have a really strong culture and a great story to tell because if we look at Zebra’s history, we were a company with one billion dollars of revenue who bought a part of another company that was two and a half times our size, two and a half billion of revenue. And one of the challenges that we had right at the beginning was, if we're going to take part of a very big company and merge it with a relatively small company, we're going to have culture problems. And one of the greatest things our current executive chair did was he decided that we needed to build our own unique culture from the ground up at this critical moment.
Jeff expands that infusing inclusion into the culture is one of the most powerful actions Zebra has taken to have a long-standing impact at the company that reduces bias, creates a sense of belonging, and fuels foundational inclusion groups. Furthermore, Jeff says, “We need to invest in people's careers so that we can have people of all backgrounds of underrepresented groups prepared and ready to be the leaders of tomorrow.” Lastly, Jeffs notes not to leave customers behind. Observe and engage their inclusion, diversity, and equity strategies and influence the smaller companies in your network to progress with you.
Jeffrey Schmitz's insights shed light on the importance of creating an inclusive environment, attracting diverse talent, and nurturing their development. His career journey, spanning various roles and disciplines, has shaped his leadership approach and emphasized the value of empathy and understanding. Zebra Technologies' internship program and focus on inclusion networks exemplify their commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce. By embracing these strategies and measuring success through conversion rates and employee development, organizations can make significant strides in building diverse and equitable workplaces.
About Jeff Schmitz
Jeff Schmitz became Chief People Officer at Zebra Technologies in March 2023. Jeff has more than 30 years of experience in technology, engineering, and marketing, and he joined Zebra Technologies in 2016. In his prior role as Chief Marketing Officer, Jeff launched Zebra’s award-winning PartnerConnect program and led the company’s first major brand refresh. In 2020, Jeff also took on the role of Chief Human Resources Officer. As CMO/CHRO, Jeff has focused on attracting, retaining, and developing top talent and creating opportunities for growth and development within Zebra’s inclusive culture and diverse workforce, and he continues to focus on these areas today as Chief People Officer. Prior to joining Zebra, Jeff served as General Manager and held other leadership roles at Spirent Communications, Visual Networks and Tellabs. He has a master's degree in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science from Marquette University. In addition to being the executive sponsor of Edge, Zebra’s Millennial and Gen Z Employee Resource Group, Jeff serves on the Forbes Communications Council.