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Oxford and Beyond Alumni Success

LaRosa's CPO: Future of work will focus on culture, people

Why does your work shirt color matter? Steve Browne says it shouldn't.

Steve Browne talking to room full of students
Oxford and Beyond Alumni Success

LaRosa's CPO: Future of work will focus on culture, people

When he started working his first job out of college, Steve Browne found out what happened when someone did something different. “You had to wear a suit every day and you were allowed to wear two colors, blue or gray. And your shirt was either white or blue. And if you wore anything else, it was considered not company standard, not company practice,” he said. “I went crazy and wore a yellow shirt and got written up for insubordination. How fun is that?”

The chief people officer for LaRosa’s Pizzeria told students at his Human Capital Management and Leadership talk that his first job paid $26,000 a year. “What I didn't know is my father, who had worked his entire life as a grain elevator manager, never made as much as I did,” he said.

Browne mentioned these aspects of his professional life to lead into what he sees as the future of the workplace: a place where location, salary, and other traditional aspects of work are not the reason someone takes a particular job. “The thing that will drive everything is culture,” he said. “You are going to find a culture to be a part of and add value to. But the other part is, you will also leave because of the culture.”

Browne noted that he left that first employer because they were focused on his clothes and fitting in with others. “They're focusing on clothes. I can't be there. And now I am not nearly as successful as I would've been, but I can wear this kind of shirt,” he said, pointing to his multi-colored dress shirt.

He said his son quit a $50,000-a-year job because he didn’t like the culture – and Browne was proud of him for doing that. “He'd rather be unemployed than work at the place he was at.”

“Your age group, by the time you are 34 or 35, will have had on average five to six jobs. And that's normal. And that's okay. I've been at LaRosa’s for 17 years now, and I'm one of the least tenured people there,” he said. “My generation grew up living to work. We were taught, you get out of school, you work, you work and you work until you die. Your generation works to live, and I think that's exciting.”

Browne told students about the idea that work can be, essentially, a hairball – a tangled combination of work, personal, and family life. “You have social things going on, you have family things going on at home, all kinds of stuff. And companies keep trying to unravel it and make it all linear and it doesn't work.”

“You're all looking for this magic place. ‘Man, if I could do this and work remote and make $80,000 a year, have unlimited PTO and do this kind of stuff and work on a beach and do what I want, that's what I want.’ There's four jobs like that. And even in those jobs, it's going to be this giant hairball. It doesn't go away. You have to figure out how to work inside it and pop outside it,” he said. “Do things like this event, where you learn ideas that aren't yours. Quit looking for the magic wand because it doesn't exist. The workplace of the future is going to be people-centric. Right now it's work-centric still. It's production-centric still. What's great about your generation, and I love this about you guys, is you want to make it about you.”

“Mark my word, you can write this down. If companies don't start becoming people-oriented and do people-centric things, they will not exist,” Browne said. “We want to have our needs taken care of as a person. We want to be cared for. We want to add value. We don't want to wait for a year in order to do something. Empathy, the ability to contribute. Those kinds of the things are the things of the work of the future.”

“One thing I would give you as a challenge: Instead of being affected by change, make change instead. Quit complaining about everything's changing,” he said. “The workplace of the future should be you stepping over the line going, ‘We're changing the rules. We're making new rules.’”

Browne explained that for a long time at LaRosa’s, there were few part-time workers. But managers found that sometimes the people who were best in a role couldn’t work full-time, or couldn’t work the traditional 9-5 hours. So the company adapted to allow more flexibility in how and when people worked. “So at my department, I did this. You can work whenever you want at any time. I don't care what hours you work, just put your work in. And I'm the head of HR. It's not in the handbook, it's just me,” he said, noting than none of the three other people in his department work the same hours he does himself.

Browne told students that they should stay connected, that they should be nimble, that they should find places to work that are strategic in thinking, and that they should never just follow the crowd.

“Don't just go to work. Go to a place where you share your ideas. You're smart, you're talented. I want to see your generation be the group that says it's not about talent acquisition, which is what we talk about in HR. I want you to be the talent that shows your talent when you work, because when you do, it'll be different,” he said. “Don't sit back and wait for somebody to get your ideas. Press forward and be the person who pushes ideas. Too many people don't, and it's a miss. The workplace of the future is going to expect you to contribute right away, as much as you want to be able to contribute right away.”