Seth Morales

Digital or not, empathy is central to leadership

19 Jul 2020   |   Culture Leadership

Seth Morales

Digital or not, empathy is central to leadership

19 Jul 2020   |   Culture Leadership

Seth Morales is a wildly positive person to be around. So when COVID-19 hit, he responded exactly the way you would expect.

The Morales group is a second-generation staffing agency. Seth took over as CEO in January of 2020, not the most auspicious time. While their company took advantage of digital tools, they were still a Level 1 digital workplace and the pandemic forced them to grow quickly.

Seth didn’t only have to think about the 145 full time employees, but also the 4,000 teammates that they find work for. Many of these people are working essential jobs and know they are in harm’s way.

Seth keeps a people-centric focus in everything he does, and here are some of the ways he was able to keep that focus while transitioning to digital:

  • Large video calls to check in with temporary workers and see how they are doing
  • Lego town halls (built by Seth’s kids) in the Morales family room
  • Taco Tuesdays where they sent food to certain locations to try to build some extra intimacy during the pandemic

Seth is also passionate about mental health and encourages other leaders to roll up their sleeves when it comes to meeting the needs of their team. Empathy is central to the culture of the Morales Group and that maintains no matter the environment.

Seth also encourages us to honor those in essential roles and use this as a time to build a better future for those on the front lines.


More from Seth Morales

Morales Group


Today, our guest is Seth Morales. He is the CEO of the Morales Group. Seth, it’s great to have you on the show.


Thanks for having me, Neil.



I’m excited about this topic. We’re going to get into the idea of a human focused leadership while we’re in this transition to the digital age. But I want to first let you introduce yourself, your company.


Just at a high level, work with a company called the Morales Group. We’ve been around for 17 years, and at a high level, we’re a staffing recruiting company. We primarily focus in the blue collar light industrial space. We have around 4000 temporary employees, we call them teammates. But we’ve got 4000 weekly teammates, and we have about 145 corporate teammates internally. And we staff up a lot of operations that deliver packages to your front door during this pandemic or any other time. A lot of warehousing and manufacturing is our sweet spot. And we’ve been doing that and enjoy the space. We think there’s a real need for lifting up this essential workforce. And it’s very, I think, globalized with our workforce that the folks that we employ and think of ourselves as the United Nations of staffing. That’s a little bit about us.



Let’s take a view from there because that’s obviously a big question right now, like essential workers is the topic we talk about when it comes to people doing deliveries, people working in factories and things like that we rely on supply chains for. What has that experience been from you? Do you feel like in the last four to five months, like your business has really focused, really picked up or really drawn down if you had to repivot things or what’s it been like for you?


It’s been a really interesting, I think last three months. If you think about from our business standpoint, we took a pretty big hit in March and April, a lot of businesses just shut down whether you’re bottom maker or you’re supply chain, a lot of that was pressed pause. Some of the stuff that really picked back up, thankfully, during that time period was ecommerce, so anything online, and so we had a large 1,000+ order from Walmart, their ecommerce division just blew up out here in Indianapolis. And that was a big game changer for us. I think what’s really interesting is just this essential workforce, really, I think became to the forefront and I think those that have been marginalized in the past have been recognized and now it’s an opportunity, I think, to really lift up this workforce and empower them build a better future. So that’s been something that we’ve really tried to do a lot better job of, we’re not just, 140, 145 strong with our corporate teammates, those 4000 employees that we have weekly running around, shipping boxes around the country, they’re a big part of our family as well. So how do you make them feel nice? It’s been, I think, a really cool pivotal change in our overall just world with how you view those employees.



Tell us when we use the term digital workplace, what does that mean to you, especially within all these transitions? If I say what does your digital workplace look like, how do you answer?


Digital workplace looks like, 90 days ago, it really wasn’t much of a digital workplace. We had to pivot real quick and we did it within a couple weeks. We had a decent platform. We’ve got a Microsoft platform where we do all of our communications with the company through teams. So you have your teams, just like video chats. You have your communication. You have your messenger. That’s been a baseline for us. A lot of us have been leveraging Zoom as well. I think like any other company that had to pivot, figure out what their tools look like, we’ve looked at Slack, we used Slack in the past, obviously been using day to day with Teams. It’s been interesting to try to figure out how you leverage that technology in a pandemic, and how you work from home because we didn’t have anyone working from home. And so I think our team adapted pretty quickly with not a lot of like technical savviness. I think there’s other companies out there that were definitely steps ahead, but a fast forward in our group into the future. And we’ve adapted and right now the tools are Teams and any type of video chat has been really key for us,



Where do you feel like is the biggest hole that you have right now that you either have to find a different solution for or you haven’t quite found a solution for when it comes to improving your workplace?


That’s a really good question. I think the most important thing right now, when we as a recruiting company, we would interview everyone in person. When the pandemic hit, the Coronavirus took place March, we had to go 100% virtual. Right now our virtual recruiting process, while it works, it’s clunky. We don’t have a seamless, frictionless process to get somebody from A to B in a quick manner. You think about when you get on the Uber app, and you’ve got a driver within a minute of logging into the system. We don’t have that. It takes way too much time. I think our big challenge right now as we go forward is how do we cut out the friction, create a short and sweet technology or app that allows employees to get hired virtually within a matter of minutes. Right now it takes 45 minutes to go through that process, that’s just entirely too long. We’ve got to figure that out. So I think that’s one of the gaps we have right now.



Seth, one of the big reasons I wanted to have you on the show is because you’re a very inspiring person, you put up a lot of great thoughts on LinkedIn and other platforms just to show the heart you have behind the leadership you have. So I really want to get into that. As we further move into this digital age, which we’re all thrown into, what is your philosophy of leadership when it comes to how do we keep humanity focused as we become more digital in these ages?


I think it’s a real difficulty right now, because you have different leaders from different ages. And you have leaders who haven’t adapted to technology, maybe they’re in the twilight of their career, and you have a lot of folks that are maybe newer leaders that really rely heavily on technology, but don’t understand how to bridge the gap with some of the humanization of leading people not face to face. And so, I think, right now, from my perspective, I’ve got a unique outlook because I’ve got this blend, I think of it as like a chef, where you take your human aspect and you take the information technology platforms, and you try to blend them together and find the right balance. Me as a CEO, that’s my job. I just became CEO in January of this year, and so talk about coming into, like a real challenge early on as a leader. But my dad told me, I say this with a lot of respect, he was like, if I was in your role, I would have really struggled to navigate through this because I don’t know how to, although he has great people, and we would have been able to figure it out alongside them. I think having that chef blend where you understand human element of culture and people over profit. But then at the same time, you’re curious enough as like a technology teenager that you’re trying to find these ways to blend the technology to make you a better overall service or product or whatever you’re doing as a business. And so I think this whole shift has really fast forward us into having to figure it out. And there’s been some looking on the outside in. I think leaders that maybe come from a different era. And so I think being able to try to find that balance and be that chef to blend the two together is really important.



You became CEO in January. And then within two months, you’re dealing with the global pandemic that nearly like crippled the business. That must have been an exciting time.


Yeah, it’s a good time to weather a storm. But I think you look at these situations, and I’m really grateful for that opportunity. I mean, we’re still not out of the dark yet. But being able to go through a storm like that to season that and just have that experience, I think it’s invaluable.



Give us some tips and some stories about what are some ways that you have practically both with your team that’s there, the 140 team, and then also with your 4000 people that are out there, what are the ways that you have tried to use technology and use the digital platform to make sure people know that you’re still thinking about them, you’re trying to bring in the human element? What are some examples you can tell us about?


A few basic examples that we’ve done that I think are tactical that have been productive for us is instead of sending out a corporate sounding email, a weekly video email and send it out on our team’s platform. It’s two minutes long. It’s empathetic. It’s genuine. It’s transparent. And so you get this authentic feel from me at home, hanging out, being real with the team about here’s where we’re at. We suck here. We’re doing great here. This is what we need to improve upon. And so I think the team’s appreciated that. We’ve done a lot of after hours, where owners get together myself, my wife and my father would get on a Teams calls or a Zoom call with external teammates that we don’t get to see day to day and we spent 15, 20 minutes just checking in on how are they doing. Maybe they’re a teammate that’s on the front line around a lot of essential workers. And there’s a lot of just like, I think mental health and challenge right there. And so we’ve just been really intentional about making that time to love on people after hours. Maybe they can’t stop work and pivot and get on a Teams call. So that’s been really helpful. I think the other thing that we’ve been intentional about is we have a Legos meeting or it’s just a monthly town hall that we get together, we get everyone on Zoom, and we’ve got 140 deep and we’re doing our Legos town hall from our bedroom with our son putting the Lego blocks on the Lego home and it’s authentic, it’s real, it’s transparent. And it’s another way to I think cut through some of just the typical corporate stuff that you get so I think we’ve got to pull back the curtain with some of the technology and just be authentic and vulnerable with some of the video conferencing. That’s been helpful, but we haven’t figured it out. So there’s no playbook right now. It’s just a lot of testing and trialing. And I’ve been doing a lot of one on one monthly calls with other CEOs from around the country about what they’re doing. And so I think some of those best practices have been helpful to hear what they’ve done. So I don’t know. It’s a work in progress, for sure.



For sure. And you guys have experimented, too, even with some food elements. You did like a Taco Tuesday type thing to bring some ideas. Talk about that.


Yes. So we do Taco Tuesdays with our external branch offices. We have 10 of them. And we did one yesterday, my wife and I got on a call and we had our Anderson office that we jumped in on and we had several members of that team get on. Basically we ordered DoorDash, Chipotle comes to their house. It’s paid for. But it’s really just 45 minutes of, how are you going? What’s going on? We didn’t talk business. One individual had a father-in-law who just passed away. And the other one had gallbladder surgery. And another one couldn’t have their daughter’s wedding up at Notre Dame because of COVID. You get these like intimate conversations where people are being pretty real with you. And so I think that speaks a lot to just being a human leader right now and just trying it on. That’s been helpful. So Taco Tuesdays, it’s basically once a week for about an hour during lunch, and we use the DoorDash app to empower Morales Group one on one time.



That’s fun. I like the aspect of, in some ways, a digital aspect makes things more impersonal, because it feels like you’re just dealing with data all day long. But you guys are trying to find a way to actually bring in more intimacy than you maybe even had in the office by bringing people into your home and seeing you kids play, by having these times to have these deep conversations that maybe wouldn’t have happened even in the office. I think that level of trying to create extra intimacy within the digital space is a really important one to think through.


Yeah, for sure.



I wanted to ask you about mental health, because that’s the topic you brought up. What is the extra obligation that companies have when it comes to mental health, especially when you’re dealing with a digital environment where you see each other less, it’s harder to check up on people, you don’t see someone constantly throughout the day if you know that they’re struggling. So are there any extra steps that you feel like you are taking or you would like to take in terms of taking care of the mental health of your employees?


That’s a really, really good question. I think mental health right now is a big challenge, just given all the heaviness that’s going on right now in our country, whether it’s the economy, social injustices, the Coronavirus, so many people have passed and it’s affected a lot of people. So I think there’s two play calls here. There’s the company that doesn’t necessarily buy into this, roll up their sleeves and really want to get into that empathetic side of managing and leading their team. And I think that’s unfortunate. And then there’s the other side of it, where we take this approach of how do we dig in and really try to truly understand what’s going on with some of our teammates. For example, we had a teammate, full-time employee, one of our 140 staff members. She lost her mother and grandmother in the same week to the Coronavirus, and father’s in the hospital on a bed with the Coronavirus as well. That’s deep. That’s heavy. That’s real. And I think simple things like, hey, we’re going to reach out and just stop by have a cup of coffee on the front porch. Hey, we’re going to get a meal train set up for you so you don’t have to worry about food over the next few weeks, a simple text message just touching base, making a quick phone call, those are things that I think are authentic. Some of it’s in person. Some of it’s using technology. But I think it’s been real heavy. And I think if you’re not prepared as a company to really roll up your sleeves, I think you’re missing an opportunity because I think right now, we’re going through this shift where it matters more and more today to truly care for your employees. And at our company, we have a really healthy culture. We’ve developed, I think, something extremely successful when it comes to just intentional engaged culture. And we did it in person. And now we’re having to reinvent that in a digital space where we’re working from home, some of us are in the office. And so I think you have to be really intentional about cultivating this new type of culture and empathy is a big ingredient part of that. And so I think as a leader, trying to find ways to figure out, where’s that engagement? Where’s that need to be? One thing that we’ve done that’s been really helpful is we’ve used an engagement tool called Emplify. And they came up with an engagement survey for Coronavirus itself. And so you get this feedback from your team and then you act upon it and you figure out where your trouble spots are and what you’re not doing well and then you dig into that. So I think that’s where a high amount of empathy has been demonstrated is where you listen, but you also act after you’ve gotten out of that data. It’s a work in progress. We haven’t figured it out. But it’s a good challenge for us right now.



We’ll be interested to track along with you to see, obviously, having that strong culture at the start based in the office is amazing. And to see how you can still have that strong culture in a digital environment. But what does change, what was harder, what was better, what was easier, what are some ways you got around that, so it’ll be good to check in with you in a year and to see what have you all done to increase that, too.


It’s going to be really fun to take a look back and see how we evolved and what came from this 2020. I told people the other day, I was like, hey, it’s 2020, it’s June, you got a second half left, there’s plenty of time to really make 2020 the change that we really wanted. It’s fast forward us into this. I think it’s been really heavy and hard. But it’s been such a good change. So I’m looking forward to how we evolve and look back.



I appreciate the reminder you gave, too, that it’s not like, we just decided to experiment with a work from home example. We did this because there’s a virus going on. And that’s really affecting people. And if you have that many employees, somebody’s going to be affected at some point. And to recognize that this is not just all fun and games just to experiment, but people are dealing with real stuff. We have the racial issues that we have to deal with right now. So you have employees that are minorities, like that’s real stuff going on for them, too. So it’s really a real issue and we shouldn’t just treat it as just, hey, this is some experiment we’re dealing with. That’s a good reminder.


Yeah, for sure.



Seth, let’s close out on here. Maybe you can give us just a public service announcement. You are in touch with these teammates that you have that are in the ecommerce world. For a lot of us, ecommerce is a way to not have to go to the store, to create this impersonal bond behind it. But you see the people that are actually running that. So what are some things that those of us on the other side of it should know when it comes to the personal side of what’s going on in the ecommerce world?


When I think about the ecommerce world, you’ve got thousands and hundreds of people inside a big box warehouse and moving packages and they’re putting their personal health on the line along with all the other healthcare workers and other civic servants right now. I think tip of the hat to this group that is helping keep America run, having toilet paper show up to your front door or having that box of whatever it is that you need for food, to continue to work from home and keep your family and team healthy is really important. But I think for the longest time, somebody who makes $12, or $14, or $15 an hour has been looked upon as just, I don’t know, they’re just left behind. And now we have this opportunity, I think this moment in time where it’s the same thing, I think, with some of the racial justice to really use the platform to say, hey, no, these people, these folks who have been disenfranchised, who need an opportunity, they need a voice, they need somebody to be a champion for them. And so I see so many of our competitors who are in our staffing space that don’t do that. It’s more of a transaction versus like, this is a redemptive opportunity to give back and lift these people up. So I would challenge everyone, my public service announcement on this would be, how are you building a better future for these people? How are you investing and not just talking about it, but what are you doing? How are you skilling up this workforce? Do you have a nonprofit arm? Or do you have a partner that can provide skilling up skills to these different people? How are you empowering their just skill set? And so I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people to step up today and really lift this workforce up. So I see it as a real big challenge for us.



All the best to you as you do that. I think it’s an important thing. And it’s a noble thing to do to make sure that we do look out for everyone and make sure that no one’s left feeling like the impersonal cog that keeps America running and doesn’t get the credit they deserve for that. So thanks for the work you’re doing. We look forward to tracking along with you and hearing how you are able to transition the culture over to a digital workplace and best of luck with all that. So thanks for coming on the show and being a part of this.


Awesome, Neil. Thank you for having me.


Seth brings sharp business acumen and a passion for building meaningful relationships to everything he does at Morales Group. When he joined the company in 2005, he focused his efforts on business development; today he oversees all operations as President of Morales Group.

In addition to his key role at Morales Group, Seth is also deeply engaged with the community at large. Governor Pence appointed Seth to serve on the Indiana Commission for Hispanic Latino Affairs, and Seth also volunteers each summer with Project Stepping Stone, a program that helps Hispanic high school students successfully prepare for college and beyond. In addition, he serves on the board of the Indiana Latino Institute.

Seth earned his undergraduate degree at Purdue, where he was a three-year starter and honorary captain of the Purdue Big Ten Championship Football team, and his MBA at the University of Notre Dame. Seth’s Christian faith influences all his decisions, including his personal and professional commitment to servant leadership and, at home, how he and his wife Jackie raise their two sons, Sebastián (Sebby) and Mateo.

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