Carolyn Zerkle, Deputy Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, shares insights into recruiting and retaining top talent in a competitive industry and enhancing employee well-being through innovative programs. Discover how better listening can help you create a culture of continuous improvement where people can thrive and make a difference.

Transcript

Craig Weaver: Welcome to Responsive Leadership. Brought to you by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, a leader in response training. We are a podcast bringing you leadership expertise from the top minds in emergency response. I’m your host, Craig Weaver. I work here in marketing and communication at TEEX, and today our guest is Carolyn Zerkle. She is the deputy director of Lawrence Livermore National Lab and Vice President of Lawrence Livermore National Security. Carolyn, thank you for being with us today. Thanks a lot. 

Carolyn Zerkle: Sure. Thanks for having me, Craig. 

Craig Weaver: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what Lawrence Livermore is and what you do there? 

Carolyn Zerkle: Sure, so Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a national lab within the Department of Energy Framework, and in particular, we’re a national nuclear security laboratory. There are three laboratories within the NNSA. One is Lawrence Livermore, one is Sandia National Lab and one is Los Alamos National Laboratory. So our three labs are responsible for national security. We’re responsible for the nuclear stockpile and making sure that we can validate and certify that nuclear stockpile through experimentation, through computer modeling, through testing of materials and material characterization. And in particular, each of the sites have very large supercomputers. So they can do a lot of analytics and a lot of experiments through simulation and modeling. 

 Craig Weaver: How did you get started over there? 

Carolyn Zerkle: So, believe it or not, I’ve only been at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for seven months, but I’ve worked within the DOE framework for over 31 years. I’ve worked at other national laboratories. And my background, my degrees are actually in architecture and civil engineering, and with a focus on nuclear construction project management. So, probably for the first ten years of my career, I was responsible for construction of nuclear facilities, facility budgets, operations of nuclear facilities that hold different actinide, including plutonium, uranium, tritium type products. 

The next part of my career, believe it or not, was focused on applying project management to business systems and I.T systems across the laboratory, including cybersecurity and making sure that we followed project management principles, including scope, cost and schedule. And then the last ten years of my career really have been focused, in addition to emergency management and continuity programs within the Department of Energy. Also combining all that and overseeing in my role now as the deputy director, safe and secure operations for about a 9,000-person workforce here in Livermore, California. 

Craig Weaver: I had the great opportunity to come out there a handful of years ago to do a project for TEEX, amazing place. Very unique place. Really enjoyed it. In your position as a leader, what would you say is the biggest challenge you face? 

Carolyn Zerkle: I would tell you we have an absolutely wonderful workforce. We do scientific breakthroughs on a regular basis. We most recently had ignition here at the site in December of 2022, which was a major accomplishment that was even featured on 60 Minutes. Probably the most difficult thing for us is the recruitment and retention of great employees. You know, we are in the Bay Area. 

We are around a lot of tech companies and so there’s a lot of competition for great engineers, for anything, for lawyers, for financial assistance, for physicists, for mechanics. And it’s expensive to live in the Bay Area also. So, recruiting work staff to work here and retaining them, we want people to have very long careers here, especially with all the security requirements that we have and all the operational requirements that we have. You know, we make an investment in our employees from a training perspective. So, we really want people to have long careers here and I would even say multi-generational careers. We want your kids to work here. We want your grandkids to work here. It’s a great place to work. 

Craig Weaver: Have you seen that? Have you seen multi-generational? 

Carolyn Zerkle: Absolutely. I will give you a great example. My daughter works at a national lab. Okay. My daughter is a database administrator. You know, it’s hard to recommend a workplace to your kids if you don’t enjoy it yourself. My husband works at a national laboratory, so I’m lucky enough from a family perspective, and I have many families and friends that have multi generations, in some cases even four and five generations working in a national laboratory because the work is so satisfying and, you know, having that vision and that mission to support national security for our nation is such an important thing. 

Craig Weaver: Well, talking about recruitment and retention. What do you do about that? How do you recruit and how do you keep them? It’s a big job. 

Carolyn Zerkle: So that’s a great question. And I will tell you, it’s probably not a one size fits all answer. And we are always trying to continuously improve processes and benefits for our employees. So, of course, you know, salary is a big deal, right? And especially for early career engineers, early career scientists, early career or accountants. We want to make sure that we’re competitive within the industry and with the rest of the Department of Energy. So that’s important. I also think it’s important for us to describe and advertise our total compensation package in a better way. So, you know, not only does that include medical benefits and 401k and matching and sign on bonuses and interesting things like that. But sometimes it’s the little things so that you have a great and positive experience at the laboratory. 

We allow flexible work, you know where appropriate, right? You can’t do classified work at home, but you can certainly if you decide that you want to work one day a week from home or if you want to work multiple days on or off site. Our supervisors are very flexible when it comes to that. We have onsite fitness centers and most recently we changed some of the policies regarding that, so our employees don’t have to pay anything out of pocket. 

The lab costs for that just to make it a benefit for our employees and their well-being. We have a lot of mentorship programs we pay for folks to go back to school. I have a great example for you, which is we had two folks on our custodial staff working at our National Ignition Facility. They were very excited, and they had someone that was interested in their careers. They ended up going back to school, both getting their bachelor’s degree, both getting their master’s degree. And they both work as engineers at the National Ignition Facility. Yeah, it was really it was part of the key milestone that we had in December with ignition. So, again, we want to care about people’s careers, not just their jobs, if that makes sense. 

 We’ve extended our parental leave policies at the laboratory. Not just for a mom, but also for partners, also for adoptions. We’ve extended our leave policies, so folks have flexibility if they have to care for an aging parent. We’re doing a lot of community investments. You know, we have a giving program here, sort of a community commitment program. And we provide corporate resources from Lynn’s, LLNS. To match people’s donations up to $1.3 million per year. We sponsor a daycare that’s near our site. And so we’re continuously trying to progress. So, I’ll give you one example. We’re working on a program. It hasn’t been implemented yet. We’re still working the details on it, but we want to be able to allow our employees potentially to have some vacation cash out if they haven’t been able to take vacation. 

 And as you know, we work very closely with TEEX and emergency management and we have a lot of folks on site that aren’t able to take a lot of vacations and their vacation account is building up. We want to be able to allow them to cash out some of those hours that belong to them. So those are just a few small examples. 

We have a lot of employee resource groups for anything from dancing to community gardens to Bible study programs, to pride type organizations. So, you know, we want to be respectful. My goal is to have people go home safer and more secure than they came and happy in going home and being delighted to work here and come back the next day very invigorated and, you know, give them that work life balance. You always have to be continuously improving. I recently joined the community gardens on site and those have been around for a dozen years, our wellness programs have been around for a dozen years. But items like our daycare centers have been around for 25 years. But ideas about mentorship, program or parental leave, those are things in the last few years, paying for people’s wellness and fitness center funding that was just implemented recently in the last year or so. 

Craig Weaver: Do you have any stories of employees of how well those things have affected them? 

Carolyn Zerkle: Yeah. So, I’ll give you an example. Again, I’ll go back to this issue of recruitment and retention, you know our employees will get great job offers outside the laboratory and just a few exits down the street. And, you know, some of these very high-profile tech companies. And it’s impressive to tell somebody you work for one of these Fortune 100 companies. What we like to do in our exit interviews with employees is let them know that the door is always open for them to return. And we’ve noticed quite a bit, most recently, probably in the last couple of years, that a lot of employees will leave for these what looks like a better paying job or a more prestigious job. And they realize after a little while that they might be working seven days a week and they might not be able to afford a house and they might not be able to spend any time with their family because they’re working so hard. And we get a pretty high rate of employees knocking back on the door that says, you know what, the grass really wasn’t greener out there. Would I be allowed to come back? And so, I think, you know, I will say a measurement of a great place to work is welcoming folks back and saying we would love to have your back. Recently, I hired someone that had left the lab about a year and a half ago and decided to return. And it’s just been outstanding. This individual has brought their outside experience with them, but they also had a very deep knowledge of the laboratory, and it’s made them a better employee. And they’ll definitely be a future leader at the laboratory. So, to me, I think those new programs are payoff in ways like that and also in ways where people are happy and, you know, they want to stay at Lawrence Livermore. 

Craig Weaver: What would you say is the most rewarding thing for you personally about what you do? 

Carolyn Zerkle: I think meeting with the people, for me, it’s people first. Right. Our lab director, Kim Bodell, knows that we need great staff and great leaders at this laboratory in order to execute the very important mission and in order to have these wonderful science and technology innovations and breakthroughs. So, it’s all about the people. You know, we want to have great facilities, great lab equipment. We want to have one of a kind ignition facilities and high explosive sites. We will have pretty soon here the fastest supercomputer in the world within the next year, which is awesome. But it’s all about the people, we realized that especially during COVID, right, when we all had to work from home, that it was very important that our people were our number one resource. And so, one of the most rewarding things for me is I get to walk around, I get to visit people’s workplaces. I get to see them in their labs. I get to see for instance, shipping and receiving. I got to visit the shipping and receiving folks. I get to visit our guard force, our protective force here at the laboratory, and just saying thank you to people. 

You know, it’s really, really important. And I don’t think enough people say, thank you. It sounds so obvious, but it means so much. So that’s really important. And also, you know, asking them if you were queen for a day, if you were king for a day, what would you change? And sometimes those responses are fairly I won’t say easy, but they’re quickly implementable. And so, I’ll give you an example. We were at shipping and receiving. They have really innovated in that area with robots and with bar scanning and the way that they load and unload equipment, they do it very ergonomically, so people won’t get hurt. And we asked one of the one of the shippers, you know, what would you change if you could change anything? 

And he was very kind. And he says, you know, we get these nice jackets that we get to wear because things are dirty and greasy, but our jeans get worn out. Could we have pants? And we were like, of course you can have pants. We’ll make sure that your uniform will include not only jackets or shirts, but also pants. And it was easy as that. And it you know, I have to tell you, as an early career employee, it makes you feel wonderful that somebody actually listened to your recommendation and implemented it. And they implemented it not for you, but they implemented it for your peers and your coworkers. 

Craig Weaver: That’s another question I had. How important is it as a leader, to listen? 

Carolyn Zerkle: And it is a huge deal and I’m learning about that every day, right? That’s my husband. Reminds me about that one too. So, it is really important just to listen. I think it’s also important that you get back to people, you know, when we ask for people’s suggestions, what would you do to make the future of work here better? And they give us all these great recommendations. We just can’t nod and be silent about it and say thank you very much. We have to respond to them. We have to let them know that many of their suggestions we’re in the process of implementing some of them may be impossible to implement. You know, we had folks that wanted a 20-hour workweek. I apologize to you. We probably can’t implement that. 

 Craig Weaver: As great as it sounds, huh? 

Carolyn Zerkle: Some of them said, you know, could we potentially increase our parental leave policies? And it was something that we looked into right away. There was another suggestion that we have free food in the cafeteria. We’re not able to implement that one here based on all the DUE rules that we have. It was a great suggestion. 

 Craig Weaver: They are great idea. Short workweek, free food. 

Carolyn Zerkle: But many of them are easily implementable. So, we’re working on them. You know, we have a couple of projects at the laboratory called Internal Transformations. So, we’re getting feedback from some employees that say, you know, when I go on travel, they have to go on a trip or to a conference. I have to get a form signed by six people. Do I really need six people to sign this form? Can I just have one person or two people? And so, we’re trying to streamline all the bureaucracy that is, you know, around us and amongst us to make it easier for our employees so they can spend more of their day on discovery and science and mission execution.  

Craig Weaver: It sounds like a lot of the programs you’ve discussed that exist there have been from listening.

Carolyn Zerkle: Yes. So, I will tell you, I’ll share something with you. We recently had a senior management retreat about a month ago. It was great, and all of us had a homework assignment to read a book and it was called Dare to Lead by Brené Brown. It’s a really good. 

Craig Weaver: Oh, she’s great. 

Carolyn Zerkle: Yeah, she is great. And you can also purchase the audio book. She has a nice voice and listens to it that way. And in the book, leaders and employees needed to select their values. You know, pick your two values. And we spent a couple of hours going around the room with about 30 people, and we allowed everybody to talk for a little bit and explain what their two values were. And it was very eye opening to me, especially being a new employee. I got to know my peers much better. I got to understand what their priorities in their life are and what their values are. And I think I can communicate better and work with them in a better way. Understanding their values. I’ll share with you the two values that I chose. 

 So the first one is making a difference, and the second one is collaboration and I have to admit to you, it was hard to narrow down. I wanted to choose ten values. And so, you know, again, one of the reasons I accepted this position and I thought I could make a difference here at Lawrence Livermore is to try to make our employees well-being and our employees experience on a day to day basis better, smoother, better, tell them that we care about them, make sure that their enjoyment at their work at the workplace is better and safer and they feel more secure. 

 My second value was collaboration. So just as you talked about listening, it really is the diversity and the inclusiveness of getting opinions from multiple people, right? It’s not all the leaders that have to implement a new travel policy or something like that. We need to hear from travelers. We need to hear from the travel department.  They have a really hard job having to process 9000 employees. You have to make sure you have all those different opinions. We have a lot of folks that go on foreign travel here for the symposium, for Emergency response, for Scientific experiments that we have in partnerships that we have in Europe. And we want to make their process to travel as easy and smooth and safe as possible. So just collaborating with multiple opinions and folks with multiple backgrounds is also, you know, one of the best parts of my job. 

 Craig Weaver: If you could give one piece of advice to somebody who is a new leader in a new leadership position, what would you say? 

Carolyn Zerkle: So, this is the advice that’s given to me quite often. You got to listen. You got to slow down, you got to pace yourself. I have a hard time pacing myself. I’m usually always on the go. I think, you know, think of the long game for your career. Don’t think of the short game. When I mentor people, let them know that it’s really not a game of checkers. 

It’s a game of chess. You should think three moves ahead, five moves ahead, six moves ahead. You might know what the solution to a problem is but think of the long-term solution when you’re working on problems, when you’re working on scientific endeavors, when you’re working on new processes and ways of doing business. I think the one thing that I would add is, you know, Texas A&M University is a very prestigious university. We have a lot of grads from Texas A&M here at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and we have a wonderful partnership with TEEX in our high explosives program. And I just like to say, you know, the lab is always hiring. So, we love those graduate students, and we love employees that might be interested in working in the Bay Area or relocating to the Bay Area. 

Craig Weaver: Well, thank you so much for your time and your information. I appreciate you being here with us. 

Carolyn Zerkle: Thank you, Craig. Thank you for inviting me. 

Craig Weaver: Thank you for listening to Response Leadership brought to you by the Texas Engineering Extension Service. New episodes will be released on the fourth Tuesday of each month. Follow us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts or visit us at teex.org/podcast. 

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