In this first episode of Room at the Table, Betsy Cerulo is joined by Sandy Brown, AdNet’s Director of Human Resources, to discuss the power of a heart-centered workplace culture, how to deal with difficult conversations, and what advice they would give to their younger selves.
About Sandy Brown
Sandra, or Sandy, Brown is an experienced HR Director with a history in leadership development, training, human resources, and social work. She is currently the Director of Human Resources at AdNet/AccountNet Inc.
Brown received her Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Oakwood University and her Master’s of Social Work from Andrews University.
Episode Transcript – Fostering a Heart-Centered Workplace Culture
Welcome to Room at the Table, an opportunity for you to join me, Betsy Cerulo, and my guests for conversations about creating equitable and inclusive workplaces where leaders rise above mediocrity and our teams thrive. Pull up a chair. There’s always room at the table.
Welcome, everyone. My name is Betsy Cerulo, and I am your host today for Room at the Table. I am also the CEO of AdNet/AccountNet, and that will be the only hat I wear today. So, I’d like to introduce you to our guest. We are going to have a lively conversation and an inspiring conversation about workplace culture and what makes AdNet’s culture so different and so special. So, welcome, AdNet’s Director of Human Resources, Sandra Brown.
Good afternoon, Betsy. I am delighted to be here and can’t wait to unpack our discussion today.
Me too. Sandy, we have been working together for nearly six years in an industry, which is staffing both on the commercial side and the federal side, which brings a lot of joy in putting people to work, and sometimes challenges when people just don’t behave the way we want them to.
This is true, Betsy. And it’s hard to believe it has been nearly six years. I remember my first conversation with you like it was yesterday. And this — AdNet is really a special place. It’s a different place. It’s very centered on relationships. And that’s what it’s about.
Absolutely. And we have said in our meetings, our team, and we represent ourselves, that we are a very heart-centered workplace. And it’s not as easy as one thinks. It’s not as though people stand around singing Kumbaya.
And hugging and kissing each other, it’s not that at all. So I wanted to ask our first question, so our listeners hear, what is the distinction between a heart-centered culture versus a bleeding heart culture? What would you say?
Well, there definitely is a distinction between the two. So, a heart-centered environment is a state of peace. It’s not tethered to circumstances, yo-yoing, up and down based on what’s going on. It really is — it’s being intentional. It’s an awareness of our values, the things that we value, the things that we hold true. It’s operating with compassion. We definitely have compassion and empathy. But we also balance that with accountability, and we balance it with responsibility. It’s also knowledge and operating in a way where we’re operating with information and reason, keeping things professional, it is a host of things. And in terms of the bleeding heart, it’s not that we don’t have compassion, all of us have things that we’re going through and dealing with because we’re human beings that are showing up at work. But it’s, again, it’s being able to listen, to get to the facts, to stay professional, to keep those boundaries, also being objective, being able to be objective, and again, being able to operate in a way that aligns very much with our values as individuals, but also as a company.
Absolutely. I know on my own journey when we have a scenario with either anyone on the team over the years or with customers where something doesn’t feel fair, and I know that we’re always told it’s not personal. Yet, sometimes it feels personal if you feel hurt or something is unfair, and I know that one of the things that has worked for me over the years, and I’m always a work in progress, is to go back and look at the facts because I can get — my feelings can be hurt, I can get upset about something. But when I go back, and I look at the facts, that helps me to reground myself before I go into a conversation with an individual or a team. And even when it doesn’t feel good, it’s like, stop myself and say, “Okay, this is the facts. This is only a conversation. I’m not on fire. I’m not standing on the edge of a physical cliff.”
Although it may feel like it.
Right, right, so I’m safe, I’m safe. And that tends to work for me. And one of the things I’ve always just been so inspired by is how grounded you are, even in standing in the middle of a hornet’s nest. How do you do that?
Well, what I think — what I think it is, I know part of it, Betsy, it has to do with the experience that I brought with me to AdNet. So, many of us have had — this is not my first job. And so, of course, I’ve had a journey, it’s been a journey. And in my background, I am both a social worker, which I think a lot of times people think that that is a very unemotional role, because you’re dealing with people with their problems, so I have that training, but also in my background, I have worked in the legal field. And so, it really helps to balance. It balances the two. And I always, like you, I always go back to, regardless of what the situation is, you want to get to the bottom of what’s going on. There are always six sides, everybody has a take, a perspective. So what you want to do there is gather the information to be able to understand all sides. And once you’re able to gather all the information that you need, that’s factual, look at everything, and then be able to make a decision that is fully informed, while also being fair. And I think the other thing, too, that’s really huge is we always want to advocate for what is right, and doing the right thing every time, regardless. That never goes out of style. I mean, AdNet just celebrated their 33 years of business. And I will tell you that I’m sure I wasn’t here for the whole 33 years, but the things that — the foundation that was built from the very first day of operating, all of those are things that never go out of style, regardless of how long you’ve been in business. And it’s also those foundational principles and the things that we value, that balance, that’s also what’s going to help us to continue stretching and growing as an organization, and also as professionals within the industry.
And you brought up boundaries, and boundaries are very important. I think it helps to guide us in making better choices, it keeps the work or the interactions more objective.
But we know we have both encountered on our professional journeys where it can be difficult for people to understand boundaries, because as a social worker, I’m also an executive coach, we’ve both done a lot of professional and personal development. Not every individual is grounded on boundaries. There may be whatever an individual has brought from a previous workplace, whatever they have brought from a family system. Family systems can get played out in the workplace.
Oh, for certain.
Which is why we really guide people on boundaries, and we have to keep our own boundaries. So it’s not as though, from a leadership perspective, I may be guiding the team in a vision or a foundation of something. I’m doing the work right there with you because as long as an individual is living and breathing, we’re always doing work or there’s always — I don’t always like that word work — but there’s always room for how to be or better oneself.
So I have a word, I have a word for it. It’s CQI. And it’s something, it’s a term that I learned when I was in grad school, which essentially CQI stands for continuous quality improvement. We all have, as much as we know, as well as we’re doing things, we haven’t arrived. There are, even though as an organization, we look at best practice, we want to stay relevant, again, we want to continue pushing ourselves, but there’s always room for growth. And I think if we stay open to that, that’s again that heart-centeredness. If we stay open, we keep our ears open. Also allowing everyone to have a voice, regardless of what your position is, your title is. Everybody has a voice, and their voice matters. And we can learn some things. We can learn some things from each other. So I think all of those things contribute to really making, I know, definitely within AdNet, it’s really a place that you enjoy showing up every day, bringing your best self, because you know that you have a voice, you know that you’re valued. So it’s a beautiful thing, it really is.
It is. And when you’re talking about the continuous quality improvement, it really, it just reminds me that really is a wonderful place to come from as you’re going into, perhaps, a difficult meeting. And I know sometimes you and I have to go into those types of meetings. So, if one goes into a meeting that could possibly have — that’s conflict based, if you go in with the, I think with the come from — we’re here to improve, we’re here to deliver, we’re here to make sure everyone is heard, and that the outcome takes us to an even better place. And I think that if one goes into a difficult meeting from that place, I think that could even disarm someone who’s coming into the meeting with all guns blaring and ready to go. We hope.
Right. And I agree, Betsy, and back to back to the comment that you made. We’re individuals in the workplace, and we are impacted by our life experiences, our home experiences, and other work environments. I’m sure both of us have worked in toxic work environments, or environments where our voice was not valued. And so we bring those things with us to the next experience. So I think the other thing, which is wonderful about operating from a heart-centered perspective, is that we have an awareness of that. And almost a — we also have, with that awareness also comes making room to realize that everybody is coming from a different place, and then using, from that heart-centered place, using our influence, using the things that we value that are positive to influence other people, so that they can maybe see a different perspective, or get a take away that they can take with them from a meeting, whether it’s a difficult conversation or a difficult meeting. They can take some nuggets away that perhaps maybe they have not approached business or a meeting or a difficult conversation in that way before. And so, it really is a — it’s almost a teaching tool as well, because we have that ability to be able to influence those around us immediately, influence our communities, and it even goes further than that, influence the world. We really do have that power. It’s a power to do that for sure.
It is. It is and, if I think about the 30 year history, 33 year history of AdNet, having started the company at age 28, and yes, you can do the math to figure out how old I am. Through my own maturity, there were definitely clips of time at AdNet, where it was not heart-centered, or it was toxic. And I think one of the things too, that leaders, that we make mistakes, I know, I make my own mistakes, is sometimes when we hold on to people too long. And we want to, and an employee could think the same thing about me. So, it’s really, it’s really a give and take, but I think to, we as human beings, I think the worst part of my job is whenever I have had to let someone go, because from a personal aspect, it feels like I’m saying, “You’re not enough.” And certainly as a woman, coming from a large demonstrative Italian family, that has certainly been an issue I’ve had to work through in my growth, where I am a person who is more than enough. But when you let someone go, you’re — it just, it feels icky. It feels icky. So I used to avoid that at all costs where I could, but then it came to certain instances over the years where it’s like, I’m not serving the workplace if I hold on, if I don’t take action quicker.
Right, or the person either. Sometimes we have to be kind of pushed out of the nest. And you think about, again, with the journey with growth, your professional growth, your personal growth, sometimes we need a bit of a nudge so that we really can blossom and grow and discover another chapter or something that we have that’s untapped within us. But you’re definitely 100% correct. I’ve had, as an HR professional, I’ve had to have those conversations and difficult conversations are never something that we look forward to. But I think, Betsy, with the difficult conversations, going back again to how it’s done, you can still do it in a way that honors our values, that honors the thing. It’s all — you can say anything to anybody, it really is how you say it so that, hopefully, at least from where we’re coming from, you’re doing it in a way that doesn’t crush, or you’re doing it in a way that’s professional and that will allow the person to be able to move on with as much grace and dignity as they can, under the circumstances.
And this is a really tender world right now. It’s always been tender. I think it’s always been a fragile place because when you have people with different backgrounds and different beliefs, not everybody accepts each other, which, as long as I live, I will never understand that. But, nonetheless, we want to, at least in our workplace, be able to have some control over making this time that we have to work, because many of us would rather be hiking in the mountains, sitting by the beach, whatever, but during that period of time, making it as caring and fulfilling as a workplace as possible. And that’s not easy to do.
It’s not, but you know what it’s like? It’s like strengthening a muscle. The more you do it, the more consistent you are, whatever day of the week, whatever month of the year, whatever setting that you’re in, the more you do something, the stronger it gets, and it becomes an ingrained part of who you are. And then as we bring in new folks, training them in — you’ve heard me say this expression before — the AdNet way, and again, it is when you’re consistent with that, and when we also, we’re also very — trying to be as vigilant as we can to make sure, like you said before, being able to protect it.
It’s like it’s a cocoon and being able to protect that, and it’s something definitely worth preserving.
It is, and when I look back on my career, I think there were certainly some things that I would have done differently, yet, those experiences led me to where I am now. And if I look, recently, I celebrated eight years of sobriety, which I’m really proud of.
And I really feel that that change in me really took my leadership to another level, because sometimes, we all know whatever it could be. If there’s something that one is using to, perhaps, squelch feelings, or mask something, it just gets in the way. There’s layers. But when certain crutches can be — you choose to take certain things that are not a good influence out of one’s life, it really allows one as a leader and as a person to be able to see life really clearly. And I know that my leadership lenses, they became so much sharper, in a good way. And also self-reflecting back to me that I could say, “Oh, boy.” Much easier to admit, perhaps, mistakes because I certainly make them.
Well, and yeah, and we all do, Betsy. I just, I remember, I definitely can say — because this is not — AdNet is my second foray in the staffing world, as you know. And when we first met, I had had an experience with another firm that definitely was very different from what I am accustomed to and very competitive. And they just, the level of trust there was — it just was not there. And it just felt very — it felt like such a tug to go into work, and almost, dare I say, a little fearful. I think there was a little fear in the staff because it was just such a grind. And if you made a mistake, your knuckles would be wrapped and you just wouldn’t feel good. And I knew that I definitely didn’t want to be in an environment like that. And we have healthy competition, great boundaries, and it’s night and day. It really is. It really is.
Yeah, and I came from a staffing company so many, so many years ago, and it was really, it was extremely competitive, and I was a lot younger so I could stand that in a different way. And I learned so much and I loved that company even with its challenges. So, I know staffing in and of itself is a — can be a grind.
It can be.
So it’s important to me that in the middle of the grind, there’s places for rejuvenation, acknowledgement, learning, but again, it sounds easy, but how do we keep it consistent? I think if we could bottle it, it would be great. But you tell me, how do we, from your perspective, keep it consistent?
It’s walking the talk. It’s keeping what has been tested, proven, we know that it works. Again, it’s being vigilantes to protect, and to be advocates for protecting the things that we value, occasionally providing refreshers, sometimes, all of us need reminders along the way. And so, being able to provide those refreshers, the things that we value to our internal staff, to individuals that work or that are part of AdNet, but also to our customers, our vendors. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the expression, teaching people how to treat us. And that is — so that’s all a part of the makeup. And like I said, again, training new staff, getting them indoctrinated in the AdNet way. And that’s in a very, very positive vein. So those are just some of the things that I think that we can massage on a regular basis just to keep — and it’s not just you lay it down and forget it, but it does have to be massaged every day. And just being good stewards of — it’s a gift to be able to work in a heart-centered environment. It really is because so many people don’t have it, Betsy.
No, they don’t. And, I think, too, when I think about how we establish the relationships with our customers, one of the things that I see that we have been really consistent with when we’re interacting, whether it’s a great scenario, challenge, it’s, sometimes asking permission. “I’d like to be able to speak honestly to you. May I provide some, may I offer some feedback?” But we always give feedback from a very accountable place versus, “You did this,” even though sometimes I feel like, “You.” But, for something to get to, say, whether it’s with an employee or it’s with a customer, sometimes the escalations are a shared responsibility, and that’s where we, as what we do, feel that we take responsibility.
Oh, we do.
Because like, I may not — like I said, I know with my leadership style, I can be very direct, not harmful, very, very, very direct, because people are very busy. And I think many of the people that we work with as our customers, everybody is overloaded. It’s overstimulation, too much information. So how can we accomplish what we need to accomplish in the most direct and the best way possible?
And I think, Betsy, that approach also, to your point, it respects that folks are super busy. And we have to, in a way, we’re protecting our customers, respecting their time, getting to the point and being efficient. And those are things, too, that we really do value. And I think, by and large, our customers, vendors, they appreciate that, and they show that appreciation because we have clients of AdNet who have been with us for a long time, and they keep coming back because of what they find here at AdNet. People are not going to come back where they’re mistreated. So, I think that that is a testament to, again, our heart-centered work environment and how we do business.
Absolutely. As we start to wrap up our conversation, I want to ask you from a leadership perspective, if you could look back on your career, what one thing do you wish you could have done differently?
That’s a great question, Betsy.
And I know I didn’t — we didn’t plan on that.
No, it’s okay. No, no, it’s okay. It’s a great question. I think for me, because I’m so — I really have a — I hold myself to a very, very high standard in terms of the work that I do. And I think probably, if I could have given a message to the early career Sandy, it would be, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You can still have your values, the things that you value and the strong work ethic. But don’t be so hard on yourself. Be a little forgiving. Because wisdom does come with the years, and as long as we’re learning, constantly learning and evolving, and then also being committed to excellence, no matter what you’re doing. Yeah, I would say that probably would be it.
Beautiful. And when I look back over my career, mine would be, and it continues to be, trust my intuition. Because when I trust my intuition as a leader, and the moves that I make for the organization, when I’m on point with my intuition, it’s usually the right direction to go. When I don’t honor my intuition, or I question myself, it usually comes back in some way or form. So, intuition, it is one of those gifts that the universe gives to us that, when we use it, it really is a magical thing.
It is. It is. It is.
Well, Sandy, we are coming to the end, is there anything, any nugget that you’d like to share as we close?
I can’t believe the time has passed so quickly. We could talk for, probably, another couple of hours. But I would say just, we’re on the right path, Betsy. We’re on the — I know that in my gut, that we’re on the right path. And as long as we keep walking the walk and honoring people and the relationships and doing those things, that will be around for as long as we’ll be around.
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s my wish that we get to take this work, and continue to take this work into other workplaces and for individuals, because as we both know, if you make a difference with one person, it just continues to be shared, and I’m grateful for that. And I’m grateful for the venue that we have to be able to test things out.
For sure. Yeah, for sure, though. This has been a treat, it’s been a treat.
Same here. So Sandy, thank you so much for taking time away from, I know, your extremely busy, busy day, but the workplace culture is important. Heart-centered cultures are, more of them are needed. And my wish for the workplace universe is that there are more companies that talk about journeys like ours.
I agree. 100%. Thank you, Betsy. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to be able to talk with you today.
Same here, Sandy, thank you so much. Take care.
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