151: Leaders with Heart Know When to Let Go

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In this episode, Heather speaks with Phil Weiser, Attorney General in Colorado. Heather met Phil during her law school days at CU Boulder, but invited him to be on her podcast after hearing a speech he gave about empathy. Caring leadership is about emotional intelligence, and with empathy at the core of that, Heather knew she had to have Phil as a podcast guest. 

Phil shares his leadership journey, sage advice, enjoyable anecdotes, and even the DEI&B initiatives underway at the Colorado Department of Law. 


  • To be alive is to grow. 
  • Focus on leading with empathy and not judgement. 
  • Leadership is about urgency, care and vision. 
  • Some people need to be asked and encouraged to apply for promotions. 
  • Your strengths are also your weaknesses, be alert. 
  • True care means willing the good for another. Even if that makes more work for you. 
  • Give yourself grace. 

Phil Weiser is the 39th Attorney General of Colorado.  

As the state’s chief legal officer, Attorney General Weiser is committed to protecting the people of Colorado, defending the rule of law, and building a Department of Law that serves all Coloradans effectively.  Public Service is one of Weiser’s core values.

Previously, Weiser served as a Professor of Law and Dean of the University of Colorado Law School, where he founded the Silicon Flatirons Center for Law, Technology, and Entrepreneurship.  Weiser served in senior leadership positions in the Obama administration, and was appointed to serve as a Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the U.S. Department of Justice and as Senior Advisor for Technology and Innovation at the White House’s National Economic Council. Earlier in his career, Weiser co-chaired the Colorado Innovation Council and served in President Bill Clinton’s Department of Justice.

After graduating law school, he worked in Denver for Judge David Ebel on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals and held two clerkships at the United States Supreme Court, for Justices Byron White and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Attorney General Weiser lives in Denver with his wife Dr. Heidi Wald, and their two children.

Growth Through Mistakes

I’m a big believer. This is something that the people who work with me are still going to use—continuous improvement. It’s a journey. Anyone who says, “I’m perfect, I’m the best version of me I’m ever going to be,” I would say that means you’re dead. To be alive is to grow. To challenge yourself to grow is to acknowledge that you’re imperfect. You’re human.


I have made mistakes, and I will make mistakes. I have done things I feel bad about and that I wished I hadn’t done. But that’s being human.

To challenge yourself to grow is to acknowledge that you're imperfect. – Phil Weiser #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Caring, Vision, and Urgency

Part of what I believe leading entails are three things: caring, vision, and urgency. Part of that caring means some people are going to leave my team because that’s the best thing for them to do, and I support them. One of the best things I do as attorney general is help support and encourage lawyers who become judges. That is an extraordinary accomplishment. I will lose them for my team, but I care about them. I want them to be their best selves. I want to help support their journey.  The second point is you have to have a vision. What are you trying to accomplish? How are you trying to accomplish it? What are your core values? What is your mission? That’s spelling out a vision for what your organization is about. The third point is, I believe leaders need a sense of urgency. I’m very entrepreneurial in how I look at the world and think about things. When people are working with me, I don’t want you to tell me “We’ve always done it this way before.” I want to hear, “What’s the best way to do something?” or “What if we try this experiment?” That’s the sort of thinking I like to encourage.

The caring point and the innovation point go together. This is not always understood. But if you lead an organization in a climate of fear, if people don’t feel cared about, and they feel judged, they will feel like they’re at risk. They’re not going to take risks themselves. They’re not going to be innovative, because they’re going to be afraid of what’s going to happen.

Care about your team members. They need to know you care about them. – Phil Weiser #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

I'm focused on leading with empathy, not with leading with judgement. – Phil Weiser #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Empathy, Not Judgement

My journey is to be more accepting of being human, and being more compassionate.  The reason that I gave that speech is because I believe empathy and emotional intelligence are so undervalued for lawyers compared to how important they are. It’s a real problem in our profession. Right, now I’m focused on leading with empathy and not with judgment. When I say leader, you could be one in your family, in your community, or in your workplace. Do you show up with empathy? Do you show up with judgment? A lot of people are quick to judge other people without knowing all that’s going on our current society. We’re making quicker judgments based on less information and less understanding. I want to do my part and the best I can do to lead with empathy, not with judgment. 

I want people to know I care about them and I support them. I know they’re going to make mistakes because they’re human. I make mistakes. We learn from mistakes. If we don’t make any mistakes, it may mean that we’re not trying enough new things. We shouldn’t be afraid to try new things. We’re going to have a bunch of different initiatives at the Colorado attorney general’s office to serve the people of Colorado. We’re doing it because we care about the people of Colorado, and we want to find new ways to make people’s lives better.

If we don't make any mistakes, it may mean that we're not trying enough new things. – Phil Weiser #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

We need to not be afraid to put ourselves out there. – Phil Weiser #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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How Caring Leaders Practice What They Preach

Over the course of my career as an employee advocate, I’ve seen countless attempts to level up one’s leadership game. Many of these endeavors have been successful, but many of them have also fallen flat. Across these various trials and tribulations, I’ve observed a common thread that seems to make or break a leader and how they impact those around them. So what do I believe is the secret ingredient to being a caring leader?

To be quite honest, there are many, but for now I will just speak to one: integrity. There is a special magic in seeing leaders who live out their values, who walk the walk and talk the talk, as they say. A true caring leader makes known their beliefs, and carries them through every one of their actions on a daily basis. Integrity is hard to describe but easy to feel; it’s just simply something you know when you see it.

What does integrity look like in the context of the caring leader? It means that we do not show up one way for one person or group, and entirely different for another. We are who we are no matter what, and we do not pretend to be someone that we are not, regardless of context, location, or company of people. We do not shy away from telling the truth, however uncomfortable that may be, and we are confident in owning the entirety of our personal and professional self.

That last point highlights a main pillar of being a genuine leader; to be authentically me, I must know myself well. I need to know my strengths, weaknesses, objectives, communication style, personality, identity, and a plethora of other dimensions that make me—well—me! Without in-depth self-awareness, my behaviors might sway in the wind. To know myself well means that I am aware of what might trigger me, what makes me smile, what makes me react or be proactive, and how I like to lead myself and others.

You can engage in learning more about yourself by examining your performance every day. Ask yourself what you did successfully, and what you could’ve done better. Ask yourself how you make others feel, and if they walked away from their interaction with you with a sense of authenticity. You can even solicit feedback explicitly, and inquire if your peers perceive you as disingenuous.

Getting reacquainted with yourself doesn’t mean you get to know yourself once and you never change again; quite the opposite is true. By knowing thyself, so to speak, you can better make adjustments to your leadership game as needed, since you will have a more nuanced and realistic appraisal of your faults and flaws. As you compensate for those gaps, you will find yourself better equipped to lead with confidence, authenticity, and integrity.

Being a caring leader who practices what they preach will not only reap benefits for you as an individual; it will also yield rewards for those around you. Being in proximity to a leader with integrity helps employees see they’re part of something bigger than themselves, and inspire them to have faith in those they follow. Moreover, it will motivate them to engage in the same kind of introspection and internal work, creating more and more caring leaders and setting off a chain reaction. However, the question remains: are you ready to start that domino effect yourself?

150: Leaders with Heart Are Accountable and Humble

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In this episode, Heather interviews the two women from her DEI certification class which she referenced in her blog recently. These two women shared an interaction, which truly inspired Heather. Antrece Baggett, History, Associate Chair and HCC Foundation Board Faculty Representative and Golbou Ghassemieh, Project Manager/Recruitment Manager at Koff & Associates, both demonstrate humility, compassion and accountability in their interaction.

Watch this week’s episode to experience the beauty of friendship and the true nature of caring leaders. 

Key Takeaways:

  • It’s important for caring leaders to be able to have accountability and take criticism.
  • Have courage to confront the person that did something to harm you. 
  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion when conversing with those who were hurt by your actions.
  • Both parties in a confrontation need to 
  • Assuming positive intent and accepting what someone was intending to do, take people on their word. Giving people the benefit of the doubt. 
  • Create a safe space for someone to speak up, everyone deserves an opportunity to open up and talk.
  • Be authentic leaders, whatever that is and whoever you are. Be yourself.
  • Help people to lean into the discomfort in their mistakes and embarrassment because that’s where growth happens.

Antrece Baggett

Antrece L. Baggett, daughter of Robert and Joyce Baggett and a native of Jackson, Mississippi, graduated from Texas Southern University, BA, University of Mississippi, MA, and Ferris State University, and is a Community College Leadership doctoral candidate.

Antrece is the Houston Community College History Associate Chair, and the Director of the Africana African American and Women and Gender Studies Certificate Programs where she supervises both programs, establish curriculum standards and course loads, recruit and monitor faculty and student activities, plan cultural celebrations and events, and maintains budgetary oversight authority.

She has served the institution since 1995 in a variety of positions including part time campus manager, academic division chair, and HCC Foundation faculty liaison. Antrece has supervised security officers, maintenance employees, receptionists, monitored campus events, facilities, address emergencies, and assist faculty, staff and administrators.

Antrece co-supervises 100 plus faculty members and provides leadership for the faculty senate as its Vice President. She teaches American, African American and Women’s history and Humanities courses. Her classes are face to face, online and hybrid.

For additional questions or clarifications, do not hesitate to contact Antrece at 832-741-6300.

Golbou Ghassemieh

Golbou’s professional qualifications include over sixteen (16) years of experience in the Human Resources field, most recently serving as a Deputy Director and Director at County and City agencies in the public sector. She has extensive experience in all aspects of human resources including but not limited to classification and compensation, recruitment and examination, organizational development and training programs, EEO, employee and labor relations, MOU administration, policy development and administration, performance management programs, discipline administration, recruitment and examination, presenting to Boards and Commissions, and general human resources leadership and administration. 

Golbou has been an instructor for Sonoma State University’s Human Resource Certification courses 9 years and has served as a speaker during many public sector HR conferences.

Golbou earned her B.A. degree in Psychology with a minor in French at University of California, Berkeley; her MBA degree with an emphasis in Human Resources Management from Sonoma State University; and holds the SPHR, SHRM-SCP, and IPMA-SCP professional certifications. Certification as a Certified Diversity Practitioner in progress.

Self-reflections, Safe spaces

Golbou: Sometimes people have to really have some self-reflection and recognize that things could get quite uncomfortable for us personally and for the organization. Part of creating a safe space is being willing to make it safe for people to be uncomfortable and for people to be in a worldview or self-perception that is being challenged. The opportunity for what has come out of that interaction wouldn’t have occurred if there wasn’t the combination of courage, bravery, speaking out, and being willing to be put in an uncomfortable position to have self-reflection.

You have to get uncomfortable. You have to be okay with being uncomfortable. – Golbou Ghassemieh #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Authentic Discomfort

Antrece: One of the videos that we watched in Dr. Allen Goben’s class was a video by Dr. Irvin where he calls us to be authentic leaders, whatever that is. “Whoever you are,” he’s saying, “be yourself, lead in that authentic-ness and others will follow.” What I strive to do every day is to be my authentic self, whatever that is because leadership changes. There are some days when I am a situational leader, depending on the circumstances. There are days when I like to be a participatory leader. I like to bring everybody to the table and get buy-in (support). But then there’s some days when I miss it. As much as we say we want to be leaders and we want to do this, leadership is not easy. It’s difficult.


Golbou: It’s really important for people to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and to lean into that discomfort, because that’s where growth happens. Here was Antrece being authentic and brave, and demonstrating courage. It was an opportunity to lean into the discomfort, the embarrassment and to have a chance to learn about her, what she was saying, and the experience she was having because she’s not alone. There is no there is no growth without discomfort.

If you do whatever it takes for you to achieve whatever that goal is, but we can't bring people along with us, then our journey is very sterile and is boring. It's not worth living. – Antrece Baggett #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

I'm still learning and I'm going to always be learning. – Golbou Ghassemieh #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweetben

Improving Conversations

Antrece: As leaders, a lot of times we are faced with having pretty difficult conversations, and we don’t know how we’re going to react. Of course, one will say what “I would never do this. I’m going to do this.” But when your true self comes to life, like because Golbou was so compassionate in reaching out to me, I said that I have to respond back. Out of all of the things that happened in 2020, building a relationship with her at the end of the year is probably one of the best things that I’ll be able to reflect on.

Golbou: For me, through the whole exchange I was baffled. I was stunned. I was playing what other people had said, it came out the other way and I didn’t realize. It’s really important as a burgeoning diversity practitioner right and a leader to be willing to take feedback and criticism, especially as somebody who wants to be an ally and somebody who has experienced my own set of experiences in life as an Iranian American person. If people are willing to be educated, I’m willing to educate. If I’ve said something that I didn’t even realize I said and someone’s brave enough to call me out on it, I am going to take that feedback as a gift. I’m going to recognize it as an opportunity to improve and to become a better person in general.

It's important for people to be willing to hear when they've made a mistake; otherwise they can't correct in the future. – Golbou Ghassemieh #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Be your authentic self. – Antrece Baggett #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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Finding and Fostering Greatness—However Small it May Seem

Honest confession: I am an unapologetic and total fan of NBC’s The Voice. The popular singing contest debuted in 2011, and I’ve been following the show ever since. Part of my fondness stems from my musical upbringing; my father was a musician—he was head of glee club in school, head of the choir in church, and he even had his own band at one point. So as his daughter, I was always surrounded by music, and I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember.

But beyond that, I love The Voice for another reason that I just recently became aware of. Throughout my entire professional career, I’ve had an innate desire and capacity to notice the smallest improvements in people, and wholeheartedly encourage that incremental progress. Whether it’s working one-on-one with employees to improve their communication skills, leading a bigger team on a major project, or consulting entire organizations on improving employee engagement, I’ve always been inspired to assist people along their personal journeys to bettering themselves. Seeing progress in others touches my heart, and drives me not only as a manager, but as a person.

Occasionally, I see more potential than is actually there, meaning that sometimes I overestimate others’ capabilities. Nonetheless, I love trying to reveal that brilliance to others and grow their light, so that it may shine brighter. I naturally believe in people and their potential to want more and be more. When we believe in our team’s potential and help them actualize it, we show that we care for them as humans, not just for what they can do for us. And when people have someone in their corner and feel supported, we are inspired to exceed our own expectations of ourselves.

So it’s no surprise, then, that I get genuinely emotional watching these budding musicians refine their craft week after week on television, and achieve greatness over the course of a season. Seeing professional coaches mentor these artists is like watching caring leadership in action. Why? Because caring leaders prioritize recognizing and growing the gifts and talents of those they lead. Instead of ignoring the signs of greatness in their people, caring leaders search for it.

If you are a leader, you may be asking yourself how you can do this with your own team. You might consider having meetings with individuals to really get to know them and their professional goals, and understand your role in assisting them towards those objectives. You could also keep an eye out for and pass along professional development opportunities you think they would benefit from. Give them gracious and constructive feedback on a frequent basis so they can continue working on themselves. Use your network to connect them to mentors or sponsors, so they may advance in your organization, and ask other leaders you admire about how they approach employee development.

Speaking from my own perspective, I know that I love playing a part in progress, however insignificant or time consuming it appears to others. I find it uplifting to improve people, cultures, organizations, and structures, and I consider it my job to get others to seek these improvements as well. 

I believe everyone loves bearing witness to an evolution, to an underdog story, to an upward swing in others that defies expectations. Some call it naïveté, some call it hope, but I just call it leadership.

Letting Other People’s Light Shine

Recently, I began conducting weekly Human Resources community power hours. I hope to provide a safe space for like-minded professionals to be in community with one another. This way we can share our thoughts and feelings in an open, self-led forum. The call is intentionally just for HR professionals, since I know we tend to prioritize others’ emotions above our own. As so-called “people persons,” HR professionals are naturally empathetic, and sometimes we lose sight of our own needs as we concentrate on meeting others’.

In the first meeting, the group was discussing community expectations—what we hope to get out of these calls, the future of this space, potential discussion topics, the structure, etc. One participant said they would love to discuss mental health. I immediately agreed and scheduled a future call devoted entirely to that topic. She suggested a fantastic idea, and I was more than happy to amplify it in our next meeting.

Later, I reflected on my impulsive support of my colleague. I’m often comfortable taking risks and letting others steer the direction of meetings, because I’ve experienced the value of diverse perspectives. As an HR consultant, I find that leaders want to keep the reigns firmly in their own hands and maintain control of the conversation. However, this unintentionally prevents others from being creative and innovative. Essentially, it stifles their motivation to raise new, exciting ideas.

I would caution you against hogging the spotlight for yourself for a few reasons. It is absolutely critical to let other people shine. Caring leaders want their team members to feel as if they’re in a place where they can grow, be recognized, and reach their full potential. If your employees truly feel this way, they will be empowered to exceed their own expectations.

When you recognize hard work and give credit to those that deserve it, they will feel an increased sense of loyalty to you and your organization. They will feel honored and valued for what they bring to the table. Not only that, but they will also feel more inclined to trust you, which begins with you offering them your trust. If you publicly accept input from others and share the spotlight, you will be perceived as a leader who trusts their team.

In short, no one likes when limits are imposed on them. As humans, we naturally want to be free from containment. If your employees feel like they can’t share ideas without being snubbed for credit, they’ll also feel constrained at work and be unable to excel. Just remember, collaboration at the office isn’t a zero sum game—when one of us shines, we all shine.

149: Leadership with Heart 2020 Wrap-up!

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In this episode, Heather helps us reminisce on her favorite episodes for 2020 in order to plan for 2021.

Key Takeaways:

  • Leaders get to choose how they think, behave and interact with those they lead.
  • Don’t forget the poster you have to show us as your best self. This helps those you lead show us as their best as well.

Prepare your hearts for this one of a kind wrap-up! Happy Holidays!!

Meaningful Conversations

I cannot believe going through the third full year with the podcast. It’s pretty exciting that you are part of it. As I think about the why behind creating this, I actually wanted to start off just having conversations with leaders who are more emotionally intelligent, those who can add a lot to the conversation related to caring leadership, and who show up with a lot of heart. I do not have other intentions but just to have good conversations to make sure other people can learn from them as I have.

I do not have other intentions, but just to have good conversations to make sure other people can learn. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Important Reflections

Over time, the brilliance of those who I was interviewing was so big and vast that I need to highlight them in a different way. That’s why I created the book “The Art of Caring Leadership” which comes out of April 2021. It includes over 80 of the leaders from this show. Their voices have been amplified inside this book because they are great teachers of how to show up with true heart.

I wanted to highlight a few of them as some of them have key messages—those that I tend to highlight already in the work that I do and the messages that I say. Let’s reflect on somebody’s past voices for 2020. First is Heather Loenser and Garth Jordan. They talked about the importance of empathy and how it is important to show up as empathetic leaders in the workplace, and to understand where our people sit. Next is Diana Steinhoff with the importance of compassion, helping our team build resilience, and understanding that compassion is the action behind empathy. We also heard from LaToya Lyn about the late John Lewis and her idea of creating safe spaces for others to follow. We also heard from the fabulous Michelle Nevarez about evaluating our thinking pattern as leaders.


During midyear, I made the announcement about “The Art of Caring Leadership” and I shared the Author’s Day I had with my publisher. It was so cool as my editor spoke about the importance of this book. We also heard from Benilda Samuels as she talked about helping others breathe through challenges and helping them build resilience. Early on in the year we heard from Cheryl Fullerton and she helped us remember to create psychologically safe environments where people feel comfortable in bringing everything to the table. Lastly, we heard from Don Davis. He had his focus on creating a vision for others to follow. 

The brilliance of those who I was interviewing was so big and vast that I need to highlight them in a different way. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

They are great teachers of how to show up with true heart. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Becoming Your Best Selves

Now, we are at the end of 2020 going into the new year unprecedented, and not knowing exactly what is going to happen and the direction it is going to be. But one thing I will tell you, we get to choose how we show up. We get to choose our thinking, behavior, and interactions with those we lead, whether formally or informally. Leaders with heart know that they can exercise emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and self-control so that they can show up as their best selves. This can allow those that they lead to turn and show up as their best selves as well. Hopefully you enjoyed 2020 with me, and you look forward to 2021 and all that it has to offer. I guarantee you it’s going to be a great year. We will flourish together.

We get to choose our thinking, behavior, and interactions with those we lead, whether formally or informally. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Leaders with heart know that they can exercise emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and self-control so that they can show up as their best selves. – @HeatherRYounger #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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148: Leaders with Heart Bring out Others’ Strengths

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In this episode, Heather interviews Esmeralda Martinez, Migrant Education Program Director for the Southwest Region of Colorado. Esmeralda demonstrates caring leadership by advocating for those that are not at the table. In her line of work, that is primarily underprivileged students and their families. 

Where does Esmeralda’s drive to lead come from? Her beautiful and empowering familial history and the struggles they endured that became opportunities for success. Heather’s last podcast guest, Barbara Medina, recommended Esmeralda and was an example of bringing out the best in others. Esmeralda herself now emulates this as she uplifts and motivates her team, rallying them behind the mission of their work. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Advocate for those that are not at the table. 
  • Value each individual as a whole. What do they bring to the table? What are their strengths and talents?
  • Instill passion you can do that successfully, and you can achieve more together.
  • Uplift and empower others to do what’s right. 
  • Be true, and reflect that we may or may not be at our best, so stay consistent, focused, true and strong. It is not easy, but you are not alone.

Esmeralda Martinez is the Migrant Education Program Director of the Southwest Region at Adams State University in Colorado. 

Previous to being a director, she was a teacher and English Language Acquisition Site Coordinator for the Alamosa School District. She began her career teaching English Learners in 1997. This experience motivated her to obtain a Master’s Degree in Linguistically Diverse Education. In an effort to facilitate instruction for Spanish learners in their native language, Mrs. Esmeralda Martinez completed coursework earning her an endorsement in reading. Mrs. Martinez is a former member of the CABE (Colorado Association of Bilingual Education) board of directors. 

Her latest educational achievement was the completion of her Principal Licensure in May of 2013. Mrs. Martinez represents Colorado in the Interstate Migrant Education Council (IMEC) a National Policy Organization Advocating for the Nation’s Migrant Children and Youth. Mrs. Martinez currently serves as Vice-President for the Board of Directors for the Sierra Grande Scholarship Foundation, a nonprofit organization which provides high school graduates with scholarships to further their education. Mrs. Martinez was voted by the people of the Sierra Grande community to represent them as a Sierra Grande School District R30 School Board Member in 2015. 

She is currently serving on the Sierra Grande School Board as Vice-President. Mrs. Martinez also serves in the advisory council and steering committee for the College Assistance Migrant Program at Adams State University. Mrs. Martinez is an active advocate for all students. She spends most of her time planning and implementing programs that make a difference for those in most need of advocacy. Her passion embraces the needs of equity, justice and achievement for all youth.

Not At The Table

We all need teachers in our lives, especially now with a pandemic. Some of us parents have to do that role as well in supervising children while accessing their academics. It is challenging. I guess some people saw that I was a leader as I served in many committees in the school district that I worked for. I always have the objective of doing what is right, making a difference for children, and making sure that I was advocating for those who were not at the table.

I think about valuing individuals as a whole. What do you bring to the table? What are your strengths? – Esmeralda Martinez #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Making A Difference

I get up every morning and I think I get to do what’s right. Today I get to make a difference and I think I am blessed to have this job because I have an opportunity to make a difference for others. Collectively, we can continue to do this work more impactfully. I have lost a couple of employees and they have more time to do bigger and better things. But they are my biggest supporters. They may leave the work that they were doing before with us, but now they continue to support it. They always have these at the back of their brains: How can we work with migrants? How can we work to make a difference? How can we support that work, even though we’re not part of the team anymore? Remember, now you can support it from a different perspective. Creating our allies is very impactful as well. When you’re living in small communities and you have limited resources, you depend on that support from each other. To really make a difference in a child’s life, you need that team effort. You need that team approach. You need people in the community. Every support that this child receives is going to make a difference.

I am not saying that I am an expert, but I am willing to share some of those struggles and successes with you all. – Esmeralda Martinez #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Believe in the work that needs to get done in others. If you can do that successfully, then you can achieve more together. – Esmeralda Martinez #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Only Human

When things are just getting out of hand, I reflect on myself as a leader. What am I doing? What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? Recognizing that is key. Recognize that again, as a human being, you have faults. It’s how you resolve those faults, and how you learn from the situations that will make you overcome that situation. I think about what can we do together to make sure that we solve this situation and move past it. We’re not our best maybe because we’re stressed, tired, or because of a personal baggage. It’s really important for us to also take time to recognize that we are human. We have faults and we need rest. We need to also take care of our ourselves to be better leaders.

It's really about uplifting others and empowering them to do what's right and to really make a difference in their communities. – Esmeralda Martinez #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

It's perfectly okay to recognize that we're human and that we may or may not have all the tools to resolve a situation that's before us. – Esmeralda Martinez #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


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Tailoring Our Voices to Our New Normal

A couple of months ago, I hosted my first hybrid keynote event since the COVID-19 pandemic began. A portion of the audience was in the conference hall with me, wearing masks and strictly adhering to social distancing guidelines. The rest of the audience attended virtually, watching and participating via teleconference technology.

In all honesty, it was absolutely delightful to hold a hybrid event. It felt so natural to return to the stage and be in community with an audience. After so many months in quarantine, it felt healing. I enjoyed being in proximity with other like-minded people, and seeing their eyes light up above their masks.

Of course I’ve felt at home speaking on stage for years, and over the past few months I’ve gotten used to speaking only to a camera or computer. But I’ve never had to bring those two formats into the same space and balance them simultaneously. In my keynotes, I lead with a very interactive and engaging speaking style. At times I ask the audience to answer questions, raise a hand, or stand in response to a prompt. In the wake of recent events, I’ve had to adapt my style to the digital realm, and find new ways of maintaining audience engagement. My first hybrid event was the ultimate test to see if I could synthesize my past experiences, and tailor my voice to a changing way of work, while staying true to my approach.

Though bouncing between the in-person and virtual audience was a challenge at first, I had to be comfortable rolling with whatever punches life threw at me. Caring leaders must do this too, by modifying their leadership approach to best fit whichever circumstances they find themselves in. 

My goal as a speaker is always to engage audiences and make them feel included, and this hybrid event was no different. Even from behind a mask, I still maintained eye contact and showed signs of active listening. I also had a colleague keeping tabs on the online chat, so she could give me real-time feedback and questions as they came in. I integrated all this information into my presentation right then and there, and let it guide my approach. In this sense, I symbolically brought my digital audience into the room, and made them feel part of the larger group. From the rave reviews in the chat, I could tell this gesture meant a lot to those who weren’t able to attend in person.

I talk a big game about engagement and inclusion, but I back it up by aligning my voice with those values in every aspect of my life. The same approach I use to make others feel welcome in my presence is the same strategy I use as a speaker, manager, friend, and even as a mother. By asking questions, allowing participation, and making my presentations accessible for all individuals, I’m always seeking innovative ways to host a space for others and show them that their voice is as important as mine. 

Caring leaders should open a dialogue that allows everyone to operate within a space that welcomes both their strengths and weaknesses. As we navigate this new normal, we must customize our methods to meet our people where they are—whether that’s behind a mask or behind a screen.

147: Leaders with Heart are Part of the Team

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In this podcast episode, Heather interviews Karen Erren, President and CEO at Feeding Westchester. As a leader of a non-profit food distribution service, Karen is familiar with showing care to others, but that doesn’t mean she was always a perfectly caring leader. 

What Karen shows in her conversation with Heather is the effort that leaders have to put in to be there for their teams, especially during these trying times. Karen exemplifies being a caring leader by taking her place among her people, not above them. She meets them where they are each day, and expresses the importance of genuine and transparent vulnerability. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Have high expectations for yourself and your team. 
  • The best thing you can do for someone is to believe in them.
  • Stretch yourself, innovate, and fail. 
  • See yourself clearly, and the way others experience you. 
  • Be a part of your team every day. 
  • Be genuine and transparent. Share as much as you’re willing and say, “But I’m here to work with you now.” 

Karen Erren currently serves as the President and CEO of Feeding Westchester.

With over 15 years of experience in food banking, and work experience in corporate advertising and marketing, Karen specializes in Strategic Planning, Fiscal Oversight, Relationship Cultivation & Stewardship, Change Management, Board Relationships, Fundraising, Major Gift Procurement, and Capital Campaigns among others.

Karen earned her degree in Communications from Stephens College.

Joys of Nonprofit

I have been here since late July, early August, but I have been in food banking for about 15 years now after corporate advertising and marketing. I loved the work of corporate advertising and marketing, but I had zero affinity for the product. So, transitioning from corporate advertising and marketing into nonprofit leadership really has brought me a great deal of joy and gratitude, frankly. My nonprofit journey was through fundraising and development, so it’s a mission instead of a product.

I do everything I can to lift them (my people) up and help them be successful. I have very high expectations of myself, my organization, and my team. – Karen Erren #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Neighbors Helping Neighbors

My observation of my team is that the stress and concern for our community is counterbalanced, though not totally, by their commitment and passion for our neighbors who need our help. I have just been delighted, appreciative, and ecstatic that every single one of them is here honored to be able to do this work in a global pandemic, when our neighbors need us more than ever. One of the things that I really treasure about the Hunger Relief System is that we food banks provide food, for the most part, to food pantries, kitchen shelters, and other organizations that feed the hungry. It truly is neighbors helping neighbors.

One of the reasons that I consider it really an honor to serve our partners is because they know that neighborhood. So, when we go to food distributions in partnership with our pantries or other organizations, I love the dialogue that occurs between those that are sharing the food and those that are receiving the food— “How’s your grandma? Is your dad feeling better? Is your mom back to work?”those types of interactions that solidly tell the story that this is a community. These are people who care for their neighbors and want to make sure they have food on the table always. One of the things I think about a lot is the tough periods of time in my life where my family and our friends has sort of carried me through. What we find is that even pre-COVID, many of those who come to our pantries or our direct distributions for help, they just don’t have that network of people who can carry them through the hard times. Essentially our food pantries, and our direct distribution programs become that.  I love to tell our supporters that they are caring for someone’s mom, someone’s grandchild, or someone’s brother. In a family structure or situation that for whatever reason they don’t have that network, you are that network.


In a way, a silver lining to COVID19 has been that our hungry neighbors are more visible. – Karen Erren #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

You've got to try new things. You have to stretch yourself. – Karen Erren #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

Treating Others

You got to try new things. You have to stretch yourself. You have to innovate and you have to fail. I have limitless examples of failure when it comes to leadership. When I was a younger leader, I was self- indulgent. I’m very expressive and very verbal, and I do say I have a very short fuse. I think we have to be willing to see ourselves clearly because there are the stories that we tell ourselves and there are the ways people experience us. What I most want to accomplish is that my team is as delighted to come to work every day because we work really, really hard. That is the lens through which I need to filter my decisions and filter my behavior and filter—the way that I treat others.

I want this team to be as delighted as possible to come to work every day because we work really, really hard. – Karen Erren #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet

As you take on leadership, the way that you behave strongly impacts your team and organization. – Karen Erren #leadershipwithheart Click To Tweet


Connect with Karen on LinkedIn

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Giving & Receiving Grace in Response to Workplace Harm

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending a virtual diversity, equity, and inclusion course. It was fantastic to be in community with other thought leaders and colleagues within the DEI space, and take our collective learning to the next level. Even as someone with years of experience in the field, I can always stand to learn something new from others, and I cherish that process.

On the first day we got to know each other and began to better understand our backgrounds. This early stage of relationship building can be awkward—and the awkwardness is exacerbated by the distance technology creates—but we were lucky enough to progress past this phase quickly. Our informal conversations allowed us to quickly understand where our hearts are, how our histories led us to this point, and what our hopes for the course were.

But as with any new group of peers, it wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. At one point, a Lebanese American woman, who presents more as white, was sharing a story. All of a sudden, she used the term “colored person” in passing, but it definitely struck a chord with those of us who caught it. Another participant, an African American woman from the South, rewound the conversation to correct her. She explained that “colored person” is an outdated and offensive term, and that she felt hurt by its use. The woman who said it was taken aback, as she hadn’t even realized what she said. She of course apologized, and we moved on.

The next day, we learned that the Lebanese American woman texted the African American woman in private afterwards, explaining that her intent was never to offend anyone, but that she takes full responsibility for the mistake. Whereas most people would try to brush off such a blunder or deflect accountability for it, this woman was vulnerable in admitting the harm she caused and listening to how her words affected those around her. The two of them brought this exchange to the larger group, and I was heartened by the display of camaraderie between all of us. We explained how we knew her intentions were positive, so we all felt safe in extending grace to her for an honest mistake.

These two women are perfect case studies for different yet equally powerful kinds of caring leadership. The person who made the hurtful comment demonstrated authentic self-leadership in how she expressed remorse, compassion, and vulnerability. Instead of getting defensive or angry, she listened to her peers and made a small commitment to not only repair the harm she caused on an individual level, but to better herself moving forward as well. On the flip side, the woman who called her into a learning moment exemplified the power of holding others accountable, and genuine forgiveness. She was mature and well-spoken in how she articulated the harm she experienced, and accepting and collaborative in how she opened up a dialogue with the person who offended her. Together, these two individuals used their relationship to teach the rest of us about all of these emotional tools, and how caring leaders can utilize all of them to give and receive grace when a mistake is inevitably committed in the workplace.

Of course, there will be some instances of offense that may feel too drastic to overlook or move past, and those moments will require a distinct set of strategies. But when you feel slighted by a comment made under someone’s breath or hurt by an offhand statement, I urge you to embody the characteristics these two women did. If you’re upset by something, give yourself the time to stop the operation and tend to that wound. If you cause distress by something you did, listen to why your actions caused harm, work with the other person to find a mutually agreeable solution, and internalize the lessons learned. At the end of the day, mistakes are inevitable, but failing to learn from them isn’t. We only evolve when we open ourselves up to the mere possibility of growth.