Transcript: Ensuring an Equitable Return to the Workplace After COVID-19 with Heather Odendaal

Keisha Blair: Welcome to the Holistic Wealth podcast. I’m your host, Keisha Blair, wife, mother of three, author of Holistic Wealth and Founder of the Institute on Holistic Wealth. This show will showcase various experts in the key pillars of holistic wealth. Each week, we deliver the best information on how to become holistically wealthy and live your best life.

Today we have Heather Odendaal and she’s an accomplished Canadian entrepreneur brand builder and event producer, whose experience in corporate environments inspired her to create and co-found WNORTH, a global organization dedicated to the development of women, mid career on a trajectory toward senior executive leadership. Heather, welcome to the holistic wealth podcast. It’s great to have you here.

Heather Odendaal: Thank you, Keisha. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Keisha Blair: Great. And so I just wanted to get into your personal journey because I know you started out in a corporate environment, and transitioned out to be an entrepreneur and, you know, given the numbers, the millions of women who, you know, left their job during COVID-19 the millions in North America, I just love to start with your personal journey and the reasons why you transitioned and how that worked for you. And kind of the reasons for that, I guess.

Heather Odendaal: About seven years ago, I was working for a fortune 500 company that is in the beverage alcohol space. And I was a remote employee and I was ambitious and driven and looking for more leadership development and more opportunities. And so I couldn’t find the resources for my particular position internally. And I started to see particularly a conference that brought together women from across north America that were like me as a leadership development path and the leadership development journey. And when I couldn’t find it, I decided to, and with a little bit of a nudge from my co-founder, who is also my husband, I started the WNORTH company.

I’m an event producer by trade. So it was, that was kind of a really cool thing that I could create something that used a skillset that I had in, in my wheelhouse. And, you know, I did that all alongside, um, my corporate job for many years, actually a few years before having a baby. And so I, the WNORTH conference was my side hustle.

I was four days a week, at that corporate job. And when I had a baby, obviously many things changed and I was prepared to come back. I came back to my role for seven months and, um, unfortunately a lot of things had changed and I experienced what many women experience from coming back from maternity.

The role and the expectations had increased. We were a publicly traded company that had escalated in a stock value over the previous two years. And I just didn’t see a way forward for myself at that company. So, luckily, I had the side hustle, which was supporting women on their leadership journey, which was exactly what I needed at the time. In 2017, I became a full-fledged entrepreneur and, continued to support women in both entrepreneurial and corporate environments in getting to their leadership destination.

Keisha Blair: That’s a wonderful story and a wonderful journey because I like how you mentioned, returning from maternity leave for a lot of us women, it’s not that straight forward path that we think it’s going to be. And for some of us that experience, different experiences while on mat leave. For instance, I went back from maternity leave a young widow. My husband died eight weeks after I gave birth, so it was like going back to work, you’re a changed person. You have a changed identity and a changed lifestyle. And well, as you mentioned, there are different expectations of you, and during COVID-19, especially for us moms, you know, during periods of lockdown, we were doing both roles in terms of remote learning, juggling corporate jobs, for those of us in cooperate, or, you know, as entrepreneurs.

And again, that brought on another crisis. So, I wanted to get your perspective, having planned and executed, leadership development events for women, what you see as like the key critical pinpoints that you’re hearing from women who are moms, especially during this period and what they’re saying, because I feel like for a while there, it felt like we were all in this crisis.

And remote work or work work-wise and then homeschooling presented different challenges, which I’m sure led many women to even reconsider, whether they’d want a senior executive leadership position. Like I’ve been there. I know I’ve participated in senior executive training. So, and that happened too. When I was on mat leave, I was in senior executive training before even going to mat leave. But I just love to get your thoughts on that. As many women are navigating this pandemic as mothers too. And, you know, just thinking about whether or not like what, you know, the next steps and, and especially with leadership development and climbing the corporate ladder.

Heather Odendaal: Well, you mentioned, everything has changed and it’s so true. And that one of the things I’ve been reflecting on in the last couple of weeks is it’s almost like everybody is coming back out of maternity leave. As we ran to the workforce, the offices have changed, the teams have changed, we have changed, everything is different. And so I think, and especially for women who have had to take on those additional roles and responsibilities that you mentioned, we have to refocus on what does that leadership path look like as an example? One of the things, as a remote employee that I experienced, and I hope that this is a flaw that is fixed in the next few years or even months is as a remote employee. I always felt like I was being treated differently and I wasn’t being considered for certain opportunities. I was left out of important conversations. I had a contribution to what my work day and what my schedule would look like. Cause I wasn’t in the office or maybe at the table for those discussions.

So there’s a fear that as coming out of COVID those organizations may be super flexible and allow you to decide whether you’re going to remain fully remote, be a combination of the two, or go back to the office. But what I would like to see is a more equitable spread of how those remote employees or those hybrid employees get treated when it comes to promotion, when it comes to opportunities for advancement, women and women of color, people of color, people with disabilities, all.  Minorities, will be more likely to select remote work and hybrid environments then non-minorities. And, so we’re going to see a fundamental shift in the makeup of who is going to be remote and who is going to be in the office. And, you know, seven years ago when I was a remote employee, it wasn’t good for advancement opportunities. That’s what I hope that organizations will really focus on strategies that will be inclusive of all types of workers, whether they’re in the office 100% of the time or not.

Keisha Blair: Absolutely. Right. And I love the point that you brought up about, you know, minorities, people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, like you’re right. There’s going to be a fundamental shift in terms of who chooses remote versus not. I’m completely with you. And I completely agree that it has to be very equitable in terms of, you know, promotion opportunities and leadership opportunities.

And I remember in a previous solo podcast episode I did entitled “Black Women’s Equal PayDay (Only 3% Of Black Professionals Want To Return To The Office) & Strategies To Navigate Life Transitions”, just to go back to your point on that was on a statistic. It was an article that I saw about 97% of Black employees not wanting to go back into the office. So we’re talking about only 3% of Black professionals that would opt to go back in the office. So I think we’re talking about that split being very large in terms of sheer numbers, as you mentioned, you know, minorities and of course, people with disabilities and other workers with, not only childcare responsibilities, but aging parents in our generation so it’s, it’s going to be a split. And I love the points that you brought up there. And Heather, from what you’re hearing from your audience, in terms of WNORTH connect and other women, how do you think organizations can go about making this returning to work be more equitable?

Heather Odendaal: So I think what’s interesting, organizations, large organizations that are taking a more of a overarching stance, like everybody is going back to the office or we are, this is our policy and we’re sticking to. That that is a challenge because either there are a number of different factors to consider when you’re trying to determine whether these employees can come back, you know, not every role is the same. I think that some of these decisions need to be empowered to be made at a department level. At a team level.

There’s no one size fits all strategy for this whole thing. And I think this is where that human centric leadership comes in, where we start to look at a number of factors with regards to that individual. What is the role and the responsibility of that individual? How often do they need to be in the office?

What are their preference? What is the team’s preference? And I, so I think it’s about making empowering decisions at a micro level. I’m not sure that all our organizations will be able to make decisions by that one shift that I’m seeing is we’re talking about this, the great resignation and that, and the great shift.

People who are changing roles. A lot of people that are moving from large enterprises and large corporate offices to smaller, to medium sized businesses. And, you know, on that front, you know, these are organizations that may maybe a little bit more set up to lead with that human centric leadership because of their size.

So, you know, that’s something to consider as it is. You know, a lot of women that I’m talking to right now or not to say we’ve lost ambition. We’ve just, we’ve been kicked to, we been kicked over during the pandemic. So we’re starting to re-evaluate things like, do I need to have that fancy title or what does my day-to-day look like?

Who is my manager? We’re looking at things a lot more on a microscope or a micro level. Who is my manager? What does my day-to-day look like? What does my flexibility look like? And maybe I don’t look for work for the largest tech company in the world now, but I have work-life balance and I have a manager that supports me.

So I think organizations, if they are large in scope, they need to start looking to some of the. Medium sized businesses, um, and how they manage their people, um, from like a human centric leadership.

Keisha Blair: Absolutely. And you’re so right. I was doing some research and for my book Holistic Wealth, we have the second edition of Holistic Wealth coming out next March for International Women’s Day (on March 8th 2022).

And it was amazing. Just going back to your point about women starting to re-evaluate, and they’re doing it at a micro level and you’re absolutely right. So in the research for that book, I included the stat in the book about everyone, including women, even looking at their salaries and thinking, you know what? I don’t necessarily think I need X salary to be okay anymore. I think I could do with less. And as you mentioned, the Great Resignation Wave too, and people are re-evaluating their priorities and thinking about that. Maybe prior to COVID I would think that, you know, let’s say more salary made me happy, but now after COVID, I’m re-evaluating that because I’m looking more at my health, my mental health, you know, my physical health. And as you mentioned, work-life balance.

So, I think you’re absolutely right that we’ve been kicked, we’ve been like run over collectively and, thinking about how we feel going forward. And what we want for our lives is something that many people are doing right now, which makes it a critical point for organizations.

And I’m hoping they just, you know, they apply a holistic wealth lens and that’s something else I talk about in my book, applying a holistic wealth lens to things like this, because that’s what everyone else is doing. Theoretically is, you know, applying that type of lens not just thinking about, do I need the fancy title anymore, but thinking about, you know, what sustainable for me? What can I live with in terms of my needs and my family’s needs? So Heather, you have been highly successful in terms of the WNORTH conference. And it makes me think that there’s such a need out there. That women are craving this kind of leadership development or that space to discuss issues and to hear from experts on different issues with regards to senior executive leadership.

And of course, there’s a lot of things to think about too, um, with that. And so are there any other major themes that you’ve picked up on from women, you know, in terms of senior executive leadership or in terms of how they want to structure their cooperate lives going forward.

Heather Odendaal: It was actually great timing for this podcast, because last Friday we had our, it was our second in-person event. It’s this we’re keeping things small. So, it was a luncheon for 20 of our members and, you know, the excitement in the room around getting together. So, the theme was around resilience and reimagination. And we got to hear from all 20 women as to what their, you know, their reimagination of their life and professional life is going to be in the next year.

And there’s definitely, there’s a positive reflection. I would say of, you know, a lot of what they have all gone through in the sense of, we, I think we’re over talking about the negatives and we’re. We’re highlighting the, the good things that were coming out of COVID whether that was getting more in shape or it was getting to know our children better.

So that has really shaped a lot of these women and I’ll call them. You know, my micro, um, samples size, of women and professional women right now. And they had said, you know, all of the reflection and all of the changes that they had endured over the last year has really, it’s shaped their career.

And, and to the point of the last question where they want to go next, um, many of them are very driven right now. I’d say a lot of women are ready to. Depth into that next position to stack it step into that promotion. I think as women, we really collectively code our confidence from other women, especially being able to connect with them on a deeper level.

So, one of the programs that we run at WNORTH as a part of our membership is a leadership mastermind. This is a group of five women and one executive coach through facilitated weekly discussions and there, you know, that is the type of training and connections that women are really looking for.

I think gone are the days that we need to go to an event filled with a hundred people every year to create connections. I think women professionally really thrive off of community. And so, it will be about professional women coming together in smaller, more curated groups to find peer mentorship, to find confidence to, you know, source ideas.

You know, a lot of women are, are in our groups. You know, getting their heads together on how to help one another, get a promotion or get that next position. You know, maybe it’s not, maybe it’s a lateral move. It’s not always an upward trajectory that just is well suited for them. So, yeah, I think the connection and reforging those connections and our business lives is going to be so pivotal in the next six months.

Keisha Blair: I think you’re right. And I completely agree. And it’s so funny, you mentioned the smaller, more curated groups because after the Holistic Wealth book launch, we heard from readers who were interested in setting up Holistic Wealth Project groups. And so, I launched the Holistic Wealth Project Accountability groups. I’ve been hearing from other women that this is something they want to implement at work. Because it’s keeping them, you know, goal-oriented, and accountable to each other. And as you mentioned, we can help each other with looking for opportunities, whether lateral moves or promotional opportunities, or other goals, and objectives that they have for their lives, even outside of work that will help them with their own personal mission, Let’s say.

And so that sounds like exactly that. And I do see that trend. As well, which is amazing. And so, Heather, I created this quiz during the first part of lockdown, this personal financial identity quiz. Cause that’s the other thing that readers were women, especially were coming back to me and saying, you mentioned in your book Holistic Wealth, that we should have our own personal financial identity. So how do we know what our personal financial identities are?

And at the time I didn’t have a quiz, I didn’t have anything. So I got to working on this and during this project, We’ve shared some tremendous insights from women who’ve come on, entrepreneurs and other women’s. You know, and I know you took the quiz and I’m eager to hear what your results are and if you have any other insights to share in terms of how you think, you know, it’s shaped you in terms of not only our finances, but even your life philosophy on how you spend and save and invest. So it would be great to hear what your results were.

Heather Odendaal: Okay. So I surprised myself, I’m a Minimalist and when I think about that from a business context, it makes a lot of sense because I have run and grew my company from a lean Startup sort of process. So, you know, there’s been organizations and companies similar to mine that have, may take you know, an aggressive growth model or venture capital fundraising, or a number of different strategies. And, you know, it was for me more important to focus on slow and steady grow and also creating a balance. So, while I had two small children, I have a two-year-old and a five-year-old right now, I was growing my company pretty much from when I started out, got pregnant and, thought I should qualify. I had a company, I had an event company first, but my WNORTH journey started more recently. So, for me, that Minimalist is representative of me. You have it here in the description from the quiz, “simple living and keep it simple”. And you know, for me, I wanted to make sure that the growth was organic, and that I had control over it.

And that served me well, that Minimalist model served me well during the pandemic, when I had to keep things leaner, I had to keep things, you know, I didn’t have a lot of people on payroll to balance. I’m very proud that we kept all people, all the people we did have on payroll and have actually grown our team. I think that’s where the Minimalist in me has come out and hopefully it was a good decision for running a business during COVID-19.

Keisha Blair: Absolutely. And I’ve heard that from a lot of Minimalists on the podcast, as well as they share, you know, how they grew their company with that lean philosophy that you spoke about so that’s amazing. And so Heather, before we leave are there any new developments or anything exciting happening in the future for WNORTH?

Heather Odendaal: Yes. So, we are very excited to have announced a couple of new chapter cities. We have 10 chapter cities across North America now, and we are starting in-person meetups, small curated groups of 20 people in those cities. And just really doubling down on that connection point that I spoke of earlier. I think that’s how women are wired. We want to network and connect with like-minded women. So that membership, we are reopening our doors for membership in early October. And I invite you all to join

Keisha Blair: Absolutely. And that’s great. That’s absolutely what I’ve heard from even other women on this podcast that, yes, it’s, it’s smaller, more intimate, you know, that old metric where we used to go to conferences and give out 500 business cards and that would be the metric of success that would be what we would come back with a pile of business cards.

I think COVID has thrown that out the window as we, you know, ventured online and realized that it was in-person connections, that was just so important rather than just a transaction. It was more development of those relationships.

Heather Odendaal: Totally quality versus quantity any day.

Keisha Blair: Exactly. So Heather, thank you so much for sharing your insights on the podcast. It was amazing having you here. And can you tell our audience where to find you on social media? you mentioned your website, your social media handles too?

Heather Odendaal: Sure. So, you can find us on Instagram and Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn @WNORTHconnect.

Keisha Blair: Okay. Perfect. Thank you so much, Heather. It was amazing having you here.

Heather Odendaal: Thank you so much. Pleasure and hope to chat with you soon.

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