Enlisting Cooperation by Becoming A Better Listener | Brenda Robbins


On this week’s episode of the Vibrant Leadership Podcast, we speak with Brenda Robbins. Brenda earned her MBA from Colorado State University, is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, or SHRM, holds two designations, the SCP and SPHR, and is currently the HR Manager for Union Power Cooperative in Monroe, North Carolina. Her HR industry experience includes electric distribution, Cabela’s, and Anheuser-Busch.

We chat with Brenda about how to become a better listener, as well as:

  • Finding and harnessing your inner spark

  • The importance of displaying integrity

  • Applying rules equally for safety and the greater good

  • When to reevaluate and update policy and procedures

  • Practicing double confidentiality

  • And more

Mentioned in this episode:


Voiceover: You’re listening to the Vibrant Leadership Podcast with leadership speaker and consultant Nicole Greer.

Nicole Greer: Welcome to the Vibrant Leadership Podcast. I am so excited today to have on the podcast Brenda Robbins. I have known Brenda for several years now. And here’s what I know about her. She’s a true professional, an HR professional with 30 years of experience. But look at her. She doesn’t look like she has 30 years of experience that is for sure. In all facets of HR and you may not realize how multifaceted HR is. You wouldn’t believe the amount of hats that Brenda Robbins has to put on. All sorts of different leadership hats inside of HR. 

And she’s currently the HR Manager for Union Power Cooperative in Monroe, North Carolina. It’s how we keep the lights on in Monroe, North Carolina. Brenda’s HR industry experience includes electric distribution, big box retail with Cabela’s. Ooh for all you hunters listening in, and your fishermen and beverage with Anheuser Busch, and you know who you guys are. So working with the community, especially local school districts is one of Brenda’s biggest passions. You know, I think at the end of the day, one of the things that HR does is it educates and leads the education effort inside of organizations. But Brenda will tell us all about that. 

And Brenda earned her MBA from Colorado State University. And she is also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management. And she holds two designations, the SCP which she can tell us about and the SPHR and listen those things, those tests those exams, no joke, people. And so she is seriously certified. And I know that she she displays servant leadership. That’s how I came to know her. And she’s very involved in a lot of organizations, especially SHRM she gives of herself, like none other. So I am so glad to have you, Brenda on the show. So welcome.

Brenda Robbins: Well thank you, Nicole, thank you so much for inviting me to be on your Vibrant Leadership podcast. I’m excited.

Nicole: Yeah, we’re gonna have a good time. So my first question for everybody is, what’s your definition of leadership? How does Brenda see it?

Brenda: Okay, for me, you know, I see it as the ability to motivate others so that we can come to a common goal. But for the group, however, small or big your group is, but also that ability to help pull out in a person may be something buried inside of them, that they didn’t know was buried so that they have that leadership. Growing up, I was that quiet, shy, little thing that did not like to get in front of anyone.

Nicole: So yeah, so you had that own experience yourself. And now you are in a big position with the Cooperative. So I really love that. So finding the little something, I like to call it the spark and what you’re talking about, I call the spark because you know, I have my SHINE coaching methodology, which is S H I N E. And so I think what is so important is to help people figure out what their little spark is. And then like, you know, as an HR leader, you trying to fan it into a flame. Right? So I love that. 

That’s awesome. So, you know, what are the most important skills that successful leaders need to have, you know, inside your organization, you’ve got people that are boots on the ground, or boots in the air, right, working on all sorts of electrical lines and things like that all the way to the C suite, you touch the whole organization, what are the most important skills of successful leaders.

Brenda: I think a few of the most successful skills. One of them for sure is listening to others, but making sure that you learn from your team and others. We don’t all have their have all the answers and learning from each other, paying attention to the talent that’s around you, making sure that you’re utilizing that talent for what for, you know, their, you know, their skills that they have, and helping them to develop, but I mean, really paying attention to the people and making sure that you’re, you’re always listening.

Nicole: Yeah, so I love what you’re saying because it’s like, Hello, nothing’s gonna happen at this organization, unless the people are engaged and you’re listening to what they have to say. And you’re utilizing their skills and talents, right? Because like if we all got raptured out of here this afternoon, the like your slides would just be there with nobody to tend to them, right. So really important. So you talked about listening, what what have you done to help the leaders inside your organization become exceptional leaders? What do they need to do to become a good listener?

Brenda: Sit back and close their mouth! Our folks, our leadership is very good. They really, they really do a great job of listening and listening to all sides, you know of what’s going on. You get some of that some of the little oddball things or the things that really pop up, you know, when COVID started. No, you know, it was like, we can’t work from home, and very quickly moved into the new building. And then it was almost like the next day or within a few days, we were putting computer packages together to get people at home to work from there. And we just haven’t missed a beat. Since everything started with COVID.

Nicole: Yeah, and okay, so do y’all don’t miss what Brenda just said. She said, you can’t listen if your mouth is moving. Okay, so don’t miss that, you know. So stepping back, closing your mouth, opening your ears, I actually have like a little methodology that I talked about in terms of like listening, like, there’s the first level of listening. It’s like, I recognize you’re talking. But I’m thinking about what I want to say, That’s level one. 

Level Two is I am listening to you. And I am comprehending what you’re saying, I’m not formulating a message, in my mind. Level Three is, I’m listening to you. I’m trying to connect the dots between the experiences we’ve had, I’m reading between the lines, I’m looking for core values, I’m looking for emotion, I’m trying to read the whole big picture. And then there’s the final level of listening, which is this act of listening where you get the other person to talk more, right? You know, it’s like, I’m focused on you 100%, I want to pick your brain, you know, that’s one thing we say all the time pick your brain, or I really want to understand where you’re coming from. 

And then I’ll formulate a response or an opinion of what you’re telling me. So I think those levels are absolutely invaluable. So y’all listen up. Listen up, Brenda said to listen up. Okay, good. All right. So my next question for you is, you know, you you work with a whole bunch of folks, and you know, Brenda is going to be very reluctant to say that they’re that any of her people have a problem? Because she loves being HR gal, and she loves her people. But as you look over your 30 year career, maybe not even at the Cooperative, maybe back in one of those other organizations? Where do leaders really struggle like you just like, there it is, again, I wish that would go away? What is the thing you see leaders struggling with?

Brenda: You know, one thing not not utilizing their own positive traits, bringing those traits out in what they do. Not being real. Yeah, having to have the staunch, you know, this is how it works, then I’m a robot and listen to me. I don’t I definitely don’t get that with my group. My group is I just I just love. I love working for the co op. It’s, it’s, you know, we’re just that servants are there for the membership, everything we do is for the membership. But in my past, I’ve had maybe even some, with some integrity issues, saying one thing and doing something else. Maybe not illegal, but just not following through. So why would anyone want to follow or work beside someone who isn’t doing what they say?

Nicole: You’ve nailed it. I totally agree. That’s what I see too. And, you know, what she’s talking about what Brenda Robbins is talking about is legit. She said, it’s sometimes even an integrity issue. So, Brenda, I don’t know, if this has been your experience, but like, a lot of people think like their, their integrity is almost untouchable? Like, why are you questioning my integrity? You know, and it’s like, well, the weird reason I’m questioning it is because like you just said you did one, you said one thing and you did another or you talk about being positive, but you just complained for the last 20 minutes. 

You know, you didn’t you didn’t handle the situation appropriately. So one of the things that I love to do with teams is I love to work with this document called the true tilt factors and it has 48, commendable leadership traits. So if you want to email me at Nicole@vibrantcoaching, I’ll send you this thing because it shares with you like there’s there’s these 48 commendable traits, but you can overuse it. And you could like under utilize that trait. And that’s what I heard Brenda say they’ve got positive traits they under utilize. Is there is there a story that you can protect the innocent not mention any names of like a time where you even had to coach up? You know, you had a senior leader and you’re like, you gotta stop doing that. Have you ever had a time where you’ve had to step in, I find that most of the HR directors I work with, they are very much a coach just like I am.

Brenda: Absolutely. We’re kind of coaching all the time of just reminder, you know, in some of it, it’s just reminding someone what they what they said. I’ve had it again, in the past where it’s been, you know, make sure that everything is fair in the discounts that we’re giving you know that we’re making sure that the discounts for all employees are the same. But yet we have special discounts for the VPs. That doesn’t make sense. 

You know, to me, that’s the group that makes the most money. They don’t need the discount. It’s, it’s your, it’s your clerks that are making, making all of that. Now, people probably can figure out where that one came from. But that was from years and years ago, that definitely has changed, but it was, yeah, I think it was kind of hard like I’ve earned it, I’ve gotten here. I know, but you’ve made a lot of money. You can you can you can afford, you can afford what we’re selling.

Nicole: That’s right. That’s right. Or just make it across the board. Right.

Brenda: Everybody’s equal.

Nicole: Yeah, exactly. So I think that the the thing too, is like when we talk about leadership, you know, there’s actually like the human doing the leading like, through their words, their action, their deeds, their interactions, communication, blah, blah. But like, sometimes policy, or procedure, laid down is a form of leadership. And so like, my guess is, Brenda, that you’re the keeper of the employee handbook. You’re the keeper of the policies and procedures. How does leadership and play a part in policies, procedures, the things that we say we’re going to, you know, this is the rules we’re going by?

Brenda: Well, what that it’s reminding everybody, like you said they are the rules were supposed to go by every rule has a little bit of deviation, but how much are we deviating? And are we consistent in that deviation? If we’re going to constantly deviate from it? Well, then that policy probably needs to be revised. But it’s reminding everyone right now, during COVID. You know, we get the phone call, we ask the questions. Do we really have to keep them out that long? And I know they everybody knows the answer. Yes, we do. Because we we, we don’t want it to be that we, somebody does come in positive. 

And now we have all the linemen are out. And then we have a storm come in, and nobody can go get the electricity back on. Because we’re so proud of, of what we do and keeping the electricity on and having such a high high rating. But it’s sometimes it’s that Yes, we do. And this is why I know why this is tough. In the big picture of things, having fewer out is going to be the best thing for us. But it’s sometimes that that that reminder of why the rule is there, why it’s why it’s the way it is. And big side of things. It’s for it’s for the best.

Nicole: Yeah, yeah. So I think the concept we’re getting at here is that leaders have to really think and this isn’t back to integrity, they have to really think about being fair and consistent. And then if you find yourself, you know, messing with the rule, it’s like, oh, we need to take a giant step back, maybe revise it so that we don’t look out of integrity in terms of the policy that we have in place. All right, I think that’s huge. So being fair and consistent, really important. So what are the biggest challenges of leaders today in terms of working in COVID? What have you seen has been a big problem or something that you maybe you guys have figured out that’s really working to keep the team cookies if I know that leaders are struggling with that.

Brenda: You know, we’re going in so many directions we’ve got we’ve got people working at home, we’ve got people working in the office, we’ve got people going back and forth. Again, it is that communication piece, we utilize a virtual platform similar to the one you and I are on today. And I feel that everyone needs to connect more with their people than they ever did before. Especially those that are home they feel like they’re there left they’re not they’re not there when we decorated for Christmas they’re not there to do the different things. 

Just yesterday I sent out a note and said hey you know third Friday’s the ugly sweater day even though you’re at home where your ugly sweater and take a picture. Communications we’ll post it. But it’s it’s it’s helping people still feel connected and and looking face to face that each other even though it’s it’s virtually, but still make keeping those connections because everybody is going in multiple ways. 

And I think I’m busier now than I was then I I’ve been in years, just going in so many directions and making sure that we’re in compliance and we’re keeping everybody safe and we’ve got enough hands sanitizer ordered and we have enough masks on hand and our everybody is everybody wearing their masks like they’re supposed to. They don’t want to. Get the mask back on, you know, just the the little police have this this for your own good, I promise.

Nicole: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. So it’s like you want to love on everybody, but like some people are going to want to, you know, step out of the rules, you got to bring them back in gently right? And just reassure them. The reason why we’re doing all this is because we love you, and we want you to survive and be alive at the end of COVID. That’s right. That’s right. 

All right, well, let’s think about somebody that you might want to mentor listening from an imaginary person who maybe someday wants to be in an HR role in a leadership role for HR, I have a lot of people who will be listening to this podcast who are aspiring to sometime sit in a seat like Brenda Robbins sits in, what would you say to that special listener? What leadership advice would you give them? What’s How do I become a leader? How do I get there?

Brenda: That’s a really good question. I, for me, it’s it’s number one having the desire. If you don’t have the desire to help people, that to me, that’s that’s the, that’s the main thing that a leader does is they’ll they’re helping others to reach their potential, pass them up. A good leader is the one that’s proud because they helped get somebody from, you know, starting as a as a groundsman. 

And now they’re the they’ve gone back to school, and now they’re the VP of engineering. So it’s having that desire to do the best for everybody. being consistent understanding that everything that comes in these errors doesn’t come back out the mouth. And just having a true desire to help people reach their potential, and sometimes pulling them along, because there’s more potential there than they really they really have. And they really think they have.

Nicole: Yeah, so the thing I really want to point out that she just did, did y’all see her? The things that come out here, don’t pour out here. So she’s what she was saying, which I love. The visual is, you gotta practice confidentiality, you gotta be you don’t want to be political. But you want to be like a little politically savvy, like this saying this repeating this gossiping, this is not going to help my situation, or the situation here, even if the latest gossip, even if I agree with it. I don’t need to voice it. Right. I don’t need to add to the problem. Right. 

So I think that’s really huge advice. For somebody coming up, you know, just put your opinion out there in a helpful way, but maybe don’t get in the gossip train don’t go out of confidentiality. Right. So there’s a great concept called double confidentiality. And I learned this in my coaching training. So it’s, it’s not only like, if I’ve come to Brenda, in confidentiality, and I tell her what’s going on with like, say, me and a leader or being a teammate, you know, Brenda listens to me, she coaches counsels me, probably puts me back in the driver’s seat, like, here’s, what are you gonna do about it? Nicole? Right. 

So I take responsibility for my situation with my co worker or my boss. But then Brenda, you know, wait, has double confidentiality she doesn’t tell anybody about it. And she doesn’t keep bringing it up with me. She waits for me to come back and say, I’m still having an issue, right? So not, you know, keeping that thing that’s alive, you know, energized if Nicole’s gone back and figured it out. Right. So, you know, having that double confidentiality to let other people figure out what’s going on? Well, you know, I’m curious, you know, I love the fact that you worked for Anheuser Busch, and then Cabela’s and then you moved on. 

So tell me, you know, in terms of your own career, what did you do personally, to lead yourself so that you’ve got all those opportunities, and you wound up where you are now? In a, you know, in a great position working with how many employees do you have at the Cooperative?

Brenda: We have 139, I believe 

Nicole: Okay.

Brenda: I mean, we’re, we are a lean machine cooperative. In fact, I would just back visiting my former Co Op in Wyoming, and they have grown, that Co Op was 10,000 members. All right, our Co Op, is we’re sneaking up on 80,000 members now. I mean, we are just a growing machine. But you know, so we do everything is as tight as we can. And again, we’re spending the members’ money so we do everything that we possibly can, you know, in the end, with the with the membership in mind, but I’ve really got to think back to Anheuser Busch because I started there. 

I was a young lady with a two year associate’s degree, working with the bargaining unit. Working with them, you know, I was I was on the other side of it, but working with them and, you know, always trying to find the best for everybody, every employee, and having mentors on the HR side there to help teach me of what was going on, and they could see things. So they encouraged me to go back to school. 

So I went back to school and did my four year degree, then completed my my masters, and and having having people see the potential in you, because sometimes you don’t see it in yourself. And that’s what I think the leader does there. They’re seeing it and wanting to pull it out. So being able to have somebody do that I think is so key, and then utilizing them as a mentor as a coach of just helping you keep, keep stepping up and being the better you.

Nicole: Yeah. And so I think that education is essential these days, I think it really does set you apart. So talk about your credentials, your HR credentials, because like I said at the beginning of this, I mean, they’re no joke, you’ve got to know your stuff to pass the exam. Am I right?

Brenda: Oh, yes, you do. Yeah. In fact, the first time I took it, the SPHR is your senior professional in human resources. And that’s through the HRCI No, oh, no, I’m blank on what that stands for. But anyway, that I thought, Oh, I know this, I’ve been doing this forever, sat down, took this long exam, you have to go to a testing facility. You know, they’re it’s almost like they frisk you before you can get in there. You can take a set of earplugs, going through and taking the exam. And I missed it by one point. And I was like, oh, but like, I only had myself the blame. Yeah. 

So six months later, I took it again, got got really serious and did the studying. Because so much of it is you can learn the concepts, but you’ve really got to be able to know how to apply it in the different circumstances. And when you’re working with people, no two things are alike, ever. So being able to do that piece. Well. And then SHRM came along and brought in separated off from the other institute, and brought in their SHRM SCP, which the Senior Certified Professional. Every three years, I’ve got to gain certification credits, 60 credits a year. 

But you you gain those by going to different classes or attending presentations, our SHRM group or Union County Human Resources Association, we pride ourselves in having great presenters, you you presented for us in a mini conference before and that was that’s been great. But having the trying to hit those presentations that are what’s going on right now. But allowing it so that it our membership can get that certification because one credit at a time, you know, one hour because one credit, it takes a while to get those 60 credits and before you know it, but your three years are up and you’re like, oh, crud, I gotta get I gotta get the certification.

Nicole: Yeah it’s a week and a half of your life to get the 60 credits right. 60 hours.

Brenda: Yeah and you can’t jam it down your throat just like you would, you know, trying to study for a regular exam it at least, I feel on the HR profession. You’re right, we go in so many pieces from record for recruiting compliance, strategic, we have the payroll piece, we have the benefits, we have the training, we have all of all of those pieces. And I feel if you if you’re going to be certified in in as a senior professional, you’ve got to know a good chunk of all of them, you can’t just be be one piece. And we’re ever changing. So that the HR world, I mean, that’s one of the things I love, I love the people, and I love that it’s not stagnant. I love accounting, but it’s not, you know, the numbers don’t always stay the same.

Nicole: That’s right. And so what Brenda’s talking about is the fact that we we as HR leaders, right, and so and here’s the other thing I wanted to make this point earlier, is like, you know, even though Brenda’s title, you know, is like she’s the Director of HR. Everybody in the C suite, all the managers down to the front line, the guy who’s running the crew, they all need to have a certain amount of HR savvy. Because if I hire a new person, and they’re on my crew, I gotta, I gotta know something about the laws. 

I got to know something about training. I got to know something about recruiting, you know, I’m going to be doing some interviewing perhaps. So it’s really important that even if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re like, I’m not an HR leader. Why am I listening? You should be listening. Because every single leader needs to know like, Brenda is talking about that little nuance of all the things people, right. So really, really important. I think that’s essential. So Brenda, to finish us out. 

Let’s do this little game I want to play pretend. Imagine you had a new leader. And they had a one on one scheduled with you. And you thought I’m gonna give you my best advice. Here’s what I would do. If I were you, as a leader, what, what would you tell them kind of tie a bow on it for us and give us some great advice.

Brenda: Okay. My best advice, it still goes back to the listening piece, I think the listening pieces is the is the tough one. But really absorb what’s going on around you pay attention, you know, you are coming into this new organization, you don’t know all the nuances. Now, just because it’s always been done that way doesn’t mean it stays that way. But you gotta have, you can’t come in and change something without having an understanding, or a compassion for the way it was done. Because there’s a lot of history in many places. 

So listening absorbing, before you come in and change. Because there’s just you just, you just can’t come in and just, you can’t be a bull in a china cabinet. You’ve really got to, but you’ve got to be assertive, you’ve really got to be assertive, and that’s why they brought you in, but still important to to know that culture and cultures are. So So I guess that would be it is culture, people. People downplay culture and culture can make or break.

Nicole: Yeah, so what’s that old saying? Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Have you heard that one?

Brenda: No. I wish I could believe it. I could believe it.

Nicole: Yeah. So basically, it’s like, if you’re a new leader, and you come in, and you look around, and I think the thing is, you know, I have a heart for new leaders, because they are like, they’re hungry. They want to make stuff happen. They’re excited. And they hired me to do this thing. But you know, Brenda is giving you sage, sage advice. She’s telling you slow your jets, talk to everybody, and listen, and then look at what’s going on, understand the culture, maybe change even the language you’re going to use to deliver your ideas. 

So it matches, right. And then you get this thing, this really Okay, so this is going to be perfect. So we get this thing called cooperation. And Brenda knows because she works at the cooperative, right? Yeah, so I think you got to enlist the cooperation of your people. And if you’re if they don’t feel listened to, I mean, people, people feel that they know it, and they’re gonna they’re gonna be resistant, am I right?

Brenda: Absolutely. They’re gonna shut down and not trust you.

Nicole: Yeah, and trust is the name of the game. All right. So I have just had a blast being with you today, Brenda Robbins. And I would love to put out there. Is there a way that people could find you if they want to connect with you? Are you on LinkedIn?

Brenda: I am on LinkedIn. So you can find Brenda Robbins right out there on LinkedIn. And through the cooperative, through our website, union-power.com. Key staff are listed right there. So you can click in and, and send me an email and say, you heard me on this. So I, I don’t think it’s one of those weird, funky spam messages where we get a lot of those. But I’d love to connect with people. 

And hey, if you’re in the Union County area, and you’re looking for a great group to be connected with that Union County Human Resources Association, even if you’re not if you’re just a small business owner, it’s not just your that we need those. We’re a group of people that you can network with that can give you a whole lot of answers. A lot of answers.

Nicole: Absolutely. And so you don’t miss the value that she just offered. She said, if you are trying to run a business, and you need some support in figuring out how to work with your human resources, your peeps in a great way. The Union County SHRM will be glad to help you and you can actually ask people to go out and check her out. All right. It’s been delightful to be with you and that we will see you I will give you a hug on the other side of COVID.

Brenda: You too. Have a great one.

Voiceover: Ready to up your leadership game? Bring Nicole Greer to speak to your leadership team, conference or organization to help them with her unique SHINE method to increase clarity, accountability, energy and results. Email speaking@vibrantculture.com and be sure to check out Nicole’s TEDx talk at vibrantculture.com/TEDtalk.

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