In this episode, Caitlin Delohery, Editor in Chief of StaffingHub, talks with Mullady Voelker, President of Strategic Growth at GIFTED Healthcare, to talk about trauma-informed leadership, asking tough questions about diversity and inclusion, and how to maintain hope during these stressful times.

Delohery: Hi, we’re here today with Mullady Voelker. Mullady Voelker is the President of Strategic Growth at GIFTED Healthcare, a company whose purpose is to improve the patients experience by empowering nurses and providing frontline care.

Before joining Gifted, Mullady worked at an investment firm in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, she earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work in Tulane and specialized in treating families and children with PTSD and symptoms of trauma. She worked closely with children who were traumatized by the effects of the hurricane.

When she joined Gifted 10 years ago, she found a way to combine her two passions – building a strong business and serving others. She sat on the Boards of the Children’s Bureau, Daughters of Charity, Legacy Foundation and The New Orleans Council for Community and Justice and was named one of Staffing Industry Analysts’ 40 under 40.

Thank you so much for joining me again, Mullady.

This is actually the second time that we’re recording this podcast, because we lost the audio for the first one. Or we didn’t lose it. It was terrible and it had terrible screeching noises on it, and we didn’t want to subject our listeners to that. So first off, I just want to thank you for being so infinitely patient with us and for agreeing to come back on. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you. I’m so sad the audience missed out on your first batch of wisdom, because it was a great conversation. But I’m thinking we can top it this time.

Voelker: Perfect. I’m in.

Delohery: So welcome to the show. Again, you’re a veteran. So I wanted to start with you wrote a really inspiring newsletter at the beginning of the pandemic back in April, which seems like two lifetimes ago, two pandemic lifetimes ago already. I was wondering if you could share some of it with our listeners. I think it’s a really nice place to start off.

Voelker: Sure. So we, in the beginning of the pandemic, sort of started writing State of the Unions to our company to kind of get everybody on the same page in an attempt to over-communicate and create some psychological safety for our teams, because it was certainly a hard time, as everybody remembers. But part of the first one that we wrote I’ll read right now.

So it reads, “While we may not have immediate answers to the new questions the shifting landscape presents, we are among the lucky ranks of organizations that have welcomed, albeit begrudgingly at times, the challenges that have been catapulted our way. Our spirit remains rooted in our values, which in this time of crisis has proved unwavering, and have served as a platform for our successful adaptation thus far.”

Delohery: I love that. I wanted to bring that out, because I think it really ties together something that I know you think about a lot, and in this period of transition or uncertainty, how you remain true to your values and how you remain unwavering in the face of all these changes. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and what inspired this newsletter.

Voelker: Well, honestly, the newsletter’s probably inspired by the people that work at Gifted Healthcare. I’m trying to bring myself back to the mindset in April, and there was a lot of unanswered questions. There was a lot of misinformation floating around. There are a lot of conflicting information. I remember a pivotal point when our executive team was sitting around the virtual table at that point and looking at each other, and the most concerning thing for all of us was sort of the mental health and the safety of the people that worked at Gifted Healthcare, both physical and psychological.

So we kind of took that common principle as our driving force and began trying to communicate with everybody as often as we could, and kind of bringing everybody back to the shared purpose and what our value system was. When things become chaotic and the floor drops out from under you and your standard way of driving your organization and all your systems are changed or turned on their head, which can, by the way, be a very good thing. That’s how we view it. But in the moment, it might not feel that way.

So we really tried to harken back harken back to our value system and our purpose for being there every day and the shared community that we spent creating the last 10 plus years with Gifted Healthcare. Ironically, our values are sort of infused throughout or organization. What we found was during this time, the uncertainty that was created only heightened the values and only gave more opportunity for us to live within that value system.

So there’s so many stories of people that work on the front lines or nurses that work on the front lines, and those that were able to kind of send out there to do very uncertain work in the height of the pandemic. That dedication and commitment to the patient in the bed, you can trace it back to the people sitting in the office or now sitting in their home, booking nurses or trying to recruit nurses to go out to the front lines. So the value system is kind of what we leaned on to hold our community and our organization together in the very beginning of this pandemic.

Delohery: How did that evolve? How are your nurses doing? How have you changed the way you support your nurses over these past… I guess the past six months.

Voelker: So we have always really… One of our catch phrases that we use is putting the nurse first. So we always approach all of our workflows and our processes from that point-of-view. We very much live by the inverted triangle organization structure where we’re here to serve the people that we work for, and it trickles down all the way to the patient in the bed.

One of the interesting things that we figured out very early on in the pandemic, because we had the opportunity to provide a large number of nurses to one of the hotspots early on before there was kind of a generalized peak across the country, there were several that were peaking early on. So we were a part of providing relief there. One of the things that we figured out was that the nurses that we were recruiting and sending there may not have been emotionally ready for what they were about to walk into or psychologically ready. While they were exceptional in their skillset and exceptional in their dedication and commitment, we noticed or started to notice that there was fear there. What they needed was some connection and a connection point in this space to be able to say, “Hey, I’m scared,” or, “No, I don’t know what I’m walking into,” or, “Will you have my back when I get there if things aren’t what I think they are?”

So we started, in addition to our screening for skills, which we always do, we started having every nurse that was going into a hotspot spend time with our CNO and have that conversation that was very much just rooted in what’s your psychological readiness to go to the front line? How can I support you? What do you need? What questions are you afraid to ask? I’m here.” It worked, and the gratefulness that nurses had from that conversation, we had so many emails and phone calls to our organization where nurses said, “Thanks for just having that conversation with me. I feel so much better. I’m not alone. I don’t feel like I’m walking in there alone.”

So we are actually going to try and take what we learned from that and spread it over our organization and our standard processes just to be able to have that space for nurses and for our internal employees, frankly, to have those conversations that they might not have had in the world pre-pandemic.

Delohery: Yeah. That’s a huge thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot. I know that you in your world, before Gifted, you were a social worker helping kids through post-Katrina trauma. I think that a lot of staffing execs out there don’t have that same groundwork for understanding how a trauma-informed approach can really help right now. Did you have any tips or advice on how execs who haven’t really entered into supporting their staff, especially their nurses emotionally can sort of start providing that baseline right now?

Voelker:  That’s a million dollar question. But I think organizations are made up of individuals, and so when an organization is readying itself to respond to potential trauma or finds itself in a chronic trauma, which is where we all are now, it’s no longer acute in the beginning. Now it looks like it’s going to stand quite a long time or at least in different phases. The readiness of an organization is very much mimics that of an individual. So the symptoms of trauma in an individual are also the same in an organization.

So always, at least the common principle in treating an individual with trauma is make sure the psychological safety nets and the physical safety nets are taken care of, and that’s the first paradigm to check off, because until that’s done, you can’t really start to impress resilience upon that person or company. I mentioned earlier in the… Again, bringing myself back to the mental state of April, which was so long ago, there was a lot of misinformation, and there was a lot of fear circulating in our company and in our community, not really based on the reality, because we’ve had exceptional growth, and we’ve been very opportunistic in the last several months.

But really more about people that have worked with us for years worried about their husbands losing their job or their wife losing their job or their kid going to school. It had nothing to do with Gifted Healthcare, but in a time like this, it’s not just the opportunity to care for the whole individual. It’s really an organization’s responsibility to step up. If you’re asking somebody to kind of bring their whole self to work, you need to be prepared to care for their whole self. So you need to create the space to have those difficult conversations around physical safety, psychological safety, whatever fear is driving their behaviors, because the risk by not doing that is very real. It can manifest itself in closed-off boundaries and having isolated groups where the negative chatter or the anxiety and fear festers and becomes contagious. Or organizational amnesia where you don’t talk about the traumatic event and you send the message unconsciously that it’s not okay to talk about it or not okay to talk about your fear surrounding it. It is. In fact, it’s necessary.

So I think as an organization, and all organizations have the opportunity, and it is an opportunity, because I hasn’t always been accepted socially in the past for companies or organizations to segue into the mental health of their employees, but it is very much now. It is a responsibility that we take seriously and one that we’re embracing to try and be able to provide support to all of our employees in whatever that looks like. It is on an individual basis.

But I would say that companies or executives that are not making the time to do that are missing the boat and will pay a long-term price, because the doors have opened because of this pandemic. There is no going back. That’s a good thing, in my opinion. It really is. I think it can help the culture of organizations in ways that are just beginning to kind of come to light.

Delohery: Yeah. One constant I’ve seen, even though so much has changed so quickly, is just this real breakdown of the traditional ways that we used to do business, like in every single facet. It happens so quickly that I think it’s easy to miss, but it’s been just an entire sea change for a lot of businesses. I think that what you’re pointing to here, the ability to really honor the whole person and really start doing business from a human standpoint and not just giving lip service to being a people industry, to actually thinking about people’s emotions and how they show up, and what their physical and domestic realities are. It’s feels to me like it has a kind of revolutionary power to make people happier and to move business forward in an entirely different way.

Voelker: I totally agree with you. The fun and exciting part now is that there’s all new ways and tools to be able to do that. So now that most companies are either virtual or hybrid or know that it might revert to virtual in the future, there’s infinite ways to create that space now and to continue to build that trust and care for that person in ways that didn’t exist before.

Delohery: Do you have any fun ways that you’re changing or tools that you’re using or any sort of… What is your entry point, aside from your baseline just knowledge about being more emotionally supportive to your team? But do you have any things that you do differently now that have really opened this up?

Voelker: We are spending significant time and energy creating I guess our director-level, we’ve now started having meetings at least once a week in sub groups to have these conversations for an hour and a half or an hour. The topics are we’re following a curriculum around how to optimize working from home. But a very large portion of that is around mental health and creating connection now virtually between your peers and your team members.

So we are spending a lot of time arming our ranks of management and directors to be able to have that skillset and take it back to their respective teams and normalizing beginning each meeting with an exercise where you check in in an emotional level or sort of spiritual level of psychological level as well. The risk, now that everything is virtual, is that you miss those moments where you can walk by somebody’s desk, look at their face, know that they’re having a bad day, and say, “Hey, let’s go outside. Let me talk to you for a minute. What’s going on? Your head’s down. You look like you’ve been crying. Whatever it is, how can I help?”

Delohery: Yeah.

Voelker: So I’m very conscious and our teams are very conscious of how do you create those moments? Brene Brown calls them sliding door moments, how you build the trust. It’s not a big grand thing that you do for people. It’s really the smaller moments that you don’t walk past. So how do you create those sliding door moments virtually? It really is so simple when you think about it. It can be as simple as going down the roster of employees, randomly picking up a phone and calling them and saying, “Hey, just thinking about you. How’s your day? What’s going on?”

We know that a lot of our employees’ kids have gone back to school in the last couple of weeks. So making the time to share back-to-school pictures of your kids, people checking in and making sure it hasn’t added a significant amount of stress that’s not manageable. One of our directors, who’s really talented at addressing some mental concerns or emotional wellbeing, created a different schedule for a mom who needed the three hours in the middle of the day to really sit with her child and do homework. So she reorganized the team around her scheduled, asked for volunteers to fill in. There was a plethora of people that volunteered to do that.

So there is no quick way. There’s not one way to do it. But having the perspective and always keeping it top of mind that this is worth it, the energy that you’re putting into this on an individual level will come back tenfold to the entire company is, I think, the thing that at least I think we’re focusing on, because we have had the benefit of hiring really smart, intuitive, and emotionally intelligent people. If you just let them do it and do their magic, then it’ll spread.

Delohery: Also sounds like it creates openings for really creative solutions that might be better than what is traditional or what you’ve expected in the past too.

Voelker: Definitely.

Delohery: Like a new kind of alchemy for these things. So another level of both opportunity for growth and real stress and trauma since the last time we talked is like on top of the pandemic, we have another sea change going on in this country, a new level of consciousness and of really hard conversations around race and diversity. I wanted to get your perspective on how have you folded in that aspect of what’s going on in the zeitgeist into these conversations and into how you’re leading the team? What are you guys doing around diversity and inclusion?

Voelker: So we are having a… Well, let me harken back. When all of this came to or bubbled up to the surface, which thank God it has, and there was sort of a collective call for companies and organizations to respond to their perspective and what action items they’re going to take in this regard, we had some really rich dialog at the executive level and in our management around how is Gifted going to support this? How is Gifted going to show up at the table for not only our employees, but for the community and the country and humanity really?

So that was the first time… Not the first time, but that was the first time that we had a sort of scheduled space to even have those discussions. So much richness bubbled up from that and so many perspectives came to light that I never would have thought in my wildest dreams that people were waiting to say what they wanted to say or needed as permission to say what they wanted to say, because I probably suffer from always saying what I want to say, which is not a good thing either. But having that space for that dialog is one thing that we’re committed do moving forward, because again, that is, I think, where the magic happens. We do have some formal things in place that we are rolling out to support diversity and inclusion, and those are just as important, don’t get me wrong, but I think normalizing the culture to be able to say things, or even if they’re unpopular or maybe don’t have permission to ask hard questions in your life typically.

So again, our CEO has diversity and inclusion round tables now where there is no real formal agenda. It’s just a space for people to come and have topics that they want to bring to the group, questions that they want to ask, a safe space for our colleagues to talk to one another about these difficult things. The real work is then taking that groundwork and infusing it in every single conversation, process, procedure, policy, idea sharing that we have, so much so that it becomes such an integrated tapestry where it’s woven throughout and isn’t viewed as something separate. That is really what we’re focused on. That’s our end goal, and we’ll be a constant refining of what we’re doing. But that is what we have designed as the ideal outcome, what we started.

When in the beginning, part of what I oversee is marking and social media with a really talented team under me. I really can’t take any credit at all, but we were really nit-picking kind of what our social media posts were going to be and how we were going to put it out there, what it wanted to look like. We noticed that we’re all white having this conversation. This is wrong. So we were like, “Let’s call our colleagues and see. Yeah, maybe it’ll be weird if I call you up and ask you what you think about this post on how would you wordsmith it, or how would you perceive this?” It might be taken the wrong way, but my intent is to really learn. So I’m going to take that risk and have that conversation and see.

I was so grateful. Truly, so grateful that the response I got from the person I called was, “No, thanks for calling. I was waiting for a call.” Of course you were. I don’t know why I didn’t think that in the beginning.

Delohery: Yeah.

Voelker: So trying to infuse that level of consciousness in literally every decision we make is the real work. So holding each other accountable is I think where that magic happens.

Delohery: That’s really beautiful, and what you draw out or what I hear the most is just a willingness to fail or make mistakes or do it wrong or say the wrong thing or just allow yourself and your whole team to have the messiness of learning to be better or holding space for people to say things that might be uncomfortable, because these conversations are so loaded and so fraught for everybody, no matter what you believe, no matter your race. These are hard conversations. It seems like what you’re modeling here is a real way to just open dialog for these messy conversations that will make the difference for everyone, no matter what your goals are.

Voelker: Yeah. That’s the hope. I think that is part of caring for the whole person. You don’t get to be an adult and go to work and have your job and stop learning. That’s an excuse. So again, it’s the responsibility or it’s the privilege of a company to be able to provide a space for people that are interested in that. As the lines between professional life and home life continue to blur even more than they do now, it becomes really important to be able to give that back to people.

Delohery: I’m sure it’s related, but again, for execs out there who maybe want to open these dialogues but feel under water or feel like they have no idea how to start to have openness around this in their organization, do you have any advice for them on just starting the work?

Voelker: I think what benefited us in rolling it out was having a smaller dialog amongst our executive and director-level first. It was sort of a microcosm for how it might go once we open it up to everybody. It was eye-opening, in terms of the level of emotion that was accompanying the conversation, but it was also a really safe place to have that and to try it out. Obtaining mutual commitment from the rest of your team, the rest of your executive team and what we want the end goal to be is just a safe place to talk about it, not to push an agenda, not to push an ideal, whatever it is, and creating that space for them in a smaller level, and then obtaining support and consensus in that way, and then opening it up is a good place to start. It is a hard conversation. It’s not comfortable for everybody, but again, it’s your duty as a company and as a leadership team.

Delohery: Yeah, yeah. You have, I think, a unique perspective on leadership, and that’s come up a lot in this conversation and our previous conversations. So I wanted to sort of Zoom out a little bit and talk a little bit about that. How would you describe your leadership style or your philosophy here?

Voelker: It’s messy.

Delohery: It’s messy.

Voelker: I think I’m really comfortable in the swirling of ideas and messy space and throwing spaghetti against the wall. I’m also good at being comfortable there, allowing other people to live there for a while. I think that’s where the brightest ideas come out that are the most truest in their intent, and then taking stock of it and anchoring it in an execution format or a way to move forward within this unit. I can kind of span between the two spaces.

I think what that allows me to do from a leadership standpoint is expect the same of other people. If you try something and it fails and it’s a total disaster, I would much rather that happen than not try it out or sit in fear and not take a risk. I would much rather if I ask you a question for why you did something and I think it’s dead wrong, but you have your reasoning, that’s cool. We can work from there. Let’s back up. But if you tell me, “I don’t know,” or, “I have no idea. I don’t know. That was what it’s supposed to do,” without any critical thought behind it, that drives me nuts. I want the space for people to try new things. Everyone’s leadership is so unique.

That’s what makes an organization the best it can be is allowing somebody to be the leader that they can and supporting that, because especially as things become virtual and the talent field becomes broader from where you can arm your organization, we want people that can come here and bring with them their authentic self, because that is the differentiator for us is hiring those people, finding those people, retaining them, making them happy, and helping them flourish. That is how we will grow.

Delohery: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Drilling down, within that growth and messiness, do you have any examples of your favorite failures or the failures that opened you up for immense growth, even if you didn’t realize it in the moment?

Voelker: Yeah. Probably my biggest failure… Or I fail all the time. Let me say that, but probably the one that I try and consciously carry with me every day was when I was a therapist, so before I joined Gifted Healthcare, I made the mistake of misdiagnosing a child that I worked with very early in the time that I was working with him. The way he came to therapy, he kind of presented with a cluster of symptoms that were similar to a mental illness. In my mind early on, I had checked that box. Then the longer I worked with him, the more I realized that that’s not what was happening. He did have the symptoms, but not enough to be categorized in that box. But I had already put him there, and I missed valuable time in our treatment together, and I had missed other signs that would have pointed me and my therapy intervention in a different direction.

So I take that with me every day to remind myself to not approach things from a fixed point-of-view, and to not ever approach a problem with the idea of putting it in a box in any way. So I very much try and remain and remind myself of that often.

Delohery: I feel like that’s such a good lesson for now especially when everything is so uncertain and there’s such a push right now to try and know, to try and have some sense of being able to predict what’s going to happen. It’s caused so much confusion and I think made things harder when people have tried to know. I think it’s such a good reminder that if you constantly allow for the fact that you don’t know, that everything is uncertain, that you can’t assume that you’ve got the lock on what’s going on, it allows you to be much more agile and responsive to reality.

Voelker: Absolutely. Yeah. I completely agree with you. There’s a lot of pressure right now to have all the answers. The fact is, nobody does, and people are smart enough to know that you don’t. So showing up and trying to give them is going to backfire. But bringing your curiosity and authentic self and the ability to say, “I have no idea, but I know ABCD, and that’s good enough to keep going.”

Delohery: Yeah.

Voelker: I think it’s something people can get behind right now.

Delohery: Totally. Is there anything that you’ve… I was going to ask if you had any habit you’ve taken up in the last five years, but actually is there anything that you’ve taken up during quarantine? Any sort of habit or change or behavior, belief that you feel like has really helped you get through?

Voelker: Well, I can tell you that what comes to mind for me is I’m a huge mythology nerd. I read a lot of mythology stories and myths. I don’t know. I’ve loved it since I was a kid. So I find myself with some free time in quarantine now and a lot of alone time. So I can read, which is a great treat for me. I read this story the other day. I was reminded I loved it years ago, and I had forgotten about it. But it’s more of a… It’s not a myth. It’s more of a little tale, but I’ll share it just because I find it interesting, and it’s top of mind. It’s called the Story of the Angry Samurai.

It goes that there was a samurai whose war lord was killed, and he goes to avenge his murder, which was what their duty was at the time. He goes to kill the war lord that killed his war lord, and as he unsheathes his sword to kill him, the war lord spits in his face. Rather than cutting his throat, he resheathes his sword and walks away. The lesson is that would he have killed the war lord in that moment, his intent and the intent of his action would have been tainted by anger and by his own motivation rather than that of acting for its own sake and acting because it was his duty and what his responsibility was.

So I’ve been thinking a lot, because we’ve talked a lot around this already. Emotions are high. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and certainly mine as well, everybody’s. I’m not immune to that. So I’ve been thinking a lot of the story of the angry samurai. How do I make a pause when I’m going to respond to something or respond to an email or on a Zoom meeting and take a minute and really check my intent here. Am I acting from a place of frustration, anger, impulsivity, or is it really this needs to be said because it’s the right thing to say? I’m not a master at it, but I’m trying.

Delohery: Yeah. It’s such a good point, because I think so often these conversations about how to lead or how to make the right choices are about what you do, but it seems like you’re highlighting the fact that taking a pause, not acting for a second, for a hot minute can make a huge difference too.

Voelker: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Delohery: I love that.

Voelker:  Yeah, and really checking why you’re saying what you’re saying, because there’s a lot of hidden motivation right now when things are uncertain for everybody. There’s a lot of unconscious drivers or behavior and thought patterns. So really kind of taking a moment and divorcing your ego from a decision or an action. It takes conscious effort, but it also, I think, the way to behave, especially in a position of helping others try and achieve the same for the benefit of the company or the organization. So I’ll let you know how that goes as I continue to practice that.

Delohery: This one is related, but when you’re overwhelmed or unfocused like a lot of us are often now especially, what do you find helpful or what questions do you ask yourself, or what do you do when you’re lost?

Voelker: Honestly, my thought process is to say to myself, “I can be a waitress tomorrow. I can go and mow lawns and be just as happy and have all of the things that I really need that make me truly happy, no matter what changes in my external environment that I don’t have control over. I really, really believe that in my core. So that keeps me grounded, in a sense. I love what I do. I love Gifted Healthcare like it’s my own child. But at the end of the day, should everything change and everything go away and the pandemic takes everything or it’s the beginning of the apocalypse, let’s say, I also know that inside of me is kind of what I need to still be happy and be myself and retain that essence, if that makes any sense.

Delohery: Yeah, that feels like a deep breath just that reminder at times that it’s just like this is what’s important, what’s right here.

Voelker: Yeah. Again, I think that that is important for everybody to have. It’s easy, especially now with the blurring of home and work life, to get your sense of self from your job or your sense of self from whatever role, you’re a mom, job, life, husband, whatever it is, because it’s so blurred. But at the end of the day, if you can find the pause to really tease out what is the essence of you, you’d realize that none of that impacts that. You still have it and no pandemic or anything else can take it away. That sense of, I guess, strength is helpful. It’s what helps me.

Delohery: Yeah. This is hard to say right now, but what are you keeping an eye on for the future for Gifted, or what do you see down the line? What are you excited about?

Voelker: Everything. I’m excited about everything. We have had… I’ve never been prouder of the people that work with Gifted or what we’ve been able to accomplish as a collective whole, because the pandemic happen. We, for whatever reason, just kind of jumped all in the same boat, started rowing in the same direction and have experienced phenomenal growth, a real re-boost in our culture and connectivity with one another. We’ve opened up opportunities from a business standpoint that I don’t think we ever would have looked at before the pandemic and have benefited from them greatly. A lot of exciting things in the pipeline and down the road too.

I really believe that, again, our culture and just our ability to take a minute, come together, pick our heads up, and start rowing has allowed us or has positioned us really well for the future. So we’re very opportunistic. We talk about it at every executive meeting we have, the excitement for the future. So I see great things in Gifted’s pathway, and I think the more we can kind of elevate the people that work with our company and continue to highlight our cultural strengths, etc, the more we can capitalize on what’s out there.

Delohery: I love that. That’s a happier answer than I’m used to right now.

Voelker: Oh really?

Delohery: Yeah. That’s very great just to feel real lived excitement right now for the future is, I think, that is the part that I find rare and refreshing. Thank you so much for joining me again, for re-recording this, and for your wisdom. I always enjoy talking to you. So thank you so much.