In this episode of The Staffing Show, Ashley Andersen, SVP at ClearEdge Rising, joins David for a second time to talk about her work in leadership development for women in the staffing industry. Ashley dives into the progress ClearEdge Rising has made since its launch and reveals some of the topics that they’ve covered so far, including boundaries and ‘both/and’ thinking. Later in the episode, she also shares insights on the challenges of leading through uncertain times, the importance of critical thinking, and  the value of continuous improvement.

David Folwell: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us for another episode of The Staffing Show. Today, I’m super excited to be joined by Ashley Andersen, who is the SVP at ClearEdge Rising. Ashley, this is your second time on the show. Super excited to have you here. 

To kick things off, could you just give everybody a little bit of background on who you are and what you’ve been doing with ClearEdge Rising?

Ashley Andersen: Sure thing. Thanks for having me on again, Dave. I imagine that I did a good enough job on the first go around to get….

Folwell: Absolutely.

Andersen: That’s always a good sign. So yeah, I am running ClearEdge Rising, which is a leadership development community for women across the talent industry. Any woman at any stage of her career is welcome to be a member. And we really help companies to support the women in their workforce to rise up into leadership positions, trying to close that gender disparity gap that exists in the industry.

Folwell: Such an awesome initiative and program. I think since we were on the podcast, we had you on right before you were about to launch. One of the things I was very excited about was just hearing about an update on how things are going and any of the outcomes that you’re hearing from participants.

Andersen: Yeah. I can’t believe that was that long ago.

Folwell: I know.

Andersen: Seriously, it’s like it was just yesterday, doesn’t it? I never know what to make of that. Is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? All I know is that I’m getting older with each passing day.

But yeah, so that was back in July. That would’ve been before July because we launched our first round of members in July. We’re going on a handful of months here of people having gone through their experience. The membership experience is 12 months, and every woman who’s a member gets placed into a cohort of other women, a small group, eight to 10 other women who are similar to her in terms of their kind of career stage, their leadership position. And they meet every month and focus on a different leadership topic each month.

We’ve been taking our members through that process. Each one of those monthly sessions is led by a coach, often myself, and that’s done really intentionally so that we can foster really deep conversation around these topics so we’re not just scratching the surface but we’re getting beneath, what makes them more challenging based on your gender identity as a woman and what can you do to really leverage yourself as a leader.

We just launched our survey, our feedback survey from our members about a month ago, a month and a half. Again, I’ve lost all track of time so I think it’s around a month and a half ago. We pulled that data and have compiled it, and some folks might be seeing it in our social media feeds and emails. We’re super proud of what some of the members had to share with us and their feedback. But I would say that on a high level, what has stood out as the most valuable part of this experience is that this is a place and a space for women in the industry, so it’s industry-specific, to come together and really to make those connections with one another, but make them in a way and through conversation that is meaningful to them as leaders.

So it’s like you’re getting this opportunity to grow yourself and learn as a leader, but you’re also creating these amazing relationships that are super genuine, and that was pointed out by everybody who participated as the most beneficial part of the program.

Folwell: Oh, that’s amazing. So it’s a huge part of the networking and connection and being able to reach beyond the borders of our Zoom walls that we all live in today.

Andersen: Yeah. It’s still all by Zoom, but that coaching element really helps people to get into some vulnerable discussions. It’s also cool because these are all women from the industry. They’re from different companies. And so you get these conversations where there’s this rich diversity of thought and experience and perspective that really enhances everybody’s understanding of a certain topic or a certain challenge that they’re facing. I think that really compels people to dive in and share and ask for help and give help. So it’s been really awesome to get to witness and be a part of, honestly.

Folwell: That’s really cool. And when we look at some of the topics that you guys are going through for leadership development, could you give us just an idea of what type of content people are learning and then if there’s any hot topics right now that people are super excited about?

Andersen: Yeah, all the hot topics. I can’t help but have the Hot Pockets, right?

Folwell: Hot Pockets.

Andersen: The Hot Pockets little jingle.

Folwell: I thought about the Hot Topic store there too. I was like, “What?”

Andersen: Oh, yeah. There’s another cultural reference. Whoever did their marketing did well. But yeah, the topics that we’re covering. So it’s interesting. We poll our members to find out what topics they want to cover. Right now, we’re in this phase where we’re polling our current members for Q1 of 2024 to say, “What do you want us to cover?” And then we’ll see what rises to the top and develop our content based on that. So really trying to be responsive to our community.

In terms of what we already have covered to date, some of the things that we’ve talked about this month, we’ve talked about boundaries. Next month we’re talking about conflict. You notice kind of a theme around this time of year and the holiday brings in conflict. No coincidence. Last month we talked about both/ands. And so paradoxical thinking, which you might have seen on LinkedIn.

Folwell: I reposted that on LinkedIn. That was great.

Andersen: Yeah. I have so appreciated that love that you gave it. And that actually I wasn’t planning on writing a blog post. I had written a LinkedIn post that someone commented on and said, “You should do a blog post.” So obviously that’s a hot topic, not just for our members but for the world as a whole. I think there’s so much complexity that we’re all surrounded by, immersed in. We really are living in this world where it’s like it has to be the both/and, and it’s tricky to navigate that both/and. So I think that’s probably why that resonated so much for you and so many others.

Folwell: I feel like I tell people all the time, I’m like, “This is one of the best years in so many ways.” And then there’s so many new challenges and also a lot of hard things happening in the news right now. And it’s really hard to be like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much greatness and then simultaneously challenges.” And a lot of times you have to hold very competing views on what the reality is.

Andersen: Yeah. And that’s not comfortable generally. And so as creatures of comfort, we like to repel against anything that’s not comfortable. And we want to just put ourselves in a box and pretend like none of that exists, or turn on the TV and watch it for eight hours straight or something to numb ourselves out. But really the answer, the solution is to just be in that discomfort and we can survive the discomfort. We can get through it and we can learn how to be in it. And that’s where we get the best of everything. And that’s where we’re able to move forward, when we just accept that we need to be in that messy middle. So yeah, so many paradoxes that we could do a whole episode just them.

Folwell: Yeah. No. We also feel like maybe there’s a little bit more certainty with some economic things, but just like a hint if anything. But it’s definitely been a challenging year in staffing. I think the stat that I saw from SIA was at 38% of staffing firms have had layoffs this year, which is significant. It’s a huge portion of the industry to go through that. So I know whether you’re working in a staffing industry or for a marketing company or a software company, that things have been different this year. 

What are some of the ways that you coach or guide people to cope or handle that type of uncertainty?

Andersen: Yeah, it’s so tricky. And I think when we see data like that or we witness or experience events like that, we’re primed and hardwired to want a single point of reason like, “What’s the reason that this happened? Just tell me.”

Folwell: The one thing.

Andersen: Yeah. And then I’ll feel so much better. And actually, brains do feel better when we get that single point of reason, whether it’s correct or not, which is dangerous but good to recognize. But yeah, there’s so many factors that go into that example that you gave, like the layoffs. And so we can look at the world’s coming to an end, and that’s why everybody’s being laid off. 

But the truth is that it’s so complex and you have to look at each company really individually. And you have to look at each year and each quarter and each decision that those companies made and unpack all of that and what they’re positioning for and what they’re trying to achieve in the future.

And so I think recognizing those complexities is really important. I also think it can be helpful to depersonalize. When there’s something like a layoff, it’s so hard to not just go down this path of shame and blame. And it’s just a really heavy path to go down. And certainly I want people to be encouraged to feel their emotions, to feel that whole spectrum of emotions, of anger, of sadness. There’s a whole grieving process when there’s a layoff for people who were impacted and for people who didn’t get laid off, for the leaders who had to make those phone calls or make those decisions for everybody. It’s different, but there’s an impact.

So just giving people that opportunity to feel the full spectrum of their emotions without cleaning them up, without fixing them or making them all better or painting a silver lining around it. “Oh, at least this, at least that.” It’s hard to just let people be in the muck of their emotions, but it’s incredibly powerful for them.

Folwell: I forget that when I have you on the podcast, I feel like I’m going through my personal leadership coaching or therapy. I’m like….

Andersen: Take down some notes.

Folwell: It’s like, “How do I manage through this?” This has been a year where rumination has been a strong thing for me personally, and it’s like trying to solve problems in a way that it’s like, “Oh, I need to know what’s happening. How is it happening? Is it the interest rates? Is it these shifts in the market dynamics?” And just paying attention to all of the news thinking that you’re going to find an answer.

And then I actually remember one of the authors I really like is Yuval Harari who wrote Sapiens and he talks about how the world is so unbelievably complex when it comes to the economy that nobody really knows at this point. We all have these ideas that there’s economists out, forecasts out, and then we get it wrong all the time. The leading economists get it wrong all the time. And so the reality is that it’s more complex than we know. And I’m going to take a note on the depersonalizing but also on the acceptance component of that. Any advice for our listeners or me on how to sit with things and be more accepting of the reality?

Andersen: Yeah. I think one of the things that you just brought up, Dave, that made me think is there’s always this line. Doing research and knowing what’s happening in the world, that’s a responsible thing to be doing. But there is a place where you can cross a line, and now you’re doing that to an extent that is not really in service of anything. And it’s really the intent is now to, you said, control, to try to control the situation, try to make something that it isn’t. And only you know when you’ve crossed that line. And so being able to ask yourself, “Am I playing in the realm of something that is responsible leadership, responsible entrepreneurship in service of me and my business? Or have I crossed that line and am I actually trying to achieve something that’s not attainable?”

And we see that all the time with all kinds of things. Like I said, turning on the TV for eight hours. It’s great to check out and watch a show. And there’s a line where all of a sudden you’re just trying to avoid reality, avoid feelings. So a lot of times when you’re talking about just being with those hard emotions, paying attention to those avoidance strategies that we all have, they’re unique to us. So how I avoid it is going to be different than you, different than somebody else. But asking yourself, “Am I trying to avoid something here? What is this that I’m avoiding? What am I worried will happen if I just let myself be, if I just let myself feel X?” And often the worry that our brain is exaggerating is really like when you look at it under a microscope, you’re like, “Seriously, that’s….”

Folwell: Yeah. Well, not a big deal.

Andersen: Yeah. You’re like, “That’s a bit ridiculous.” So really slowing down, going inward, getting curious with yourself is helpful.

Folwell: So not two hours of TikTok?

Andersen: I don’t know. I don’t know. It doesn’t sound like that’s the right direction.

Folwell: That’s got to be one of the worst paths to go down. From your survey that you put out, you said you’re looking at what are key areas of development or priorities, excitement for going into 2024. What are you hearing back and what should leaders in the industry be thinking about today for their team and making sure that everybody is prepared walking into next year?

Andersen: Yeah. I think we’ve talked a lot about the uncertainty and who knows what’s going to happen in 2024. I think there can be a reactivity or knee-jerk reaction to where are we going to cut and where are we going to pull back? I could tell you based on our experience and the feedback that we’ve received, holding back on support for your leaders is not the place to pull back because they’re at the helm. And particularly certain positions within your organization, and everybody knows what these positions are. They’re usually that mid-to-senior level leader. They are fielding a lot and they need more support now more than ever. And some of the things that people are wanting to dive into is really about, “How do I support my teams? How do I communicate with my teams in a way that’s truthful, that’s honest, that’s vulnerable, but that also doesn’t lose credibility, lose trust? They still see me as a capable leader.” Again, a paradox. “How do I balance that both/and how do I make sure that I am continuing to develop them and grow them?”

So there’s a lot of the leaders who are part of Rising, at least, they’re focusing a lot on their teams which is nice. I’m glad that they’re part of Rising because then we get to focus on them, give them that space to say, “Okay, yes. And how about you, and what do you need? And what are you doing to take care of yourself?” So I think teams, communication, always big topics, but especially when things are a little murky.

Folwell: And are you getting into how to support and how to work through the uncertainty by strategic planning? Or is that some of the conversations you’re having as well with the leadership group?

Andersen: Yeah. Less like the tactical of strategic planning because everybody has a different way and approach that they have to do that. But really one of the topics that surfaced for next year is strategic thinking. I love when people come and say, “How do I get my team? How do I get my direct report?” And I’m like, “Let’s pause there.” But how do I help my team to start to think in a more strategic way? How do I help them shift from just focusing on their tasks and really think more globally about the organization, about the market, depending on, again, that position and that succession planning that you are trying to achieve in your leaders?

But that shift can be hard because we can all be detailed. We can all be big picture. But we all have preferences and strengths. So just because I am stronger in the big picture doesn’t mean that I should never do anything having to do with details. Unless it has to do with numbers, and then I probably shouldn’t. But yeah, so it’s about helping yourself and helping your team to nurture that side of themselves that’s a little less strong than the other. That’s hard. And sometimes it takes a really individualized approach to development, which takes some time.

Folwell: I think this year, if anything has shown that, everybody’s going through changes. And if you’re in the staffing, one of the things I’ve heard from countless staffing agency owners is we’re going back to the basics. We’re getting back to how recruiting used to be. We need to call. We need to… doing things that maybe haven’t been part of the paradigm recently and saying, “All right, we got to get back to more of the fundamentals of staffing.” I think there are a couple of years, depending on what vertical you’re in, there are some years and some pockets of staffing where things were just pretty gravy and a lot of new things, a lot of different. So I think there’s a… and also with the changes in staffing, a lot of companies trying to figure out how to do more with less.

I think a lot about, with our team, we’re in a place in many instances where we’re executing, executing, executing. And now it’s like, “Okay, zoom out. Are we executing on the right things? What do we need to shift?” How do you approach that with the group?

Andersen: What’s the magic answer?

Folwell: Yeah, what is the tactic? No, kidding.

Andersen: Where is the playbook? I’ll send you the magic link afterwards.

Folwell: Yeah, you send me the magic link afterwards and then we’ll solve it and we’ll have you on the podcast again next week for another lesson.

Andersen: Yeah, right. I don’t mean to repeat myself, but it is another paradox.

Folwell: Yeah, sure.

Andersen: How do we make sure that we’re getting stuff done in the immediacy, that lens of immediacy and then backing up? And that’s where I do think that processes and systems do really help us and support us. So whether it’s a meeting cadence and making sure that… people love to hate meetings. I love meetings. I hate unproductive purposeless meetings. That’s annoying. But meetings that are really well-structured, they’re purposeful, they’re well facilitated, they’re followed up on, they’re really energizing. You get out of those and you are pumped for whatever it is that you’re doing afterwards.

So I think that that’s a great opportunity for leaders to take a look at like, “What are the meetings that we’re holding? How well are we doing? Where could we be doing a better job?” So to your point of holding the both/and, both focuses of the short term and the long term, the details, the big picture, making sure that you have that built into some of your meeting cadences, some of your agendas like, “Are we spending enough time reflecting on our strategy? Are we holding ourselves accountable? In what ways?” And that’s really, I don’t want to say it’s easy because it’s not, but it’s accessible. You could start doing that tomorrow. So in that way, it’s easy.

Folwell: We’ve got a tactic. I’m in.

Andersen: There you go.

Folwell: It is interesting. I just think about, and this is only in the last few years that, and we still don’t do this well all the time, but thinking about, “Is this a brainstorming meeting? Is this a planning meeting? Is this an execution meeting?” And also just not showing up and being like, “What are we talking about?” Trying to improve that overall. So with the work that you’re doing, what are you most excited about right now?

Andersen: Oh, what a great question. Other than all the food I’m going to eat next week, there’s so much. I think we’ve been talking so much about uncertainty. And I’ve worked with people for my entire life and really face-to-face with people my entire life. And people are fundamentally super resourceful. They’re super capable. They are so whole in who they are. I just think that when we are faced with difficult circumstances, that it’s an incredible opportunity for our resourcefulness to come out and our humanity to come out. And so I’ve already seen a lot of that happening outside of ClearEdge Rising, within ClearEdge Rising for sure, with our members jumping in and giving each other support and saying, “How can I show up for you and what do you need?” And I just love that resourcefulness and get in there-ness, and I think we’re going to see so much more of that. And that gets me excited and happy and hopeful, optimistic.

Folwell: Yeah. I’m just going to second that. I feel like this industry as a whole, seeing everybody connect, everybody help each other out and jump in, it’s really been incredible and it also gives me hope. So I love it. Is there any other topic that you wanted to dig into on the podcast today? Anything else that you wanted to share with our audience?

Andersen: Dave, any other challenges in your leadership experience? You’re free….

Folwell: We could add challenges. Every time you bring one up, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that’s exactly where I was going.”

Andersen: It’s so interesting because those are the topics that we’re focusing on in our program, right? Because they’re ongoing, they don’t have a solution where you have the equation and now….

Folwell: What’s the formula for solving leadership strategy?

Andersen: There is none of that. And I really want people to start to look at their development as a leader as this ongoing process because this idea that, “I have this degree,” or, “I achieve this certification,” or, “I read this book and now I’m done.” It’s just so not reality and it’s a little bit irresponsible as a leader. And so what I want is for people to have opportunities to continuously grow themselves, and that’s going to look different year over year. The things that are challenging are always going to be challenging. It’s when I’m coaching individuals when they ask me, “When are we done with coaching? How do I know?” Well, they don’t say it like that, like, “When are we done?” I don’t want to….

Folwell: “How quickly can we get this over?”

Andersen: It’s hard.

Folwell: “You give the tactics, I’m out of here.”

Andersen: It’s hard to get them to be done most of the time. It’s hard for me, especially when a company is hearing me and saying, “Can you coach these individuals? Can you do this in 12 months?” And I’m like….

Folwell: Do what?

Andersen: “I can’t tell you,” because working on these challenges that are pervasive, it’s not that they go away. The challenges don’t go away. We become more equipped at being able to navigate through them. They’re still going to feel challenging. They’re still going to feel like murky and sticky and “ugh,” but we become better at recognizing them and then knowing what we need to do and how we need to be as a leader to get through that.

Folwell: That all makes sense. And it’s just, as a leader this year has challenged me in so many ways, and I feel like the experiences that you’re talking about, it’s like if at any point if you think you’re there or you think you’ve figured it out, zoom out because you….

Andersen: Exactly.

Folwell: And you probably need to dig back in. With a lot of the people that you’re coaching, is it all cohort-based or are you doing individual coaching as well?

Andersen: We are doing both. So the ClearEdge Rising membership is cohort-based, and that’s where your women who are members are part of the cohort and they meet every month for that 12-month period. That’s coach-led. So it’s more like a group coaching session. But we do offer individual coaching for those who are interested in that more intensive kind of experience, that more personalized experience. “This is what I’m trying to change,” or, “This is how I’m trying to grow and let’s meet on a regular cadence to work on that.” So both are possible.

Folwell: And is it expansive of all areas in the leadership realm? Is there a size of organization that you are working with the most? Is it the C-suite?

Andersen: Yeah. It’s one of the cool things, for lack of better word, cool. It’s one of the cool things about ClearEdge Rising is that we have opportunities for women at all levels. So we have members in the C-suite who are running global enterprises. We have women at that mid-career level of leadership, and then the more emerging rising stars, all sizes of organizations, public, private, family-owned. We have a really nice diversity of types of organizations that are a part of Rising, again which is just it enhances our members’ experience because you’re in one company and you get a bubble of the way that company operates. And this gives you the chance to get out and hear other people’s approaches and their experiences.

Folwell: I think it’s really great, and I’m just so excited about what you’re doing with ClearEdge Rising and the future of it. And our organization will be participating with it in it at all times as long as we have team members to be part of the cohorts. When does the next cohort launch?

Andersen: Yeah. So we are actively…Q4, 2023, we’re enrolling our new members and onboarding them. Their experience will start at the end of January 2024.

Folwell: Awesome.

Andersen: So whoever is interested in learning more or being a part of that next round of cohorts should reach out, get in touch, and we can talk about next steps.

Folwell: Absolutely second that. People should reach out and get in touch with you, and I will just continue to have you on the podcast so I can have a mini coaching. Might be like a monthly person where I’m like, “Okay, here’s the challenge that I wanted to talk about.”

Andersen: We’ll do it live, a live coaching session.

Folwell: Live coaching sessions. You’ll have me crying on here. It’ll be great.

Andersen: Wonderful, wonderful. I’m for it, Dave. Thank you so much.

Folwell: Yeah. Well, Ashley, it’s so nice to see you and to have you on. Really enjoyed the conversation as always. If you guys are listening, check out ClearEdge Rising. It’s a great program.

Andersen: Thank you.

This episode is brought to you by ClearEdge Rising.