by Colin Steven Chval

Overview and Introductions

In January, 2022, Sustain Dane hosted another event in our Sustainable Breakfast Series. Three local business leaders and change-makers were brought into dialogue on a panel moderated by Sandy Xiong, Strategic Planning & Engagement Manager at the City of Sun Prairie to discuss leadership and wellbeing in the work environment and how that can drive social impact. These leaders were:

  • Nyra Jordan, Social Impact Investment Director at American Family Insurance;
  • Mark Richardson, President of Unfinished Business LLC;
  • Sarah Young, Founder of Zing Collaborative.

Why Now?

To begin, each panelist was asked why this issue is so critical right now. Nyra emphasized how “what’s happening external to the four walls of our company isn’t separate for our employees.” These issues affect their mental health and well-being and employers need to continue to look at them as “whole people” and to support them as best they can. Sarah expanded on that saying “overall mental health is the lowest that I’ve seen it. […] It feels like people are holding so much stress outside of work […] and it’s really a  compounding situation.” But, as Mark pointed out, “covid stopped everything so the major excuse not to […] audit what’s going on” – that being the need to manage the day-to-day workings of the business – has been removed. Businesses have lost that excuse, so now is the time where we should be looking at how we can do things differently and sustainably.

We can see evidence of this based on trends in corporate culture. “What isn’t working well is a quick return to the status quo,” said Mark. Employees have resisted this because its become clear that remote work allows for a much greater work-life balance without sacrificing productivity. Businesses experiencing success are those doing “the simple thing of listening.” Agreeing with him, Sarah says we cannot continue to be “grinding it out – running at max capacity.” Businesses need to “take those little pauses as leaders” to check-in with people and prioritize their mental health. Sandy emphasized that central to this is the idea that leaders also need to “take care of ourselves so we can show up at our best” and model healthy behaviors.

Supporting Yourself to Support Others

What steps we as leaders can take is important to address. It’s incredibly difficult to fully support your staff without supporting yourself too. Touching on this, Nyra said she’s found success by “giving employees […] that agency over their time so that they can identify when they’re at capacity.” The best way to do so is to set clear expectations of “what done looks like” and to trust your employees to achieve that. “Thinking differently about what success looks like” so it’s no longer based on whether they’re at their desk, and “arming them with information and resources” is the best way to relieve stress as leaders and to promote wellbeing for employees. Mark jumped on this and said we need to ask “what are we putting priority on? Nyra, as a leader on her team, is prioritizing self-care for her team” over being busy. Expanding on that further, Nyra said “understanding what’s happening with your employees and what’s going on in their personal lives” is critical so as to make room for those other things – once again, viewing them as a whole person.

Blurring the Lines of Personal and Professional

But when an individual identifies a broader issue, such as sustainability, as a priority, they need to feel able to approach leadership about enacting that change. To do this as an employee, Sarah says they should do it “through that lens of how can this ultimately help the company and, you know, the community, and society as a whole, potentially.” Mark expanded on this by saying labor shortages have pushed businesses to do more to benefit society as young generations have identified that as a key value and will ask prospective employers how they are doing so. He has seen this first-hand through clients that are pursuing initiatives not because “leadership was jumping up-and-down wanting to, but because they’re being pushed by their employees […] to get real about this stuff and to start making a difference.”

Every panelist built off this with their own experiences within the workforce and among leadership that show how incoming talent are utilizing the value of their labor to drive socially-conscious, organizational change. They share the key message that, for employees, your labor is a powerful tool right now; and, for employers, the people spurring these changes, although maybe a thorn in your side, are the future leaders of your organization.

However, sometimes that passion and interest can be poorly received if tries to simultaneously fix every problem in the organization. Recognizing this, Sarah wanted to ask the other panelists how individuals can bring that passion without it being negatively received. One thing Nyra has seen work is a “targeted approach of starting with something that you can really move the needle on and then build to things that may be more complex.” Flipping it onto the employers end, Mark says leaders need to look at that “as a chance to develop the employee.” They need to “focus that individual onto one of those things they feel is the most wrong” and if they can successfully do so, they will be developing that person as a leader.

Adjusting Supervisor Mindset

Sandy asked the panelists how supervisors can be trained to facilitate this. Calling on her experience with American Family Insurance and becoming more inclusive for previously incarcerated people,, Nyra said “it really started […] with […] dispelling stereotypes.” Her biggest challenge was that many would assume they were “unskilled, no talent, uneducated […] and that’s just not the case. Many individuals that are struggling to find work that have been justice-involved are college educated, are highly skilled.” To adjust this, it meant “understanding for ourselves, people-centered language. We don’t say felons, ex-cons,” instead using justice-involved. But it all started with “let’s have an honest conversation, let’s see understand where people are, and then let’s train on realities.” That means making that time. “These aren’t going to be faster conversations, and they’re not going to be easier conversations,” said Mark. “In fact, they’re gonna be slower and they’re gonna be harder. But they’re gonna be better.” To Sarah,  that means “fundamentally rethinking things. […] In the context of everybody running at 150 miles-per-hour, all-day everyday, there isn’t any capacity for that. […] Are there things we could shift or change or shorten […] to  really fundamentally rethink some of these things” by starting to make time.

Looking Ahead

Ending on a positive note, Sandy asked each panelist, beginning with Sarah, what their hope is for the future of the work environment. “My hope is that, ultimately these last couple years help us to be much more conscious and intentional” and to start addressing the elephant in the room regardless of discomfort. For Nyra, it’s that “we value all work and respect the people performing those roles,” starting with reexamining phrases such as “human capital” that essentializes and dehumanizes the people doing this work. Mark picked up from Sarah, saying “let’s get our crap together, as a community. […] Let’s meet the movements, not the moments, […] sustaining the behaviors that come from reacting.”

Questions and Answers

The panel then turned to a brief Q&A section. One audience member asked what you should do when they have brought forward this idea, but the company has said they don’t have the time or resources to prioritize it. Addressing this, Sarah said and Nyra emphasized differentiating between whether it really was a priority issue, or if it was something the company wasn’t interested in pursuing now or ever. If it’s the latter, you should have that deeper conversation of whether your values are aligned with the company’s. Another individual asked how to bring in employees that aren’t involved or interested in these discussions. One way to do this, according to Mark, is to start incorporating it in recurring, company-wide communications, such as newsletters. This might signal that it’s something of upcoming importance. Sometimes, all it takes is that little push directly from leadership for them to plug-in. However, Sarah pointed out that companies should be mindful of external factors, such as raising children, that might hinder that greater level of engagement.


We at Sustain Dane  continue to be incredibly fortunate in our ability to welcome such amazing individuals and to hear and learn from them. If you feel someone else you might know would benefit from hearing these discussions, we encourage you to share this with them. Also, check out some of our other posts on our website!