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Brenda Myers: “If we want to change our work cultures, it must start with our schools; If we don’t construct learning environments in which we allow students to thrive, then how do we expect them to thrive in work cultures”

It must start with our schools. My kids were lucky enough to participate in a program at our church kindergarten by an amazing teacher who promoted the “Reggio Emilia” approach to learning. It’s student-centered and self-directed, and it’s relationship-driven. Duh. That’s the workplace isn’t it? We need you to do your work and use your […]


It must start with our schools. My kids were lucky enough to participate in a program at our church kindergarten by an amazing teacher who promoted the “Reggio Emilia” approach to learning. It’s student-centered and self-directed, and it’s relationship-driven. Duh. That’s the workplace isn’t it? We need you to do your work and use your talents, and if you need help, we’ll help you. And of course, we need you to work with others to get things done. In fact, they probably have a talent you need to support your goals.

This is obviously a rant of mine. If we don’t construct learning environments in which we allow students to thrive, then how do we expect them to thrive in work cultures — and especially ones that don’t allow employees to thrive?


I had the pleasure to interview Brenda Myers. Brenda is the President and CEO of Hamilton County Tourism, Inc.


Thank you so much for joining us Brenda! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I began my career as a passionate Watergate-era journalist. The 1970s influenced many to consider journalism as a career. Transparency and communications were critically important to my generation. When I moved into public relations as a career, they remained important to me. As I moved into leadership roles in other organizations, I drew on that communications background to drive my work ethic. But I longed to be able to make things happen and not just report how things happened. I eventually became more interested in being at the table to talk about to create change, using communications as my foundation for work.

I wandered into destination development and marketing. I would love to tell you I had a laser-focused career path, but like many, one position led to another which led to another. Overall, each and every position I held gave me a new set of knowledge to draw on. I have been very fortunate to always love my work.

I was a newly graduated journalist covering for the nearby daily and producing a weekly newsprint paper that was very valued in our community. It had everything from weddings to government reports in it. I remember being at a zoning hearing where a subsidized housing complex was proposed. The number of people who spoke in favor of the project was 20:4. A portion of the housing would be given to seniors, and there was a desperate need for it in this particular community of non-union factory workers. Imagine my surprise when, after hearing all of this positive testimony, the project was unanimously voted down. No doubt the conversations that preceded the hearing made sure that would happen.

That is when I decided I needed to be a part of the change, and not just reporting on it.

I also thought newspapers were badly managed and did not invest in their people enough.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Our destination development work is like gardening. We decide what plants we want to grow, we try to buy seeds that will grow into plants and then we water, augment the soil, pray for rain and wait.

And wait. And wait.

Sometimes we’re told what seeds to plant. Sometimes we research and believe those seeds won’t thrive. Sometimes, we are wrong. Often, we are right. We are very data driven.

A conversation becomes a meeting becomes some business intelligence gathering becomes some research and engaging others in conversations that become rough ideas and eventually plans.

Grand Park, Westfield’s showcase that serves as one of the largest youth sports destinations in the country that attracts well over 1.25 million people a year, started with a conversation by our vice president and a city council member who were waiting in line to vote during an election. We are delighted to work in a community that allows for this kind of gardening.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are working on a number of projects — some of which have been on the table for two or more years. Our biggest is the White River Vision Plan, a two-county 58-mile study with Indianapolis and our partners at Visit Indy and Hamilton County. Inspired in part by need — like most communities, central Indiana is worried about the impact of climate change on our water supply — and by a desire to engage people with this little treasure, this study is the culmination of a movement by folks who have been telling this story for decades. Working with a team of amazing professionals, we are talking about water quality, conservation, activation and access … all in one giant vision plan.

One of the greatest things about our work is how much we learn. About everything. Why would tourism professionals care about animal populations in the water and along the banks of the White River? Because it’s a sign of how well this water way is faring! Because people care deeply about it. Practicing responsible tourism means not doing anything that would harm riparian migratory routes. And teaching others to care so generations in the future can also enjoy this amenity. And that makes for a better product to engage in. Simple.

According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

As one of those boomers, and the mother of two millennials, I have thought about this a lot. I admire my children’s laser focus on work-life balance. I am not that great at it myself, but I believe it’s critical to our future, especially given the ability for technology (translate: work) to follow you home, to your child’s soccer game, on vacation and so on. In addition to enabling employees to unplug, two-way communications are the single most important things an organization can do to try and make work better. If you listen, you’re likely to learn so much from your staff what can make them soar, and if you share with your staff the struggles behind the decisions, they’re more likely to help you achieve success.

One of the best ways to create a successful workforce is for the CEO to listen to your human resources professional. We are blessed to have a talented, engaged HR director who learns and brings back ideas. We are a risk-oriented institution. We’re willing to try things she brings to us when we can. Now … when you interfere with people, you have to be careful about their risk tolerance. But if you communicate it, staff is amazingly resilient and willing to try and give feedback on new programs and ideas. It comes back to communications.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

No doubt there are thousands of books on these three topics — books that validate that a happy workforce equals a productive, profitable and healthy organization. What we struggle with most is how to engage and grow individuals that can keep up with our company’s rapid growth.

We are a communications-based organization. This field is changing so rapidly, it’s difficult to keep up.

It’s possible to hire excellent employees, invest in growing them through ongoing training and by supporting risk-taking for learning, and the person hits a wall. The employee is unhappy because she or he cannot seem to figure out how to go to that next level, and we struggle because we love the person but need them to grow to keep us relevant. I wish I had a better answer to this dilemma.

I blame the “teaching to the standards” as a reason that individuals struggle with change. We need to teach people to think, to be curious, and if we do that, they can adapt and change and grow along with our company and … the world.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

1) Encourage open and honest communications in all ways and on all levels.

Not everything can be shared, but let’s give people credit. They can take on a lot of information and be an invaluable resource. Likewise, I want to know if an employee is struggling. How can we help that person achieve all he or she can be?

2) Have fun! Laugh!

One of my favorite memories in this position … while I was at a conference, my staff (of then maybe 10) staged a photo and texted it to me. Now, in many companies this would have not gone well. But it made me laugh and laugh. It was a photo of legs “dancing” on the work island in the middle of our second floor, with bags of chips and a few bottles of (unopened) beer and wine (likely in our stash as partner trade) on the counter with a little, sweet note: “Having a good time while you’re away! Hope you enjoy your conference!” Or something like that. I loved that so much. I knew they were working hard. And having fun. That’s all the matters.

3) Enable your staff to celebrate each other.

Our leadership team was looking for a way that people could celebrate each other, and we came up with the idea of creating “TOURISM TENDER” or play money that staff could give to each other at staff meeting to thank them for going above and beyond. Our HR Director worked with our creative team to create the faux dollars (which they named “Brenda Bucks” and which feature a drawing of me on them, which both freaks me out and makes me laugh all at the same time) and on the back, staff checks off which of our core values the employee represented in the action (e.g. communication, collaboration, growth, intelligence and stewardship) and makes an announcement at the meeting. Sometimes we laugh and sometimes we cry, but the sharing is so good. At the end of the year, employees get to “spend” the “cash” in a store filled with gift cards, fun items, and other things scored primarily with our leftover credit card points! It’s a huge hit with staff. The CEO and VP don’t get to get bucks, but they get to give them. And it’s one of the best half hour time periods of the month.

4) Be flexible.

If you’ve ever been a Dad or a Mom who gets that call from school to say “come get your child — he has a temperature,” you know what I mean. People have lives. They need space. They need grace.

5) Trust in your employees to do the right thing.

A culture of trust is critically important in our industry, where we are sending people out to represent us throughout the county, region, state and nation. Once you let them know the basic rules, trust them to do the right thing. And if they goof up — and we all goof up — trust them to never do that one again. Your staff knows if you don’t trust them. Who wants to work for someone that doesn’t trust you?

It seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

It must start with our schools. My kids were lucky enough to participate in a program at our church kindergarten by an amazing teacher who promoted the “Reggio Emilia” approach to learning. It’s student-centered and self-directed, and it’s relationship-driven. Duh. That’s the workplace isn’t it? We need you to do your work and use your talents, and if you need help, we’ll help you. And of course, we need you to work with others to get things done. In fact, they probably have a talent you need to support your goals.

This is obviously a rant of mine. If we don’t construct learning environments in which we allow students to thrive, then how do we expect them to thrive in work cultures — and especially ones that don’t allow employees to thrive?

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I struggle with low self esteem. I cannot believe they let me be in charge! Wow!

It’s a bit of a curse to have low self esteem when you are always working with elected officials, but luckily I have high confidence that I can get things done so it balances out.

That’s my leadership style as well. I have confidence you can get this done. I know you can. If I can get this done, then so can you.

What help do you need what tools would make it happen, and how can we get you there because we need you to be there. I am constantly learning myself, and so therefore I hope you are too.

That’s the former reporter in me. If I don’t know, I’ll find out — hey, want to find out with me?

I have seen so many of our employees grow professionally and personally through our work. They’ve done things they never thought they would be able to do, and that is a joy to see. Our vice president came to me a few years ago and asked to support our work in a new way through strategy development. Now, I love strategy development, but I saw in her the ability to spend more time and more talent on it than me, so I said absolutely, this is the right thing to do. Her work, especially in managing staff through our change, has been transformative for our organization. Giving her the ability to lead crafting the playbook has made a huge and positive impact on our organization as well as our employees.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My first job in tourism and second job in public relations was for a then sleepy little history museum. I took a pay cut for that job (one of many), but my gut told me it would be good in the long run. I was there as it tripled in attendance. I stayed there for 13 years and grew so much as a person and professional. The second week on the job, I made a decision that did not please the museum’s director. She called me into her office and asked 25-year-old me: “Who signs your paycheck?” To be honest, the first thing I thought was “I have no idea who signs my paycheck! Is it the director of the museum or the president of the college that owned us?!” Luckily, I got it right and said … “You?” We wrestled for 11 of those 13 years (she retired 18 months before I left), but she defined the first wave of “bad-ass women bosses,” and she taught me so very much. I would never ask an employee who signs his or her paycheck. I would celebrate an employee presenting alternative ideas than mine. I can never be “bad-ass.” But she taught me strategy and how to think through complex situations. How to create relationships to build a foundation. And I’ll never forget the day I called her to tell her that my mother died, and the unbelievable kindness she shared with me when that happened. I got to tell her how much I valued her before she passed away. And I still chuckle that I talked her into dressing up as a hippie and singing new words to “Where have all the flowers gone?” to our alliance with me on the guitar. Maybe I taught her something too?

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

This is a common one, but I have held onto this ever since I saw the late cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead speak at Indiana University the first semester of my freshman year.

Remember that first time you left your “home bubble” and started to hear about all those other big ideas being presented? That was my moment. This wasn’t a quote she said (I do remember she said women and men are not all that different except women have the babies … and that makes all the difference in the world.)

But everyone knows this famous, spot-on quote:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

I see this quote in action every single day. Small ideas become big ones and it usually starts with a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens.

What movement would I like to start? I hope my employees think I am a kind boss. I think kindness is the single biggest gift we can give each other. If we are kind, then trust is built. If trust is built, we can do so much together. We can make mistakes and learn from them without judgment. We can have honesty that helps us become more productive citizens. We can communicate better.

If I could inspire a movement, it would be one that elevates the value of kindness and consideration in the work place, in our faith communities, at home and on the street. Goodness knows we need it.

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