Sharon L'Herrou is the President and CEO of 211 Palm Beach and Treasure Coast Florida. 211 is a call number (like 911) available throughout the country. It is a "helpline service, meaning that if you are worried about anything going on in your life from a child that may be having some behavioral challenges to a parent that may be showing signs of memory loss, to having economic hardships, and you can't pay your light bill, any of those things. We have a caring staff that will help connect you to whatever services and resources are available in your community."
Sharon explains how her organization offers additional services. "We're the regional responders for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline."
Providing such comprehensive support services requires extensive and well-rounded training for her staff. "The team that's responding to these requests for help, is trained to handle anything from someone who's worried about paying their bills, all the way to someone who was really thinking they might not want to wake up in the morning. So it means that our staff are, have a much broader skillset, right, a deeper level of empathy and care, in their ability to handle every single situation that comes to them."
There's a lot of talk about cultivating more empathy in the workplace. And Sharon has actionable insights to share. She explains, "I think the first part is screening for that upfront... So in order to come onto our team, I have to first be confident that you're somebody who at the core, you care about other people"
You might be wondering, how do you screen for someone who cares about other people? It starts by reviewing resumes and doing phone screenings. But, "usually it will come up organically. And the things that I'm listening for are that they will offer why they want to be here. And they usually tell stories... What I want to know is what have you done that demonstrates caretaking behaviors for other people?"
From there, Sharon explains how cultivating an empathic and compassionate workforce requires setting expectations. This occurs during the pre-service training where Sharon exhibits care for her new hires while also inviting discussions about their code of ethics and policies related to showing empathy and care in their work.
Sharon encourages dialogue in the trainings by asking, "Tell me, why do you think that that's important? Why is it important to have a policy that says some of these things?"
As she listens to their responses she explores how their whys are distilled down to one word, respect. Sharon offers, "if you can treat our callers, our texters, your co-workers, your supervisor, if you treat everyone in your bubble with respect, you can't go wrong."
Sharon clarifies further her expectations in the training exploring how showing care and concern for everyone who calls doesn't mean you can solve their problems. "You can't help everyone all the time in the moment they want it or in the way that they are looking for it. So...what we most want is that every single person who reaches out to us feels cared about."
The third step in fostering a workplace culture of care and concern is in monitoring. In a call center, they "listen into some calls. And we will do coaching around that. And one of the things we were looking for is an empathetic tone of voice. And so if someone's struggling with that, we actually will practice with them a little bit, but you know, we'll let them listen to their own call."
By letting people listen to their own calls, they are invited to reflect on how they are showing up. This proves to be quite effective at creating deeper levels of awareness of the presence or lack of empathy because they are self-identifying the impacts of their tone of voice. At the same time, managers mindfully navigate these conversations so team members feel empowered afterwards.
Sharon sees the word they do as not just a service to others, but a way for cultivating valuable life skills for employees as well. "For us as human beings, I think that the healthier we become emotionally, the better choices we can make, the better we engage with others."
One of the common problems in non-profit work is empathy fatigue and burnout. Sharon is quite aware of this challenge and advises, "You have to accept that we cannot help everybody."
She goes on to explain how she grapples with the limits of their abilities to serve. "If my choices are to help no one because I can't get us to a perfect world or to help the ones I can, I am going to just focus my attention on helping where I can...I know that I can't do everything, but I am going to do what I can."
The needs of the community, far outweigh the resources 211 has available to serve. This is a common organizational struggle in non-profits and social businesses. As a leader, Sharon encourages her team members to establish and focus on priorities by modeling this behavior herself. "If we waited until our work was done to take a day off, would never take a day off...So we just have to say, 'I'm focusing on the priorities, I can get done. And then I'm going to take the day off.'"
This challenge is particularly salient when navigating their relationship with funding partners. "There's a power dynamic with funding partners where they're giving funding to do a certain thing... And if they're asking us for something, and it doesn't make sense for us to do that, we have to go back and have a conversation with them about why this does or doesn't make sense and what we may or may not be able to offer."
Sharon encourages her team to pause, think strategically and have more in-depth conversations before responding to the many requests for services they receive. This is so important because the pleas for help they receive pull at their heartstrings. "I remind people that we have to think about what we're not doing."
This doesn't mean that Sharon is constantly saying not to requests. "When there's a community concern...the short answer is always yes, we want to help. The longer answer is we have to figure out what timeframe and what resources are available to be able to help." This leads to additional conversations with community partners about the resources and budgets needed to enable her organization to provide the services.
Sharon observes, "we are co-creating all the time." Within her team and with the community as a whole. She shared a specific example where "there was a community problem, someone came to us with an idea. We brought other partners to the table, we mapped out an entirely new solution, which is now incredibly effective." And their co-creating efforts result in solutions that are drastically better for the community.
Sharon recognizes the impacts of their co-creating efforts. "Every time someone is struggling, it's not only their struggle, but it's also every single person that they are connected to. So when we help one person with that struggle, there really is an enormous ripple effect of improvement in people's lives all around."
To hear the whole story and gain the actional insights from Sharon around co-creating social good, check out the full episode here.
Connect with Sharon
211 Helpline Palm Beach County Website - https://211palmbeach.org/