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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Candace Osunsade: SVP, Chief of Staff, National Aquarium
Episode: 165
Air Date: April 1, 2016


For over 25 years, Candace has been a strategic business partner and human resources leader, helping organizations and professionals maximize their potential while driving business results. She is experienced in innovative and transformational change with expertise in talent management, organizational development, compensation, talent acquisition, employee engagement, project management, and HR system design and implementation.

By implementing structure and managing transformational change through incremental and digestible steps, Candace has led the transition of the National Aquarium’s HR department from a tactical internal service function to one that is a true strategic partner. Examples of her accomplishments include the implementation of a fully functional human resource information system; strategic workforce planning based on talent assessment; nine-box succession planning; goals-based performance assessment; a competitive compensation program with data-driven decision making around merit and incentive awards, promotions and equity; and a best-in-class benefits program that includes a virtual wellness program and a financially stable self-funded medical and prescription plan.

In 2015, Candace was honored with the Chief HR Officer of the Year award by HRO Today magazine, a recognition celebrating the chief human resource officers that help drive workforce initiatives through innovation, with measurable excellence in employee engagement and retention to prove it. Candace believes in “investing in our future” and is heavily involved in a number of efforts around working with young people from underserved and poorly represented communities.

Candace is a graduate of Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations and a Greater Baltimore Committee Leadership alum, is Myers Briggs Qualified and is Six Sigma trained.


Audio MP3





Begin transcript

John Sumser: Good morning and welcome to HRExaminer Radio. I’m your host, John Sumser, and we’re coming to you today live from beautiful downtown Occidental, California, where innovation got its start in California. Today, we’re going to be talking with Candace Osunsade Osunsade, who is the CHRO and chief of staff at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Candace Osunsade, how are you?


Candace Osunsade: Fabulous. It is a happy Friday.



John Sumser:


Many Fridays are happy Fridays. Would you take a few moments and introduce yourself to the audience?


Candace Osunsade: Yes. Good morning. It is my pleasure to share who I am, Candace Osunsade, the HR professional, and now Candace Osunsade, the chief of staff and chief administrative officer. To tell you who I am is really a story about my journey, and my journey has been about managing a career, balancing work and family, and truly trying to live my life in a way where I can make a difference. The National Aquarium has been that place where I truly feel like I can make an impact.


John Sumser: How did you get here? You’ve got a long history. Tell us the story of your career. Did you grow up wanting to be the chief of staff at the National Aquarium?


Candace Osunsade: No. I grew up wanting to be a lawyer, but to understand where I started when I was the young little girl living in a neighborhood where opportunities were seen as being limited, and I believed in something that was far beyond what I saw every day, it started with my philosophy on life. I’ll share with you a little funny story, because it really speaks to who I am and the journey. If I were in front of you, if you Google and search my name, what you will see is a person who is really passionate if you read my profile, but you will also notice in the picture that I’m a talented HR professional but athlete I am not.


What was very interesting last year is I decided to continue to live life by pushing boundary lines. Last year was my year to decide that I not only wanted to think healthy, but I wanted to live healthy. The story of me trying to live healthy, I decided to run a 5K. Running a race was truly outside of the boundary lines of what I’ve ever done in my life, except that what I needed to really engage in being successful at this activity was truly who I am. I worked at it, and I worked hard.


The day of the race, I was in the moment. I was stretching, and I was ready, and they said, “Okay, 5K runners, go,” because that’s how my life went. Candace Osunsade, go. I started to run. I ran as fast as I could. I didn’t know, because this is what life is about, the terrain of this course. I didn’t know when I was a little girl wanting to be a lawyer the terrain of that journey either, but I knew I needed to run, and I ran that day. I quickly realized I was running uphill. I started running with a group of people, and I realized that I could not keep up.


The learning and growth that came from that day is I crossed the finish line, and why I got over the finish line, because I was running not only for my health, but I was running for the impact and community. I ran as a fundraiser for an organization that helps young people in Baltimore connect to STEM programs, so impact is important. Purpose is important. That got me over the finish line. What’s interesting, that aspect and approach to life is what has continued to get me over the finish line in my career. You got to know your pace, and you got to be willing to adjust and to calibrate, and you got to be willing to live outside your boundary lines.


John Sumser: That’s really kind of amazing. How about your background in HR? You haven’t always been inside of HR. What’s that like?


Candace Osunsade: No. My background is really what has given me a great insight in how to help organizations leverage all of their people talent, as well as the talents on their HR team. I started my career at ADP. I have worked for organizations that provide HR automation and HR professional employment services. It has really helped me round out what I describe as the best practices around process design and system automation, as well as establishing culture in organizations that really align with the organization’s work and purpose. Starting working for a vendor that provides services enabled me to get understanding and experience at multiple organizations. It is the power of bringing together experiences that were in-depth because the interactions with multiple organizations really helped to round out my understanding.


John Sumser: Thank you. Thank you. What are you doing currently?


Candace Osunsade: Currently, I’m living life to the fullest. I describe it, I get up every day and I try to party like a rock star. I come to work. What I call work isn’t a job, because it’s truly in alignment with my passion. Being in a role of chief administrative officer/chief of staff here at the National Aquarium has enabled me to not only help an organization move forward, but to make an impact in the world in which we live. When I meet people at dinner parties, I don’t ask them, “What’s your job? What do you do?” I ask them, “What is your contribution to the world?” Because we all need to live and work with the thought in mind that we need to give back.


Today, I represent what I describe as the new generation of HR talent that is finding the pathways to the C-suite, that is leveraging the pathway from the C-suite to the CEO chair, where organizations are appreciating and understanding the value that HR professionals bring to a discussion and the natural leadership competencies around getting the most out of people. We now have economies where we are knowledge workers. We talked about this growing economy of [now 00:08:30]. We’re there. It is my opportunity here at the Aquarium to continue to bring to the discussion my HR expertise and experience, to now broaden my impact internally in the organization so that I am now improving process and function in the area of how we run our backend and support functions, and continue to fulfill my purpose. [crosstalk 00:09:06] 7 years.


John Sumser: That’s interesting.


Candace Osunsade: Mm-hmm (affirmative).



John Sumser:


Go ahead. Tell me about 7 years ago.


Candace Osunsade: 7 years ago, I woke up and realized that I was going to a job. I realized that I was pulling down from my emotional bank in a way that I was tired, mentally and physically, and I realized that work needs to align with your purpose. You need to feel like you are making a difference. To round out why I feel like every day I party like a rock star, because I not only get to help the Aquarium organization, it is what the Aquarium organization embraces as our mission and the impact we make in our community in connecting urban families and youth to their environment and the impact their environment has on the quality of their life.


John Sumser: Cool. You made this transition from being a vendor to being a CHRO. What did you learn in that transition?


Candace Osunsade: What I learned is that life is about continually learning. I believe that learning happens when you accept that, as human beings in how we are wired, we are naturally comfortable down what I describe as this path of judgment where you are, instead of in the mode of asking the right questions, you sit back, you observe it, and you go, “This doesn’t make sense. This is not what I would do.” I take time and I am deliberate to ensure that every touch point, every person I meet in life, every organization that I touch, is an opportunity to learn something. Learning means that I have to break down any barriers that might prevent me from doing that. That is knowing when I am judging an organization based on a limited interaction. As a vendor, I would show up. I would have 3 days in an organization. I would go, “Okay, I can either judge what they’re doing or learn why they’re doing it.” It has really been continual learning. Every day, every single day, I learn something new.


John Sumser: Let’s take that idea and move to the next question, which is, you have a number of really interesting opinions about diversity and inclusion. I’d like to explore that, but let’s start with, as you navigated the world of being a vendor, you learned how to do accurate, quick assessments of the cultural pockets that you were dealing with. It’d be interesting if you could overlay your vendor experience on your ideas about diversity and inclusion.


Candace Osunsade: Yeah. My ideas in regards to diversity and inclusion really reflect the progress and the growth here in America and the changing perspective as it relates to truly what does that mean for us as this wonderful, eclectic composite of people who bring different life choices, different filters, and different experiences. When I started my career, diversity and inclusion was truly about compliance, mitigating risk, and showed up often as an action plan. What I learned on my journey from a vendor to a CHRO to a CAO is that truly, diversity brings the most value to organizations when the organizational culture truly embraces diversity as part of their competitive edge.


Now how does that show up? That shows up in a way where the discourse and continued learning is more about what I describe as cultural competency, which is different for me than diversity and inclusion. Diversity and inclusion, and what it truly meant for organizations, is taking the action to ensure that your population is diverse. The cultural competency piece, which really links to the culture, is how do I have the right conversations, how do we learn from each other, how do I learn to appreciate these differences as an opportunity to really improve what we’re doing and improve our service to our customers, improve our impact, has really been the game changer. The days working … Mm-hmm (affirmative).


John Sumser: You’re saying that diversity and inclusion are table stakes, and cultural competency is how you harvest the benefit. Is that what you mean?


Candace Osunsade: That would be an accurate summary of my perspective. Yes. To really …



John Sumser:


[crosstalk 00:15:11]. You were about to talk more about cultural competency. Tell me more.


Candace Osunsade: Yes. To really harvest the value of different perspectives that come with different cultural experiences, different socialization experiences, the variation of ethnicities, the variation of sexual orientations and life choices, is to be able to be comfortable and to have established the behaviors to really have the right conversations, to really get the most out of the value that diversity offers.


John Sumser: That’s interesting. I was in a conference the other day, and the speaker said that if you want the fastest growth possible, you just have a monoculture. I scratched my head, because everything that I know suggests that the best kind of organization is a complex array of opinions and perspectives and backgrounds. Can you talk about the difference between those 2 things?


Candace Osunsade: Yes. I scratch my head as well. We get the most out of the talent we bring into an organization when the organization has an in-depth appreciation for differences. Having an in-depth appreciation means that you are around the table leveraging the different perspectives, because it only produces a better outcome. We leverage perspectives here at the Aquarium to create the best experience for our guests. As we look at the diversity that comes into the Aquarium brick and mortar experience, how do we translate that experience for them into conservation action? That really helps to deliver on our impact and our mission, to truly connect people to the aquatic treasures and the waters that are really about the continuation of the human life on this earth.


It’s interesting, because when you have the conversation with someone whose experiences come from urban neighborhoods, their socioeconomic status is at a level where the experience of traveling and getting to parks and really connecting with nature is something that they haven’t experienced. To get them to understanding the impact of their actions, it has to start with education and exposure. When we sat at the table and we leveraged the experiences of our staff, where that is truly their journey and their perspective, it was only then did we realize and understand that conservation behaviors and actions, and this sounds controversial, cannot be a white, liberal cause. It can’t be. We are in the throes of creating experiences that link together environment and the reality of the population and the community that we serve. One of our new experiences is to create an urban wetland right here in the Inner Harbor, because we needed to bring the environment to the people. We would have only gotten there through understanding their perspective.


John Sumser: That’s an interesting concept. That’s a very, very interesting concept. That’s the role of the Aquarium in the local community. What’s the role of the Aquarium as employer to the local community?


Candace Osunsade: The role of the Aquarium as employer I describe in 2 key ways. The first and most important is to create pathways for young people in our community to careers in the space of conservation. These pathways are critical, because we have young people in our community, and we all sat in our living rooms and watched Baltimore on the news last year, a year ago, and we all said, “Here we are in 2015. How could we be here?” We watched a city burn that could have been any city in this country, because if organizations, companies that are in communities fail to create pathways for youth in their community to see careers and opportunities for them to be gainfully employed, to have careers, the tragedy is that our cities will continue to burn because we have disenfranchised youth. That is key.


I spend as much time creating pathways as I do on the other key aspect of what is important for the Aquarium as an employer in our community. That is to be able to find the talent we need in our community. For so many compelling reasons, it makes business sense for organizations to focus on a talent sourcing strategy that includes finding talent in their own backyard, because then that drives the connections that need to exist and the partnerships with the local universities, the high schools, and the middle schools. Those 2 aspects need to work in tandem for organizations to continue to grow and have the talent they need to grow.


What is exciting for me, we have a wonderful Read to Reef program at the National Aquarium. It speaks to the 2 key components I shared with you, and that is pathways and talent in our own backyard. Read to Reef, we give families in Baltimore City tickets to come to the Aquarium as a reward for their children reading books. We know that literacy is key to creating a pathway. If I cannot support literacy in my own community, then I will never get to being able to find talent in my own backyard. When I get a platform, I speak clearly to my goal is to be able to find the next aquarist here in Baltimore. I don’t want to have to search nationally. We should be growing our own talent.


John Sumser: What a phenomenal perspective. What a phenomenal perspective. What you just said is that the role of the employer is to participate fully in the employment ecosystem and understand that people are on journeys as they go through their careers. Their journeys may take them through your organization, but you need to be concerned about what happens to them before they get there and after they leave in order to build a robust ecosystem, rather than viewing it as piecework that you go out and acquire from just exactly the precise person that you need at the moment that you need it, right?


Candace Osunsade: Yes [crosstalk 00:24:17].



John Sumser:


Treating human beings as full human beings in the eyes of the company as it looks at its community is what you’re talking about. Is that right?


Candace Osunsade: Yes, that is a great summary of my perspective. Well stated.



John Sumser:


What a great idea. I’ve never heard it before. That’s such a great idea. I would love to get to watch you explore that idea for a while. That’s going to be good to get to know you, Candace Osunsade.


Candace Osunsade: Yes [crosstalk 00:24:52].



John Sumser:


What should I have asked you that I didn’t get to?


Candace Osunsade: Ah. What should you have asked me? I will tell you that you will have missed out on an opportunity if you didn’t ask me about my purpose in life, because I will always, I will always, go back to the importance of knowing who you are and your purpose. As I started with, how you live your life, that journey, knowing how to run uphill when you need to run uphill and you’re not an athlete, knowing the difference of when you’re at a job versus doing work that you care about. My purpose, and I had to realize how I feel the most fulfilled, is really helping people, human beings, reach their fullest potential. That has transcended through everything that I have done.


When I am in a place and I’m not fulfilling that purpose, having that realization and then shifting to really thinking about how do I take the work that I am doing and now make a link to that purpose is very important to the management of a career. Often, we go searching. As human beings, we will search and look for the fulfillment that we need. If you know what your purpose is, you can often create that fulfillment in any organization that you are working for.


In my career, I realized there was a time that I fulfilled that purpose through volunteerism. I fulfilled that purpose through participation on boards and organizations that really focused on underserved youth here in Baltimore City. I now fulfill that purpose in the role that I am in at the Aquarium, by creating opportunities for young people to see the world outside of Baltimore and to understand that their choices have an impact on our community and the world that they live in, and to know their world is bigger than Baltimore City.


John Sumser: Hmm. What a great thing you said. You said something very powerful there. You said you can find your purpose and express it in any organizational setting in which you find yourself.


Candace Osunsade: Yeah.



John Sumser:


Isn’t that roughly what you said?


Candace Osunsade: That is exactly what I said, and I believe it.



John Sumser:


That’s awesome [crosstalk 00:27:57]. That is totally awesome. Nobody says that. That’s true, of course, but nobody says that. That’s awesome.


Candace Osunsade: And I believe it.



John Sumser:


Fantastic. If there were just a couple of things that you wanted people listening to the show to take away, what would they be?


Candace Osunsade: Embrace the world and your community. Realize that we all play a role. We all need to be committed participants in making a difference. Understand your purpose. Take the time to figure it out. Then realize how you can make that difference in your own organization. What we do here at the National Aquarium and how I’ve fulfilled my purpose wasn’t just this match made in heaven. It required me to really dig deep and reflect upon who I am and how I’m most fulfilled, and then to find the ways to connect my energies to work that would truly align with my purpose in life.


The example that Baltimore was for the United States, for this country, that we appreciate life and we appreciate the spirit of each human being, Baltimore City was a learning opportunity, and remember we learn every day, on what happens when organizations and people don’t hold their selves accountable for the communities that they live in, because what I saw through the eyes of the media and living in this city is the missed opportunity for those young people to be seen and embraced as our own children, as children that belong to us.


If I can summarize that in a couple of key important points, your goal should be to find a job that aligns with your purpose. That purpose should always be thoughtful to include the community that you live in, because without having a connection to the community, the world that we live in will never be the place and the world that we want to live in, and whether that’s the environment, or whether that is really developing our young people into talented, contributing citizens in this country.


John Sumser: Great. Would you take a moment and reintroduce yourself and tell people how to get a hold of you, if they’d like to get a hold of you?


Candace Osunsade: Sure. I’m Candace Osunsade Osunsade, chief administrative officer, HR professional extraordinaire. I can be found on LinkedIn. I can be hit up on Twitter at @hrexpert11. I can also be found on a number of HR affinity sites. Ultimate Software, I can be found on their site. You can feel free to email me your thoughts and opinions, I welcome dialogue, at pinnacle, P-I-N-N-A-C-L-E, Thank you.


John Sumser: Thanks so much. We’ve been talking with Candace Osunsade Osunsade, who is the chief administrative officer at the National Aquarium, and an astonishing thinker about HR and an astonishing HR professional. It’s been a real pleasure to talk with you, Candace Osunsade. I hope you have a great rest of your day.


Candace Osunsade: I thank you and I look forward to continuing our conversation.



John Sumser:


Thanks so much. You’ve been listening to HRExaminer Radio. I am your host, John Sumser. Have a great day. Bye bye now.

End transcript

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