How Candace Osunsade transformed HR from tactical to strategic at the National Aquarium.

Christa Elliott

Human resources at its core is about people, and no one understands this better than Candace Osunsade. On her journey from VP of HR to SVP and chief administrative offi cer for the National Aquarium, Osunsade has helped shift the organization’s focus from family entertainment to conservation and its HR department from a tactical service to a true strategic partner.

During this process, Osunsade focused on mining the right talent that fit with the not-for-profit’s mission of inspiring conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. She overhauled the organization’s sourcing strategy from reactive to proactive, and improved benefits and compensation for current employees to help increase retention. Initially this meant higher spending—a bold move for a not-for-profit, but ultimately the right one for the aquarium as a business.

Her vision, 25 years of proven experience, and impressive leadership earned her recognition in 2015 when she received HRO Today’s Chief Human Resources Officer of the Year Award. Here, Osunsade discusses her continued strategic plan for HR, how her experiences prepared her for C-Suite leadership, and why the bottom line still matters for not-forprofits.

HRO Today. How did the National Aquarium’s HR department shift from a tactical service into more of a strategic role?

Candace Osunsade: The National Aquarium is a landmark attraction that operates as an economic engine as well as a facilitator for impact as it relates to environmental and conservation needs. For years, we delivered our message through the brick and mortar experience, and three years ago we realized that there was an opportunity for us to expand our reach to have an impact nationally and be a player in the conservation state.

To move toward achieving that goal, people are critical— you need to have the talent in place to really facilitate the growth and the transformational change that was really going to be the game-changer in terms of how we are perceived in our market and nationally. The CEO of the National Aquarium, John Racanelli, is a leader who understands that results happen through people. When John came on board, he immediately engaged HR as a critical partner in the planning. We work toward having a seat at the table, but I also had a leader that knew it was important for HR to have that seat.

For four years, I had invested in putting the foundation in place—the foundation being core HR projects. You can talk conceptually about being strategic, but the only way that you will be allowed to contribute strategically to your organization is if you’ve got a solid foundation.

Guess what doesn’t happen: an opportunity to be strategic when there are defects in your payroll process, when you aren’t able to fill your positions, when the right tools aren’t in place, and when the relationships don’t exist. So I had four years of putting a solid foundation in place that was focused on process improvement and automation.

HRO Today. In today’s market, is it challenging to find the right talent for your organization?

Osunsade: Every organization today is struggling to find individuals that see a job as an opportunity to be engaged in something that truly makes a difference. You need great people to produce great outcomes. So the shift from your job being lifetime employment to the economy we’re seeing now where people are becoming their own contractors is creating this dynamic where the connection to your job takes more effort.

Our recruitment process was really based on the fact that we are the National Aquarium. Open positions are coveted positions in our geographic market—we have quite a presence in Baltimore. We realized that we were used to people coming to us for employment just because and we realized that we needed to make a shift to find not just talent but the right talent. We began mining talent by searching, sourcing, and connecting with individuals who play in our space. We’d introduce them to what we’re doing and position the National Aquarium as a great place to work.

We also used tools like LinkedIn and participated in community groups and national conferences. For example, I’m a member of a women’s advocacy group called Network 2000. My interest in Network 2000 includes opportunities to meet women who are working professionals and to hopefully build some connections to individuals who might want to come to the National Aquarium to work.

It is an opportunity to really include the ‘why’ in our recruitment process and take the time to really understand not only the candidates’ technical abilities, but also their interests and passions with hope to get to alignment. It’s an area that I believe all organizations need to focus on: the skill set and the talent that they have.

HRO Today: Can you provide an example of how you changed your selection process to find people that were not only passionate about conservation but also aligned well with the National Aquarium’s mission?

Osunsade: We have wonderful programs at the National Aquarium where we focus on introducing youth in Baltimore to careers in conservation by introducing them to experiences where they can take conservation action. It’s a good way to get them out of our urban area and into nature, exposing them in a way that sometimes wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Through the programs, we have mentors. These are experts in conservation and conservation education that are introducing these young people to ways that they can earn income and be a contributor to our environment. So we create pathways from these programs into paid positions. That’s the program portfolio piece.

HRO Today: Is reaching out to the community for volunteer or philanthropic purposes part of your strategic plan for the National Aquarium?

Osunsade: My language is: We are a community. When you come on site and see our staff in aquarium uniforms, we represent the wonderful diversity that is Baltimore. We are a mission-driven organization where the mission is the social fabric and the culture of our organization.

Our mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. We work to empower our staff from the very beginning to embody that. We have programs—Henry Hall, Aquarium on Wheels—that are pathways to bring individuals on board early on who are jazzed about our mission. These people truly want to make an impact, not only where they work, but throughout the community.

I spend a percentage of my time being visible in the community, and the work that I do in the community connects to what we do here at the aquarium.

HRO Today: What are some of your challenges working in the not-for-profit sector and what advice would you offer to overcome them?

Osunsade: A systemic challenge for all not-forprofits is the conflict that exists between your impact and your ability to fund the programs needed to have an impact. In between those two important outcomes are donors. Your ability to cultivate and continue partnerships with donors is key. Donors want to know the impact your organization making. It’s a big circle. If you can’t fund your programs, then you can’t create change.

Not-for-profits need to be willing to adjust and calibrate their mission as needed to connect with their market. Analytics are driving these decisions. But always trust your gut: You don’t want to calibrate and lose a sense of who you are. It’s more important than ever for non-for-profits to be tied to their why The second challenge is also tied to resources: Nonprofits need to be able to attract candidates and provide competitive compensation for the talent that’s needed to truly—and I’m going to use a word that’s a naughty word in the non-profit world—grow your business. No one wants to think about this as a business because you’re fulfilling a passion and a mission.

I work with a team of very passionate people who are here because of our mission knowing not-for-profits are definitely not lead payers. I’ve got young people working here that are highly credentialed, trying to pay back student loans, sometimes with an inability to purchase homes and put a firm stake in the sand of this economy we call Baltimore. We really struggle with having the resources needed to be able to provide a total compensation package that equates to a quality of life that I believe is really important to being a productive contributor.

I talk to people who work at the aquarium and they also have a part-time job. They work as a waiter/waitress because they’re willing to make that trade-off for the impact that they’re making. We have very passionate people in the workforce that care about social good.

I want to point out one more challenge. The aquarium and other not-for-profits have translated the definition of notfor- profit to mean that they don’t need revenue and they’re in it because of the why. I think this belief causes not-forprofits to be not as nimble as they need to be to adjust and change.

So, I’ll bring up another dirty word: revenue. I often say that “not-for-profit” is just how we file our taxes—we still need to bring in business revenue. We need to fund our mission and sometimes we need to be nimble to do so. Right now, our attendance is flat, and we’re not expecting significant growth in new attendees. The generation of individuals that will be bringing their families to the aquarium now have the ability to connect in from their living room with the introduction of the internet and webcams. So at the end of the day, we’ve got to get our audience. We have to look at what we’re doing and think about doing it in different ways.

HRO Today. How do you use your platform in HR to lobby for business change?

Osunsade: I use my platform as an HR professional to make the correlation between the impact people have and business results. I went to an event where I was talking with a CEO of a community bank, and he told me, “I’ve done this because it’s the right thing to do.” He was talking about diversity—he said he did it because it felt good. Doing what needs to be done for people might feel good, but at the end of the day, you need to be able to measure the outcomes to improve business results. So I want it to be the right decision because it is a good business decision.

Take, for example, employee benefits. There was a time when the aquarium had a poor level of employee satisfaction with the benefits plan. It was a hot button for all employees. People had to choose between getting a mammogram or paying their rent. I told the C-suite team that we needed to invest in better benefits to keep our employees healthy. Sick employees negatively impact attendance and productivity. Offering a better plan would initially be an increase in expense, but it needs to be thought of as an investment.

The strategy I brought to the table was a five-year plan. We spent more money year one, year two, and year three. We’re a self-funded plan; our claimed expense has reduced precipitously. We are now at a point where the investment we made year one, two, and three is covered fully by the reduction in paid sick days. So we have had three years where the cost of coverage for our participation has remained flat, but we have a very financially healthy plan. And for a not-for-profit to spend more—that’s just not what we do

HRO Today: You spoke earlier about investing in people as being a huge part of being a leader within HR. Do you think that quality has been helpful to you in transitioning into your new role?

Osunsade: The competencies found in successful HR professionals have now created this new pathway from HR to CEO. I believe that my transition to the role that I’m in was really because I demonstrated the ability to develop high-performing teams.

The investment organizations are making to attract talent and engage them has resulted in a compelling call-to-action for successful leaders in the C-suite to demonstrate a high level of competency in understanding how to leverage the potential of people. I believe that in the continued focus on people and the need for organizations to really embrace talented individuals who deliver results, you’re going to see many HR professionals sitting in the top chair.

HRO Today Are their any metrics that you believe are the most useful in measuring talent and measuring the needs of your organization?

Osunsade: There are a number of key business metrics, but I will speak specifically to the metrics that I focus on. We correlate employee engagement and our net promoter score with guest engagement and guest satisfaction. We correlate the key metrics out of the learning and development space, which are a compilation of the experience of attending the event and learning transfer, with the growth in performance. We correlate our recruitment key metrics with performance. That’s how we measure success in our recruitment process because the fallacy is that the right measurement is retention. I believe retention is a subhead of the right measurement, but it’s a combination of retention and the individual’s performance. So those are metrics that we are very closely watching

We need to grow and not increase our expense—how can we do that? I use the pie analogy: I’ve got one pie, and it’s not getting any bigger, but I can change the size of the slices. Gradually, we change the focus in our business.

Tags: Engaged Workforce, Innovation, Learning, Talent Acquisition

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