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As vice president of Human Resources for the Indianapolis Suburban Region, Tamarah Brownlee works to make the organization thrive and to help team members have a sense of connection and belonging.
Written by Charlotte Stefanski, firstname.lastname@example.org, writer for IU Health's Indianapolis Suburban Region
As a mother of four, Tamarah Brownlee always starts with her children—her driving factors.
After 23 years in Human Resources (HR) leadership, Brownlee has worked in retail, education, moving services and healthcare. She’s learned many lessons on how to create a thriving work culture, but as a working mom, she always thinks back to her kids.
“They help me think about the future I’m trying to create here for employees,” she explained. “My children are new to the workforce and remind me of the needs and perspectives emerging from our most recent generations, both the Millennial and Z generations.”
HR leadership was something Brownlee stumbled into after receiving her master’s degree in Public Health. For the last six years, she’s served as the vice president of Human Resources in the IU Health Indianapolis Suburban Region, which includes IU Health North, Saxony, Tipton and West hospitals.
“I'm so glad I came to IU Health, because it connected me back to my mission and grounded me in that space of making meaningful differences in the lives of the people that we serve, our patients and our team members as well,” she said.
Within her role, Brownlee not only creates the region’s HR strategy, but she helps lead several types of programming, including team member recognition, educational opportunities and affinity groups.
She works to make the organization thrive, to help team members do their best, to have a sense of connection and belonging—all while working at the top of their expertise.
“It’s those types of things that create experiences for our team members,” she said. “That sense of wellbeing actually touches the patient as well.”
Helping team members thrive
As a purpose-driven leader, Brownlee looks to draw meaning out of every experience, whether it be the work she does, interactions she has or environments she’s in. It has to make sense to her.
Since working in healthcare, she knows that many frontline team members feel connected to their purpose. It’s something many feel called to do.
“When you're really connected to what you’re doing and you know what your strengths are, you're able to really be optimized in that space,” she explained.
She also knows that it can be tricky to find that purpose or “why.” And for the last few years, team members from every role have been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sometimes, team members can feel lost and lose their “why.”
The best part of her job is helping people get there.
Instead of waking up and saying, “I have to go to work,” Brownlee wants to flip the script. She wants team members to say, “I get to go to work,” with an excitement for interaction. She wants them to know they’re about to make a positive impact and can change a life.
“You help people make those connections and you help them to thrive. That’s why I get up every day, to help remove barriers for folks when it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” she said.
“Research tells us that when people have a sense of belonging, they also have a sense of wellbeing. That has huge impacts on someone's life.”
But it’s not always easy for Brownlee either. Being both a leader and a student can be tiring, and she’s trying to create time for herself.
This year, Brownlee is focusing on her nutrition and health, making sure she’s fueling her body so that she’s able to carry out her work. She prays and meditates and she’s also trying to bring in an exercise regimen.
Brownlee also doesn’t shy away from taking time off work, because she knows a balanced work and home life is necessary. And she encourages all the same for her fellow leaders and team members.
“As leaders, we have a diligence to be able to live out those elements,” she added. “If I want to foster wellbeing within the IU Health organization, I have to present those options to myself and team members.”
Black History Month is an opportunity
For Brownlee, Black History Month is more than just a moment or a day. It’s a time to express freely and reflect on the past, present and future.
She notes that reflection is a form of learning, and when we reflect on the past—yes, there’s plenty of bad that’s happened. But Black resilience has resulted in more opportunities for diverse perspectives to be incorporated in the narrative today and offers a hope for future generations.
“To me, Black History Month embodies the testament of what's happened historically, a testament of where we are today and the journey yet ahead, and that there's still opportunity and growth,” she said.
It also gives the opportunity to ask two questions: What can we do differently? How can we be better?
During this time, Brownlee also liked to think about the trailblazers before her, both well-known and the unsung heroes who paved the way.
For her, one of those is Rosa Parks, who made her stamp in the civil rights movement during the Montgomery bus boycott by refusing to give up her seat.
“In spite of what she could have faced, she made a decision that created a movement, that changed the fiber of our country and our world,” Brownlee said. “Just by that simple act of, ‘I'm going to sit in this boldly and bravely.’”
Brownlee aspires to have that humble courage and to bring it into the IU Health culture. When opinions differ, she doesn’t want to polarize those around her, but instead create a pause and bring forth a new perspective.
That representation and diversity of backgrounds, cultures and opinions matters in healthcare, both for the patient and team members.
Connectedness is something we all strive for, Brownlee said, and when it’s present in work culture, barriers can be broken.
“There's been plenty of times when folks have come to me as a leader, a woman of color, and said that because they've seen me in my position, it inspired them to know that they have an opportunity as well,” Brownlee explained. “Whatever barriers I've had to navigate, it gave them hope to say, ‘You know what, if she's navigated those, I can navigate them as well.’”
The same thing happens when minority patients are cared for by those who look like them and come from similar backgrounds.
There have been times when maybe a patient didn’t have that, and maybe assumptions or biases were made, and that patient had to work with their provider to reach a shared understanding.
“A lot of that goes out of the window, in some regards, when you have that representation. Representation can quickly allow for that shared meaning shared purpose, connection,” she said. “Whereas outside of that, there are certain barriers where people have to be intentional and thoughtful on how to navigate those to get to that place of shared connectedness.”
Seek out diversity in any situation
For those who see a little bit of themselves in Brownlee, she encourages young leaders to find the diversity in the room.
Whether a team member is working in a clinical setting, in an office or leading a group, she advises to find the diverse perspective and exploit it in a positive way.
“When everyone is agreeing, look for something that's going to help you think outside the box,” she said. “That's going to help you see a perspective that you or the people in the room may not be considering.”
That will help leaders grow and see there are many ways to achieve a particular outcome. Diversity is all around us, but if we don’t seek it out, we might miss it, she adds.
“Lean into those things that feel uncomfortable and ask questions. Ask as many questions as you can, from a place of curiosity, love and compassion,” Brownlee said. “People will be more apt to share their background. Patients will open up about what matters most to them. Be the difference you want to see in the world.”