Protea Conversations: Carolyn Sweeney

Protea Conversations: Carolyn Sweeney

Protea Financial was founded in 2014 to provide high quality out-sourced accounting at an affordable price.  Given Protea’s flexible work environment, the Company especially appealed to accountants who wanted to re-enter the work force after taking time off to start a family. This allowed Protea to attract extremely talented individuals who were overlooked.  Over 80% of both Protea’s leadership and accounting teams are women.

We selected the name Protea because is the national flower of South Africa and is a symbol of our connection. The Protea flower has become an ornamental flower because of this striking beauty and is included in arrangements and bouquets as a symbol of courage or daring to be better or a sign of positive transformation.

Protea Conversations focuses on successful woman in business and their achievements.  The hope is that these conversations will create a forum to discuss the experiences, opportunities, and challenges women face, and how we can build a more diverse, inclusive, and successful environment for everyone.

In August 2021 we have a conversation with Carolyn Sweeney. Carolyn is the Managing Director of Century Group‘s Walnut Creek, California office. During the course of her career, she’s filled thousands of direct hire searches and temporary assignments for leading Bay Area companies and is known for her deep network, professionalism and for building award-winning teams.

Prior to joining Century Group, Carolyn spent 17 years with an international NYSE traded staffing firm where she won multiple awards for exceptional performance and leadership.

She has been recognized as Partner of the Year by the FPA of the East Bay for her contributions to the business community and is presently the acting President for the Accounting and Finance Women’s Alliance, where she’s served on the board and has been an active member for more than 10 years.

Carolyn also enjoys being involved with her children’s school and her Saint Mary’s College alumni community. In her free time she loves music, plays Guitar and Ukulele and writes songs.  She loves to cook and spend time with family and friends and her dog a Black Lab named Hank and Cat named Betty Badass.

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How did you get into the recruiting game and what was the journey to your current role as Managing Director at Century Group?

I went to Saint Mary’s College and got a Federal Work Study Job at the Career Development Center helping the students get part time jobs doing babysitting, lawn mowing etc.  I LOVED that job!  My boss, Patty Bishop was the BEST! We had so much fun at work, it felt like I should pay Saint Mary’s to work there- seriously, the students were hilarious and the people in the community who needed help were so precious.  We really enjoyed the delightful process of connecting people together in a mutually beneficial way.  I thought, “I want to do this forever!”

I started actively pursuing a career in recruiting and met with many many firms.  Finally I got a few offers and picked one to work in Downtown Oakland for a large public firm.  I got in to the staffing business at a tough time.  I started about 3 months before the attacks of September 11th, 2001 happened.  It was a bad market and very challenging to find people opportunities.  I learned, however, that even in the most difficult markets, there are still opportunities!  I was able to learn from experienced partners and find people jobs. After some time, got promoted to being a Senior Staffing Manager and Division Director. I led branches and multiple teams and I really loved it and still do.  After more than 17 years with the big firm, I was ready for a change.

A recruiter found me for Century Group and totally changed my life. By changing firms and going to a smaller privately held firm, I was able to upgrade my employment experience tremendously.  I get to report directly to the CEO and COO of Century Group and I love the collaboration with them.  I also got to launch in a completely new market for Century Group and I love the better compensation and closeness of a smaller privately held firm. 


What has been the biggest challenge you have experienced in reaching your current success (personally and professionally)?

Over 10 years ago, a dear colleague passed away suddenly after we had worked together for a decade.  Our whole office was in mourning.  I had never experienced such visceral grief with so many daily reminders.  Natalie Dennis was a treasure of a person and beloved by her clients and the greater community.  She helped so many people find great jobs. She was extremely successful, smart, enthusiastic and funny (and beautiful!) Seeing her empty desk, and her name everywhere in our computer database… it was so sad.  Learning to function as an individual and as a leader with a grieving team was something I had never experienced before.  It’s one thing to grieve personally, but to be on an entire team affected by loss and grief was a whole new challenge.  The biggest thing I learned from that was the power of candor and how bonding it could be to say honestly… “this all feels meaningless right now”. I also learned how to create safe space for other people to get thru tough stuff and I got a lot better at accepting support and help myself because I really needed it during that time.  I’m still grateful for my team and my boss who helped me thru that time.

Additionally, navigating coming back to work after having my first child was a doozey.  The market had fallen apart while I was on leave, and when I returned, my business was a shadow of its former self. None of my professional clothes fit. I was sleep deprived and had to shut myself in a phone closet to pump breastmilk twice a day.  There were so many times during those days when I thought: “Is this what ALL returning to work Moms’ experience??  Tell me it isn’t so!” Some things have gotten better in many places, but that adjustment from person to parent is not to be underestimated. 


What are your short term goals of your career and yourself?

 My short term goal is to hire 2 more partners to help continue our growth and ensure that everyone has all the tools and resources they need to succeed.  Long term, I want to have built a lasting brand in the Bay Area for Century Group, see both my kids graduate college as confident, contributing tax paying citizens.  At the end of it all, I want to look back and see that I have built a well-lived life filled with friends, adventure, positive impact and meaning.


What is the best piece of advice you have ever received that has helped you in your success?

Best piece of advice… tough one!  I’ve benefitted from so much great advice.  One piece of advice I got early in my career from Susan Afan was, “Dream really big and go after it as hard as you can.  Don’t go after a small goal, because when you get it you might be left to wonder what else you might have been able to do, or if you miss and get less, you are in such a low spot.  Shoot for the moon and if you miss at least you can land amongst the stars.”


What is the piece of advice that you wished you had gotten when you were starting out?

You are never as bad as you feared or as great as you fantasized.  Don’t be so dramatic about yourself… Just do your best and keep going.


What advice you give to others to help them be better leaders?

Check in regularly.  So many leaders avoid this until there is urgency or a problem that needs to be addressed, but I truly believe that regular check ins help keep good performers on track, helps weed out poor performers or mis hires sooner and helps increase the feeling of connection and purpose thereby increasing employee morale and retention.  This means checking in sometimes even without a big agenda… like “How are you doing?  Need anything from me?  Good plans this weekend?”  It can feel frivolous, but I promise you it’s worth the investment and showing you care.


As a thank you to our interview and Protea’s commitment to more diverse and inclusive leaders, Protea will make a donation to Vital Voices. Vital Voices Global Partnership is a global movement that invests in women leaders who are solving the world’s greatest challenges. They are “venture catalysts,” identifying those with a daring vision for change and partnering with them to make that vision a reality. They scale and accelerate impact through long-term investments to expand skills, connections, capacity, and visibility. Over the last 22 years, we have built a network of 18,000 change-makers across 182 countries who are collectively daring to reimagine a more equitable world for all.