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Protea Conversations: Karen Alary

Protea Conversations: Karen Alary

Protea Financial was founded in 2014 to provide high-quality outsourced accounting at an affordable price.  Given Protea’s flexible work environment, the Company especially appealed to accountants who wanted to re-enter the workforce after taking time off to start a family. This allowed Protea to attract extremely talented individuals who were previously overlooked.  Protea strives to represent people from all backgrounds and provide an environment for them to grow and succeed in a setting that provides the flexibility and acceptance of who they are as people.

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 in 2022 will focus on positive transformation and representation from all backgrounds. We are broadening our Conversations with the hope that these conversations will continue to create a forum to discuss the experiences, opportunities, and challenges leaders face, and how we can build a more diverse, inclusive, and successful environment for everyone.

In July, we talk to Karen Alary of the Personnel Perspective. Founded in 1987, The Personnel Perspective has an outstanding reputation for quality service in human resources consulting, leadership training and development, recruitment, organizational design, conflict resolution and mediation. The firm works with companies of all sizes in all industries and provides customized solutions based on the client’s individual needs and circumstances.

After completing college, Karen Alary began a career in human resources.  Her experience, not the typical career progression you might expect, was well-rounded and prepared her to eventually become owner and Managing Partner of The Personnel Perspective.  The Personnel Perspective was founded and is still based in Santa Rosa and Napa, and is currently celebrating its 35th year in business.

Karen grew up in Sonoma County and has deep ties to the community.  One of her personal values is to give back to her community through volunteer work and supporting some local non-profits.  She believes that through the work The Personnel Perspective does and the time she gives to non-profits, she is helping make businesses stronger, leading to a stronger community.

Tell us about your decision to start a career in human resources and your journey to Managing Partner of The Personnel Perspective?

The HR profession found me.

The confluence of two important factors brought me to the HR profession and, later, as the Managing Partner of The Personnel Perspective. 

My degree is in business management.  Out of college, I worked in a national labor and employment law firm.  I was fascinated with the myriad issues businesses faced with their employees, the counsel attorneys gave to business owners and leaders, and the resolutions reached.  I was clear I did not want to be a lawyer and so I gravitated toward the HR profession.

Years into my HR career I had the opportunity to do some consulting work.  This work expanded and I realized there was a lot of need in our business community.  The thought of helping many businesses was very appealing to me and as I continued consulting I had the opportunity to buy The Personnel Perspective, a well-established HR consulting firm based in Santa Rosa.  This was a huge attraction because I loved the work I was doing and the idea of becoming a small business owner was kind of full-circle for me as I had grown up in an entrepreneurial environment.  My father was a successful business owner and I witnessed the rewards and challenges he faced. 

Protea Financial Personnel HR

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

As a small business, we face many of the same challenges as our clients in trying to keep up with all of the state’s employment and business regulations.  California regulations are challenging for all small and medium sized businesses and the cost of business and living are so high in this state that the balancing act we all have to perform to continue has to be part of the overall strategy.  As HR professionals, the biggest challenge in the current environment is being pulled in so many different directions given that there continue to be pandemic protocols to account for, we have to be on top of all the potential legislative changes being considered and be ready to help clients continue to be compliant and we need to manage our own internal infrastructure so that we can be efficient and responsive.  The HR profession in itself is a balancing act with many competing priorities and that is what keeps the work interesting and worthwhile. Our main function is to be problem solvers and with the competing needs of small businesses, it can be a perfect storm; sometimes there aren’t perfect solutions and we have to exercise creative thinking and be flexible.

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

In the short-term, my goals are to provide value and excellent service to our clients.  We focus on building long-term relationships and take the time to get to know our clients, their needs, their industry and organization, and prioritize the strategic partnership. 

In the long-run, I would like to become an advocate and voice for small businesses in California at the state level.  According to a report published by the California Governor’s office, California small businesses create two-thirds of all new jobs and employ nearly half of all private sector employees; they are the drivers of economic growth and we must ensure they remain strong and relevant. Legislators can often be a bit out of touch when they write bills that affect businesses in that they may not have awareness of the challenges businesses face in having to follow the new or amended regulations.  They are policy makers and not in tune with the cost to implement and the day-to-day or practical issues that arise during implementation.  While policy and legislation is important to protect employee rights, a balance must be struck between worker protections and for keeping the legal and regulatory quagmire from becoming so cumbersome that businesses can no longer stay afloat particularly given that entrepreneurs play such a vital role in California’s economy and job market.

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

A colleague shared the analogy of HR being like a bicycle wheel.  HR is the hub of the wheel with all the spokes coming off of it to make the larger wheel itself.  All the spokes are the various stakeholders and priorities for a business.  HR’s job is to keep everything balanced so the wheel doesn’t become warped.  A warped wheel is hard to peddle on and can cause the bicycle to become unusable.  We want to have balance and fairness, appropriate legal compliance, awareness of risk, solve the problems and keep employee satisfaction high, all while ensuring the business remains strong and can continue to meet its mission and goals. Every aspect, each of the spokes, matter to the wellbeing of the organization—the wheels ability to balance and function.

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

Every HR professional struggles with confidence at the beginning because there is so much technical information we have to store in our knowledge banks.  When starting out we all can be hesitant when we don’t have enough experience and exposure yet.  Nonetheless, giving HR practitioners time for the steep learning curve and allowing space to take risks is the best way to learn and grow confidence and professional experience and knowledge.  HR as a profession can lend itself to individual practitioners becoming too risk averse in general because we are always thinking about the risk and potential exposure to lawsuits or other expensive employment claims for the business.  Even with the legal environment as it is today, in order to be innovative, we have to be willing to try new things while thinking through our decisions and the possible consequences.

Protea Financial Protea Conversation with Karen Alary

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

Leadership is all about building strong, authentic relationships, developing strong listening skills and emotional intelligence, determining what the tone and example is that you want the organization to follow, and being real and consistent.  Trust is the foundation of leadership and it takes humility, reliability, caring, good boundaries, and a structure and value system that establishes the type of culture that will result in retention and performance.

Can you share something interesting about yourself that will provide insight into who you are outside of the professional space?

This is a tough one because my professional self and personal self overlap.  I think one part of me that is not visible though is my spiritual mindset, which, by nature, is a path for continual growth.  Rather than having a limited, negative thought perspective that leads to a belief that we live in a world of lack and scarcity, I believe in operating from an abundance mindset which allows me to shake off the disappointments and keep going.  

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As a thank you to our interview and Protea’s commitment to more diverse and inclusive leaders, Protea will donate to Positive Images (https://www.posimages.org/). Positive Images is a grassroots nonprofit organization serving Sonoma County since 1990. Their LGBTQIA+ Community Center hosts multiple weekly support groups, a youth leadership development program, mentorship opportunities, an LGBTQIA+ Library, resource and referral station, and a Transformation Station. They proudly offer a warm, welcoming, and affirming environment for young people to explore their individual identities, develop leadership skills, and contribute to our collective community. Positive Images staff lead LGBTQIA+ Cultural Competency Trainings and presentations that educate the greater community focusing on human connection, compassion, and inclusion. Their goal is a community where all LGBTQIA+ people are valued, compassionate community members, creating a just society.

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