Staffers bring their best selves to campus’s NOW Conference

A self-described “positivity activist,” Shola Richards knows how to connect to a crowd. On stage at UC Berkeley’s fifth annual NOW Conference, Richards, author of “Making Work Work,” has been tasked with infusing UC Berkeley’s staff with a healthy dose of positivity — something that he works on daily.

“I try to leave a person or place just a little bit better than you found them,” he tells a full auditorium. “It’s not forever. It’s just today. And today. And today,” he says with a smile.

Oscillating from quiet conviction to booming stories about his passionate parents — his mother is “the most southern woman you’ll ever meet” and his dad is a sage African man from Sierra Leone — Richards’ aim for his hour-long talk was simple: “65 million Americans experience some form of workplace bullying,” he said. “It’d be naive to think some of you don’t deal with this. My goal here in my short time with you is to figure out how we can flip this around and create a positive workplace for all of us.”

For the past five years, Berkeley has held the Next Opportunity at Work Conference — a day of speakers, breakout sessions, career coaching and networking for the campus’s some 8,000 staff. The conference, organized by a 10-member campus planning team, touched on a range of topics, from how to inspire others to take action in achieving a common goal to creating a standout resumé that lands applicants a job interview.

Shola Richards and Katherine Castro

Keynote speaker Shola Richards (left) and Berkeley career counselor Katherine Castro

Katherine Castro is a career counselor for the campus’s career center, and helped plan this year’s event. She says in just one day, she was able to make connections that will boost her professional development. “These connections… and our shared experiences allow us to strengthen as a community,” she said.

This year’s theme — “bring your best self” — was created to encourage participants to find new ways to become mindful and self-reflective in their work. “Among my highest priorities is the reinvigoration of a shared sense of community on our campus,” wrote Chancellor Carol Christ in the event’s welcome statement. “A meaningful feeling of belonging shared by all who work, teach and learn here.”

Richards says finding a sense of belonging at work takes continued dedication to treating everyone — including ourselves — with compassion. “I’m a kindness extremist,” he said. “If we’re not kind to ourselves, how in the world could we possibly offer that to others?”

The host of speakers, who came from across campus and local organizations specializing in professional development, touched on topics from how to be an authentic mentor to nailing a job interview to fostering trust and togetherness at work.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the Greater Good Science Center on campus, gave a talk that offered a new perspective: Humans want to be kind and generous — we’re born that way — and being social is key to our success, both personally and professionally. “Being social is much more important and basic and fundamental to our survival than meeting our own individual needs,” she said. “We tend to think of kindness as obligatory, but kindness activates pleasure centers in our brain — it makes us happy to be kind.”

With most business models designed to reward self-serving decisions, she says, it’s important to find ways to stay true to our innate sense of generosity and desire for personal connection.

Laura Kray, a professor of leadership at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, discussed how leaders can maximize team productivity by developing a “growth mindset” — an open and collaborative way of thinking that helps colleagues feel safe and important in the workplace. Instead of barking orders at your team, she says, seek feedback, invite debate and be guiding rather than judging.

Richards ended his keynote with advice his father gave to the motivational speaker as a teenager. “‘Shola,” Richards began in a thick, Sierra Leonean Creole. “’Whenever you think you are too small to make difference, try falling asleep with a mosquito in the room.” The crowd broke into laughter. “Go forth, boy!”

It’s wisdom that Richards says changed his life forever.

“Whenever you feel like you’re too small to make a big difference, you’re wrong,” he said quietly. “Every movement on Earth that’s made any significant difference started with one person. Focus on what you can do to improve your workplace. It can change everything.”

Learn more about the NOW Conference.

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