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Powerful Leaders, No Apologies Episode 21 Podcast Banner


Show Notes

Beth and Debbie talk with Michelle Cohen, a seasoned HR leader with a unique background in social work, as shares her inspiring journey from a social worker to a thriving HR director and her valuable insights on leadership. Discover how Michelle’s superpower of compassion and creativity has not only empowered her but also helped her mentor and advocate for others, while challenging stereotypes and promoting positive change in her industry.   

Links from the episode:  

Erin Gallagher  

Dom Kelly – New Disabled South 

Ari Kaplan   

Taryn Talley  

The Ripple – Ellie Krug


[5:52] Social worker skill from an HR perspective

[12:38] The ALA leadership journey

[18:58] Having the courage to ask for what you need


  • Transcript

    Debbie Foster (00:03): 

    Welcome to the Powerful Leaders. No Apologies podcast, a show about women who are ready to own their power and change the world. My name is Debbie Foster. 


    Beth Thompson (00:12): 

    And I’m Beth Thompson. Our guests are fierce and fabulous women who are making a difference in their personal and professional communities. Are you ready to be inspired? If so, stay tuned and also check out our website at affinityconsulting.com slash powerful leaders. Here’s the show. Here we are again. Debbie. 


    Debbie Foster (00:36): 

    Yes, we are recording this at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and I was just thinking yesterday about, holy cow, how is this year? Three quarters of the way over, and it’s probably going to be 10 and a half months in by the time people hear this. This year has just flown by. 


    Beth Thompson (00:53): 

    It really has flown by. And it’s funny you mentioned fourth quarter. I was going to also mention that it’s early October, but for a different reason that I finally have leaves that are starting to change colors here in North Carolina. I know you don’t have that, Debbie. No. So you can’t relate to that, but it’s my favorite time of year. So fourth quarter is always fun, but also the fall. 


    Debbie Foster (01:13): 

    The fall, yes. I love it. I do. I feel like most years, well, it’ll happen this year because I’m going to be here, there and everywhere in October, so I feel like somewhere along the way I’m going to see a fall leaf. So I hope that happens. But let’s jump into today’s episode. As a lot of our listeners know, Beth and I love the Association of Legal Administrators for so many reasons. I mean, it’s just been such a cool organization to be a part of. And one of the things that’s been super cool about the A L A is the people that we’ve met along the way and we’ve had some ALA people on our podcast. And today we have another special friend that I have met through the ALA and I have come to just completely adore her. She has a cool story and she’s done some really neat stuff with the association and I am excited to introduce our podcast fam to Michelle Cohen. Michelle, welcome to the show. 


    Michelle Cohen (02:14): 

    Thank you so much for having me. 


    Debbie Foster (02:16): 

    We’re so glad you’re here. Let’s start off the way we always start. Tell us your story. We’d love to hear what you’re doing now, but the journey that got you there. 


    Michelle Cohen (02:25): 

    Wow. I feel like it’s going to be that broken record moment where so many of your podcast guests have said the following sentence. I kind of fell into what I’m doing now. Just sort of happened as though I had no control over it. My origin story, I was a social worker. I worked in the social services field and I was a rare human that worked full-time to put myself through college plus three part-time jobs in addition to my full-time job. So yeah, college was a really big deal. I was the first person in my family to attend university and put myself through and graduated with debt and all of that stuff. And while I was in college, I worked for a group home with developmentally disabled adults and I did the asleep overnight, and this is a long, long time ago, and that was how I got hooked in the social services. 



    But prior to my doing that job, I had always been really involved in the disability rights activism world because of an accident I had had as a child and my experiences with disability. So I did that for a really long time and I had a lot of work experience. I loved it. I was all over the east coast and wrote some grants to help release Medicaid waiver funds so that children could get Medicaid money and stay at home and not be institutionalized. And I was social services director at an intermediate care facility for really, really profoundly disabled and multiply challenged individuals as well as working in a groundbreaking group home apartment for really independent folks who worked and wanted to get married and have children and do all of those sorts of things with the kind of supports that we were able to give them. So that was what I was doing and went to school and I was kind of in grad school and starting a family and needed to get out of the life of spending 24 hours a day back then on a beeper. And I wasn’t really having a good work-life balance, so to speak, and Social Security disability attorney hired me to do social work case management for her. That’s how I got into legal. I segued over and then I got 


    Debbie Foster (04:36): 



    Michelle Cohen (04:37): 

    Poached by my current boss when he started his own firm and just kind of grew into it because it makes a lot of sense to have social workers as HR humans in law firms. I have used every one of my social work skills in the 18 years that I’ve been managing the firm that I’m at now. So that’s how I kind of got here. Hope I answered that effectively. 


    Debbie Foster (04:59): 

    So many things. First of all, I don’t miss my beeper, but I sure remember having one. Do you remember when the beepers finally came out where you could actually send a sentence or two and they had a bigger screen like, oh, those were the days. There are people listening to this who are like, what? What’s a beeper? Are you talking, what’s a beeper? I’m sure. So the beeper, I love that and I can totally relate to that wanting to get out of the beeper life, but what a great point about using social worker skills from an HR perspective. What a really great point. Give us a couple of examples. I’d love to hear about how, because all of our brains work differently, but you coming from that social worker background and then as you’re listening to HR challenges or people who need help with something, walk us through a little bit of that. Give us a couple of examples. 


    Michelle Cohen (05:52): 

    Well, your emotional intelligence level or EQ is just completely, you’re wired differently if you’re going to succeed. I was a social worker for almost 17 years. If you don’t burn out doing that, then that means you know how to take care of yourself as well as taking care of others. And a lot of folks can’t do that. It’s a real kind of a hard line in that field when you care so much for other people and you work in very intense environments like I did. So social work comes into handy. For instance, I had to let go an attorney who was a single parent. It was a really challenging situation, and if I didn’t have the background that I had, that experience might have turned out very differently. I was able to use those soft skills, do some even over-breathing unconsciously with this individual kind of talk about it. 



    Where are we going from here? And let’s just take a step back and you know how to ask certain questions and you just intuitively, because you’ve done it for so long, ask them in a nice way or in the right way. We’ve had a lot of employees. We had an employee pass away who had stage four lung cancer. One of our attorneys, we’ve had staff that have had a diagnosis of something and those things in a small firm I’m in, that’s very impactful and everybody, and it just helps to kind of have that background to be able to navigate it. And a lot of the conversations that folks on, one of the things I do for the A L A is the small firm mental health. I co moderate that on a monthly basis and I feel that a lot of those conversations that I’ve had about mental health or physical health or whatever the issues are in my firm, having that social work background really helps. 


    Beth Thompson (07:38): 

    That is amazing. Where do you find inspiration? We would love to know what you’re reading now, maybe what some of your favorite leadership books are, what podcast you listen to. 


    Michelle Cohen (07:48): 

    Okay, so this is a long list. I’m a proficient reader, but I only read fiction because I have a very loud mind and I enjoy it. I love historical fiction. I’m usually reading one or two books. I’m in a couple of book clubs. Love my book club. I’ve been in it for, it’s like it’s one of my long-term relationships, been over 10 years, so I’m not going to get into books. I read too many and I’d be just blathering on about them. I want to say something nice about social media. It gets a bad rap. I know it does. I know there’s the bullying and all of this stuff, but there is good in social media content. And so what I try to do is just pick off the things that spark positivity for me and it’s not always perfect. And so sometimes the content creators get it wrong and that’s okay. 



    We have to allow for people to not always get it right, but then have a place where we can give them feedback. So I follow a lot of different voices so that I can keep myself in tune with the things that speak to me. So I’ll mention a bunch of names. Okay, Erin Gallagher, she does this hashtag Hype Women. I think she is doing a really good job of amplifying women’s voices and she’s really walking the walk with intersectionality, which is a big hot buzz right now. But she’s really owning her space and she started her own podcast and just as you know, starts off tough in the beginning and you get there, but she has some very interesting guests. So I do listen to her when I get a chance, but I try to follow her content. She’s on LinkedIn and I find her very interesting. 



    Dom Kelly from the New Disabled South is a content person out on LinkedIn mostly that I follow about things happening with disabilities and disability activism. And he speaks on a lot of panels. Ari Kaplan, who’s mentioned here all the time, I feel like I should get an award or a mug or something. I was a podcast guest. It was such a wonderful experience being his podcast guest. I have to tell you on the virtual lunch. But I find him really inspiring and really just cutting edge and putting good stuff out there. There’s a lot of people. Taryn Talley is a woman, a trans woman who is putting out really interesting content right now, not just about the trans experience, but about the two-spirit experience. She’s Canadian indigenous individuals. I just find her really fascinating and she puts out a lot of content. She’s also trying to start a podcast. So I mean, again, I can go on and on. And of course, Ellie Krug is my friend, so I have to shamelessly plug her that she has a great newsletter called The Ripple, and she also puts out a lot of content. 


    Debbie Foster (10:25): 

    She’s amazing. I heard her speak, I think it was at an ALA conference. I mean, so moving, so inspirational, amazing. 


    Michelle Cohen (10:34): 

    We became friends because I heard her speak and I emailed her after I read her book years ago, long time ago. And we met when I happened to be in Minnesota one day and we had dinner and we had ice cream, and I went to one of her lectures and we just became fast friends. So we correspond and we call, and yes, I highly recommend following her newsletter. It just makes you feel good even when she talks about stuff that doesn’t make you feel good. And I find her super interesting. I do have a recommendation for Instagram. There is somebody I’m going to, I brought it with me to spell it correctly, M Y C H A L, number three T Ss, I think it’s pronounced. Michael is this library person far away from where I am and just does nothing but bring me joy. Every single post that this human post, he’s a library person, loves children and is so pro reading. And libraries for me were my sanctuary from my very dysfunctional, horrible childhood. That’s where I had my comfort in my safety. So I’m a big fan of Michael, and you should follow him because he’s amazing. I follow Viola Davis and got a whole bunch of people. I mean, if you ever want a list a recommendations, I like my positive social media content. 


    Debbie Foster (11:55): 

    We’ll definitely include links to all of those in the show notes. So thank you for sharing that. So I want to just pivot for just one second and talk a little bit about the A L A, because you have had lots of different leadership positions in the A L A, but I think that what you were able to do with the A foundation was amazing and we got to be a part of that, and that was super exciting. I think this idea of organizations that serve communities and giving back to those communities can be so powerful. I love how passionate you were about that. So I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about your a leadership journey and your foundation leadership journey. 


    Michelle Cohen (12:38): 

    So thank you for that question. That’s a great question. ALA has really helped me be my best professional version of myself in a law firm because what did I know from law firms? I knew about nonprofit social service agencies. I went into a law firm doing social security disability, and then I grew into this position, and I mean, you just kind of on the job, figure it out. And I didn’t find A L A for the first seven years that I was in this journey as an HR becoming human director of HR. So I joined my chapter and I did not get involved in my chapter for the first couple of years. And then I did, once I got comfortable with it and I was more over all the educational things and thinking how can I give back? I’ve received so much. I got very involved in my board and I was on the executive board as secretary and treasurer for a couple of years, and I chaired a gala and co-chaired our business partnership program and helped to reimagine that a little. 



    And I suddenly realized that I love that. I hate sales. I thought I hated sales and all of that, but I love the business partnerships and I think that chapters really need to, if they don’t already see where there’s such incredible value and it’s a gift. It really is. I know it’s business, but it’s more than that. I went to a C L I that a L offers for the chapter Leadership Institute, and they put out a call that time when I was there for help because they were going to close the foundation. They had lost its mission and its purpose, and they were going to just dissolve it, and it’s a 5 0 1 C three. And I’m sitting there as a former social worker thinking, oh no, this cannot happen. And I was there to go to this lab design design lab rather for the business partnership, and I had to go to my chapter and say, Hey, I know you’re sending me here for this. 



    I need someone to go to the business partner thing because I have to go to this foundation and design lab. And nobody even knew what the foundation was. So that’s how I got involved. And somehow I was on a conference call with then vice president. They liked some of my ideas that I had shared, which are now we can see them in these student scholarship. That was one of the things that I had talked about in the design lab as well as re-imagining the other initiatives. So I put my hat in the ring and hit the ground running and went right in as an executive officer, as a secretary for two years, and then I was elected vice president, and I just finished serving as president last year. So it was a really exciting time and I’m really proud because we did reimagine and we reestablished three solid initiatives, and last year I had secured corporate underwriting for all of them last year. So that was really exciting for us as well. 


    Beth Thompson (15:38): 

    Well, thank you for your service. It would not have continued on without your initiative and spearheading and all of your efforts, so thank you so much. 


    Michelle Cohen (15:47): 

    Well, I had a great team of people before me that brought me in. 


    Beth Thompson (15:51): 

    Sure, sure. So let’s shift gears a little bit. We’ve been very positive, but we do want to talk about obstacles, struggles that you may have faced over the years in your career. Have there ever been any times where folks counted you out or you had to figure out how to address something that was very sensitive, whether it was related to gender or disability or anything else? Share with us a little bit of maybe a struggle and how you overcame that. 


    Michelle Cohen (16:20): 

    So what makes me really sad is that I wish I could say, oh yes, 30 years ago, which I did, I had that me too ish kind of a moment where a senior director of a social services agency absolutely was so inappropriate and maybe passed a lot of remarks that were inappropriate. And I wish I could say, oh gosh, that was the last time that ever happened to me. And sadly, it isn’t. So yeah, there have been a lot of times that I’ve experienced those kinds of things. I was very naive when, believe it or not, when I was in my twenties and thirties, I would be horribly embarrassed and think I had done something wrong and didn’t really know that I could go someplace with that because I didn’t have those examples around. I truly believe that it was just kind of that as we get older and we get more secure in ourselves and we get more secure and what we’re doing and more solid of our own foundation and that imposter syndrome stuff kind of goes at bay. 



    And I’m like, oh no, I got this. I know what I’m doing. How dare whatcha saying to me? I’m sorry that I didn’t, not that I, no apologies, but yet I am. I regret not having maybe said something, but I’m not really sure what would’ve happened had I said something pretty recently I have had, and it’s always male, white, male figures. I don’t know what else to say that have looked at me and said, I don’t think that you’re qualified enough to be doing whatever. It’s, it hurts when somebody says that to you and it’s a little shocking. But my favorite thing, if you ask any of the humans in my house, go ahead and underestimate me have at it. But I’m shocked that it still happens. And I really hope that women coming up today, I’d like to think that there’s more resources. I think with the voices that I see in Gen Zs, especially, people are talking out and outing things, and I like to think that we don’t have to ask this question anymore in the next 10 years. I would love it. 


    Beth Thompson (18:25): 

    I would love it too. In my early days, were very similar to yours. I talk about that on the episode where Debbie interviewed me. I had some definitely inappropriate things happening way back in the day. And you’re right, if we didn’t have the resources that we have now, we didn’t know how to handle those situations. And when you’re in your early mid twenties, you don’t have the confidence to push back and voice your dissatisfaction with what’s happening. So I can definitely relate to that, and I like you hope that in five, 10 years we’re not having this conversation anymore. 


    Michelle Cohen (18:58): 

    Plus I had an economic, listen, there’s an inequity there. I had a lot of debt graduating college. I put myself through school. I was fully emancipated as a teenager and I didn’t have that family to fall back on. I was really alone in the world, so to speak. So it was when you have that inequity, you are terrified. What if I get fired? I have to pay my loans, I have to pay my rent, I have expenses. So I really have such sympathy. Plus there is a disability piece of it. I have my disabilities become hidden, so to speak. I was hit by a car when I was 11. I had so many parts of me crushed, I can’t even begin to tell you, was in a wheelchair for a long time and then graduated tot walker and crutches. They told me I’d never walk normal in quotes again. 



    And I have horrifying pain that I’m just used to because that’s all I’ve known for all these years. I’ve never disclosed that. Even when the ADA came out, I would never say to an employer, oh, I really need to have now. I said, I need to have a special chair. I need a really good chair to sit in. I need some ergonomic stuff. Things hurt, and I’m able to ask for them now. But I didn’t ever feel that I had the ability to ask, even though I was the one advocating for others and demanding it for other people that had disabilities, which is really ironic. 


    Debbie Foster (20:20): 

    It’s so interesting that you bring that up because I do think the idea of needing something extra, I think, I mean I’ve never been a man, so I don’t know, but I feel like it would be a lot easier for a man to say, I’m going to need something extra. And it’s just expected that it’s going to happen. And it’s kind of sad that as women, there is a tendency to feel like that means you’re needy and not just that you need a special accommodation. And we recorded another podcast yesterday and we were talking about how as women in the middle of our lives, let’s just say we owe it to the younger generation, they should see us challenging those comments or boldly asking for what we need without apologizing for it or without making an excuse for why we do. And I think that it is, I hope that we’re not asking questions like this 10 years from now. I suspect we will be, but I really hope that we aren’t like 30 years from now. This is something that Michelle, how old are your kids? 


    Michelle Cohen (21:30): 

    27 and 25. 


    Debbie Foster (21:32): 

    So we all have kids that are in, they’re grownups, they’re on their own. But I think that when I think about even the difference between my daughter and my son, sometimes my daughter and I will talk about things and I’ll say, do you know that people are not afraid to walk into my office virtually zoom or teams or whatever and ask me for what they need? You shouldn’t be concerned at all about having that candid conversation with your boss, but I don’t think that my son has ever had that challenge. He’s very just matter of fact about what he needs. So we have this cool opportunity, I think, to set an example for those that we know are watching us and for those that are watching us, and we don’t even know that that’s happening. 


    Michelle Cohen (22:23): 

    I agree. I mean also, I’ve always mentored somebody. I’m always mentoring. I have two mentees currently. One is through the foundation. I’m mentoring one of the student scholarship winners this year. And the other one is through my chapter I worked on, because I wasn’t doing anything for the past four years, but I went to my chapter and said, Hey, wouldn’t it be really cool if we worked on a paid internship with college students are not getting paid as well as a fellowship within N J A L A where we could mentor them and have them have something resume worthy. And we partnered with a place in Newark, New Jersey that works with inner city at risk kids from middle school through college. And I’m so excited to say this is our second year of having a student that we paired off with a law firm that paid them for a paid summer internship, and we provide them with mentorship. Now they’re working on a fall project, which includes all of the A administrators and everyone in their student cohort and our business partners. Debbie, you were invited last year. I think Karen came. It’s really amazing those relationships with mentor and mentees. And I think that mentorship is absolutely something that all humans should try to do if you want to try to give back. And so we don’t have to have these conversations in 30 years by having this kind of dialogue. 


    Debbie Foster (23:48): 

    So true, so true. So we ask all of our podcast guests this last question, what is your leadership superpower and why? 


    Michelle Cohen (23:59): 

    So I knew you were going to ask me, and yet it’s really hard to answer. I think I have a few superpowers, if I dare to say I have a few. One I would say is definitely my compassion and my ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes different than the empathy, true compassion and sincerity, and just letting people sit with where they’re at and letting them know that I’m there for them. I feel like that is a superpower that enough people don’t really have. The other one is, I present as this very type A, if you’re going to do a disc test on me, I’m very leader commander or red and green or whatever. But my superpower is that I have a lot of the bottom as well. I am very, very creative. I’m a creative, I’m a writer. I sing, I sculpt, I design, I do all sorts of these super creative things. So I do have both sides of the brain working, which is why I don’t sleep a lot. But I think that it’s a superpower because I’m able to really see things from a creative point of view, and I’m not so linear in that way. So that’s definitely, I’d like to think one of my superpowers, I’ll stop there. 


    Debbie Foster (25:12): 

    That’s awesome. I wish that I was creative. I’ve had people ask me that question like, what can’t you do that you wish you could do? My go-to answer is, I wish I could sing, but I do often feel like if you are on the top, you’re kind of struggling on the bottom. So it’s cool to hear you say that you’re definitely a type A and when I see you in action, I can definitely see that. But I also know that you care deeply about people and about people being successful and about you just really care deeply, and I really appreciate that about you. 


    Michelle Cohen (25:46): 

    Thank you for saying that. That’s very kind. I just try to walk through this life and put out little sparks of positivity. And I don’t sit by, I’m that person who will stand in and be a true ally and speak up if something’s not right. And I’m glad that I always did that, even when I had everything to lose, which is interesting. The only person I was always bad about standing up for in my earlier life was me, which is just, again, I find it fascinating. Much easier to advocate for a complete stranger for me. 


    Beth Thompson (26:22): 

    Well, thank you for all of your insights, and especially for all of your recommendations on social media in particular. I try to do the same thing and fill my social media outlets with positive, and I’m constantly marking not interested or junk to anything that comes along that doesn’t provide me some sort of positive joy or helps me learn and grow in some sort of way. So thank you for all of that. You’ve been a pleasure to chat with this afternoon. We appreciate you very much being part of the podcast this week. 


    Debbie Foster (26:54): 

    Absolutely. Thank you, Michelle. 


    Michelle Cohen (26:56): 

    Thank you so much for having me as a guest. I truly, truly honored. 


    Beth Thompson (27:02): 

    And that’s a wrap. Thanks for listening to Powerful Leaders. No apologies. Be sure and subscribe to our show and help us spread the word by sharing our show with your network. 


    Debbie Foster (27:12): 

    And check out our show notes at affinityconsulting.com slash powerful leaders for resources and ways to connect with us. See you next time.