Brenda LaRose holds over 30 years of experience in executive recruitment. As the founder of Higgins Executive Search, a reputable national search firm that specialized in recruiting Indigenous executives, she was among the first to bring Indigenous perspectives to the forefront of Canadian organizations. Ms. LaRose more recently founded BL Talent Solutions, a leadership and career coaching practice.
What does being Indigenous mean to you?
I am a citizen of the Manitoba Métis Federation. My father is Métis. I’m of mixed blood. My mom is non-Indigenous, and I have been fortunate to be exposed to some traditional teachings from Elders and knowledge keepers. I always have lived well in both worlds. I’m a member of the Martin clan and can exist in the mainstream world as well as the red road, though I feel more comfortable in my traditional culture. Part of my role is to build those bridges between our community and non-Indigenous people. I’m happy that I’m Indigenous because I love our cultures and the teachings they bring.
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Balance comes to people differently. I do it by going back to nature, spending time with family and friends, logging off social media, and not looking at emails on weekends. I’m a much better person this way.
When I was younger, I struggled with being a workaholic because I left home early and had to support myself. Some of my stepfather’s family were residential school survivors, and they had effects from it that weren’t healthy that made my home life challenging.
I left home at 15 and went to Scott Collegiate in the North Central neighbourhood in Regina. In those days, there were no food banks or access to social welfare. I was a Grade 9 student cooking hamburgers at A&W and worked my way through high school. I developed into a bit of a workaholic.
I’ve done well in my life since, but it took me a little longer to get there. There were times when I’ve been very unbalanced and had to become aware of that and work towards having a more balanced life.
Does it become easier to find work-life balance as an executive?
I think it has to do with aging and maturity. You start to prioritize what is most important to you. I came to the realization that you really don’t get to take anything with you when you go, you get to take what you came in with. It’s all about relationships – with your spouse, family, friends and the people you work with. That is the most valuable piece to me.
However, you go through different stages in your life. I’ve been in a position where I’ve been a single parent with two babies and no support. My priorities were different then, and I was very unbalanced.
Some of your relatives were residential school survivors. How has that impacted your life?
Working on the search for the last chair and commissioners for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – Justice Frank Iacobucci hired our firm to do the last search resulting in Justice [Murray] Sinclair and Commissioners [Wilton] Littlechild and [Dr. Marie] Wilson – one of the things that came out loud and clear is that it takes five generations to actually dissolve the effects of residential schools. I don’t think I passed on a lot to my kids, but I still believe that they have some effects, or that at least they’re aware of it.
What led you to the recruiting field?
Just by chance, I ran into a gentleman in Calgary that’s now passed away. He ran a contingency middle management search and thought that I would do really well. I was young, and one of only two women out of the three branches. He saw something in me, believed in me and trained me. I credit him for becoming a top consultant.
Walk us through your recruiting career.
My recruiting career has lasted well over 30 years. I ran staffing agencies and opened up branches in the GTA and Niagara Peninsula. I also worked in a lower level of recruiting in Calgary back in the 1980s. After transitioning into executive search, I later started my own company almost 25 years ago, upgraded it, and then sold it.
How did you start getting involved with recruiting Indigenous leaders?
I started working at a firm in Winnipeg, and within a year, I saw a potential market in executive search in the Indigenous community. I pitched the idea that we could work in this area, and they didn’t think we could. They told me to develop this market on my own time. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation and a number of other groups were just starting in Ottawa at that time. So I approached them, and we ended up getting business.
A year later, about a third of the revenue was from our community, but the work wasn’t being done in the best way possible. They didn’t understand the cultural differences. Indigenous people started coming into the office once a week with their resumes. The two owners told me that we’re an executive search firm, and we can’t have Native people sitting in our waiting room. That was about 25 years ago. That’s when I gave my notice. I think it was actually the Creator’s plan that this happened – so that I would have to say that I ethically can’t work here. I started my company and I thought that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just get another job, but within a few months, I was hiring staff to meet the demand.
What’s the state of Indigenous recruitment in Canada today as opposed to when you started out?
I was the first one to do it at the executive level. Today, there’s a shortage of labour in Canada and companies need people to work. Because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Calls to Action, and everything around awareness, we actually have legislation that says that Indigenous people should have an input on how resources are developed in Canada. We have over 200 Supreme Court rulings saying that these are our rights. They need to engage us. Our people are also better educated now – we have university graduates in almost every field now. There’s a huge desire for Indigenous professionals and their expertise.
How can organizations ethically educate their employees on Indigenous issues?
Hire professionals. When Leaders bought my company, we paid two trainers to do that training. I can’t speak on behalf of all Indigenous people. I can only share my worldview, but these people are professionals and qualified. They know how to give a better overview.
You sat on a number of boards. Do they tend to look to you on Indigenous issues?
Sometimes. When I was on the Seven Oaks Hospital board, we did have an incident with an Indigenous person where I was able to give some recommendations on how they should proceed. Just like when we were building wellness institutes in China, we got someone Chinese on the board because that was important to our strategic objectives. I also made sure that we had a succession plan for someone Indigenous to replace me on the board.
Do you coach Indigenous people a little differently than non-Indigenous people?
Yes, because I can relate to their values. Although it can be different for everybody, many Indigenous people are tied to the environment, family and giving. I had a call on this Indigenous leadership circle with senior Indigenous leaders and young professionals on Indigenous wealth. Almost all said that it’s not how much you have, but how much you give that’s valued.
What are you most proud of?
I co-founded SHEDay with Mary Jane Maillet Brownscombe and Marina R. James. We invited high-level women speakers to encourage women into leadership. It ran for five years. The first year we thought we’d have 100 attendees, and ended up with over 700. We sold out in one day the second year with 1,500. We made sure that women of colour and Indigenous women had access to the tickets. It was a huge success. People still talk about it. Indigenous women would come up and say that it changed their lives.
What advice would you give Indigenous youth?
Creator gives everybody gifts. In the old days, the Elders would sit in the communities to watch the children and observe what they were good at. They would then encourage them to explore those areas, whether it was beading, cooking, hunting or building.
It can take a while to find out what you love to do, but if you can figure out your gifts, start going in that direction. Try things, and find out what you don’t want to do. Get a good role model and mentor. There are a lot more training initiatives and opportunities today, like the Paul Martin Family Initiative that provides training and supports.
How can non-Indigenous people be better allies for Indigenous people these days?
Educate yourself to get some basic understanding. You can’t put everybody in that same box. Don’t discount what we’re saying either because, for most of us, our heart is in the right place. We want to build bridges and be more of a part of Canada. We know how to prevent some forest fires and have traditional knowledge on saving the fishery industry. We have such a richness of our many cultures to share with Canadians.
About the series
Canada has a long history of dispossession, oppression and discrimination of Indigenous peoples. The future, however, is filled with hope. The Indigenous population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada; its youth are catalyzing change from coast to coast to coast. Indigenous knowledge and teachings are guiding innovative approaches to environmental protection and holistic wellness worldwide. Indigenous scholars are among those leading the way in exciting new research in science, business and beyond. There is no better or more urgent time to understand and celebrate the importance of Indigenous insight, culture and perspective.
Optimism is rare in media. And coverage of Indigenous peoples often fails to capture their brilliance, diversity and strength. In this weekly interview series, we will engage Indigenous leaders in thoughtful conversation and showcase their stories, strategies, challenges and achievements.
Karl Moore is a professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, in Montreal. He is also an associate fellow at Green Templeton College at Oxford University. He was the host of a long-running video series for The Globe and Mail in which he interviewed chief executive officers and business professors from the top universities in the world. His column, Rethinking Leadership, has been published at Forbes.com since 2011. He has established a global reputation for his research and writing on leadership, and he has interviewed more than 1,000 leaders, including CEOs, prime ministers and generals.
Jennifer Robinson is a resident physician at McGill University Health Centre in Montreal. She has been a consultant on health care and health policy in British Columbia and for the Assembly of First Nations. She is Algonquin and a member of the Timiskaming First Nation.