July 16, 2021

Discussing the Future of Work with Donna Orender, Former WNBA President

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #48

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Donna Orender, former President of the WNBA and Senior Vice President of the PGA, author, current CEO of Orender Unlimited, and Founder of Generation W, a nationally recognized organization that focuses on the education, inspiration, and connection of women and girls.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Donna sat down with Sam and discussed the importance of focus, modeling behavior, resilience, teaching valuable skills, and finding value and passion in your work.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Donna shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Start with the premise that everyone wants to do the right thing, they just don’t know what the right thing is.”
  • “We all want to be the best we can be, but how does that tie into our bigger purpose?”
  • “There’s a constant flow of stimuli that’s saying ‘see me, see me, see me,’ because the real economy is the attention economy.”
  • “Treat people as you would like to be treated.”
  • “What do we believe in that’s bigger than ourselves?”


Sam: How has the last year been for you? How has COVID impacted your work?

Donna: It’s been interesting. We have been able to lean into COVID in a way. Certainly, our not-for-profit work had even more applicability and relevance than before. The work that we did, people were like, oh my God, this is really what we need.

And so we flipped early to delivering digital content. And so, not only for our women, our community but also for girls’ mentorship. So it’s been busy. It’s been really busy. 

Sam: I was listening to a podcast you were on the other day, just as I was flipping through. And you made a comment on one, I can’t remember which one, but you had said something like the world tells us every single day, you said something, who’s worth more than, and who’s worth less than.

And during the last year, for me and my business, I’ve noticed that companies show that with who they cut, who they keep, who they invest in, you know? 

Donna: Correct. 

Sam: How can a leader do better? How can a manager do better? How can I coach you better? What are the action steps today that you’re sharing with people as they try to think about these topics?

Donna: It’s funny, I just got off an hour call with our College of Health here at Marna UNF talking about some of these issues and no, you start with the premise that by and large, everybody wants to do the right thing. They just don’t know what the right thing is. And it’s not like there’s some book that says, oh, by the way, buy this book, here’s the right.

If it was, we’d all be doing that. Right. And we wouldn’t all be kind of searching as much as we are in difficult times because being a good leader is having a sense of self-awareness of course, understanding where your own biases can lie, which determines how you look at the world and interact with people.

And then what is your own personal style, if you will, in bringing those people along? And I have found that I remember being, as a kid, people would always say, treat people as you would like to be treated. And I believe that, but I also realized that I couldn’t expect people to do what I did.

You model behavior. You do want to model behavior, but at the same time, everybody has different expectations of behavior and different cultural styles. It’s like coaching a team. It used to be, John Wooden said, “here are the rules. You will wear these kinds of sneakers. You wear these kinds of shorts, your hair, and you will do this, but now it’s more like saying, okay, who are you? And you know, what are you all about? And how do I get the most out of you? 

And there’s consistency in that. But there’s also a greater openness to individuality. I think one of the challenges is taking all of that individuality and then constructing a culture that is consistent, that has respect, that has understanding. I think that’s challenging these days.

Sam: And even tougher, I think during COVID it was interesting to see how connected we are, but how disconnected. 

Donna: Well, totally. And that’s our work. Generation W is all about educating, inspiring, connecting women, girls, and the communities in which they live, and it’s all-inclusive, so men are included. And when we do our mentorship leadership work with our teen girls, truthfully, what we’re teaching them to develop leadership skills is the power of connection. And so all of a sudden, right, it’s taken away in the way that we’ve known it in a way that we’ve never quite valued as much as we needed to.

And it was yet one more of those spotlights on things that we need to learn moving forward in terms of what’s important, who’s a valued worker in our marketplace these days, all of that switched, didn’t it? Our teachers, our frontline hospital workers. With all due respect to all of the controversy, the people that keep us safe are police officers. All of a sudden, all of those professions are supermarket baggers and checkers.

I still think it’s a stunning time. I can’t believe it’s been a year. I still feel like some of this is already foreign memories and you don’t want them to be that, you want them to stay present. How do we keep these lessons present? So it isn’t like, okay, let’s just turn the switch on or back, if you will.

Sam: People that were laid off and now we’re going to be coming back, at the WNBA you were tackling a lot of challenges as you built that group. Any rec what should leaders be thinking about today on that front?

Donna: I’m a big believer in trying to identify and connecting around a belief system. What do we all collectively believe in that’s bigger than ourselves? I mean, I think we all want to be the best we can be, but at the same time, where does that fit into my purpose in life? Like wherever I go, that’s what people want to know. Where’s my purpose? How do I find my passion? 

I think a lot of it comes from connectivity and being part of and being part of the human race. And then you connect around what you believe in, what’s important to you, and you act upon that as a group. 

Sam: I think management has changed. I know for me, even for me just being in a tech space, the way you run meetings, the way you keep people connected, you have to do a lot more, I have to do a lot more to almost be even. What can we be doing every day or what should we be doing that you’ve seen?

Donna: Well, I think the conversations I have with a lot of my friends who are running a variety of sizes of companies is the challenge to keep connected and keep communicating. Communication is great, but what’s important is that communication is developing, is trust depending on, you know, there are organizations that go on and on and on. They’re so big. And there are ones that are smaller.

I’m tending to think now the smaller ones are as challenging in their own way, because they demand so much more of you personally in a different context. But that said, it’s really about getting and providing a message that’s clear, that’s understandable, and that’s actionable and that’s most importantly consistent. 

Now consistency is tough. It’s not like people trying to give different messages all the time, even though we inadvertently do that. It’s more about being able to set a course and stay with it. But when it changes to be able to then communicate that as well and life changes all the time.

This is not about making changes just because we like to make change. I think that the marketplace is demanding that we are responsive more than we’ve ever had before. We didn’t have internet. We didn’t have algorithms like we have now. We didn’t have this incredible, instantaneous reporting back in our faces that always requires reactions or feels that way.

And that I think that keeps people on edge. I think social media keeps us more on edge, and 24-hour news cycles, then we are giving the whole communication industry credit for. 

Sam: Tell me more about that. 

Donna: Okay. Have you ever watched, whether it be CNN, Fox News, and at the bottom, they’ve been doing this forever, says breaking news, and by the way, everything is breaking news.

If you can get really quiet and pay attention to your body, it puts you on an alarm. Oh my God, there’s breaking news. What does that mean? There was a distinct difference when we had our different president who was making news every day, every minute was something. I found that I was on edge and when I finally shut it off, I could feel myself calm down.

So I have the choice of how to bring that news into me. Whether it’s on my television or it’s in my pocket, on my phone, or it’s some tablet or my computer, even on your computer, think about it. You’re reading, you’re doing some work and constantly, if you’re scheduled this way, and I don’t know anyone who isn’t, there’s constant notifications.

Each one of them diverts your attention, makes different schematic impacts, and biological impacts on your body. It’s a lot, it’s a lot. I don’t think we pay attention to that enough. Other than now what we’re hearing is the importance of sleep and mindfulness and meditation. I think that’s all a counteraction, or counter-reaction, if you will, to this constant flow of stimuli, that’s saying, see me, see me, see me, see me, pay attention to me. Because really the real economy is an attention economy. 

Sam: I kick off zoom meetings with our team. I started saying for the next 30 minutes, can we make slack stock price go down, based on like let’s lower the usage on every other technology except for what we’re in.

When I was playing sports, growing up, I remember Coach saying, be where your feet are. This meeting is the most important meeting I’m doing right now, right here. And yet, as a manager, it’s tough.

Donna: Right, and think about the anxiety that that costs. You can feel it in your body, oh my God. We are so conditioned.

I need to have my phone in my hand. Oh, I’m going to get a text of some sort. I need to respond to that person. And you think, why? It’s funny. Like, I love podcasts and I love all of that. And I sometimes wonder, how do people fit in all the consumption of all this media? I think about when I walk and when I walk, I want to be in the place where my feet are and my ears are, I would love to add that as another additive as a woman. As women, we always want to check multiple boxes when we do something. We’re great multitaskers. I want to hear the wind. I want to hear a car go by, right? If there’s a little kid screeching, I want to hear myself and there’s such little time to do it. And so I feel like if I put a podcast in my ears all the time, then I’m never giving myself that quiet time. And again, in this attention economy, we need more quiet time. 

Sam: Totally. A hundred percent. In your experience or your work, you mentioned John Wooden earlier, mention your perspective on, you’ve also played for great coaches over the years, right? What do we need our coaches to do better today?

And by coach, I obviously mean parents, youth sports, high school, sports, college, and managers, like what do we need out of the coaches that lead people everyday more than ever? 

Donna: Well, listen, I think many of our coaches are not prepared, or have been coached in the command and control style, especially a lot of male coaches I’ve seen.

And so therefore they become command and control coaches. That’s not where our kids are and that’s not the world that we’re living in right now. If in fact, our job as coaches, and that’s debatable right today, I am a coach at a university that has a hundred or $50 million budget, am I being paid to coach to win? Or am I being paid to coach to develop young men or young female athletes? 

Now you would hope that making them better athletes would also align with winning. Yeah, you would think that it would, but so many of the social/emotional learning skills that kids need at that developmental age, are not being delivered by these coaches. They’re just not, it’s brutal, especially division one scholarship athletes. 

Sam: And I see a spillover effect of that, once you get young people into jobs where maybe they weren’t taught how to fail effectively. I just wonder about that. I mean, do you have any perspective on failure? Maybe this is the question; as a father and someone who wants to raise a daughter who is going to experience success in whatever form or shape that is, what are the things I need to be doing to make sure that she has the best opportunity?

Donna: That she learns to be self-reliant. That ultimately, you know, answers are in connection, but a lot of that has to come from her.

And so we have to teach. I love that saying which says ‘It doesn’t matter how many times you fall down. It just matters that you get back up’. And so we’re not saying don’t fall down, we’re saying, yeah, go. You can fall down. Get back up, get back up. And I just think that that’s so important. 

And we want to love our kids. We feel like we’re in competition with other parents to make sure our kids get to the place, which is kind of crazy, but, we are not doing them any favors by sheltering them to the point where they don’t develop self-reliance and another incredibly important characteristic, which is resilience.

There’s a muscle. You can develop the muscle that says if I fall down, I can get back up again. If I fail, I can try again. If I make a mistake, I can do this again and not make a mistake the next time. All those things are possible and necessary. Show me somebody who doesn’t make a mistake at least once a day, twice a day, three times a day, who hasn’t had a misjudgment, hasn’t misspoken, all those things happen all the time.

And you know, they garner a variety of different reactions depending on where you are, the stakes that they are, right? Some failure feels insurmountable or that you will be hiding under your bed for the rest of your life. But the truth of the matter is, by and large, you get through it and the ability to develop the muscle that teaches you, that allows you to draw on that well, that reserve of resilience is lifesaving, and I think produces success. 

Sam: Sure. I only have one final question and we’re asking everybody about hope, in so far as what’s your hope for the future of work?

Donna: You know, the hope for the future of work? I think work is defining. Work is a place that we find value, where we test our limits, where we can deliver promise and value to somebody else. My hope for work is that we find the work that we can contribute to and that it is a place where we can elevate ourselves, and at the same time, elevate others.

And I want to say that, it doesn’t mean that everybody’s working for not for profit and helping poor children. I once went and spoke to the female engineers at General Mills. So all these women ran plants there, and we had this discussion. And some of them were in the Cheerios factory. And I said, how many times have you gone out and met people who ate Cheerios, or even talked about what Cheerios does for the health of a family or the table in which they gather around? And they said, we’ve never done that. So sometimes, in order to realize that hope, there’s a proactive need, not only by an employee, but a management team, which brings us back to the leadership where we started to really connect us to the “why?”

The why of what we do. And there’s so many whys of what we do. And I’ve said this often, when I worked at the PGA tour, which I loved, I didn’t go to work, even though it was my mission to make our players more money. And we did consistently, but I didn’t go there thinking, oh, I have to make Tiger Woods more money, because I knew in the process of making our players more money, we actually made communities better.

And that made me get up every single morning. You know what I mean? And so I think it’s always in the work that you can do and it can be in the daily details. It can be connecting with a coworker that you really like partnering with and doing something better today than you did yesterday. I think that, again, work is so valuable to furthering our society, and at the core of that elevating ourselves. 

Sam: Donna, thank you for taking some time. 

Donna: Sam if I can be of help to you in any way don’t hesitate, okay? Thank you. 

Sam: Totally, thank you. Thanks Donna. Take care.

Topics Discussed: Leadership, Culture, Communication, Passion, Motivation, Coaching, Mentoring

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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