Working alongside the Furniture Industry as an Attorney
Natalie Sanders isn’t your typical WithIt member. She says her role within WithIt is to provide support, surround herself with like-minded women, and learn from an industry outside of her own.
Natalie is an attorney who focuses on labor and employment issues. Now a partner at Brooks Pierce, her 25 years of experience testify to her ability to understand a business from the top down and offer sage advice to its leaders.
When we spoke with Natalie, she answered a few questions for us including:
- Why she’s a WithIt member as an attorney
- What her professional journey has looked like over the years
- Her biggest piece of advice for entrepreneurs hiring their first employee
- Practical steps for large-scale change within a company’s four walls and more!
Since we met Natalie, she has continued to pour into the women of WithIt. We hope after reading our conversation you feel empowered and encouraged to pursue YOUR next step.
WithIt: Natalie, you’re an attorney. How did you originally connect with WithIt?
Natalie: Well, going back to the beginning. I was with Brooks Pierce years ago but left the partnership around 2006, and went to work with an in-house tech company. I started my own consulting company about the same time that the #MeToo movement started. And because my background was in labor and employment and because I really enjoy getting in front of people and speaking and training, I started a consulting company to really focus on improving workplaces and responding to the issues that were coming into the public’s attention as a result of #MeToo Movement.
During this time, I was investigating many allegations of harassment in the workplace and hoping to make a difference. That is when I first got connected to WithIt.
I went to the conference as a speaker and talked about sexual harassment, including how we improve our work environment and how we empower women who find themselves in those situations.
I absolutely loved what WithIt was about because it was so consistent with [my company’s mission to] empower women. WithIt was teaching women how to stand up for themselves in the workplace, how to be a leader, and how to support other women, especially in the furniture industry.
So, when I returned to Brooks Pierce in 2019, I started working a lot with companies in the furniture industry. And that reinforced the connection for me between, WithIt and my practice and my personal professional development. Even though I’m not in depth in the furniture industry, like a lot of the members are, I am a support mechanism for the home and furnishings industry as legal counsel to those companies. That’s why I’ve stayed connected. I love the women in the organization. I love going to the professional conference. If I can contribute as the speaker, great. Otherwise, I’m happy to attend and absorb all the great leadership, support, and network opportunities that WithIt provides.
WithIt: Did you always know you wanted to be an attorney?
Natalie: I have always known I wanted to become an attorney, and I don’t have an excellent explanation for why.
In second grade they ask you what you are going to be when you grow up. I said a lawyer, and I just never stopped saying it.
It’s always somehow been my mindset that that’s what I was going to do, and I’m happy that I have. It’s been a great fit for my skills and my personality and the primary practice in the labor and employment area has been a great fit for me. I’m very interested in the workplace and the working relationship that people have.
You know, I work more on the legal side, but still, I get involved with employers creating their handbooks. Helping them figure out how to create good policies or implement an idea they think is good for diversity, equity, and inclusion without running afoul of certain laws.
My ideal client is one that I can have a relationship with, who feels like I’m part of their team, and who feels like they can call on a regular basis.
I like to keep people out of court. That’s what I do best.
WithIt: Do you feel that entrepreneurship prepared you for the position you’re in now?
Natalie: I frequently say I am a better attorney at Brooks Pierce now than I was when I was originally a partner. And that’s in large part because I’ve been in that business setting, and I wore a lot of hats when I was in-house, whether it was in-house legal counsel, project manager, HR, bookkeeping, or overseeing operations.
Plus, starting my own business and understanding what it’s like to be a small business owner helped me understand what entrepreneurs’ concerns are, which are oftentimes not as focused on the employment side of things as the business side of things and how those balance out.
WithIt: Many new entrepreneurs stepped up to the plate since 2020. For people who are hitting a wall and deciding whether to continue, what do you say to them?
Natalie: Well, I have two daughters in college right now. And so, I would say what I say to my daughters.
Don’t be afraid to do different things at different stages in your life. Look at how many people change careers dramatically these days. So don’t be afraid of change, don’t shy away from it, and don’t be afraid to take some risks.
The answer is always “no” if we don’t ask the question. We’re never going to fulfill our dream if we don’t try. So, I would encourage people, especially entrepreneurs in this industry, to be a part of a group like WithIt.
It brings so many mentoring opportunities, connections to people, and resources you wouldn’t otherwise have. Just having support and people to brainstorm with and talk through those concerns — it’s priceless. I see this happening a lot, especially at the WithIt conference.
WithIt: You’ve mentioned you spoke to WithIt about promoting professionalism during the #MeToo movement and what diversity and inclusion look like in the workplace. Do you feel there’s another movement or historic workplace event happening currently?
Natalie: So, of course, Covid disrupted so much and derailed a lot. However, I do think the thing that Covid pushed us to do was get us a little more focused on our workplace culture.
And especially with the high demand for employees now, I think companies in HR are refocusing on how to make sure the workplace is welcoming to everyone.
I see the “human resources” title going away. That title is becoming more about “people and culture” instead of “human resources manager.” You may be the manager of people and culture. Even with those title changes, we’re seeing a change in the leadership at the top. And I’m seeing there’s a trend toward more support for that. And investing in how we make people all feel valued and included in our workplace. We’re not there yet, but I think there are some positive trends happening.
WithIt: What wisdom would you share with people or companies who want to move away from the term “human resources?”
Natalie: “Be the change you want to see.” You know, the things that people have control over are how much they know about the topics that are important to them. And so, speaking from a place of knowledge, having facts and examples to support what you promote, I think is key.
Educate yourself about what you think is important in the workplace, rather than making broad statements about what you think. Being a negative person is not right without proposing what would make it. So be part of the solution to issues.
I would encourage everyone to find the information they need to support the need for inclusion and why a change in the work environment is better.
WithIt: What one, essential piece of advice would you give entrepreneurs who are hiring for the first time?
Natalie: I love that question. That was really one of my passions when I had my own company. I wanted to try to talk to entrepreneurs and people who were at the beginning with a company and to tell them, “Your culture matters, and your company will have a culture whether you decide what it is or not.”
So, be intentional about establishing what you want your workplace culture to be. That’s the biggest advice I can say, is just be intentional about it, think about it, and then let it permeate everything you do.
WithIt: What does establishing workplace culture look like for entrepreneurs who are looking to hire their first employee?
Natalie: I think if you’re the entrepreneur, it’s your company, you need to sit down and determine your priorities and be able to articulate that to the people you’re hiring.
Maybe it’s integrity, maybe it’s hard work, you know, whatever it is that you think is the core of what you want your organization to model. Maybe things like inclusivity and mutual respect. And don’t just say it, you do it.
So, what does that look like when you hire one person? “Well, I want this person to succeed. I’m going to have to invest time in them.” What does that look like? Arrange for regular check-ins. Respect for their time that isn’t supposed to be work time. So don’t call, email them, or text them at all hours. Establish those boundaries so that you are showing respect for them.
Even if it’s one person, if you start setting those examples, then when you hire another person, you already have those things established. It’s harder to break bad habits than it is to intentionally decide what our work habits are going to be and how we’re going to interact with each other at the start.
And the other thing is to always ask for feedback. Even if it’s one person, make sure you’re intentional about saying, “How is it going? What things could I do better to help you succeed? What would be smoother? What things are stressing you in this job?” Then think it through because you may not even know you’re doing something that would be an easy fix. And build that rapport and establish that culture because it’s going to carry over as you hire more people.
WithIt: Can you pinpoint a woman in your life who encouraged or inspired you to be who you are and to do what you’re doing today?
Natalie: Well, of course, my mother. She was a nurse until she retired. She had a special gift for working with the elderly. She worked in nursing homes and often worked the night shifts and things like that. But my mom was always so hardworking and always willing to help others.
She could have a meal almost ready and have five extra people show up and it was never a problem. She never seemed stressed. It was just “the more, the merrier” and “there’s always enough” and so she has been inspiring to me.
Professionally, I would say probably one of my colleagues. We were peer attorneys at Brooks Pierce for years before we pursued other opportunities, but I would say she’s the one that most inspired me to not be afraid to try something new. To start my own company, to put myself out there, and to make sure I was helping others along the way.
WithIt: You’re talking about working through cases of harassment and other high-stress situations. Do you have routines or guiding principles you use to combat this level of intensity on a day-to-day basis?
Natalie: People reach out to me most of the time because something has happened, and it’s urgent. It may or may not be a real emergency, but it feels like a major crisis to them. And so, I often wear the legal advice hat and the “keep things in perspective” hat. These things happen in the course of business all the time.
Then for me personally, yeah, it’s high stress because I am dealing with people’s problems.
And as the person they bring the crisis to and rely on to get them through it and hopefully keep them out of court, I have to take care of myself.
I do this through my pets.
I’m a big fan of the unconditional love a dog can give you and spending time playing on the floor with him.
My daughter has a bearded dragon lizard, which since she’s at college, I now have. So yes, bathing the lizard or watching him run around and do cute things. That is my big de-stressor is playing with the pets.
Thanks for reading our conversation with Natalie. We hope her words have emboldened you to pursue a dream you felt was out of reach and connect with Women who support your dreams, too.