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Sherry Barrett strives to have transformative impact on Spokane County employees

Sherry Barrett joined Spokane County last year as its employee development specialist. (MICHAEL GUILFOIL/For The Spokesman-Review)
Sherry Barrett joined Spokane County last year as its employee development specialist. (MICHAEL GUILFOIL/For The Spokesman-Review)

Sherry Barrett discovered early on that employees who take their jobs seriously are more likely to get ahead.

“I worked in a pickle factory one summer,” she recalled. “I started out stuffing dill pickle spears into jars. One of the supervisors noticed me and said, ‘Sherry, you look intelligent. I’d like you to come over to the conveyor line and count the jars.’ ”

Granted, the promotion didn’t include a raise. “My white tennis shoes were still a disgusting yellowish green from all the brine on the floor, and I went home smelling of pickle juice.”

But who knows what heights Barrett would have reached if she’d stuck with pickles?

Instead, she earned two master’s degrees, started her own consulting business and last year was hired by Spokane County to spearhead an initiative to improve customer service, financial stewardship, public engagement and employee development.

During a recent interview, Barrett discussed her role as a transformer and described what she considers the ideal employee.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Barrett: In Indianapolis, Indiana, and Tampa, Florida.

S-R: What were your interests as a teen?

Barrett: I volunteered with a junior organization of Rotary, providing social opportunities for groups with disabilities. I also was in a drama club and enjoyed spending time at the beach.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?

Barrett: I always loved English classes, which led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in English at Indiana University.

S-R: How about early jobs?

Barrett: Besides my summer in the pickle factory, I worked as a secretary in a California food brokerage right out of high school and usually had multiple jobs as I worked my way through college.

S-R: What did you do after earning a bachelor’s in English?

Barrett: I realized that wasn’t a great degree for marketing myself, so I got a master’s degree in secondary ed with a specialty in alternative education. In the late ’70s, alternative education was a popular trend – trying to serve youths most at risk of school failure. That led to an internship in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I helped create an inner-city school within a school. The following year, I taught English to highly at-risk kids in a school we started in a two-bay gas station. My classroom was a converted restroom. The third year, I designed an alternative high school from scratch and hired staff.

S-R: How long were you in education?

Barrett: About five years. I earned a second master’s in education leadership, thinking I wanted to move into high school administration. But most of the job openings were at the assistant principal level, and discipline is not my priority when working with vulnerable young people. So midway through my master’s I started focusing on courses in employee development and workplace education, which I found really exciting.

S-R: And launched your own business?

Barrett: Yes. I started Barrett Consulting in Des Moines, Iowa, where we lived for 19 years. Initially I wrote computer-based training courses for the Principal Financial Group. They recommended me to Equitable Life Insurance of Iowa, where I built an employee training and development program.

S-R: What skills learned in the pickle factory, alternative schools and various other jobs transferred to your 29-year career in employee development?

Barrett: My competency in learning on the fly. Flexibility is essential in today’s workplace because of the constant change. As a consultant, I helped organizations reach their potential the same way I helped teenagers reach theirs.

S-R: How did you market your services?

Barrett: I never advertised – it was always word of mouth. My client base in Des Moines included the Metro Waste Authority and the Iowa Supreme Court.

S-R: What brought you to Spokane 10 years ago?

Barrett: My husband’s job. (Barrett’s husband, Tim Henkel, is president and CEO of Spokane County United Way.)

S-R: How long did it take to gain traction when no one knew you?

Barrett: That was really tough. I started out doing pro bono work, mostly for nonprofits. After a few months, I applied for a staff position at a nonprofit startup – Communities in Schools – eventually became its executive director and was there until 2015, when I joined School’s Out Washington as a youth programs quality coach, trainer and assessor.

S-R: When Spokane County hired you as its first employee development specialist last year, what was your mandate?

Barrett: To be a transformer – create relevant and responsive professional development opportunities, and make them available to our 2,000 employees. Our ultimate goal is to help them better serve county residents. But they may also have personal goals – for instance, moving from a technical role to a supervisory one. Courses we’re offering will help them do that, too.

S-R: What makes someone a better employee?

Barrett: It starts with self-awareness. We help people better understand their strengths as well as areas where they might be challenged. It’s also important that they know how to collaborate in work situations, so we help them understand what builds trust and what destroys it.

S-R: Is self-awareness a concept most people understand?

Barrett: I don’t think so. When I used to do executive coaching, I was often surprised by how unaware some senior leaders were about how others saw them. One leader considered himself a good communicator, yet his co-workers often felt confused, not listened to, even hurt. When people get new input about themselves, they need to decide (A) “Is it valid?” and (B) “How am I going to use it?”

S-R: Besides technical skills relevant to a particular job, what traits would you hope all county employees possess?

Barrett: The ability and desire to be attentive, respectful, knowledgeable and responsive to our customers.

S-R: Is the customer always right?

Barrett: No. But we need to do the best job we can to help customers understand the answer to questions they may not even be framing correctly.

S-R: Any other goals?

Barrett: We want to create a positive work environment for all employees, every day. That requires good coaching, good management and giving people the tools they need to do their jobs.

S-R: What do you like most about your role?

Barrett: I love the opportunity to be creative in ways that benefit our employees.

S-R: What do you like least?

Barrett: There’s a lot of administrivia in some of the work we do – setting up systems.

S-R: How have county employees responded to this new emphasis on development?

Barrett: They’re pretty excited. They’ve been hungry for it, and there haven’t been nearly as many opportunities as they’re going to have in the future.

S-R: Will employees get to participate in these new programs during their normal workday?

Barrett: Yes. And we’re rolling out 70 e-courses that will be available to employees on all shifts. In the past, most training sessions were only offered during the 8-to-5 workday.

S-R: What has your long career in employee development taught you about yourself?

Barrett: It’s reinforced my love for learning new things and made me very thoughtful about how I communicate news, whether good or bad, to people.

S-R: What’s the outlook for the employee development field?

Barrett: Millennials are the largest part of the U.S. workforce today, and many surveys have shown how important professional development is to them. These types of programs help young employees realize their potential.

S-R: How would you characterize the ideal employee?

Barrett: Someone with great interpersonal skills – the ability to express themselves and authentically listen to others. Also, someone with an unrelenting curiosity and the desire to learn what they need to know. And, finally, having the personal integrity to follow through on what they say they’re going to do, and do it to the best of their ability.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at