Today’s guest, Greg Brenner, is the AVP of Talent and Organization Development at my beloved alma mater, The University of Miami. Known worldwide as “The U,” it consists of an elite university with competitive academics and athletics as well as an extensive health care system that all leverage that branding, and Greg’s team is responsible for weaving into all professional and leadership development efforts. Since culture and branding are inseparable, there is a lot for any leader to learn from our conversation. Greg recently hung up his cleats (literally) as a football referee and began his newest identity as “The HR Dad” on LinkedIn. The authentic personal stories he shares and messaging about the human aspects of leadership have garnered him many loyal followers already, so join us to learn more.


Episode 31: Are “U” Merging Your Culture and Brand? with Greg Brenner

Shani: Hello, Leadershifters. Welcome back to The LeaderShift Show. I am thrilled today to introduce you to my guest, Greg Brenner.

Greg: Hello.

Shani: Greg, hello.

Greg: Hello.

Shani: You guys, Greg is an Assistant Vice President for Talent and Organizational Development at the University of Miami. Those of you who have been following me for a while or even for five minutes, know that I am a huge fan of the University of Miami also known as the U. In addition to being a proud alumna, the University of Miami is one of my clients. I teach some various leadership topics and do some executive coaching. Greg is one of my main contacts at the University of Miami. That’s not all he does. He is also becoming a pretty well-known LinkedIn personality with his moniker, the HR dad. We will talk about that. He’s also an actual dad, not just-

Greg: I am one. I don’t play one on TV, yes.

Shani: Right. [laughs] I don’t know whether he’s a father figure per se to his staff but he is well-loved by his staff and that I do not– It’s not a claim I make by guessing. That is something I have experienced firsthand in working with Greg and his team. We’re going to talk to Greg about his experiences and the shifts that he’s made in his career and the shifts that he’s seen at the University of Miami and whatever else we feel like talking about.

Greg: Awesome.

Shani: Welcome to the show Greg.

Greg: Thank you so much Shani and thank you for having me. I think you’re doing a wonderful work. I know you obviously from the work that you do with us. The work that you’re doing with the Leader-Shift and in this work that is really changing our mindset within corporate America and in our case higher ed and healthcare. I think it’s a very deserving work. I’m glad you’re doing it.

Shani: Thank you. Well, let’s start off with by just tailing on something you just said which is higher education and healthcare. I bet not everybody listening or watching knows that the University of Miami is a bit of a holding company if you will for both the academic institution, the university which has undergrad as well as graduate programs, medical school, law school, et cetera and an entire enormous healthcare system that is pervasive not just in South Florida but we have outposts in various places around the world in the form of UHealth. Talk to us about how, from an OD and Talent and Leadership Development standpoint you see them as different yet with some similar themes that enable you to effectively run programs.

Greg: Absolutely. There’s this big umbrella and it falls under higher education. We’re really, depending on who you talk to you, we’re in the higher education business. We’re also in the healthcare business. Very, very distinctly different businesses. Some would challenge me that higher education is not business or imparting knowledge and things in that nature if you talk about this.

Shani: It is absolutely a business make [laughs]. People should make no mistake.

Greg: It’s a big business. They’re both very much mission driven businesses. However, how you get the work done is different. Our stakeholders are different. However, any time you throw people into the mix of anything there’s always going to be work around that side. That’s very similar, how you go about doing the work, how you strategize, how you do different things may look different because they have different outcomes and different types of things they’re trying to achieve. The issue, then the strategies and what you’re trying to accomplish are eerily similar even being in very distinct different industries.

Shani: Yes. I think that it’s a great lesson for people who are in corporate environments. That this is a business too. You may be managing very disparate businesses under the umbrella of one organization. I think the U does something very well which I want you to comment on in a second, which is using its brand. We do this and this has become ubiquitous brand. I travel all over the world and everyone you see, you’ll never know.

In any random airport, I might see someone with a ball cap or t-shirt that’s the University of Miami. We do this and it’s well known. They’ve taken that brand and embedded it as part of the culture of the organization and on both sides. Talk to us about the process that the university underwent to really capitalize on the brand in terms of shifting the culture.

Greg: I think the brand that you came out of certainly within a lot of respects, the football program and the U and some players having called us that. Really, it has taken a life of its own. You’re right. You don’t go many places where you don’t see somebody with some logo that throws up the U and says, “Hey.” It happened the other day. I was with my son at a National AAU Basketball Tournament. He’s a teenager, 16 years old. I had a U on. I saw this bright orange vest coming my way from another parent going to a track and field event at Disney. All of a sudden from the corner of my eye, our eyes caught. We both had our hands full but he managed to get his hands out and just do one of these things. I was like, “Hi.” It is so such a strong brand. One of the things that we’ve done as an organization and our leaders have done a great job with this is that you could have a brand but that also can be hollow at times. We have the brand but the organization doesn’t always catch up. In this case, I think we’ve always had a very strong organization, strong leaders and strong people that work here whether it’s from a physician on the medical side to a faculty member to administration to frontline employees that fix things.

We have all those type of positions. One of the things that our journey has been around has been how do you make sure the brand stays strong. You do that by having strong organizational values. We were part of some work several years ago to bring values to the University of Miami. Those are values. We have leadership behaviors. We also have some service standards. Those help drive not only our development that we do within our own group that you’re very familiar with but also when you come to the University you come to the health system. You’re dipped in what it is to be a Miami Hurricane whether it’s on the academic side or the leadership side. Intertwining those things, there’s a lot of pride in the U, a lot of pride.

We have to match that as an organization for the people that work with us so that our stakeholders here, our community, our students, our patients, each other feel the same pride.

Shani: I love the phrasing you used that people are dipped in the culture which takes drinking the Kool-Aid to a whole another level to say, “No, we’re not just going to give you a drink of the cool aid. We are going to dip you in the cool [laughs].” Kood-aid not with a negative connotation. It’s a very welcoming warm thing. In fact, why don’t you tell us about– You were responsible for leading the effort to redevelop new employee orientation on boarding. It’s a program called I am the U. If you would tell us about how you developed that. What were some specific things that you and the team did to make sure people felt dipped? [laughs]

Greg: One of the things that we were able to do is through that process of that the transformation that we went through. Culturally, as an organization, one of the outputs was to recreate or even have an orientation that is something that you wanted to have, that was encouraging, that was to let the person know that they made a great decision to come work for us. There was a work group that was put together, helped us design it. We were tasked to, “Right here’s a blank sheet of paper. Go ahead and design it and make sure it happens.” Very fortunate to have. Again, as you know, a wonderful, wonderful tribe that supports this work. They are really the backbone of making that come to the realization. It’s on your first day of work. It really truly is a welcome. It’s not your stereotypical HR. “Here’s what’s going to happen when you get fired.” That type of things.

Shani: [chuckles] I agree. “Here’s a long speech about benefits, most of which don’t pertain to you.” [chuckles]

Greg: Yes, right. I think so. We try to make sure it’s about our values, it’s about what we believe in, it’s about our strategic focus, it’s about how we’re structured, but it’s really about the title is “I am the U” so, how a new person is embraced and really loved by “The U”. It starts the relationship with somebody off on the right foot. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect because we’re not. I haven’t found a perfect organization even in the top best employers in the world. There’s always stuff that goes on, but it starts day one off on the right foot.

Shani: Yes. One of the things that I love is every single person who starts at the U goes through this. It doesn’t matter if it’s a super junior level job all the way up to a new provost. Everybody goes through, “I am the U” on their first day, no exception.

Greg: Yes, it’s great because– It’s the ultimate equalizer. You could literally be sitting next to a senior vice president, and this is not to put down it, you could be a plumber or an electrician sitting next to maybe the number one or number two person in the institution organization and they’re having conversations, they’re talking about their journey and how they got here. It’s so powerful. It’s great in that perspective.

Shani: Yes, absolutely. Something else I wanted to get your perspective on. Education and healthcare are both industries that are under increasingly competitive pressures and regulatory pressures, therefore bottom line is always being watched.

Greg: Right.

Shani: In a cost conscious environment, which I know a lot of my listeners and watchers are operating in, what are some things that you recommend for talent management leadership development that don’t have to break the bank, that people can introduce into their organizations?

Greg: I think always the first thing is you have to meet your organization where you’re at. A lot of times people take that as a, “Yes, that’s common sense”, but a lot of times you want to get so far ahead and so far beyond where you’re at that you can’t get people to shift their mindset. I think one of the things that you do is, in some of our work, we’re fortunate we have a small organizational development team and we’re able to go out and help people with strategies and figure out what are some of those problem areas and things that nature. Also at the same time, the organization has made it a priority to have operational efficiency in what we call administrative excellence which ends up being, “Are you operating at the best way? Are you not necessarily being cheap on something, but are you being conscious of what we’re spending the money on? If we need to spend it on X, are we doing that?” We do the same thing from our development perspective. Years ago we used to have a catalog of say, I don’t know, it was over 200 different courses that we would offer 270 times a year. It literally close to pushing 300 days of development. When I took over I was like, “Let’s stop that and let’s see if anybody notices.” Nobody noticed that we stopped it.

We had all this training except for there was one person in purchasing who always asked me, “What about that seminar stuff that we used to be able to go to?” There’s always that one person. We had to really shift our mindset to say, “All right, let’s be really, really smart on what we’re spending our dollars on.” We wanted to invest heavily within our leaders first. We wanted to make sure that we had something for our staff. That’s where we brought in some of our online development. Now we’re just in a process of building out a strong system to develop our leaders, not only from the senior levels but to the frontline, then now we’re reintroducing some pieces back into, for the staff, whether it’s for career mobility and things of that nature. It’s really being smart with the dollars that you have and investing heavily where you can where you’re going to have the biggest impact.

Shani: Yes, I love that. Leadership is where you can have the biggest impact because then it cascades down. It’s so important. I still see that not enough organizations are investing in leadership development at any of the levels. They’re not-

Greg: Yes. Sometimes where that’s driven is sometimes is that an ego. Sometimes it’s out of a, “Well, we know that.” There’s that, that’s a one saying, “What happens if we develop all these people and they leave.” The old comeback to that is what happens if you don’t develop all these people and they stay? What do you do with that when you have all these people that are just starving for knowledge? Let’s face it, whatever business your listeners are in, business is complicated now. There is more pressure to do more with less to really figure out in the speed of things. Sometimes things are slower than others, but a leader has to really learn how to adapt and change. At the same you’re managing these people. That skill set is so important to develop. You have to focus in on. In fact, one of the things that I’ve been on a mission on lately is not to call the soft skills “soft skills” anymore. I call those “hard skills.” The business skills are those that they teach you in your MBA, how to manage inventory and how to manage balance sheets and all that type of stuff. Those are business skills.

Hard skills are what everybody always talks about is that difficulty of getting a group of people to do what you needed them to do, at the same time having them feel part of something big. You have to invest in that. If not, you’re just taking something for granted, which you would never do on supply chain. You’d never do that on accounting perspective. When you really do think from a people perspective and the expense that it takes to have people employed and you don’t invest in them, to me that’s a poor business decision.

Shani: I couldn’t agree with you more. I have the same rally cry. It drives me nuts when people call these soft skills because they’re anything but soft. In fact, they’re hard for some people to develop which is all the more reason that attention needs to be paid and practice needs to be devoted to it. When we do develop our people and empower our leaders, then it results in hard dollar bills.

Greg: Yes, absolutely. You can see that translate into that very easily if you look for it.

Shani: Yes. I wanted to ask you also on the subject of shifting. You spent the early part of your career in the hospitality and restaurant space. How did you get hired at the University of Miami and how was that shift for you?

Greg: I lost all of my hair in the hospitality business, so if you ever-

Shani: [laughs]

Greg: The hospitality business is a great business, so if any of your people are hospitable. Actually, that’s what I studied. I really enjoyed. You really learn how to do two things in hospitality business. Number one, you learn how to serve people. All right? Really, really important. You learn how to do a lot with a little. The restaurant business where I came out of is a penny business, so you learn how to make a penny stretch. You learn everything about people, whether it’s the people that you’re serving or the people that are working for you. I took that and I love that time in the hospitality business. I was in operations. I own my own restaurant. Then when I closed my restaurant, I’ve always, even when I was in operations, I had a knack for people. A former boss of mine said, “Hey, we have this HR position. Why don’t you consider it on the HR?” “I don’t know, I’m an ops guy, I don’t know anything about people stuff.” “No, you’ll be great. You’re always talking about the workforce and people and doing things right by them.”

Shani: Because you had that hard skills.

Greg: Right, it’s those hard skills. We jumped into that in the hospitality space, then I was fortunate just about I guess it’s coming up on eight years or so ago I’m able to come over in the OD role, organizational development role, then it’s grown since then. We’ve been very fortunate to have great people and mentors and people around me in our tribe that just do incredible work and certainly props me up pretty high.

Shani: I love that. Greg does talent management and OD for a living. However, he’s so passionate about it that you’ve made it into a personal brand for yourself with your LinkedIn presence as HR dad. Tell us what prompted that, what’s the journey been, and what’s next?

Greg: One of the things that people don’t know about me typically, is that I used to officiate college football. I did it for many years and I retired just about two years ago. The main reason why I retired was that I was missing a lot of things with my kids. I was missing events and I was missing sporting events on the weekends when I was gone. I made a decision at the height of my career to step back and do that. Now, I’m around a lot more, and my wife said, “You need to find a hobby because you’re around way too much now.” One of the things I wanted to do is I always loved to write and I loved writing. I write the way I speak from the heart and things that nature. I personally took up a hobby of writing and hired a writing coach. I was working with the writing coach and I was always talking about people in the workforce and HR things, and I was always talking about my kids, and then the intertwining of the family unit and what happens at work and how similar they are.

She goes, “You know what, you are great.” I didn’t know it was coming next because she goes, “You’re the HR, dad.” I go, “Huh.” She goes, “Can you live with that?” I go, “Yes, I’m okay with that.” I started using it. Now that we’ve got quite a bit of a following and I do things before work and at lunch and then after work and then I just inactive on LinkedIn and it’s been a lot a lot of fun.

Shani: It is fun, and I love watching the videos and some of the personal stories that you share, both in written form and and in the videos are heartwarming and interesting and that’s what people really love to hear because anyone can pontificate about this or that.

Greg: I just try to be authentic. In my time working with people, the thing you learn is that there’s an entire person. If you only talk to the business person, you’ll just get the business outcome. When you know that people go through crap in their life or they go through challenges or their life’s not perfect or they’re dealing with all kinds of stuff, whether it’s depression or kids all those– divorce, all those things that happen, it happens to everybody. When you talk about those things, people sit there and they go, “You know what, I’m not alone.” It’s really been amazing how that’s taken off a little bit but I just love to merge both things, work and family and the kids and what are great lessons from not only the workforce but also the family unit.

Shani: Yes, I love it. What’s next for HR dad?

Greg: I’m actually starting a podcast.

Shani: Great to hear.

Greg: Crazy how I’m doing that. I’m starting it, I’m just setting up the interviews now. It’s a podcast called Everyday People, Big Stories. It’s about people that are everyday people that have big stories. I really kicked around the idea, “Do I do an HR podcast, what do I do?”, and I love talking with with everyday people who get just the work done there in the middle their lives, they’re just trying to to get by and do their thing and a lot of times there are wonderful, wonderful stories that happen with people that it just might be a waitress or they might be a nurse or they might be a fireman or they might be a CEO that have an incredible story that they’ve battled through something or they have a great story to share of really that can help and empower somebody else to know that they’re not alone and they can certainly continue their growth as well. I’m really excited about that.

Shani: I love that idea. It reminds me of Humans Of New York.

Greg: I never heard of that.

Shani: It’s a Facebook page where that’s what they do, they highlight humans of New York and they’re just everyday people, if you will. They interview them and and Facebook goes up about little details about them. It’s so enrolling because everybody’s got a story, everybody’s interesting.

Greg: That’s where the magic happens, and so one of the things that we’re doing is that we’re having people nominate other people. You can’t just say, “Hey, I want to talk about this,” and it’s not about selling a service, it really is about now we’ll talk about what they’re doing in their life at one point in the interview but it really is about their story and sharing their journey that can maybe help somebody else. I’m really excited about that.

Shani: Congratulations, and nothing but the best as you roll that out. I’m so excited you’ll have to let me know when it starts.

Greg: I will. Another month, month and a half we should be good to go. We’re just want to get a bunch of recordings done first and squeezing it around work times is making it so, it’s weekend’s and we’re recording our night, that type of stuff. We’ll be getting at going as soon as we can.

Shani: So good. Between the everyday people and recognizing that when we’re at work, we’re still a whole person even though people think that we should have some invisible wall between our personal lives and our work lives. It’s impossible especially in this day and age and it reminds me of a story that another one of my clients tells a lot which is heart-wrenching almost. She came home from work one night and and her daughter was crying and she was like, “Hey, sweetheart, what’s wrong?” Daughter looks at her and says, “I hate your job.” She’s like, “Why?” She said, “Because your job makes you sad.” It’s always a wake-up call to her to be like, “Wow, like not only am I enduring whatever I’m enduring at work, but look at how this is affecting my kid. What’s the domino effect that that could have, what are the reverberations that could have?”

Greg: Yes. A unique place being in human resources and being able to impact and understand the issues that can occur within a workplace but I also understand that it just doesn’t end, just like your story you just told, it just doesn’t end when they leave the the front door of the building, at home. And likewise, they can you can learn these lessons. So many times my my kids teach me a lesson on– My daughter told me a similar thing the other day, she’s 13, so she doesn’t hold back, she’s 13 been going on 40, and she just told me, although sometimes she calls me Greg. She says-

Shani: She’s trying to discipline you, she’ll call you Gregory.

Greg: Yes, that was my mom then, but she said, “You’re working all the time.” I was like, “I got to make sure I’m making time and splitting and doing–” Every single person does that. Even if you’re not married or not or you don’t have kids, what you give back to yourself as well is so, so important. Just in a lucky space to be on the HR side and also being able change that mindset where it’s just not about policies and procedures and all these things, it really is about helping people live their life not only professionally but also support them in their personal journeys as well.

Shani: Amen. One of my last questions, what’s one of the things that you’ve shared as HR dad that has gotten the biggest or best or most unexpected reaction.

Greg: I did one video, and I had really hesitated doing video. I worked with a person and she’s like, “You got to do videos.” I was like, “I’m not doing videos. Look, I’m an eternal guy, I work at the U, I’m really good, I’m not doing video.” She goes, “No, you really need to do video.” I didn’t want her to and I still survive, I didn’t hyperventilate, I get out. Then I did this video of, I don’t know if you could tell but through this little camera but I’m not this person. I’ve some body to me, and so I did this video when I was walking and talking about trying to get in shape. As I was huffing and puffing on the first time walking again and talking about just about that exercise and reinvesting in yourself, something along those lines, and so a so I posted it and I went to bed. I had like a couple hundred people look at it. I was, “It’s pretty cool, couple other people looked at it.” In the morning I wake up and there I see there’s been 10,000 views. I went I looked I was like, “Something’s wrong with my phone. What is wrong? Something’s not right.”

Then I looked and I saw what happened was it influencer had commented on my video posts and she has this large following a couple million people and all of a sudden– I was in meetings all day, I got to lunch and all of a sudden at lunch, there’s 40,000 views. Then I go back to my next set of meetings, and now at night there’s a– it was over– Last time I checked, it was like a month or so ago. Last time I checked. It had been on over like 80,000 views 90,000 views and it was really obviously, I think it’s because of me, but it clearly was about Bridget Hyacinth who’s a big influencer on LinkedIn had commented on it and that was just the start of it, and all sudden now I had these followers and things of that nature, by just one person’s comment.

Shani: What do you think was about your video that caused her to comment on it and so many other people to want to watch it?

Greg: The biggest thing that I get and I ask people if they comment what would you like most about it, and 9 out 10 times they say, number one, it’s so real, it’s so authentic, it’s not staged, it’s not pontificating on something, it’s just somebody going through life and struggles with whether it’s weight management or eating too much, or not eating enough, whatever it is, somebody is drinking, whatever it is people have crap that they go through. I think that part resonates most with people and far and above and beyond that authenticity piece is huge, so which is really easy for me because that’s the way I lead. It’s an easy switch to a different type of platform to share that.

Shani: Good I love that. Folks, let’s thank Greg for joining us and review some of the key lessons that we learned throughout this conversation today. I want to challenge you, if you don’t already know what is your brand, well, as part of an organization and as a leader? ‘Cause HR Dad, yes it’s your LinkedIn personality and it’s been your personal professional brand, which is why it feels so natural for you. Because that’s how you influence culture is by owning who you are and being authentic. Every leadershifter watching this, I want you to pay specific attention over the next month or so to your brand and how it relates to your organization’s brand, and to also think about are you being a servant leader. We touched upon the benefit of you having to spent time in the restaurant hospitality space was you learned how to serve people, and that is something that’s necessary regardless of the industry you’re in and servant leadership is obviously a hot term or hot concept over the last few years, and I also loved that you shifted when you quit referring football into something else to be enthusiastic about that wasn’t totally the office, even though it’s HR dad is related to what you do, I can see just in interviewing you and being one of your followers that it’s so much more than that.

I can never emphasize enough to leadershifters just how important it is for you to be a whole person and to figure out what it is for you, that fulfills you and lights you up and to do more of that and to do less of the shit that drags you down. I feel like too many people spend too much time doing things that really drag them down. Those are just a few of the highlights that stood out to me. Greg, how can people reach you if they have questions and/or when you’re ready for them to watch Everyday People?

Greg: Well, I think the best way is on LinkedIn that’s where I hang out. You could always reach out to me my email there, anything you’d like, email me at We’re building that website and you can always reach out to me there, but LinkedIn is where I hang out the most and I’ll get back to you eventually. I really try to get to know my connections a little bit so I’ve really developed some great relationships with some people and it’s truly helped professionally because you learn so much from others people, so it’s been great. I’d love you to reach out and follow us, or connect with us. I’d really enjoy that.

Shani: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much and Leadershifters, I will also be promoting Everyday People when it comes out because I think it’s going to be an awesome podcast, knowing Greg and just the whole concept behind, it is fantastic. You know how to reach out to me, and all of our various sundry social media outlets. Let’s thank Greg again for joining us today on The LeaderShift show. I think it would only be appropriate for us to end by throwing up to you.

Greg: Of course, of course

Shani: Bye.

Greg: Bye, see you Shani.

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