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Marilyn Walker: Discover your awesomeness

Marilyn Walker - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

What kind of coffee drink are you? What sitcom should you star in? Which 80s song best describes you?

Those personality quizzes people share on Facebook all the time? Marilyn Walker loves them.

“I did find out my mate on Downton Abbey,” she said, giggling. “Tom, he’s my guy.” 

Assessments of all kinds fascinate Walker. It’s part of why she has made a career out of helping companies make sure they have the right people on the bus, sitting in the right seats.

Walker is the founder of Synergize!, which was acquired by Behavioral Healthcare Corp. in Lancaster, where Walker is now director of outpatient clinic and assessment services. Her work entails performing personality, cognitive and behavioral assessments to help companies narrow down the right people for job openings, as well as identify what is and what isn’t working for a team. She finds fulfillment in using her profession to help others excel in theirs.

“I have discovered my own awesomeness,” she said. “And I have done that by helping clients discover their awesomeness.”

‘A pretty good impetus’

A mother of five, Walker always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, and she was. But when she went through a divorce at age 42, she faced a crossroads. She had never had an adult job.

“That’s a pretty good impetus,” she said.

With a 20-year-old degree in sociology, she knew going back to school would be the key. She went to a library and pored over reference books. She mapped out Lancaster and every school with graduate programs in a two-hour radius and made a list of study areas to consider pursuing.

She kept coming back to two interests: assessments and helping others. Eventually she decided on clinical psychology. She intended to become a teacher for a community college or two-year school, but she enjoyed her therapy classes so much that she changed her focus.

While in school, Walker stumbled into a job at the former St. Joseph’s Hospital in the mental health unit and loved it. She was a counselor, but by the time she completed her master’s degree, she had earned the title of therapist.

“I kept my job at the hospital when I finished school, but I needed more stability, and I needed Monday through Friday, so I took a position as regional director of a national nonprofit child welfare agency,” she said. “I was there for three years and was abruptly let go from that position, which was like totally pulling the rug from underneath my feet. I had glowing performance evaluations, and there I was.”

She made the most of it, though.

“Getting fired is a really good time to think about what you want to do,” she said.

Walker mulled the idea of using assessments not just for mental health, but for helping couples, or maybe businesses. Then in 2009, Synergize! was born.

The CEO of Behavioral Healthcare Corp., Eric Eshleman, whom Walker had worked with at St. Joseph’s Hospital, reached out to her in the spring about working together. She had previously worked part-time for the company, and returning “felt like coming home.” The company previously did not offer assessments, so Walker’s work has created a new revenue source.

“I look at this as my retirement job,” she said. “I love the people I work with, and I’ve known many of them since that first job at the hospital. It’s a wonderful company.”

How it works

So how does Walker “synergize” her clients?

Walker helps companies figure out what they’re looking for in a candidate during the hiring process. They define personality traits, competencies and the behavioral styles that will fit in with their teams, she said. Often the process is useful to companies replacing someone in a succession plan, such as a CEO stepping down after 35 years.

The areas Walker typically looks at include:

  • Cognitive abilities – How fast does a job candidate learn, and how are they with thinking on their feet?
  • Personality traits – What are the underlying traits that person takes with them wherever they go?
  • DiSC Profile behavior assessment – How will they work with a team, and how will they approach the job?
  • Driving forces – What motivates them? How do they see the world, and what will be fulfilling to them?

“We help (employers) understand what they’re looking for and based on that, we help them to look at what the candidate is going to give you after the honeymoon is over,” she said.

Those same assessments, coupled with another diagnostic tool that looks at how well a team currently functions, inform the team-building side of Walker’s services. Walker assesses areas of dysfunction and then guides companies through a series of exercises aimed at developing those areas.

Walker’s previous clients include APR Supply in Lebanon and Web Talent Marketing and Baron Insurance Group in Lancaster. She’s also worked with companies outside of Pennsylvania.

One client in Minnesota – an 800-person, four-facility company, had a president who was “totally against” going through with the team-building assessment. The human resources director really wanted Walker to work with the staff, and after three to four years, the company finally acquiesced.

Walker arrived about half an hour early for the two-day session. The door to the room to which she was to report was slightly ajar, so she walked in, not knowing that several employees, including the wary president, were holding a conference call.

The president, a “horrendous look” flashing across his face, waved his arm from Walker’s direction to the door, gesticulating for her to leave the room.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be so fun,'” she said, jokingly.

And it actually was.

“I don’t remember the exact question, but his answer was, ‘Well, we have a meeting, I set the agenda, we go through the agenda and that’s it. What else is there?'” she said. “And I love it when they say things like that because I just went, ‘OK guys, what else is there?’ And (the employees) let him know what else there was.”

The man eventually warmed up to the process.

“By lunchtime the first day, he sat next to me and said, ‘You know, I thought this was just a load of hogwash…but I can really see that this is going to help our team,'” she said. “In half a day, he could see the benefit that his team was already having and that was through probably just one exercise at that point.”

The last exercise in the team-building assessment is very personal, so much so that Walker refrains from telling participants about it until the very end to save them the anxiety of thinking about it.  Employees go around in a circle and each person tells them something they can continue to do to contribute to team success, and one thing they can stop doing.

“We all have something we can stop doing to be more effective,” Walker said. “They look at it as – and it’s really hard to get them to not look at it this way – ‘This is what you do well and this is what you do badly, or not well, or wrong.’ That is not what it’s about.”

Despite its intimidating nature, the exercise is often the most meaningful for clients, Walker said.

Overall, the team-building services help employees “gain a deeper understanding of themselves and a deeper understanding of the people they work with,” Walker said.

“It helps them to know how, if I really want to communicate effectively with this person, this is the way I can do it, because the way I naturally want to communicate is not the way they hear me,” she said. 

Together, companies also establish a thematic goal, the single most important thing they need to accomplish. They determine each department and each employee’s role in meeting that goal, which helps build a foundation for accountability.

“Whenever you let somebody get away with something, in your personal life, with relationships or at work, and you don’t tell them, ‘That wasn’t OK,'” she said, “That gives them permission to keep doing it. So this gives them permission to hold each other accountable for what they’ve committed to and what needs to be done.”

Finding her awesome

Looking back on where she started, Walker glowed in amazement, thinking of herself 20-some years ago, tirelessly seeking out a new career path. She has owned her own business and even received an Athena Award from the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The award recognizes women for professional accomplishment and community involvement.

Walker has a few tips for women facing a career change:

  • Get a good therapist – “Change is stressful, and stress eventually makes us all sick,” she said. “It just depends on how well we handle it. Have a good therapist for that support to just bounce things off of.”
  • Have a support system – When Walker went through her divorce and career change, she relied on her sister and two best friends. “I could call them anytime of the day or night. And I did.”
  • Know who you are – “This is really important,” she said. “I didn’t know who I was. I made some assumptions that ended up being right, and I did it by looking back at what I enjoyed. What really got me excited, and what did I not like doing? It helps to understand who you are and what’s going to be meaningful to you.”

Among the meaningful experiences Walker has had, she worked with an organization called New Choices, a career-development program in Lancaster for women in transition. The two-week workshop includes sessions on self-care, finance, communication and other topics that guide women to improve their lives.

“It helps them to find their voice when they haven’t had one,” Walker said. “And that’s literal. I remember one of our students, I literally could not hear her, and by the end of the program, she was standing up confidently saying, ‘This is who I am. This is where I’m going. This is what I’m doing.'”

As the student read from a list of personal strengths she compiled during the program, she exclaimed, “Ah! I’m awesome.”

For Walker, that’s what it’s all about.

Helping others discover their awesomeness is how Walker has found hers. When she was a Mary Kay consultant in her 30s, the gratification she felt from showing women their beauty was a driving force for her. It excited her. It had meaning.

Through her work, Walker said she has learned, “There’s not a good part of me, and there’s not a bad part of me. There’s just me.”

“Some of me will be a real strength in some situations, and that same part of me will be a real challenge in other situations,” she said. “There isn’t a ‘This part is good, this part is bad.’ This part is me, and all of me is awesome.”

“You don’t have to be perfect,” she said. “You are awesome.”

Nicole Chynoweth
Nicole Chynoweth is the web editor for Central Penn Business Journal. Email her at [email protected].

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