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When Justina Sanchez Cox accepted the role as chief human resources officer for early childhood education provider Cadence Education in January 2021, she knew she needed to learn the space. Cox had built out a successful healthcare HR practice over twenty years, but this was something different, something new. She did what most people might passively wish they had done when entering a new environment but never actually put it into action. She tracked down every CHRO in childhood education she could find and got in contact.
“I sent a LinkedIn message to every CHRO on LinkedIn I could find,” Cox remembers. “In healthcare, there are several networks of professionals in the space, but in the early childcare sphere, there are only so many big operators. My friends and colleagues might have thought I was nuts, but I made a great relationship and mentor in the process.”
Cox’s journey, in her view, so often comes back to the team that you build around yourself. Early on, she learned how her Mexican immigrant great grandparents woke up at 3:00 a.m. to work in the fields. She saw parents who never once missed a day of work. And she saw her broader family successfully operating a restaurant but wanting far more for their children and grandchildren.
A team would be Cox’s way to education. The softball shortstop was able to play her way through college
, while earning multiple scholarships. Her whole family was a family of the sport, but Cox was able to take it to the next level and use it for something greater.
“It always seems to come back to the roots of family teamwork,” Cox explains. “There’s a whole village that raises you up, and it’s never stopped. Today, I have a husband and children who demonstrate that every day, and it makes me so proud. Our family team is always pitching in to help where needed.”
Cox’s journey and self-admitted commitment to lifelong learning is an ideal match for Cadence Education. The organization is dedicated to providing nurturing and educational experiences for future kindergarteners.
In her role, Cox is not only tasked with overseeing all HR services lines like recruiting, talent development, and benefits, but also, potentially more importantly, with building culture for the organization. Part of that effort includes a strong leadership development program that both helps assess and diagnose where current leadership can improve and excel.
“Our people might be experts in their fields, but when we’re talking about managing people and the business, that’s the challenge,” Cox explains. “That’s where I get to create and have fun around our leadership framework and work to develop the necessary skills they need, including deepening the learning around emotional intelligence.”
It’s no surprise that Cox considers herself a servant-based leader. But she also wants to help others grow by being that team coach that everyone needs at some point in their journey. Cox says for every great athlete, there is a coach who has pushed them to be the best they can be and to hold them accountable for their growth and development.
“Being the dynamic servant leader that she is, with a tremendous track record of success, Justina makes an impact in every industry and business, every leadership team and HR department, and upon thousands of individual lives that are better because of the work she’s done,” says Eric Rustand, president for CBIZ Tuscon Employee Benefits.
Cox routinely takes mentees under her wing, and she has fantastic advice for those who might be heading their own HR organization for the first time.
“It can be so scary to be in that CHRO role for the first time, and I always try to tell people to listen with intent,” Cox says. “Ask powerful questions and remember that you don’t always have to have the answer. That can be so hard for younger people to understand and even myself. But so much of this job is making sure that people feel heard and understood. Work to connect with others.”
Cox says it’s also important to find a mentor in the space. So many questions Cox encounters are about what she considers more of the technical side of HR, like handling a reduction in force.
But Cox reaffirms how important it is to address that impact on culture, the more emotional side of HR.
“Mentors who have been there can talk with you about other things to consider such as how you speak to those people that remain after a reduction,” she says. “Those are critical culture points that need a lot of thought.”
It’s just one example, but Cox says finding a mentor can go incredibly far to further one’s own education, and so can continuing to connect with people outside of HR. Cox made sure to visit as many Cadence schools as she could, to interact with both leaders and teachers onsite doing their work. It’s yet another opportunity to listen and learn. It’s a chance to connect with more members of team.
Everything all circles back to the team. Cox may not be fielding as many ground balls these days, but she says the cheerleaders she comes home to every day still remind her of just how far one can go with the right people in her corner. And she wants to do them proud.
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