Empowering Women Leaders and the Importance of being a Continuous Learner

Sarah Blomquist, HR Consultant and Owner of SB Resources, LLC

We celebrate Women’s History Month with Sarah Blomquist, who is a passionate advocate for empowering women in the workforce. Sarah offers timely advice for navigating the contradictions we all face, like “fit in” and “be authentic.” She shares what she wishes she would have known 10 years ago and reveals lessons she’s learned from being a working mom.  Sarah draws on her extensive HR experience to suggest structural changes and best practices that will support women to reach executive levels.


Brown: Welcome to the Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. This is Solveig Brown, and I am thrilled to be joined by Sarah Blomquist to celebrate International Women’s Day. We will be talking about some of the unique challenges that women face in the workplace related to navigating contradictions and high expectations.


Sarah Blomquist is the owner of SP Resources, a consulting firm that provides startups and small companies with interim HR leadership. Sarah has a long history in HR and has served in multiple leadership roles at Cargill, the Minnesota Vikings, and Ceres Global. Sarah is passionate about transforming organizational cultures, and coaching and developing people to be their best.


Sarah is a former mentee who has been a longtime mentor for Menttium. Sarah is also a wife, mother, and an active volunteer in her community. Welcome, Sarah. I am so excited to have you as a guest today.


Blomquist: Thank you, I’m so excited to be talking with you.


Brown: During our pre-podcast meeting, you talked about the contradictions in life that everyone must navigate. Could you explain what these contradictions are and offer suggestions for how to find a sense of peace amidst the contradictions?


Blomquist: There are a lot of them. This idea came out of a speech I give to a gifted and talented class at the Wayzata High School every year and I can talk about any topic I want when they invite me. I started to focus on contradictions in life and resolving them. It was really a wonderful thing as I have developed this speech, to think about these things and reflect on them. I keep finding more and more every year when I talk to them. It is amazing to see how at 52 years old, these resonate with me.


But I talk to these brilliant 17- and 18-year-olds in the class and they nod along when I talk about them. So, it really hit me how they are experiencing the same thing at an earlier time in life, in a different context that I have experienced all my life. If it helps to talk about them, it is just wonderful to see that it resonates with them, and they can do something about it.


There was a quote, and I’m not going to get it exactly right. I don’t have it in front of me, but it was from F. Scott Fitzgerald that said something to the effect of, the mark of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two things that are opposing each other and still function. That idea was introduced to me years ago in the corporate world, but sometimes things just don’t seem to make sense, but sometimes you can find your way to reconciling them.


A few of the things I talk about seem to really go home with people, and one is, fit in and be yourself. These amazing young adults that I’m talking to are preparing to go into the university setting. They are going to do huge things in the world, and they are going to need to fit into the corporate cultures where they work in, or the university settings, or the education, or whatever culture they are working in.


At the same time, if you’re not yourself, you’re not happy. So, we talk about how you chalk the outlines of the field so that you can be yourself in a setting but still fit into it. I will talk about the analogy of a rubber band. I feel that with my personality, I have been able to figure out how to stretch.


So, if I am in an industrial setting, working with plant workers, I grew up on a small farm and I stretch back to that part of me. I grew up in the country, I understand that culture, I can stretch to it. I have had to be in boardrooms and work with executives. So, there I need to stretch more to the professional side, but I am still myself.


I think for me, I need to remain authentic, but I’ve over the years expanded the boundaries of that ability to stretch within that realm of authenticity, to be able to connect with people regardless of where they are in the world, their job or that kind of a thing. I have also found if I am in situations where I’m not allowed to be myself, then it is not okay. It just does not work for me.


I try to give everyone the advice of then that is not the right place for you. Not all places are the right places for everyone. And to examine what are your values and what is your authentic self, and at what point does the stretch that you need to fit in result in hurting. And I have been in those situations as well.


The analogy I love is the rubber band, right? If you take a rubber band, it can really stretch and that is its job. You can really stretch it over time. And so, I think about stretching farther. But if you stretch too far, you start to see all those little frays, those little cracks happen, and eventually, of course, it is going to snap, which is the last thing that you want. But I do think that can happen if you are forced to stray from your true self too much.


So, my focus as I have found work that I love to do, is making sure I am in cultures where I can be myself and I’m comfortable with the amount of stretch I need to do to fit into different scenarios. But I am not asking too much of myself and I’m not going to snap.


When I do this speech to the students, I always get this wonderful feedback, and these are just brilliant minds. They don’t just write in a Google doc, “hey, thanks for coming. I enjoyed your speech”. They pick individual pieces that I talked about and expand on it and give me wonderful insights. Last year, one of the students talked about the rubber band analogy and said also, if you think about it, a rubber band, if you stretch it over time, over and over, it is going to stay wider. So, his analogy was, if you do practice that ability to stretch yourself, it will get easier and easier because you will relax into it. And I thought, again, such brilliant young adults. I am going to use that the next time that I do this talk.


So, fit in, but be yourself. It feels like those things are at odds, but I think you can find a way to figure out what your boundaries are or how you can take your ability to stretch within the context of where you are working or volunteering or whatever your situation is, and decide is that acceptable to me?


And if not, it lets you know to look at making a different choice. Or can you change the environment, which is hard, right? I think you can work to impact places where you are and bring up issues about, hey, I don’t feel like I can be myself in this situation, but that must be a very safe environment to do that in the first place. It takes courage to have those conversations, but they are also worth it.


Brown: That is a helpful analogy because so many of the mentees really want to be their authentic self at work, and I really like how you define how you can be authentic to yourself and still stretch depending on the situation that you need to be in.


That is a helpful visual and just helpful to think about that you stay in your home base but stretch.


Blomquist: I use a lot of analogies and one that came to mind was, I love clothing and fashion. Sometimes you will buy a sweater that just doesn’t quite fit right, and you’re adjusting it all day. And to me, it is a similar feeling when you’re in a situation where you’re having to stretch too far, or things just are not aligned to your values, and you’re just constantly having to twitch and fit and don’t feel quite right. That is a marker for me when I know that I need to try to impact that space I am in, so it is more comfortable, or I need to just get rid of the sweater and move on.


Another one I talk about, and I feel like this resonates with especially women of any age, is be humble and own your awesome. I’m Midwestern, and it is hard to advocate for myself; I don’t want to seem showy; I don’t want to seem arrogant. I think women must walk a particular line about that in the world. I don’t love it, but I think it is real. And yet, you need to advocate for yourself if you’re trying to get anywhere and achieve your goals.


So, I think that being humble is an important thing. It is a leadership style that resonates with most people. You are a more successful leader if you can be humble. Don’t take credit for things that aren’t yours. All the things that go along with this. It’s a very Midwestern thing for me, but it’s very ingrained.


We grew up in a family where we were showing we helped each other out, and you don’t need to be in the spotlight. But it is critical that we learn how to own our awesome, as I call it. What are we good at and how do we speak about what we are good at and proud of? A thing that clicked for me finally was to realize it is much easier for me to talk about my accomplishments or what I’m good at if I use the words of others. So, if someone has told me, and this is a quote that’s lived in my head because it made me feel so good, someone told me once that I have a laser-like ability to zero in on the issue and distill it down into something that we can deal with. Whether it is a conflict at work or whatever is going on.


Usually, it is something going on between humans. It is hard for me to say I have a laser-like ability and blah, blah, blah. But I can say with more comfort, I’ve been told I have a laser-like ability. So, that was a workaround for me to be able to answer the question of, what are your strengths? Like when you are in a job interview or you are in a performance review, thinking about what I’ve been told by others or how others have described me, got me more comfortable with being a little showier and saying things aloud that felt before to be a little braggy. And I just don’t like feeling braggy.


Brown: You nailed it, that so many women in particular feel this partly because of cultural expectations. That it is very different if a woman talks in a way that sounds braggy versus if a man talks in a way that sounds braggy, you’re perceived differently. I love that way of working around that, of being more comfortable sharing what your accomplishments are based on what other people have said.


Blomquist: That one was really the last few years, that it has taken this long for me to get more comfortable with it, but as I have gone into the independent consulting route, I need to speak up about these things. If I am talking with someone about doing a project and they don’t know my work, I need to help them understand where I feel that I can help them and sell in a way.


Just that whole concept of selling myself makes me a little sick to my stomach. For me, physically a workaround. And like you said, this whole line between confidence and arrogance for women is honestly, it’s a ridiculous line we have to walk, but again, it’s facing reality as it is, and I hope over time it changes and I think we’re more aware of it, but it has not gone away.


And so sometimes you must face reality and go, I can’t change that. I’m going to work to change that in my small way and my impact in the world, but at the same time, I’m going to face the reality as it is and find ways to deal with it if I can.


The last one I would say where I am so passionate, is get better and you are enough. I work in human resources. We talk about development. You need constructive feedback, you need to improve, you need to gain new skills. All those things are true, right? We do need to improve and grow, and every person has a hunger for growth, at different levels of course, but everyone I think has it innately.


But then at the same time, if you approach it as the mindset of, I’m broken and I need to do this to fix myself, it is just a sad place to come from. I think this line of thought for me, really came out of going through an incredibly life-changing coaching program called Co-Active Coaching back when I was with Cargill, which is built on the idea that if you are coaching someone, that person is not broken.


They have the answers within themselves, and you as a coach, you are there to help them find them through powerful questions and inquiry and support. It is such a nice place to come from; I’m pretty great and I want to be even better. It is much more energizing than, and I’m bad at these things and I need to fix them. Such a different energy comes with those two approaches.


Brown: I think about that deficit model versus I am enough already as I am, and I can choose to get better.


Blomquist: Yes, I can choose to get better. I can choose to improve because I’m worth it and I deserve that.


I have teenagers who struggle with mental health, and I see that mindset in them, and you can just see the internal monologue that is, I’m broken, I’m horrible. And it just pains me. We have put so much work into getting them help and working with them ourselves on how do you flip that? And I see that just in the everyday world where people just go, I’m horrible at this. Or it is 99% bad and 1% good. And it’s like, no, let’s flip it.


Brown: It is so prevalent, and it is also prevalent for women. If you look at any magazine targeted toward women as you’re standing in a checkout line, it is all about things you can fix. Things that are wrong with you, and you just get inundated with these messages that there is something wrong, you’re not enough. So, I love taking that power back.


Blomquist: It makes me so mad. When I speak to the class about that, you talk about all the messages of make this body part bigger and this body part smaller, right? Your skin needs to be better looking, do this to your hair and here’s all these things. There is nothing wrong with fashion and beauty and wanting to lose weight or gain muscle or whatever it is, but on your own terms. I think there’s so much more power and the messages coming at you are constantly, you are not enough. There are billions of dollars built on it every year.


Brown: Totally. Because it makes you think, I need this product to be enough, or I need to do this to be enough.


Blomquist: Searching for the answer I think was something over the years that I realized there is no answer, right? There is no single answer to anything, but we get into that cycle.


Brown: I love that with the right questions, you have the answers inside. So, if you can’t think of the right questions, go to a trusted coach, mentor, colleague, and help them help you figure out what the right questions are.


Blomquist: When I have had people come to me for advice and occasionally, they will half joke like, I want you to tell me what to do. My answer is always that is not what I’m here for. I am here to ask you questions. I believe you have the answers within you. But I can help you find them with that power of inquiry. I try to practice this in my personal relationships as well, to just ask questions. I always love that moment when you get into the zone. When you are in that sort of coach mode and you are talking to someone who needs help and you’re just asking questions, and the questions almost come out without you thinking of them because you’ve got the flow, is what we talk about. Then you ask a question, and the person stops and goes, that is a good question. I do not even remember what question I asked. It was just the flow.


Brown: Because you were present and, in the moment, and you just knew and trusted what needed to be said.


Blomquist: Those moments are precious to me, when the energy changes in the conversation and you see the person tap into something, and it’s like there it is! That river flowed inside you, we just caught the current.


Brown: You can feel it. That happens so often in the mentoring relationship, where that moment can transform because everything is just right. That question was just right and makes you think of it in a different way.


I want to say I appreciate your laser-like focus to distill things down to simple things that we can understand. I have never really thought about all the contradictions we face and how to navigate them and how we must constantly navigate them every day. So, you have clearly done a lot of thinking about this over these last years, and as you said, you come up with more contradictions every year. So, what do you know now that you wish you would have known ten years ago?


Blomquist: So many things. I am going to credit my coaching trainer and just an all-around fantastic trainer and facilitator, Rick Tamlyn with this; “it’s all made up.” All of this is made up. The corporate world, the rules we live under, everything inside. Everything’s made up. So, if it’s all made up, it’s all ripe for questioning. When I get locked into feelings of, I should be doing this as a parent, or my career should be in this place versus that place, stepping back and going, why? It is literally all made up.


Brown: That is such an empowering perspective though.


Blomquist: Because you get locked in, as I was working on my career and having children, and we are a dual career household. My husband has a busy job as well, and trying to navigate all those things; where are the kids going to school, how are they doing at school, and all those things that you think about as a human and what you want to achieve. I finally learned in the last decade, to step back and go, so what? What do I really want? What value does it give me? Am I doing this because it feeds my heart and my soul, and it feels like a worthwhile use of my time? Versus, what’s just silly stuff that I can get rid of?


Brown: That is a powerful question. Again, back to the question of when you feel that “should” come up, why should I do that?


Blomquist: Someone coined a long time, stop “shoulding” yourself. I learned that from myself again, it is always a work in progress, but I will have that same conversation with people. Especially with the younger women that I coach when they say should be doing this, I should be doing this. I say, why?


And maybe they should; I’m not saying what they are saying is wrong. I just really encourage you to look at it and examine it. I think that as life got busier, that combined with realizing that my time and energy are true finite resources, made me much more conscious of where I chose to allocate those things.


I started to clutter my life and go, you know what? It is okay. I don’t have a hobby. I have not learned a new crafty artsy skill or how to make something other than dabbling in a little bit of cooking for twenty years. Some people thrive on that. Sometimes people need it. So, I am not saying that for everyone, but for me personally, there was not room for that.


The kids, working, and travel, I also have aging parents and have caretaking responsibilities. When I start to think, well, I should learn how to do X or Y. Why? Is there room for that? Does that get you excited to think about doing it? No? Okay, then leave that behind.


Brown: So many of our mentees are working parents, or they are caretaking their parents.


Can you share some of the lessons you have learned from being in that sandwich generation of being a working mom and caretaking at the same time?


Blomquist: It has been a challenge. The biggest thing was letting go of the guilt as a parent and again, the “shoulds” that you feel, whether you are self-imposing them on yourself, society, family, or whoever is imposing them on you.


I got to a point when my kids were in elementary school where I would just go to the orientation and talk to the teacher and say, I am not going to be able to show up and volunteer. But, when you need me to write a check, I will write whatever check you want me to for any donations or supplies or whatever you want. And just be upfront that I am not going to get to carve time out to volunteer very often, if at all. So, addressing those things head on helped me with the personal guilt, but also, there is some passive aggressive stuff that happens. When I volunteer and get the comment, we don’t see you very often. Okay, I don’t love that, but I’m going to let it roll off me more than it used to in the past. Then I would look at my husband who never volunteered at school, he is a fantastic dad, but never volunteered at school, and he never gave it a second thought.


Brown: Again, that double standard.


Blomquist: Yes. Letting go of those things and not letting comments or feelings into your heart was a challenge.


But after a while, for me it was a survival skill. I love to see all those first day of school little signs that some moms do of saying, my name is Josh, I’m in fifth grade. I don’t know if it is an Etsy thing or a chalkboard thing, they are adorable. My kids never had one, they had an immediate picture of their back as they got on the bus. I learned to go, great for you, to the moms or the parents who can do those things and like doing those things. I love them. I love seeing them, but I got over the guilt of not doing them myself.


I think this kind of goes along with the social media movement as well, of where we all compare ourselves to the outside of others, of this other person is so fit, or this other person does these incredibly wonderful things as a parent. You see it on social media, and you start thinking, I should be doing all of this. And there’s that should word.


Brown: And then you say, why?


Blomquist: Yes. You say, why does it bring me joy? Is it really hurting my child if I am doing this or not? Did it cause me more stress to fit into this mold that I created for myself? There was a lot of letting go as a working mom. This is not going to be perfect, and that is okay.


I don’t talk about balance. I don’t think it is possible. For me, it is more about choices. Making sure that my environment that I choose to be in from a work perspective gives me the flexibility to make the choices that I need. And then also, that my husband and I have enough open communication that sometimes I am going to have to choose my job.


The choice between being at a kid event or traveling for work, sometimes, I will have to choose my job. And sometimes, I am going to choose the kid. I am going to try to keep I guess, maybe some balance comes in here, where it is an equal thing, or at least it doesn’t feel like it is too far the other way. But I need a workplace that understands I need that flexibility, but also my partner and I must have a strong enough relationship to say, hey, you’ve got this one, I can’t.


Brown: That’s good advice on how it all works together between work partner and then on top of that, not choosing to feel guilty. I’m just saying, this is what I am doing. This is the best I’m doing at this moment, and it is all going to be fine.


Blomquist: Guilt is just a waste of time, and it is not an easy thing to get rid of. But again, time is a finite resource, and energy’s a finite resource. So why am I giving time to guilt?


Brown: Exactly. Sarah, you have been a passionate advocate for empowering women in the workforce. What are some best practices that an organization can do to support and empower women to reach executive levels?


Blomquist: I think programs like what Menttium offers are fantastic ways for companies to really put their money where their mouth is and put structure in place and provide some opportunities like the mentoring programs and all the wonderful support systems that go along with that. I think also encouraging their executives, especially their male executives, to be mentors. Not just by providing the opportunity for the women in their organizations, but it is important for every organization to take a hard look at themselves and really look if they are expecting every manager to care about this topic and care about building a diverse team. Care about supporting the people that they have on their teams and doing the work to build their own skills.


The thing I have noticed over the years is if you are a sales manager, a lot of time gets put into developing you as a salesperson and you study best practices in sales and new tactics in sales. You’re not as expected to put the same amount of work and the same amount of time into being a good manager and being a good leader. You can fill the first word in with whatever you want, IT, HR, Sales, Operations, whatever it is. When you’re given the precious gift of being a leader of people and you’re holding people’s careers and livelihoods in your hands, I’m just very passionate that you should be spending as much time on building your own skills in terms of being a good leader, as you do in terms of the subject matter that you’re supposed to be an expert in. Companies need to hold their leaders accountable for that and put the focus in that. And Menttium and their programs are a great tool for that, but the companies really must start holding that standard.


I honestly believe until the day comes that corporations hold that standard of development and of caring for leaders of people on this topic, we won’t see real change. You really need to get to the middle managers. Executive support at the top is important, but it must go through middle management as well, and that is one of the big keys.


People involved in being leaders must do the work to be good leaders and it takes work and it takes development just like any other skill. Some people are naturally better at it than others, but everyone needs development in it. I would love to give a plug for a pilot program Menttium had that I was part of, which was Women Mentoring Men. It matched experienced women executives in the area with males, talking about the challenges women face in the corporate world and how they can best support them. It was a fantastic project spearheaded by Missy, our new CEO, and it was executed extremely well. Even COVID hit right in the middle of it, but we managed to keep building great relationships.


I hope to see that come back in the future, because that is a good example of flipping the script a little bit and not just making it the women’s job to look at how to fit in more to the organization. You must really look at the structures, in addition to us doing our own work to see how we can better fit into the structures we are in.


The people in charge also must look at the structures, the systems, and the things that have been built for years that are putting women at a disadvantage for a whole host of reasons, as well as anyone who does not fit into the norm being put in a disadvantage. I really think that until we become better system thinkers and address those root causes in the systems, when that happens, that’s when real progress will start to move.


Brown: I really appreciate the depth of that response. That it is a systemic change that needs to happen with not just women trying to fit in, but also people understanding what they need to do to make it easier. Middle management, training, all that. Sarah, we have time for three final questions.


First one is, do you have habits or practices that you feel have contributed to your success?


Blomquist: This sounds so simple, but one of the things I pride myself on is being a promise keeper. So, if you have asked me a question, to me, that is an implied promise that if I’m a resource for you. I will answer it and not make you wait for it.


I will follow up without you needing to. It does not mean I never fall on this, but I pride myself on being a promise keeper, being responsive, and helping you with what you need. There has been this trend to change the name of human resources to, people, culture, human capital, and they are all fine. I love human resources. I love being a resource for humans. I take pride in that; it is my chosen profession and I’ve been doing it for thirty years. But I think that my brand has really been built over the years by keeping my promises. Whether that means responding to you, keeping the confidentiality that needs to happen in this kind of role and people feeling safe that when they work with me, I will do what I said I would do. I will be honest with them. They can trust me, and we are going to be in this together. I think for me personally, that has been a big part of my brand that I’m very proud of and I try to lean into.


Brown: What would your advice be to up and coming leaders?


Blomquist: Spend as much time thinking about developing your skills as a leader, as you do to develop the skills on the first half of your title. It is so common when you look at development plans where it is all technical skills focused or that sort of a thing, or strategy focused. Like all good things, but are you spending time thinking about how am I a better leader every day? Whether that is even just self-study mentoring with others, asking for feedback. But it is like the earlier conversation about diversity and increasing opportunities for people. We need to focus on both paths of those things.


Even if you are not a leader of people, everyone can be a leader. It is a bit cliche sometimes, but it is true. Everyone can be a leader. You can be an influential leader even if you’re not directly managing people. You can do it in the ways that you try to improve the work environment or improve processes or things like that. Everyone has that opportunity to do it, but I think early on, think about both halves of the equation, and continually work on those.


Brown: That is great advice. And final question, do you have a favorite saying, quote, or motto?


Blomquist: Oh, this one is hard. “It’s all made up,” comes out a lot, but I will come up with another one, and I also must credit Rick Tamlyn with this for my Co-Active training. He and his co-facilitator changed my life through this Co-Active training.


“The thing is not the thing” comes out a lot with me when I am dealing with situations where someone is upset or there’s conflict. Often the thing that presents itself is not really the thing that is the problem. I use that a lot and I know that it must resonate because it gets quoted back to me a lot when I’m working with people.


Brown: It is such a good reminder because that is so often true when you step back, oh, that “thing’s not the thing.” I love that.


Blomquist: “The thing’s not the thing.” And it takes going back to that kind of model of questioning and listening and inquiry, it takes quiet in your mind to understand that. Sometimes when I am faced with a conflict, or someone is having a conflict, or something is just not clicking, you’re like, okay, logically these people should be getting along, or this project should be advancing, or whatever the problem is.


Logically it should be here, yet it is in a different place. So, what is the real thing? How do you examine to peel away the fluff and get down to the core of it? Again, I use all these analogies. I look at it as a diagnostic thing; the symptom is the thing that is showing, but what is the real thing? What is the disease or condition? What is that root cause? It is all just root cause analysis.


I had a real situation once where someone came to me and said, what is the process for applying for internal positions? There is a logical answer to that, which is, here is the process; you have been in your job this time, you should tell your manager before you apply. But something was in the back of my head asking, is that really the thing? I asked a couple questions of this young woman who had stopped into my office, and it turns out she was unhappy with her manager.


She loved her job but did not want to work for that manager anymore. We had a great conversation, and I worked behind the scenes to investigate and came to find out that her manager had been asked to lead people and she didn’t want to. She did not like it. I was able to, without violating any confidences or anything, work behind the scenes and we got that manager moved back into an individual contributor role. A different manager took over and that young woman who came to see me was satisfied again with her work situation. She stayed in that role for another year or two, and then she applied for another role and got a promotion because that was the right time for her.


Brown: That is a great example of what that looks like in real life, when the thing is not the thing.


Blomquist: I’m sure I miss so many things, right? That was a moment where my intuition spiked, and I was listening, and I was in a place where I asked. It pains me to think about how many I have missed, right? I’m not batting a thousand on this, but there are a lot of times when I can think back and go, oh, the thing was not the thing. I think true progress, true change, true fulfillment happens when you figure out what the real thing is and then actually address it. There’s so much power in figuring out the real thing and addressing it, even though it is harder than the surface thing that presented itself. It is so much more worthwhile.


Brown: That is wonderful advice. Sarah, thank you for helping us celebrate Women’s History Month. I especially appreciate how you so eloquently laid out some of the contradictions we all routinely navigate. You have given me so much to think about. I love the rubber band analogy of how you can be authentic to yourself yet stretch for the situation. Thanks for the timely reminder to ask ourselves why if we find ourselves saying we should be doing this or we should be doing that, the timely reminder to let go of the guilt that many of us feel. I also appreciate your advice on what organizations can do to support women to reach executive levels. That it comes down to making sure managers at all levels support those initiatives.


Thank you all for listening to this Menttium Matters podcast. We have many more fantastic guests in our episode lineup, so we look forward to having you back next time.

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