A Q&A with four emerging leaders of 2022 in the community recreation industry.
I spent the first part of my career working for a private software company in finance, sales and business development. When the opportunity to join the YMCA of Greater Omaha as the CFO came up over seven years ago, I jumped at the chance. Working for an organization that makes such an impact on the community I love is amazing. I love the breadth of the Y, how we reach people at every age and stage, and how we put mission at the forefront of everything we do. Recently stepping into the CEO role has been such a blessing and I hope to continue to expand the impact we make.
I would describe my leadership style as empathetic, fair, encouraging and always challenging us to get better but never forgetting to stop and celebrate.
What motivates me to be a leader for my team is the responsibility I feel to ensure our staff feel heard and valued. They are the most important part of what we do and how we impact our community, and I challenge myself to be a better leader every day to show them that.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned is to never overlook any opportunity to connect. Our days are busy and there is a lot of work to do, but any chance to connect with a team member — even if it seems small in the moment — can make a huge difference in developing relationships and how that person feels about the leadership and organization they work for. Everyone is important, whether they are a senior leader or part-time team member.
I found the Y in Springfield, Massachusetts, where I led personal training and youth fitness programming. The people, the stories, the experiences and the impact I felt through those first five years is what put me on my path. There was a discovery of sorts that happened while I found myself, my passion and my people in the YMCA.
I could work with someone recovering from cancer one hour, and then coach a group of teens through an indoor track workout the next hour. I could learn better ways to engage and work within different parts of the community and collaborate with agencies and organizations to provide equitable pathways to holistic health for all. No day was the same. It was exciting. It was emotional. It was real. The idea that I could be my authentic self and show up as a coach, advocate, ally and community leader kept pulling me deeper and deeper into the mission of the YMCA. I was hooked.
The thought that our mission is as much about my service to my team as it is our service to the community. I am motivated to inspire, coach and provide a constant unwavering vision for how we show up in the communities we serve. Our team puts our mission into motion every day through multiple pathways, programs and services so my motivation is in how I can eliminate barriers, advocate for resources and tell the story of impact so their efforts can be felt by all.
To use an often-used quote from Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Being a leader isn’t about accumulating debt and building new facilities. It isn’t about getting the newest equipment or the latest technology. Being a leader is about understanding the responsibility that we all must ensure our communities are stronger, more connected, more just, more equitable and better places to live because of our time in them. That shows up in relationships, collaboration, sustainability and conviction.
Nelson Mandela — who grew up in the YMCA — said, “A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.” So, my learning is this: we can help co-create the world we so passionately dream of by being unwavering in our commitment to others in our community.
I got started when I was technically still in college. I was majoring in sport administration, and I needed a full time internship to finish up my degree. I was able to come on as an intern for about six months full time. After learning the ropes of things, they had brought me on as a part-time coordinator for a few months. Then I just happened to be at the right place at the right time when my supervisor was moving on to a new role and I was able to slide right into his. It’s kind of a different start, but it’s really nice to see how easily you are able to move up and around within the recreation industry.
First thing that comes to mind is lead by example. I would never ask anyone to do anything that I wouldn’t already do myself. So, when it comes to, “Hey, we’re going to start this new program. I’m going to be here with you guys, and we’re going to do this together.” Or, “Hey, I’m not going to make you swim with our camp kids today without me actually swimming with the kids as well.” I want to be able to put forward an example that shows them everything I’m having them do I would do just as easily. To a degree we’re all equal until it comes to a time where everybody needs to be brought back to the mission or what our goals are, and then help guide them in the right direction. That’s a leader I enjoy having, so it’s something I try to put forth for the people who work with me as well.
You can’t make everybody happy all the time. You can do your best and try to put forth the best program, the best quality, the best quantity and at some degree you’re still going to probably upset somebody. You just have to be able to talk them through it and understand what you could have done better to make certain people feel better, enjoyed the program better or have them come back.
This is just such a people-person industry. I feel like it’s not something you can get done if you’re just sitting behind a desk all day. You’re out there mingling with the people, teaching the classes, emailing the parents, taking phone calls, etc. I would just say, get ready to go into customer service mode at some point.
I was first exposed to the impact the Y has on the community serving as a camp counselor throughout my college summers. Throughout my camp counselor years, I served in a variety of roles. Once I experienced how much the Y programs develop confidence, mental health and overall well-being in campers, members and staff, I was hooked. This is a place that changed me for the better and I’m excited to be able to give back.
I would say that I strive to lead with passion, vision and follow-through. The leaders I have looked up to and admired have all had passion. Passion for what they do, what they believe in, what they stand for; passion for helping others and passion for living life. Being able to transform that passion into a vision to create buy-in and a shared vision with my staff and volunteers is critical. It helps create the roadmap for us to follow and something to get behind as a team. You can have all the passion in the world with the best vision and plans, but at the end of the day if you do not follow through and get the job done, your trust and credibility as a leader will crumble. I have used these principles to guide my 20-year career in the Y movement and they have served me well along my journey as a developing leader.
What I am most proud of is the staff development work. I have helped to shape the careers of great YMCA professionals, principals, teachers, social workers among others in the youth development field. I have great relationships and partnerships with the staff teams I have been a part of and led over the years. I am driven and motivated to change lives for the better, and am fulfilled by lifting and coaching my team, helping them reach their potential and exceed even their own expectations.
Choose your attitude and stay positive. Attitudes are contagious and I would rather spread a positive, encouraging attitude than a poor, frustrating one. Issues are going to arise but you can choose how you frame those with your team. It’s not always easy but your team and members will take their cues from you and your behavior. Staying positive helps you think creatively and creates a culture of overcoming whatever challenge is thrown your way.