Bertram L. Lawson II, the president and CEO of the YMCA of Central New York, reflects on a year of investments and the Y’s growth mindset.
On February 8, 2021, Bertram L. Lawson II stepped into the role of president and CEO of the YMCA of Central New York. And now, a little over a year later, he reflects on how quickly the time passed, his leadership style, the investments the Y has made along the way and the growth mindset that will keep his pride focused on thriving, not surviving, as they continue to expand their reach and impact in the Central New York community.
Having previously served as the chief operating officer for Mastery Charter Schools Network in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Camden, New Jersey — a $250 million nonprofit organization — Lawson has experience overseeing all aspects of non-instructional school operations, school budgets, sports and extra-curricular programming and student enrollment for 24 campuses. He also served the Y for over 21 years, including in Philadelphia, with significant operational, membership, grant delivery, partnership, fundraising and program experience.
Even further back, Lawson started his career as a part-time camp counselor in 1998, a role he said doesn’t even seem that long ago. In fact, it allows him to understand and recognize the things he didn’t agree with when he was a part-time staff member. This plays directly into his lion mentality leadership style today.
“I talk to the team and board about having this mentality and I call it a lion mentality,” said Lawson. “It’s a mentality of seeing myself as being with a group of lions and we have to go hunt — that’s business development. And we’re hunting for survival of our organization coming out of the pandemic, which means if the Y doesn’t survive, it can negatively impact this community. At the end of the day, I have the responsibility to make the best decisions to move our organization forward, so I lead with merit as part of the team, working as a team where people matter.”
And looking back over the last year at the YMCA of Central New York, many investments were made to continue moving the organization forward through the pandemic. These include investing in team, healthcare, outreach, education and diversity.
Looking at the Y’s staffing structure, Lawson noted his team needed to establish a new operating model that allowed for positions to be built and new positions to be created. He also recognized a lack of experience in certain areas that exposed a need to bring new talent to the table. At the branch level, the Y hired several different program directors and associate executive directors. There’s also five new members of the senior leadership team, including a new chief operating officer, Josh Royce; a chief philanthropy officer, Mariella Canady-Towns; an associate vice president of facilities and capital planning, Tony Williams; a vice president of program development and growth, Penny Snell; and a senior vice president of membership and health innovation, Heather W. Wilson.
“Bertram believes in ensuring growth, sustainability and relevance for the YMCA, and he is gifted, passionate, a disrupter, multi-dimensional and a real asset to this organization,” said Wilson. “Not only does he put the mission of the organization at the forefront, he also puts his team first. He understands he doesn’t fully succeed without the help of a strong team. He makes that known with every interaction and it feels good to know he values you as his team member.”
In addition to the new leadership team members, Lawson shared further investments include averaging $15 an hour for entry level positions, comparable to $13.20, which is the New York State minimum wage; increasing the merit poll for staff up to 5%; investing an additional 2% into the Y retirement fund, going from 8% to 10%, and looking at adding even more to that; and giving 53 staff members who worked through the pandemic a net $1,000 bonus to say thank you and acknowledge them for working through a challenging time with less resources.
Through these investments of its team, the Y of Central New York is able to extend its investments out to the community in the form of multiple health services.
The Y offers programs to prevent adults at elevated risk from developing Type 2 diabetes, prevent and treat risk factors for heart disease and stroke, and help those living with arthritis and other physical limitations become more active and empowered for independent living. This includes preventing falls, supporting cancer survivors and addressing the social determinants of health.
This focus on integrative community health is one of the ways the Y moves outside of the walls of its branches. Another is the Virtual Y. In 2021, the Virtual Y of Central New York grew into a website, a schedule of live and recorded classes featuring local instructors, a library of on-demand videos from Ys across North America, a monthly speaker series featuring various themes and topics, as well as Downtown Writers Center classes and visiting author series programming.
In 2022, Lawson shared the Y will work on creating spaces in its branches to further integrate the virtual experience. “People always want convenience and fluidity, so the investment into our virtual platform is to provide virtual studios at three of our branches,” explained Lawson. “And then we will have more basic studios at some of our other branches that connects right into streaming which will boost our content. Eventually, we’re looking at what it looks like to roll out a virtual hybrid membership or virtual-only membership to the community. We’re in the midst of the pandemic and afterwards, we want to help people get healthier and have healthier content that’s coming right to their tablet, phone or whatever device it may be.”
Another investment that spans outside the Y of Central New York’s walls is its approach to education and academic programming, particularly for youth in the community.
The Y’s Power Scholars Academy, a partnership with the national nonprofit BellXcel, helps elementary and middle school-aged children tackle summer learning loss in math and reading. This program takes place in city parks and provides outreach for kids from lower-income and underserved environments fostering physical and social-emotional growth.
Additionally, the Y Achievers college and career exploration program helps high school students take part in a comprehensive curriculum of college preparation, professional development, leadership skill-building, career exploration and meaningful mentor relationships.
“It’s understanding there’s a need in our community, and also making sure people understand the YMCA is more than a gym and swim,” said Lawson. “It was a need before the pandemic and it is more of a need now to have education or academic programming that supports our school systems and the children who may be lagging behind, and setting up the avenue for them to get support that is needed.”
Coming from being the chief operating officer of a charter school network, Lawson said he’s witnessed firsthand the effects of both learning loss and a lack of career exploration support for youth. This encourages him to lead the Y of Central New York to explore how to expand programs like the Power Scholars Academy from just a summer program to throughout the year, and help schools focus on career mapping pathways for students before kids are in their last years of high school.
“Quite often students don’t have a path,” said Lawson. “They think they have to go to college and that’s not always the best path for everyone. Giving children the option to understand what they can do and partner with schools to help bring it to fruition — that’s where the Y Achievers program comes into play.”
And to bring its list of investments together, the Y has steeped its organization in a number of diversity initiatives with plans to take them even further.
Prior to Lawson’s arrival at the Y of Central New York, an internal survey was conducted that allowed leadership to see what the staff thought about the current diversity initiatives. Using this feedback, and taking it a step further, Lawson brought in an outside group – DKON Consulting Group, LLC – to help the Y honestly assess and guide their team in setting diversity initiative goals.
“Their main focus is on DEI strategies, gap analysis and helping to implement those strategies within organizations by doing a deep dive to understand and recognize where an organization is not doing well,” explained Lawson. “We had them do a gap analysis which was piggybacking off the internal survey. DKON helped take it further, working directly with our board of directors to analyze the data. Then we had them report out to our collective leadership group so everyone had an opportunity to chime in, understand and get it firsthand from that group. We will continue to build on it and use DKON futuristically.”
Lawson is also working with another company — DiverseForce — that focuses on board education and development around DEI. He shared the board of directors will be going through four workshops around DEI. Two include looking at the makeup of the board and how they recruit new board members, and understanding how they help support the operational essence of implementation from a DEI standpoint.
Additionally, the Y now has a DEI standing committee of the board as well. “We didn’t have that before — it was voted on in November of 2021,” said Lawson. “I’m very excited about having that in place, which means we’re cemented in being an organization that’s focused on DEI but also a YMCA that is focused on being an anti-racist organization.”
After a year full of investments, growth and team building, Lawson still has his sights set on expanding the YMCA of Central New York’s reach and impact over the next five years. In a county of about 460,000 people, Lawson’s target is to reach 90,000 people — a 30,000 increase from pre-pandemic goals.
And he’s not only expanding member reach, he’s growing the budget as well. With the Y of Central New York as a $23 million organization right now, Lawson believes they can grow to get closer to $50 million.
To achieve these goals, the Y is expanding beyond its walls. For Lawson, this looks like being in zip codes they weren’t in before, providing quality programming that is synonymous to what the community wants, having other organizations want to strategically partner, and being recognized beyond a gym and swim.
“Once this is achieved, it means we’ve touched a lot of different people, which also means we’ve provided additional opportunities from a career standpoint for staff who are currently in our system, and new talent,” said Lawson. “And that we’re considered an employer of choice in the state of New York, in this county and across the Y movement. That’s what it looks like to me — more impact.”
Furthermore, to make this level of impact happen, it takes a great leader. This is something Lawson is passionate about with his many years of experience providing the framework for success. “Engage with your people. They want to know you and they want to feel that connection,” he said. “And you’re not going to get to everyone, but I found ways and avenues to do so — townhall meetings, in-person meetings, impromptu visits to branches. I want staff to be on their game — not just because I’m coming, I’m not the member. I want them to be engaged because the members are coming. So, I just pop in, ask questions and get feedback.”
With this personable approach, Lawson elaborated it’s important to include your staff of all levels, and to also recognize your role and responsibility as a leader. “I lean on influence versus using my title,” he said. “I know who I am, first and foremost. I’m Bertram Lawson. Then down the line I’m a father, a husband, a son, and I’m the president and CEO of the YMCA of Central New York. So, I don’t lead with that. I lead with the fact that I work with a group of people focused on the mission. My title happens to be this, but we’re all working toward a goal and we’re all focused on elevating the mission.”
This goal and leadership style leads back to Lawson’s lion mentality which will continue to guide the YMCA of Central New York for years to come. “Getting beyond surviving to thriving in this space — that’s still unknown, it’s still unprecedented,” said Lawson. “But we have a mentality that we can do better, we will do better and we have a group of lions that’s running together as a pride. We’re going to make some great things happen for this community.”
EXTRA: Setting the Example
In her role as the executive assistant to the president and CEO, Donna Chillemi works closely with Bertram Lawson. And over the course of their time working together, she has been able to observe his growth mindset leadership in action.
“Bertram embodies the best qualities of a true leader — he is transparent, consistent and accessible, and he
brings out the best in his team by taking the time to get to know them and their strengths,” said Chillemi. “He holds himself accountable and expects the same of others. He leads our staff, teams and our volunteers by setting an example of what a mission-driven leader is all about, and he has quickly become a leader in our community, within the YMCA and well beyond. He has encouraged and established a growth mindset during what could have been one of the most challenging times for our organization, and he has instilled in our team the belief that we can reach and exceed his clear and strong vision for the YMCA of Central New York. Bertram is doing great, impactful work and that equates to great and impactful work that our Y is doing in this community.”