In The Last Word, we sit down with an industry expert to share their wealth of knowledge. This issue, the conversation features Dave Fagerstrom, the president and CEO of the Greater Valley YMCA, in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
In college, a friend of mine told me the local Y was hiring summer day camp counselors. I was a secondary education major, so I thought working with kids at the Y would be a nice addition to my first resume. As it turned out, I fell in love with the organization’s mission and 30 years later, I’m on my third CEO position within the organization. I’ve loved every minute of it.
My niche within the YMCA has been to serve as a change agent for associations that are in need of a turnaround or major overhaul. Each opportunity has been different, but the key factors that have led to success remain constant: a clear vision, a passionate team of staff and volunteers, communication and partnership with key community organizations, and integrating the Y into the fabric of social service providers that help address critical community needs.
I’ve helped raise over $30 million for numerous capital campaigns, reengaged boards, led strategic planning, helped lead board and staff development, and implemented many partnerships. All of it pales in comparison to leadership development. I’ve had six staff team members go on to become CEOs. Establishing group leadership systems that remain after my departure is by far the legacy I’m most proud of.
I’m not the guy to do a turnaround, and then sit at the summit and enjoy it — too boring. So, a few times now I’ve sought a challenge that is beefy enough to keep my engine running long enough. Each time that has become harder. Finding that next beefy obstacle, combined with the right fit and the right community, has been my biggest career challenge.
Raise the bar so high mediocrity isn’t even an afterthought. Don’t empower your staff and then not hold them accountable. Make all mid-level managers part of the decision-making process, and make sure they’re real decisions that shape the organization, not just token decisions on daily operations. Create a culture of innovators and decision-makers. It takes a while to get there, but once you do, your organization will experience a renaissance.
I consider myself a prime example of the American Dream. My grandparents on both sides were immigrants. My generation was the first to attend college. I was on the “seven-year plan” and worked three part-time jobs throughout college. One of my life goals was to earn enough so my kids could attend college debt free, and my daughter recently graduated from York College of Pennsylvania with her nursing degree.