In The Last Word, we sit down with an industry expert to share their wealth of knowledge. In the 2023 May/June issue, the conversation features Jamie Bruning-Miles, the president and CEO of the YMCA of San Francisco.
1. How did you get started in the community recreation industry?
I started right after I finished serving in the military and returned home to attend college. I was lucky to start working at the Y when I was 22 and hired to work at the front desk checking in members of the Golden Triangle YMCA in Tavares, Florida. I loved working at the Y so much that I expanded to youth sports, aquatics, teen and adult programming. I have to say my favorite role was teaching preschool swim lessons. Preschoolers are like sponges and you could see the swimmers improve in a short period of time. I’ve never forgotten that feeling of accomplishment when they master a new skill. My passion for recreation fitness and aquatics has help me better understand my purpose and has helped fuel my commitment to the Y in a now 33-year career.
2. What’s been a key to your team’s success? What are you most proud of?
Success is recognizing the strength of everyone on the team and knowing when to lead and when to follow. Some assume your title dictates your role, but strong teams know their value with the willingness to take risk. It’s finding that groove of trust that provides the best results. At the YMCA of San Francisco, our leadership team has been through a lot during the past few years.
Relying on each other, finding grace when we need to recover and ultimately working collectively has matured us as a group. New facilities and expanding service areas comes down to a group’s ability to get into the details long enough and to trust each other. That collaboration will create a goal that will last the test of time. I have to say teams I have served on are more important than any facility I have ever developed. If you walk into my office today, it’s lined with team photos to remind me no one does this work alone.
3. What has been one of the biggest accomplishments of your career?
Taking over as CEO of the YMCA of San Francisco feels like a capstone of my career. I was blessed to have replaced the previous CEO who ensured we had resources to handle the tough economic headwinds we faced. Getting in the trenches with our board of directors and with our leadership team has us coming out of the last few years as a strong organization built on a resilient foundation.
I will look back over the last few years and never use the words “it was easy.” I will say what makes me proud is the risk we took to maintain our workforce, the risk we took to pivot to essential community needs, and the willingness to reach out to donors for support. These feel like a career highlight that will pay dividends in the many years to come.
4. What has been one of the biggest challenges you have faced in your career?
I have learned self- doubt is one of the most difficult challenges any leader can face and throughout the years I have faced it many times. It is usually faced alone and having a support system is necessary to help you build confidence in decisions. So many times, when projects hit a speed bump, you realize quickly how important it is to know your industry, know your values and to trust your judgement. It sounds easier said than done but building your own self confidence is worth the effort.
In my career that became important when developing new facilities, facing economic downturns or dealing with the last few years of the pandemic. I found joy in celebrating the little wins so people can start to see a vision coming to life. Also, never forgetting to recognize the team at the end as the best challenges have the potential to bring you together.
5. What is one lesson you have learned that other community recreation professionals can learn from?
Mentor to be mentored. No matter where you are in the curve of your career, you have something to offer others. In return, you will also pick up new ways of thinking that will help you achieve your success. In the recreation community it’s even more important since new ideas can come from anywhere.
I would also say this industry is not static. The recreation space is always evolving and adapting with fitness trends, new sports and new facility designs. In this field we don’t have the luxury of being static, so strive to become a lifelong learner. In my experience, to be static in the recreation space is a guaranteed recipe for failure. I recommend being part of affinity groups, cohorts and networks to keep your mind open to new ways of work to ensure you always stay current in your field of expertise.
6. Tell us one fact about yourself others may not know.
The only time I left the Y was to teach for two years at Garden Grove High School in Savannah, Georgia. While I’m a CEO today, in my heart I’m still a public school teacher. While I’m not in the field today, I still enjoy the skill of helping others learn, being intentional and setting others up for success. I love teaching in my current role and would love to go back to teaching within special education.