Perspectives on Leadership

By the end of this year, the region will lose a numberr of its longest serving and most inspirational nonprofit leaders as they transition to retirement. They include Greg Echele, CEO of Family Resource Center, David Hilliard, Wyman CEO, Mike Keller, executive director of Independence Center, and Marcia Kerz, president of The OASIS Institute.

Before they leave, Insights conducted wide-ranging conversations with each of them to glean their thoughts on everything from the challenges they have faced to the changes they have seen in the sector and what it all means for future leaders. This month, we focus on Mike and Dave. Next month, we’ll feature insights from Greg and Marcia.

What have been the biggest day-to-day challenges you have faced?

Mike Keller: “One of the biggest challenges for Independence Center was that we were not as well related to the state’s Department of Mental Health as we needed to be. In recent years, we’ve had the opportunity to take big steps in that direction, which has been extremely good for us. Missouri and particularly the St. Louis region have a very collegial group of agencies that work with extraordinary efficacy and efficiency to meet the needs of our members. We form a very cohesive community.”

Dave Hilliard: “The ever present dynamic of balancing the need for resources while attending to the day-to-day and strategic needs of the organization. There’s always tension in any organization between present vs. long-term needs. Being able to balance those needs and alleviate that tension can be a challenge.”

What have been the key learning experiences that shaped you as a nonprofit leader? 

Keller: “Everyone of them. But seriously, twice I have moved organizations into new facilities. I learned that when you are developing new facilities, there’s a real need to maintain consensus among all parties about what’s being done. Otherwise, it can divide a board and staff, as people may have a tendency to ‘dig in’ to protect what they know and have. It’s important to keep people focused on the real mission and priorities.”

Hilliard: “There was a true ‘AHA’ moment many years ago when I got a call from a former camper who was homeless, on drugs and in big trouble. I went to meet with him and found several dozen others just like him, all former campers who loved their experience with us, but our good work hadn’t made a lasting difference. That’s when I realized we needed to reexamine what we were and change the way we were going about our work. It started a long process, with many stops and starts, but it got us to where we are today as a leading national player in youth development.”

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the nonprofit sector during your tenure?

Keller: “I’ve seen the power of a branded event – in this case our Dancing with the St. Louis Stars annual benefit. It has given an entre into corporations that we would not otherwise have had. St. Louis is still a city in which successful fundraising involves corporate support, even more than in other markets. So events like ours help us build relationships and also elevate the conversation about mental health issues, which is very much needed.”

Hilliard: “I would say it’s the pace of change, whether it’s the number of nonprofits that continue to spring up, the ongoing exodus of major corporate headquarters, or the growing expectations by funders for accountability and proof of outcomes. Pay for performance is a trend that is here to stay, and we have to adapt how we approach our programs, data collection, evaluation, and reporting.”

How would you describe the current state of the nonprofit sector in the St. Louis region? What is going well and what raises some concerns for you?

Keller: “I think St. Louis may have been a little late in embracing a focus on data and outcomes, but we’re definitely there now. So that’s good.

Hilliard: “We have a lot of people and organizations doing good work, but that’s not enough. It’s the difference between care giving and change making. Lots of organizations run excellent programs, but are the efforts adding up to making a real difference at scale? Are we using the region’s resources’ most effectively? It has to start with a clear vision for solving our community’s long-term problems, and a commitment to pursue that vision collectively.”

What one or two skills do you think are critical for nonprofit leadership today? What personal characteristics are important to being a nonprofit leader?

Keller: “Number one: have a passion for the cause. And be able to articulate it and put a face on it. Leaders need a gift for telling a human story, personalizing the data and making it believable.”

Hilliard: “ The capacity to lead change, the ability to be comfortable with change, and having the right tool box to make change happen.”

What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the nonprofit world?

Keller: “Find a cause that really moves you and don’t be afraid to give yourself to it. At the same time, never be afraid to change direction when you somehow know it’s time to do so. I’ve changed directions several times, and have found each to be very renewing.”

Hilliard: “I would tell them first, own nothing but the mission. Don’t fall in love with roles, programs, processes or places for those are not the mission but just means to fulfill it. The great nonprofits are those that don’t just keep doing things because that’s what they’ve always done. When I started out years ago at Wyman, I was pretty cocksure that I knew everything. Not anymore. We have become an intentional learning organization, and we continue to learn and adapt every day.”

Please describe the leadership succession process your organization has undertaken. What can others learn from this?

Keller: “I worked with the Board president to put together the Search Committee, then really stepped away from the process. The Committee included a number of insightful directors as well as some community representatives and a few former board members. I’m thrilled with the selection of Mark Bethell to succeed me. I plan to be as available to help as he needs me to be, but I also want to stay out of his way. We had the right people and the right process for the search, so I am very trusting of the outcome.”

Hilliard: “ Our Board Search Committee drove the process, but we did a couple of other important things as well. First, we did a thorough assessment of our senior staff three years ago, and helped them identify and address areas for improvement in anticipation of this change. Second, we deliberately scheduled meetings for executive staff to meet with the Search Committee so they would understand the transition process while building stronger board-staff relationships. The committee also held regular town halls with all staff.  Finally, now that our new CEO is in place, we intend to keep the Search Committee in place for up to two years, to advise her and assist with looking at the myriad changes and ideas that naturally occur in the wake of a change from a long-tenured CEO.”

What are your plans for the future?  

Keller: “I’ve been a professional for most of the past 50 years, so I’m looking forward to becoming a ‘useful amateur.’ I plan to stay involved with a number of organizations, like the St. Louis Effort for AIDS and Boys Hope Girls Hope. I’m also serving on a United Way Allocations Panel for the first time. I’m looking forward to being involved as a volunteer, just for the love of it.”

Hilliard: “Rest, relax, reflect and return. I will want to remain involved in some way in helping the youth serving sector deal with the trends and changes that are taking place, helping people to think strategically. I’ll hope to add value but I won’t want a ‘job’ being responsible for running anything.”

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