This month we sit down with Chris Zeigler as she recalls lessons and memories from her career, including her current position as Executive Director of MRC Industries.
Tell us how you got to where you are today (positions held, career shifts, etc)
I worked for 20 years for a company in the Central Michigan area called Mid-Michigan Industries. We worked in 7 different counties and provided primarily vocational training to individuals with developmental disabilities. I got the job quite by accident – I applied for a position there after seeing an ad in the newspaper. I had absolutely no experience. The way our Executive Director at the time tells it – it came down to a choice between a guy who had lots of experience in the field and me who had none but apparently they liked my interviews. When she asked the hiring supervisor to tell her a bit more about each candidate he told her that I had played golf in college. Finally, when they could not make a decision she said and I quote –“ oh heck, just hire the golfer.” I did not find out about this until about 3 years later when she was telling this to a group of people and I must say I was a bit miffed. Little did I know that as a result of that opportunity however, that I would find a career that I love and that has been fulfilling and rewarding to me and that I hope has made a difference to others.
After working in my first position there for a couple of years I then became a supervisor and started our Supported Employment program in Isabella County placing people with more severe disabilities into jobs and supervising our staff in this program. We then took over another rehabilitation facility in Gratiot County that was in crisis and I was promoted to Branch Director of that location and after a period of time was then promoted to the Branch Director position in Isabella County. I continued to work my way up through the company and when I left there to take the position at MRC Industries I was Vice-President of Operations. I was familiar with MRC and had visited here a couple of times throughout the years. When this position became open I decided to apply. It was a position of greater responsibility and my family all lives in Kalamazoo. It was an opportunity to be closer to them. I am thankful every day that I was given the opportunity to lead a fantastic organization.
What do you most love about the Kalamazoo community?
I had no idea when I moved here the depth and number of non-profit human service organizations – and also the philanthropy – that exists in our community. There are a lot of people that really care about making our community a fantastic place to live and that care about those less fortunate than we are. I have developed some terrific friendships here (I love that) and there is always something to do. I also can’t let this question go by without saying that I love the golf courses in this area. I am a member of the Moors Golf Club and also love playing at the many other fantastic courses in this area. Really, when I think about it I can’t think of anything I don’t like about Kalamazoo.
What guides or principles do you rely most upon?
The principle I rely on most and that I value above all others is integrity. I believe that if we conduct ourselves with that value in all of our interactions and responsibilities then things will always work out. Even when they don’t seem to work out, they do because you did the right thing. It’s as simple as that.
Who was one of your mentors and what do you carry with you from that relationship?
The person that had the most influence on me in my work career was my previous boss, Judy Garland – yes the one mentioned in question 1. She taught me a lot of things as I was growing up in this field but the one that I think is most important is that we treat the people we serve with dignity, respect and compassion – how we would want a family member or loved one to be treated if they were receiving services from us.
What has been one of your biggest learning moments?
One of my biggest learning moments came when I had started my new job here at MRC and we had the major flood in 2008. Our building on Bank Street had about 5 feet of water in it and most everything was ruined. We had to try and find a place to continue services, we had production and mailing customers that lost their product, staff who no longer had a desk, a computer or place to go, payroll that needed to be met etc. etc. I had about one minute to get over the initial shock and devastation and then had to move quickly.
I remember having all kinds of questions such as “what are we going to do, how are we ever going to recover from this, can we recover” etc. and then I said to myself “you are it.” In other words, it was my responsibility to figure out what we were going to do and my responsibility to go forward with the belief that we would recover from this. I remember thinking: nobody died, nobody was seriously injured and we will figure this out and come out stronger as a result. It was my job to make that happen. That is not to say that we did not get a lot of support from the community, our board of directors and our staff but ultimately I felt that I was responsible for the outcome we did or did not achieve. This weighed very heavily on me.
The other thing I learned from this was the tremendous support that we had in this community. It was very heartwarming and meaningful to learn that people really cared about MRC and therefore that people really cared about the individuals we serve and that they were considered an important and respected part of our community.
What are the types of challenges/opportunities that keep you up at night?
I have two things that keep me up at night. The first is that I worry about what if something happens to someone under our care. We have responsibility on any given day for around 450 individuals with disabilities. I am proud to say we have an excellent safety record but it only takes one mistake or one person not following a policy or procedure when something bad could happen so that responsibility is something that never leaves me. The other thing that keeps me up at night is worrying about money. Although MRC is a very financially stable organization, my job is to make sure it stays that way and when we have funding cuts that are outside of our control it makes me worry.
How do you stay up-to-date on latest trends in your field?
I do a lot of reading and talking to people in our field. I am on the Board of Directors of MARO, our state association and they provide a lot of good information to us. I am also on two other committees/work groups in Lansing that helps me keep abreast of current trends. I also would like to think we are not just following the latest trend but setting the trend!
What advice do you have for those wishing to have a long lasting career in the nonprofit sector?
The best advice I could give someone is to first make sure that you have a passion for the mission of your organization, the willingness to work hard as a result and to take the responsibility you are given seriously. Second, I would remind people that the funding we primarily get is tax payer money and we have a responsibility to assure that it is used wisely and in a way that most impacts the individuals we serve. Third, always maintain a sense of humor, be flexible and do what you can to make life a little easier for the individuals you serve. You will be rewarded many times over.
What do you geek (i.e., what hobby or outside interests do you really like)?
Golf is my number one hobby. When I am not at work you can usually find me on the golf course. I still love to compete. I love being outside and particularly love boats and being on the water. I even like to fish as long as I don’t have to touch the worms or the fish. I also love to read and am always in the middle of a good book.