This month we sat down for coffee with Bob Jorth, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Promise.
Tell us how you got to where you are today
I’ve had a zig-zaggy career path with 30-40 jobs. So, in broad strokes, I received my bachelor’s degree in general studies from a small Iowa college and took a job in the aerospace industry doing quality assurance among other things. I eventually took a job with NWL – that brought me to Kalamazoo. While working there, I got a master’s degree in public administration and learned database programming. I later took a job with Secant and was working there when the Kalamazoo Promise job opened up. I believe that my background in databases, process improvement, plus my volunteer work with ISAAC and community organizing made me a good fit for the position, and I got it. So, while it’s been a winding and even somewhat tortured, route, it’s all come together to lead me here today.
What do you most love about the Kalamazoo community?
I arrived in Kalamazoo almost 30 years ago (January 1986). Having grown up in a small town (population 175), I love the small town feel of Kalamazoo – friendly, people know each other. I also like some of the big city attributes it has as well. I love that it’s a diverse community, and the location can’t be beat – so close to Lake Michigan, Detroit, and Chicago.
What guides or principles do you rely most upon?
I have two things I rely upon. First is the ability to listen. The older I get, the more I see the ability to listen well as an extremely powerful tool in relationship building, in understanding systems and processes, and in getting to the core of people’s needs. The second is to treat every person as a unique individual. We have about 1,400 Promise students in college, so I work with a lot of students and parents. I want to respect each one and attend to their unique situation. These are constant reminders for me. Third (I just thought of a third) is to understand what is really at the core of the organization that you’re working for. At the Kalamazoo Promise, the core mission is student success. If I stay focused on the core mission, it helps with decision making and with keeping all efforts on track.
Who was one of your mentors and what do you carry with you from that relationship?
I’ve had a bunch of mentors. Marianne Houston was one. She taught me the power and importance of deep listening. Many were college professors. The overall theme that I take from them is to have the self-confidence to do the job as I see it. It’s having confidence in myself that, if my understanding is clear and focused on the mission, then I can trust my instincts and move forward. Another take away from them is that no job is a small job. Each job deserves my very best effort.
What has been one of your biggest learning moments?
One big learning moment was the first time I was fired. It taught me that I’m replaceable. I know that this is true of every one in every job – it’s true of me today in my current job. Eventually, someone else will do this job. What this understanding does for me is to help me be less self-righteous and to not take myself too seriously.
What’s an average day like for you at work?
On an average day I talk with several students and parents as well as attend to other calls and emails. I’ll have a couple of meetings. Then, there’s always some project to squeeze in between the regularly scheduled work.
What are the types of challenges/opportunities that keep you up at night?
My greatest challenge is the sheer number of students in our program – over 5,000 who are eligible for the Kalamazoo Promise. Again, my desire is to treat and respect each one as a unique individual, so I’m kept up by the need to keep up with workload. Another great challenge is how we, as a community, can address the disparity of success among minority students and to get more kids through high school and using the Kalamazoo Promise. Currently, I’m challenged in putting together our 10-year report.
How do you stay up-to-date on latest trends in your field?
Trends within the Promise field? It’s a pretty unique organization. That being said, I interact with people at colleges and universities to keep up on how to best facilitate student success. That’s our core. Yet, the Kalamazoo Promise is unique. What’s clear is that it’s a scholarship. Yet, the overall success depends upon the community’s citizens and organizations to help our students prepare for college…prepare to be successful. It’s something we can only do together. My hope is that the community is a bit sleepless about this, too.
What advice do you have for those wishing to have a long lasting career in the nonprofit sector?
Success in the nonprofit field is very similar to success in any field. Identify your passion and then be open to opportunities that will allow you to pursue that passion. It’s more about awareness than anything – self-awareness and opportunity awareness. I often tell students, “Don’t worry about your first job. Just get out there and see what doors open along the way. If you want to serve people, then start serving them and see where that takes you.”
What hobbies or outside interests do you enjoy?
I love the outdoors – the beach, mountains, ocean. I like being in “reasonably remote” areas (access is important). I enjoy riding my bike and writing poetry. I also enjoy spending time with family and friends.
For all the fuss about how millennials primarily concern ourselves with dating apps and selfie sticks, we devote a lot of time to thinking about the future. To be frank, based on conversations I've had with friends, we are worrying. And here is the chief concern regarding our professional lives: though we've been encouraged for years to pick a career path, the truth is this: the paths don't exist.
And that might sound hyperbolic (hyperbole is definitely a millennial thing!), but many of us don't have access to the typical stops along a career path. Specifically, post-secondary education is expensive (note: I love the Kalamazoo Promise!) and competition is stiff for top positions. These are some of the well-known barriers, never mind if you're living in poverty, or have chronic health problems. For all these reasons and more, many of us take jobs that aren't exactly what we want to do--or even in the right field--out of convenience or fear of unemployment.
So, how does one find a route to the perfect position? Especially if you don't know what that is? That's still something I'm trying to figure out. But here are my thoughts so far.
1. Mentorship. Youth advocate Marian Wright Edelman famously said "you can't be what you can't see." So, find experienced professionals in a field of your interest -- through affinity groups or alumni networks--and form a relationship. They can provide insight into jobs that require your skillset, and connect you to more veteran professionals.
2. Re-Define Success...For Now. Regardless of what the job market and graduate school price tags look like in ten years, preparing for the job you want should be a continuous process. If that means adjusting your expectations to a lower salary, or accepting less paid time off than you expected, those are reasonable adjustments to make.
3. Gratitude. We're surrounded by images that tout success, because that's a well-worn angle for social and news media. Rather than feeding career anxiety with what you don't have, take time to list your professional achievements. It alleviates that tunnel vision that makes you only aware of what's ahead.
There isn't a week that goes by that I don't read something or speak to someone who makes me re-think how to approach my future. I'm taking that as a good sign. My rationale: being flexible in thought will ideally translate to nimble acrobatics that land me in a fulfilling career.
Let’s get personal for a moment. Each of us has career aspirations. We want to do well, be successful, enjoy our work and feel good about our accomplishments. Many of us wish to make a lasting contribution and earn the respect of our colleagues. So, to those ends, I have one question for you:
How long is your long-term?
I recently finished a book that addressed one’s development in terms of five-year, even ten-year chunks. Imagine what you could accomplish if you approached your career and self-development in terms of ten-year chunks?
This goes beyond the job. Even if you’re approaching retirement, there are things you wish to do, contributions you wish to make, in your 60’s and 70’s. Of course, if you’re younger, it may be a stimulating exercise to imagine your life and career ten, fifteen or twenty years from now.
Why so long? It takes time to sink deep roots.
Whatever motivates you, gets you up in the morning, and pulls you through your day – plant yourself there. Learn about it and let tendrils of inquiry and understanding extend into the rich soil, in all directions, at all angles. Find others who share your interest and challenge each other’s assumptions.
Before long, you’ll find that what started as an isolated inquiry has turned into a complex network of interconnections. As you examine it, you’ll see how to craft it, deepen it, and make it your own.
This community needs what you have to offer.
It only takes a few years…and it’s exhilarating!
Everyone needs to be a leader…just not in every situation.
Each of us takes the lead at some time. We take the lead in our own lives. Many of us take the lead in our household. At work, we take the lead in the role we’re given to play.
At ONEplace, we define leadership as
- taking responsibility and ownership of your role(s), which includes
- developing the skills, knowledge, connections and awareness needed to fulfill your role(s)
- listening and learning from others and
- teaching and sharing with others
Our Peer Learning Program provides a disciplined, intensive approach to leader development for managers, supervisors, and directors. It’s also perfect for executive leaders of small organizations.
The Peer Learning Group design helps you become more attuned to your strengths and challenges, engage your own insights and wisdom, build a network of supportive connections, and develop coaching skills. It requires commitment, and it delivers much more.
How it works
Peer Learning Groups meet for eight monthly sessions from September through April. The facilitator guides and participates in each session.
The basic 90’ session agenda includes a brief introduction to the day’s topic, time to explore the topic on your own, focused discussion in pairs, and a full group discussion and resource-sharing. Learning occurs as each participant pursues their own path to effective performance and job satisfaction. Together, we create a welcoming and open space to work on our own leadership issues within the supportive context of colleagues who are doing the same thing.
Within the discussions, we listen carefully and engage our curiosity, imagination, and inspiration through asking open, honest questions. The questions create space for a substantial conversation that doesn’t judge or try to fix but allows each person to find what they need within a confidential environment.
Groups start in September and space is limited. For more information, attend one of our information sessions on Thursday, August 13 or Tuesday, August 18, or contact the ONEplace Director at ThomA@kpl.gov.
Last week, Michele McGowen and Dale Abbot of the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan presented a Management Track workshop on Creating Accessible Content. During the session, we heard not only the importance of having content accessible via print, screen, and audio, but some how-to helps as well.
Our first thought of accessible content often goes to print – large print or braille. Surprisingly, only 7% of those who are blind or low-vision know braille, so they recommended not running out and getting braille versions of your print materials until you know the need. Also, while “large print” is often defined as 18 point font, it’s good to ask the person requesting accommodation what size font they need.
In fact, asking the person requesting accommodation what would work best for them is often a good idea. For example, while some who identify as blind would like large print, others may prefer electronic versions to use with screen readers.
When working with print, Dale made several basic suggestions: use plain san serif fonts, ensure high contrast of print to background (best is black and white), use color to highlight rather than to communicate importance, and avoid busy backgrounds.
Michele and Dale offered other suggestions relative to print as well as website development, social media, slide presentations, and video captioning. They encouraged organizations to take first or next steps toward inclusion. Include statements such as, “This document is available in alternative format upon request” or “To request an accommodation, contact ___ at ___.” Just be sure you can deliver on what you promise.
Their bottom line was to move toward inclusion, do your best, and learn from your mistakes.
Creating Accessible Content was the first of three workshops in our Inclusion Series. Additional workshops include Immigration 101 on August 5 and Trans*, Gender Non-Conforming, and Genderqueer: A Workshop for Allies on August 12.
Famed UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, is remembered for leading the Bruins to 10 National Championships in 12 seasons (1964-75) including four undefeated seasons. Do you know how many years he coached the team prior to winning his first championship? Fifteen. With this vignette, Jim Collins makes a key point in Good to Great.
Becoming great is a long-term venture.
He gave other, business-related examples: Gillette, Nucor, Pitney Bowes, and others. While the press and public hailed them as upstarts and newcomers that burst on to the scene, each company’s “overnight success” had taken years to build: focused, slow, and methodical.
In contrast, the comparison companies (that faced the same circumstances but failed to transition to a great company) looked to the next big thing to save the day: the next merger, the next new product, or the next major initiative. As a result, most bounced from one thing to the next, never committing long enough to sink deep roots into their market.
There simply is no short cut to great:
Focused, slow, and methodical – sinking deep roots that will hold the organization in place through high winds and fierce storms; Deep roots that will allow the organization to branch out and sustain new initiatives that are anchored to the core purpose; Deep roots that spread into the underpinnings of the community, contributing to a diverse ecosystem of success.
So, where is your organization headed? You may or may not have a clear, guiding mission or vision. You may or may not have a useful strategic plan. Regardless of what tools you use, you need to know where you’re headed so that each small step builds on the last and prepares for the next.
The tortoise wins the race every time.
Struck dumb by the size and airiness of the Arcus Center's atrium, I tentatively approached the right side of the room, which is bordered by floor-to-ceiling windows that showcase a neat array of tall maple trees. I sat in one of the brightly colored chairs arranged in a circle and craned my neck to read some of the phrases printed on the back wall--"curious creatures" and "things like locusts" jumped out. By then I had a hunch that I had entered a transformative space.
I was right. That night I attended a training at Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership called Trans*, Genderqueer, & Gender Non-Conforming: A Workshop for Allies. In just over three hours I and about 50 others (primarily Kalamazoo College students) participated in a variety of interactive activities and discussions. Two hours into the training, several people of different gender identities spoke about aspects of their identity and experience, and that's when the transformative piece clicked. The participants engaged in a radical act: listening. We embodied allyship by giving attention and time to community members who rarely have a platform to be heard.
That act, just listening, might be the right first step. When working with issues around which there is little widely-available, trustworthy information, I think this is the best approach to learning. Implementation is critical, but can nonprofits be expected to make thoughtful, studied practical decisions without first listening?
Join us at ONEplace for our new Inclusion Series, which focuses on how nonprofits can make our workplaces and services more inclusive. There will be plenty of opportunities for listening. Creating Accessible Content will kick-off the series on July 21. Immigration 101 is August 5, and Trans*, Gender Non-Conforming, & Genderqueer: A Workshop for Allies will take place August 12.
My work grants me the privilege of working with many boards. It’s been great to work with boards involved in food security, the arts, housing, health, the environment, community welfare, and more. One thing continually impresses me about boards of directors:
they are extremely generous people.
Board members give – hugely – of their time, talent, and treasure. Their passion and commitment fill the room with a palpable spirit. When I ask, “What do you love about your organization?” each person beams as they given genuine expression to that spirit. It’s a pleasure to behold.
The same may be said for our area’s executive directors (EDs) as well. With the weight of the organization on their shoulders, EDs give richly of themselves at every turn. To hear one speak openly of their concern and commitment stirs the heart, and to gain insight into the myriad of things they do behind the scenes inspires the soul.
So, it’s painful to see how disconnects between Boards and EDs can rattle an organization.
Everyone plays a part. According to BridgeSpan, BoardSource, and other references, Boards carry the responsibility to “support and evaluate the executive director,” and EDs carry the responsibility to “develop, maintain, and support” the board. When communication fails, that mutual support often shatters into shards of shaky accusations and puzzled disbelief.
All parties end up hurt and disillusioned. It’s very sad.
If you’re feeling even an inkling of this disconnect, then have a meeting and name it. Take the lead and set intentional steps to improve communication. Don’t wait for someone else to act. As seen above, if you’re an ED or a board member, it’s your responsibility.
Not sure how to start? Feeling stuck? Please contact ONEplace before it goes any further. Each day that a problem isn’t addressed adds another degree of difficulty to implementing a solution.
Take the lead. Make the call. It’s the generous thing to do.
“I’m having coffee with….”
How often do you say that? Monthly? Every other week? Weekly? More?
Having coffee, tea, lunch, a drink, etc. with a nonprofit colleague means you’re making connections, and these connections energize your work and your organization.
Even if the conversation is purely social, you’re deepening your relationship. This makes it more likely that you’ll pick up the phone and call this person when you need to sound out an idea or concern. You’ll also be on each other’s radars when a future conversation touches on an issue or opportunity of mutual interest.
The idea of “building your network” sometimes gets a slimy reputation when it’s seen as serving one’s own interests and careers. Don’t throw out the proverbial toddler with the mud puddle! Developing relationships across the nonprofit sector, and especially your particular corner of the sector, is critical to your organization’s impact and your cause’s success.
The ROI on relationship building is huge and…better yet…it compounds. Don’t believe me? Not sure where to start? Ask me to coffee and I’ll explain it…ask nicely and I’ll buy.
One of the unique things about working at ONEplace is that we are the only management support organization (MSO) in Kalamazoo dedicated to capacity building for area nonprofits. Statewide, we are one of nine organizations doing this work, all with our own specific service models. Two weeks ago, staff from all nine MSOs came together for a retreat. It was a rare opportunity to share the same space and learn from each other.
The session that resonated with me most focused on a timely issue: partnerships. The social sector generally promotes the value of collaboration (yes, including ONEplace!) and we all know the advantages, e.g. greater efficiency, wider impact, etc. So, why don't we all have more major partners in our work? Certainly, a lack of time and resources to devote to figuring out where partnerships would be appropriate is a factor. But I wonder if there are two other major roadblocks: 1. a lack of information on how the process could work; and 2. examples of actual successful partnerships.
The Powerful Partnerships session was a case study presented by Yodit Mesfin Johnson, Chief Relationship Officer at NEW. She explained in depth how she executed a nonprofit-private sector partnership between NEW and Zingtrain (the training arm of Zingerman's Deli) to develop Leadership DELI. This program helps Ann Arbor area nonprofit leaders learn specific skills that will push them through the leadership pipeline.Yodit shared four key characteristics of powerful partnerships:
1. Clearly defined roles
2. A common set of values that drive outcomes
3. Understanding that joining together offers clear mutual benefit
4. A willingness to be flexible
This case study gave me a lot to think about. How can Kalamazoo County nonprofits use partners in the public or private sector to fulfill their missions? And, how can ONEplace be a resource in the process? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section.