Lessons Learned As a CEO
By Sharmen Gowens, Former President & CEO of YWCA of Greater Atlanta
Being the Chief Executive Officer of YWCA of Greater Atlanta gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. Over my seven+ years as CEO, I learned many lessons. I learned from the people who I worked with every day. I learned from community leaders. I learned from supporters, sponsors, and grantors. I learned from the people who were our reason for existing—those who participated in our programs. I learned from my Board of Directors. Every day, I learned something new. What I tried not to learn was the same lesson repeatedly. I learned that was not a good way to learn.
Let me share a few of those invaluable lessons I gained along the way:
- Treat people with dignity and respect. I learned that even when I did not agree with someone, it was important that they felt heard and seen. Even when I didn’t have the answer they wanted to hear, it was important to let them know I heard them and would get back to them. People are our greatest asset. As a leader, it is imperative to build on relationships, maintain self-control, and to be good to people.
- Everyone is your customer. And customers should be made to feel important, valued. There are internal customers—employees and staff. External customers—program participants, grant makers, sponsors, supporters, community leaders, peers, etc. Good customer service is everything. You are the company/organization. How people feel about you often determines how they feel about the organization. This is not to be confused with wanting everyone to like you. Everyone will never like you. It circles back to valuing differences and meeting people where they are.
- Especially when the answer is NO, know that NO is a complete sentence. Silence is a powerful tool, especially when it follows NO. And, NO can be said kindly yet firmly. This is where a strong value system exists. Never go against your principles or values. Be keenly aware of who you are and what you value.
- Kindness is not weakness. Kindness is a weapon of choice. Use it generously.
- Be honest. Maintain your integrity. It’s the only way to build trust in you and the organization. This is especially true for nonprofit organizations and leadership. When I first came on board, I had to call a grantor and tell them that their dollars had not been used (it was time for a final report), and why. I remember she thanked me for being honest with her and gave me time to get the program back on track and use the funds. The next year, we were able to revitalize the program, serve our constituents with desired results, and use the funds. Years later, I heard this used as an example of how to communicate effectively with funders.
- Persevere. Just when you think you cannot take one more step is the time to move forward. Momentum will follow.
- Listen. Listen. Listen. Then, listen some more. “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is not just a cliché. It is a personified truth. No matter how smart you are, no matter how much you think you know, when you listen to what others say with their words and actions, you will learn more.
- Lead with your heart and your head. Nonprofit work is all about people. It is imperative that one considers people when making every decision, understanding that easy or tough decisions will have an impact on people. Therefore it’s so important to remember that you are doing mission work to empower people, to help them find ways to become stronger and more resourceful. To understand within yourself that by strengthening individuals you are strengthening community.
- Operate from a position of peace—not power. Love what you do. Believe in what you do. Lean not on your own understanding, knowing that wisdom comes if you ask for it. You are not alone. The one thing that brought me peace was believing in a Higher Power. My faith brought me through every situation. Especially those times that I didn’t get it right. Those were the times I looked beyond myself to find answers to the WHY. I learned that sometimes things are beyond my control, but that everything happens for a reason.
- Know when it’s time to pass the mantle on to the next generation of leadership. There is no magic in the number seven, but after seven years, I believed that it was time to transition so that the right someone else could lead forward for the future.
After taking the reins in November of 2015, I knew we were deep in the red. I was the third CEO that year. Regardless of the reasons, it was not a good look for any organization. I was certain of one thing when I answered the call, it was a Call and not a career. I had already retired from a 33-year career in the newspaper industry. Now, this was my mission work. That’s how I approached this amazing opportunity. There was little that I believed in more than I believed in the mission of YWCA of Greater Atlanta—to eliminate racism and to empower women…and to promote peace, justice, freedom, and dignity for all.
After seven years, we were in a much stronger position. By the grace of God, committed Board members, and a dedicated team, we had turned the organization around, survived a pandemic that no one saw coming, expanded and strengthened programming, developed a strategic plan, and started a capital campaign to empower women on Atlanta’s Westside.
It was time to pass the baton. It was important to leave before I was ready to go, while there was still much work to be done, but with a plan in place. So, I shared with my Board in January of 2022 that this would be my last year. The Board put together a strong plan to find my successor, taking every opportunity to find the right person to drive this amazing organization into its next chapter. They followed the plan.
I left at the end of 2022, and YWCA of Greater Atlanta is now in the very capable leadership of Danita Knight. Danita and I worked closely together over the last quarter to transfer knowledge and walk together in this passing of the baton. While I could not give her seven years of experience in three months, we talked with each other, listened to each other, and we continue to be available when needed.
I could not have asked for a better person to take the helm of the organization that I love and committed my best to serve for seven years. I am grateful to the Board for the commitment to this community to keep YWCA of Greater Atlanta strong and nimble.
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