When the Minnesota chapter of Volunteers of America
appointed Paula Hart as its new president and CEO last April, the chapter knew it was getting a known, positive quantity following a three-month search. Hart, 56, had spent seven years running Eagan-based Dakota Communities
a $19-million disabilities services organization--and before that, was COO and vice president of business development at Courage Center
in Golden Valley.
Clearly, she knows a thing or two about leadership, especially in the all-important social-services realm of the nonprofit sector.
Recently Hart shared a few of the leadership lessons she’s picked up in her professional and personal life.
Any job can be a training ground for a budding leader.
Hart calls her first jobs--babysitter, waitress, and playground leader--“the best training grounds for leadership as a young person.” Hart learned from babysitting that a low-paying job can come with massive responsibility, and a golden opportunity to provide direction. “What would happen when I babysat, it was back in the days when people generally had larger families,” she recalls. “I babysat for a lot of families that had five or six kids, but they would all have friends over, so pretty soon you would have 15 kids running around the yard. That was when the idea occurred to me that it was more than just babysitting--I needed to be a leader here.
“That also extended to being a playground leader. I saw that you could take a passive role and just organize games and activities, or you could see it as an invitation to be a leader and really try to make a difference for kids.”
Parents are a treasure trove of leadership advice.
Hart’s dad was a high school coach, and the family dinner table was usually a forum for discussions of the leadership situations and challenges he found himself in. Young Paula was listening. “He was definitely influential in forming my early thoughts about what a leader should be,” she says.
A little recognition goes a long way.
Employees at Volunteers of America received modest holiday bonuses last fall--nothing extravagant, but just something to let them know they were appreciated. The gesture paid off in numerous ways. “To this day, I’m still getting handwritten thank-you notes and other expressions of appreciation for that,” says Hart. “I opened one note today from an employee who thanked us and said she used half of the bonus to buy a roll of 100 stamps for her 94-year-old mother, and gave the other half to charity. I thought that was a nice lesson in humility, and a lesson in how far those gestures can go.”
There’s no I in team.
The cliché holds especially true for cash-strapped nonprofits, where it’s crucial that people pull together and ask for help when it’s needed. It’s up to the leader to set that tone. “People are in a leadership role because they want to make a difference; I think every leader feels that way,” says Hart. “But a pitfall is in thinking you can make all
the difference. You can’t. You have to ask questions, and get better at asking more probing, pertinent questions before you learn anything. You can get that from employees, colleagues, or people you collaborate with outside the organization.”
Find time to unplug.
When The Line initially contacted Hart’s office for an interview in mid-December, we were told that she was on vacation until early January--and no, we could not contact her there. Hart recognizes that the 24-7 accessibility that technology brings means nobody can truly disappear anymore, but wherever she’s worked she's put firm boundaries around the times people are on vacation, as well as nights and weekends. “We were sending emails around whenever a thought crossed our minds,” she says, “and people were feeling compelled to check their email before they went to bed. We decided that if something is that important at 11:00 at night, make a phone call to the relevant person. Otherwise, emails can wait.
“It’s particularly important in the area of social services, because we spend most of our time taking care of other people, so it’s all too easy to forget about ourselves.”
Hart facilitates a leadership group at the U of M with students in various health professions. One student recently told her that a professor had warned her that her idealism would disappear as she got into her career. Hart bristled and explained that that notion is only as true as you choose to make it. “I told her I think I’m actually more idealistic now than ever,” Hart says. “There’s no reason why you can’t keep carrying that with you.”
Dan Heilman's last article for
The Line was a look at new styles of philanthropy, in our October 26, 2011 issue.
Photo of Paula Hart by Bill Kelley