CLP006 Dana McConnell – Implementing Ideas and Putting Yourself Out There (PDF)
Marc Pitman: Welcome to the Concord Leadership podcast. I’m Marc Pitman, the CEO of the Concord Leadership group. Today our guest is Dana McConnell, the executive director of the Center for Developmental Services right here in Greenville, South Carolina. Dana, I am thrilled to have you on the show.
Dana McConnell: Thank you Marc. I am so excited to be here.
Marc Pitman: When we met a couple of weeks ago I just loved your story of becoming the executive director of CDS and I’m wondering, what do you enjoy now that you are the executive director? What do you enjoy about leading and being in a leadership position?
Dana McConnell: There are so many wonderful aspects to it, but if I had to narrow it down to one it would be just being able to implement ideas and the staff suggestions. If you are someone who has worked for a large corporation, and I came from the corporate background for twenty years, just the smallest decisions sometimes take so long to do. For a couple of examples: If we wanted to change the coffee maker from a Keurig to a drip coffee, just all the layers you would have to go through just to have something like that done.
Here at CDS, and it is a smaller, non-profit organization, so it doesn’t have all those layers but it’s just the empowering ability in the role that I’ve got just to be able to make those quick decisions or allow the staff to make those decisions so changing coffee is not a problem. If someone has a social media idea … Just a year and a half ago we didn’t even do Instagram and one of our staff members said “Hey, do you mind if we just start an Instagram account? I’d like to run it?” I said “Sure, let’s go ahead and try it, throw it by me each time before you do a post just to make sure it’s going to be appropriate and the messaging is correct, but otherwise let’s go for it.” That’s just been wonderful.
Starting a recycling program. Any new projects, new programs. If someone’s got an idea for making a process more efficient, they are just empowered to do that and there are just not all those layers. That’s probably one of the most rewarding things about the position.
Marc Pitman: I love that. I think many of us in this sector forget how it is in bigger corporations or bigger organizations that have all those layers. It does, it seems like endless meetings to get silly things done, more important things.
Dana McConnell: Yes.
Marc Pitman: Wow. In the context of that, I’m just curious. One of the questions I like to ask guests is: We know that leadership isn’t always easy …
Dana McConnell: Right.
Marc Pitman: … Otherwise everybody would be doing it. When was a time that you faced a challenge leading and what did you do to overcome that or address that?
Dana McConnell: When I mentioned that I was from the corporate world, I’m also an accountant, all of my career it’s kind of been on the back end of things and the desk jobs, which I loved too, the accounting and more of the introvert. It suited my personality, I’m a very detailed person. When I originally came over to CDS I was their director of finance and operations, which is again kind of that back office, very customer-service oriented to those in the building. When the opportunity came open to apply to be the executive director, I think the panic in me knowing that that’s going to be out in front in the public eye, that I would be that face of the organization, that it would require a lot of public speaking, some media interviews, doing the fundraising and the marketing.
How do I work with a board of directors? How do I develop a board of directors? Knowing that the weight of the organization is on my shoulders if we’re successful in the future, implementing that vision and helping to move forward a strategic plan, just all of that would go through my head and it was very difficult to sleep at night knowing, “Is this really something I should be taking on?” I don’t know that there’s really anything that ever can prepare you for that and so I just really had that feeling of being overwhelmed and did I get in over my head?
I learned a long time ago: Don’t ever close a door. Don’t ever say no, it can’t be done. It may take me a while to figure out how to do something but just that feeling of being overwhelmed. I learned to just take things a day at a time. I don’t know how it’s going to go next week, but all I need to focus on is right here and right now and if I can get through today, if I can get through this next speaking event or this next board meeting, then I’ll think about what’s next after that and just taking it one step at a time and sometimes even one hour at a time.
I just remember getting home at night and just praying and thanking God for helping me get through the day. I prayed a lot for wisdom. I prayed for the organization. I prayed for the staff and just to help me not feel overwhelmed, even though that is how I felt. I think just learning to take things a day at a time and just focus on that immediate goal and once I became comfortable with that, then I looked maybe two days into the future or then a week into the future. I know that sounds simple and it may be kind of crazy, but for someone who didn’t ever see things from a bigger picture, that was such a big jump to me and I know the board took a risk on having someone like me in this position but they have been extremely supportive and so has the staff. I’ve learned and grown a lot but that was definitely a huge challenge for me.
Marc Pitman: My chuckle was a chuckle of ‘yes’ of agreement. It was a chuckle of ‘that’s so simple’. I just … You’re absolutely right. Taking things a day at a time sometimes an hour at a time. I know I found journaling to be really helpful and time stamping the journal so that if I want to go back I’ll know that … It’s amazing what can from like 5:11 a.m. to 10:03 a.m., the amazing mood swings that can be in a journal.
Dana McConnell: Incredible, yes. You got it, Marc.
Marc Pitman: How long have you been the executive director of CDS then?
Dana McConnell: I’ve been here in this role for a little over two years now; with the organization as a whole, about three and a half years. I wasn’t with the organization very long when I took over so it was still a learning curve just understanding the non-profit. So that’s probably [crosstalk 00:06:10] complicated thing.
Marc Pitman: So that was your first non-profit since corporate?
Dana McConnell: This is my first non-profit, yes.
Marc Pitman: Wow. Steep learning curve. That’s great. Let me ask you this for those listening today: What strategy or action or something would you say that they recommend that they consider putting into place right away?
Dana McConnell: The one strategy that helped me more than anything is I just kept putting myself out there. I knew I needed to grow. I knew I needed some personal development so I just signed up for any class or seminar that I knew would challenge me. There was a public speaking seminar. There was the Riley Institute Diversity Leadership Initiative, the DLI. These are things that would put me into the realm and into the company of other CEOs that I knew was going to make me nervous because i didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t feel comfortable, I didn’t feel like I was at the same peer level as them. Even though I still had that same title I just felt so inadequate.
I just continued to surround myself and put myself in situations that kept challenging me. I got involved in the community and that’s what I would encourage other CEOs that are new or even seasoned CEOs is just get involved, maybe through the chamber of commerce like Leadership Greenville or that Riley Institute DLI or anything that would connect you with the community and connect you with other CEOs. Maybe it’s contacting another CEO in your industry. It could even be a, not enemy, a competitor … I was trying to think of, yeah. Not enemy. Just meeting with peers. Call them up and buy them a cup of coffee … Just $3 and an hour of time can provide a wealth of information and start a lasting bond of camaraderie or just a great resource, if nothing else. Just put yourself out there and make connections. That would be my one tip.
Marc Pitman: That’s excellent. I had a professor in college who once said “When you walk into a room, that which you fear most about yourself is what everybody else is wrestling with too.” How do people see me? How am I being perceived? I love that, $3 and an hour of coffee. That’s awesome.
Thanks so much Dana. This has been a thoroughly refreshing session of Concord Leadership podcast. I’m wondering, where can people … What website can they go to find you or how can they get in touch with you if they want to follow up?
Dana McConnell: They can go to our CDS website and that is www.cdservices.org. Once you go to that you’ll not only learn about the organization but if you do the ‘about us’ and the ‘leadership’ tabs, that’s when they will find my contact information. Definitely give me a call. I’d love to sit down and meet with anyone and share some other tips that I’ve learned. I’d still be happy to buy them the cup of coffee, they don’t have to buy me one.
Marc Pitman: Awesome. That’s a great, great invitation. Thanks for being here Dana. Everyone thanks for listening. I know you’re going to want to listen to this one again and again also. This episode with all the episodes of the Concord Leadership Podcast can be found at https://concordleadershipgroup.com/podcast. Until next time, remember healthy non-profits start with healthy leaders.