Leigh Ann Klee of ‘Pace’: “Every opportunity is a learning opportunity”

Every opportunity is a learning opportunity. I truly believe that it is the everyday experiences in the workplace that prepare you the most for career success. I often say that I got my first MBA while working at Disney. But I can also look back further — even to my first job as a teenager — and there’s so […]

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Every opportunity is a learning opportunity. I truly believe that it is the everyday experiences in the workplace that prepare you the most for career success. I often say that I got my first MBA while working at Disney. But I can also look back further — even to my first job as a teenager — and there’s so much I learned then and throughout my career that I continue to carry with me to this day.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leigh Ann Klee.

Leigh Ann always wanted to be a ballerina, and though you won’t find her on stage today, you will find her keeping the finance, human resources, IT, legal and print production teams at Pace on their toes. Passionate about giving back, Leigh Ann has served on many boards, from the United Way of Greater Greensboro to the Triad chapter of JDRF, before joining the boards of Triad Stage and The Presbyterian Homes Inc., where she currently serves as treasurer. She’s always looking for ways to weave giving back into Pace’s business model and recently helped bring to fruition the Pace Impact Project — a new initiative aimed at helping underserved business founders harness the power of social media. A CPA, Leigh Ann is a proud University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alum, where she earned her bachelor’s in business administration and master’s degree in accounting.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always loved math and I’ve also always had a passion for drawing, so when it came time to choose a major, I was torn between architecture and business administration. My dream school was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and they did not — and still don’t, actually — offer a major in architecture. That ended up making my decision for me, and I went on to study business administration. I can’t say I truly understood what I was getting myself into, but I can most definitely say that it ended up being so much broader and more fulfilling than I ever expected.

After college, I had the opportunity to work for some incredible organizations, including Ernst & Young and Disney. They were such formative experiences for me. Through my work and the mere size of both of these companies, I got to see firsthand the individual pieces of these organizations and how they harmoniously work together to make the organization whole. And that’s when I knew I wanted the best of both worlds — to be able to have that big-picture perspective while also being able to make a bigger impact. That’s why I chose Pace more than 23 years ago and, luckily, they chose me too. Little did I know that Pace would enable me to make a bigger impact not just within the organization, but also outside of Pace and in the communities we call home.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I’ve been in senior leadership roles at Pace for quite some time now, but I did recently become co-president of Pace. I would say that the most interesting story that’s happened to me since then is the creation and implementation of the Pace Impact Project. In the midst of this transition, my colleagues and I had been discussing ways in which we could take additional action in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion. We knew that there’s always room for improvement in this area, and if 2020 wasn’t the time to reevaluate our DEI efforts, then when would be the right time?

So, while I was having these conversations with colleagues, I was also discussing the topic with friends and doing lots of research. I eventually found an article about an organization that was providing pro bono services in their field of expertise to underserved entrepreneurs, and it immediately clicked in my mind — we can do this too but with a focus on our marketing expertise! I shared the article and my idea with our CEO, and she immediately said, “Yes!”

Keep in mind that our CEO, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, founded Pace in 1973. We started off as a small, woman-owned local business in Greensboro, North Carolina, and although we may not be so small anymore, we are deeply rooted in our humble beginnings and understand the challenges that come with entrepreneurism.

During the fall of last year, we continued our ideation process and involved many more members of our team, from strategists to creatives, and pinpointed a specific area within the realm of marketing that has the potential for the most impact: social media. Social media, when done well, can be the most affordable, sustainable and effective form of marketing, especially for small businesses. We also narrowed down our target population: underserved business founders, including multicultural, LGBTQ+, female and veteran entrepreneurs as well as entrepreneurs with disabilities. By October we were already seeking candidates located within our major hubs — Greensboro, New York City and San Antonio — and by late January we announced our first-ever cohort! We’ve already completed the first quarter with our cohort of four organizations, and the experience has been mutually beneficial to everyone involved.

I share this story because I’ve always been interested in the way ideas come about and are realized. That transition from idea to action is not at all easy. And what happened with the Pace Impact Project proves the importance of collaboration. I may have come up with the concept of the program, but it took an entire team of diverse perspectives to develop it and implement it. It also proves the importance of having difficult conversations and of ongoing learning. No one has everything figured out, and that’s okay, but what matters is having that willingness to be better every day. I’m inspired by what we were able to put together in a span of a few months and at a time of crisis but also at a time when support was needed the most.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I am not sure I can pinpoint an exact mistake because, trust me, there’s been a lot of them throughout my life, but I will say that I truly believe that every mistake is a learning opportunity — no matter how funny that mistake is.

I had the opportunity to learn from an incredible ballet instructor, Bobbi Bobbit, from the ages of 2 to 18. Bobbi would always say that in order to learn something new, you must do it correctly at least seven times for every one time you do it wrong. Bobbi’s words have truly shaped me both as a person and as a professional. Mistakes will always occur along the way, but you have to be willing to put in the time and hard work to continuously improve.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We have a long history of giving back at Pace, and the Pace Impact Project is really just a natural progression of our work in the community. Pace donates 10% to 15% of profits to philanthropic causes every year, and as we were having those discussions around our DEI efforts mid-last year, part of the conversation also revolved around selecting the organizations we wanted to support financially in 2020. And so we selected several organizations working toward racial equity, including the International Civil Rights Museum right here in Greensboro, the home of the sit-in movement.

But I just knew that we could do so much more. We often provide highly discounted marketing services to nonprofits, and our staff members — in many instances — have provided their talents pro bono to causes important to them. Although these two were commonplace, they always happened organically. So, when I read that article, I knew that we could replicate something similar. We already had all the parts; it was only a matter of streamlining the process and bringing everything together. And so the Pace Impact Project was born.

The goal of our program is to help local minority and underserved entrepreneurs fuel their businesses by building a successful social media presence. Selected participants are assigned their own teams within Pace who help them create social media campaigns that are unique to each participating business and its needs. In addition to one-on-one consultations, selected businesses are provided with three key elements to ensure both a successful and sustainable social media presence: (1) An annual social media plan and calendar for 2021, (2) two or three curated social media posts per month, and (3) training on how to curate their own social media posts and maintain their social media plan in the future.

A critically important component, if not the most important, is the training aspect of the program. Yes, we’re providing pro bono services and deliverables to our partner organizations, but we’re also preparing them for social media success once they’ve completed the program. This is really the end goal of the Pace Impact Project and what has the potential for the most impact.

This year’s first-ever cohort consists of four North Carolina businesses, all in different industries ranging from clothing to mental health. For 2022, we’re hoping to expand the program and have businesses located in our other business hubs — New York City and San Antonio — join as well.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We’re only at the end of the first quarter with our Pace Impact Project, so it’s definitely too early to understand the full impact of the program. However, we do know that for our partner business founders, what once felt like an insurmountable thing — as social media marketing can seem for many — is now more straightforward and tangible.

On our end, the teams that have been working directly with our four partner businesses have also had a perspective shift. As one of our teams put it, “Our collaboration has been more focused on showing [the selected organizations] where social media fits into their overall efforts to market their expertise to prospective clients. This isn’t about doing a turnaround or repairing problems; it’s about adding momentum and confidence to organizations that are already healthy.”

On a more general level, I would say that the impacts of weaving giving back into the business far exceed the immediate actions and direct results of those actions. First off, giving back affects everyone involved in unique ways, and that in itself is so rewarding. There’s also a ripple effect to giving back that makes it all so much more powerful, especially when it’s done collectively — because after all, there is power in numbers.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

I think COVID-19 has reminded us of the importance of local businesses in our communities. But even prior to COVID-19, entrepreneurs have been in need of more resources and support, particularly traditionally underserved entrepreneurs.

I can easily think of two things anyone can do to better support entrepreneurs. The first is to shop local. How we spend our money matters much more than we think. Think twice about where you shop and select those businesses you identify and connect with. The second is to share your expertise. We all have talents, so why not share them?

My third is actually a challenge to businesses, big and small: Combine the above two ideas and expand upon them. Reevaluate your vendor and supplier chain, and if you can involve local small businesses, do so. For example, do you need to cater a meal for a special meeting? Do so from a locally owned restaurant. Need to purchase items for holiday gift baskets? Do so from local shops. The exciting thing is that there are so many different ways to partner with local businesses.

Additionally, think about what expertise your talent could offer local entrepreneurs and find ways to share it. You can have an impact without having to create an entire program. Feel free to start small, perhaps with one-on-one mentoring opportunities, and see how that goes then go from there.

My hope is that as we transition into a post-pandemic world, we continue to value our local businesses, which are at the heart of our communities, and that we don’t forget the important learnings that have come with COVID-19.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I think leadership is about helping to uncover and guide the talents of team members. This is something I take very seriously. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the day-to-day, but leaders have to lead with purpose — purpose that’s beyond simply getting the work done and/or profits. Purpose has to be about people too. Happy and fulfilled people are happy and fulfilled employees, and that’s when the magic happens.

Along the same lines, I think leadership is very much about being selfless. When you’re a leader, it’s no longer about you and your work, but rather it’s 100% about the team and the collective work.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Every opportunity is a learning opportunity. I truly believe that it is the everyday experiences in the workplace that prepare you the most for career success. I often say that I got my first MBA while working at Disney. But I can also look back further — even to my first job as a teenager — and there’s so much I learned then and throughout my career that I continue to carry with me to this day.
  2. Mistakes are a part of life. They are also part of the job. Any job. I’m a bit of a quote collector and there’s a highly contested quote that I absolutely love that says something along the lines of “Anyone who has never made a mistake has not tried anything new.” We are often paralyzed by the fear of making mistakes, but when you think about those people who have made the biggest impact, they’ve made mistakes along the way — mistakes that helped them get to where they are today. I’ve learned that the act of trying is so much more valuable because trying propels action. I’ve also learned that people won’t remember you by the mistakes you’ve made but rather by the value you’ve brought to them, their work and their lives. By the way, I say this quote is highly contested because it has been attributed to many influential people, from the likes of Theodore Roosevelt to Albert Einstein and so many others, but it appeared as early as the 1830s!
  3. All good leaders continuously learn and evolve their leadership style. Leadership is very much something that you learn by doing and continuously evolve and improve every day. Good leaders have to inspire and encourage others and there’s no better way to do that than leading by example. I wish that more people saw their potential to be leaders. That’s also a good leader’s job, to help their team members see their strengths and maximize them.
  4. Company culture is just as important as the actual work you do. It is commonplace to feel the pressure to take on the first job offer we get and, often, that may not be the best fit. It’s not always as easy as it sounds, but if you can, research those organizations you’d like to work for and try to develop a good understanding of not just the role you’re seeking employment for but also the company culture because you’ll be experiencing both on an everyday basis. And once you find the right fit, you’ll know. On the other side of the coin, leaders must work day in and day out to create a positive company culture. This has to be an intentional part of every leader’s role and responsibilities.
  5. Giving back can take many forms. There’s something uniquely special about weaving giving back into an organization’s business model and it’s actually a lot easier than it might seem. My colleagues have taught me that to make an impact, it doesn’t always have to be grand gestures but rather, it’s that consistent giving that makes the most difference. And this is easily achievable by organizations of any size. From making sure you partner with local vendors as much as possible to providing your staff volunteer time or offering your talents pro bono, there are so many ways organizations can give back.

Weaving giving back into the business is not only the right thing to do, but it also has so many benefits to everyone involved.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am fortunate to work for an organization with enormous influence that’s also very grounded in its roots as a woman-owned local business. I would like to support a movement that levels the playing field for underserved entrepreneurs. When entrepreneurs have what they need to succeed, our communities and nation as a whole thrive!

Small businesses are at the heart of our communities and the backbone of our economy. Everyone deserves an equal chance to make their dreams come true and uplift their lives and those of their community.

I invite anyone interested in starting a program similar to the Pace Impact Project to reach out. This idea was inspired by another organization, and we’d be more than happy to pay it forward.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’d have to say that my favorite life lesson quote is John Wooden’s “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” This quote reminds us, especially in our extra-fast-paced world, to slow down and focus on the present — to live in the moment and to do whatever we are doing to the best of our ability.

It’s definitely easier said than done, and perhaps some days make practicing this easier than others, but mindfulness is so important in all respects, and especially from a health and wellness perspective.

I’ll never forget how my dad would always ask me, “Did you do your best?” every time I would bring home a report card or come back home from a dance recital. He taught me from an early age that after all, doing your best is all that really matters. As long as you did your best and gave it your all, then you could move on to the next thing. Otherwise, you might have some thinking and reflecting to do.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Garth Brooks, without a doubt. He’s just an amazing entertainer and is so incredibly talented.

It’s funny because I didn’t always like country music, and in fact, I have my brother to thank for introducing me to Garth’s music. In the early 90s, my brother and I drove back home to North Carolina from the West. I had forgotten to bring my music tapes with me, and all my brother had were tapes with Garth, so that’s all we listened to from Montana to North Carolina. It was during that cross-country trip that I became a fan of country music and especially of Garth Brooks!

Since then, I have followed Garth’s career, and in addition to his music, I also truly admire him as a person. He has always given back very generously to many different causes and not just in the U.S. but all around the world. I admire that he took a break from his successful career to focus on his family and spend time with his daughters. Honestly, I can go on and on; he’s just an amazing human being.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’d love to connect on LinkedIn!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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