Continuously network — there will always be work to consume the day, so prioritize and be intentional to network. Particularly during COVID, I learned it takes a particular intentionality to maintain and grow my network, but that will serve me and Concordance in the long run
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Smith.
Michelle Smith, MA, MS, has more than a decade of experience working in the federal judicial and criminal justice systems. She was most recently managing partner of a Houston-based architectural firm. In her role as Chief Operating Officer at Concordance Academy, she spearheads new initiatives, facilitates government relations, and adjusts the firm’s processes and operations as necessary to ensure efficient and effective execution of policies and procedures, as well as manages the day-to-day administrative functions of the Academy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. My mom and dad did not have much to give me, but what they did have was the perfect amount. I went to Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts college, where I had my first taste of leadership as treasurer and then president of my sorority. From Gettysburg, I was accepted into Georgetown University for a PhD program. I worked my way through that program, but I was eager to enter the work world. I left before I had the chance to defend my dissertation (graduating “all but dissertation”). Looking back now, that might have been one of the biggest mistakes of my life — it was young and naïve of me to think I would return to finish it. Having been in school all my life up to that point, I was ready to jump into a professional field. I went to work for a small consulting firm that served mainly federal law enforcement and the federal judiciary. I worked on policy impact studies and business process improvements, analyzing trends that included policy and law changes, demographic and economic trends, and increasing workload and personnel. This helped my clients analyze, simulate, and understand the impact of trends on their space and facility needs. Having worked with the federal judiciary and law enforcement, I was quite familiar with the criminal justice system infrastructurally — it was not uncommon for me to walk into a prison, know three types of egress in a courthouse, or understand potential security hazards in a facility — however, I was missing the human element. My heart always yearned for more.
In December 2014, I was at a non-profit event and happened to be sitting next to Danny Ludeman. He had just recently announced his retirement as the CEO and President of Wells Fargo Advisors and was founding Concordance Academy. Danny mentioned he was looking for someone new to run the 2015 gala, and I volunteered… thinking “how difficult could it be to organize a gala?!” Over the course of 2015, Danny and I got to know each other as we prepared for what would be Concordance’s first gala. The gala was amazing — we had Colin Powell as our guest speaker, a room packed with 600 guests, and raised two million dollars! I learned a lot about Danny’s visionary style, and, I guess, in turn, Danny was impressed with my organizational skills. Danny called me the day after the event, and we started to talk about a role for me at Concordance. I started out as consultant, but every day I would wake up thinking more about Concordance than I would about my own work. That is when I knew God had led me to exactly where I was supposed to be. I took a leadership position five months later.
Looking back, it’s clear that just meeting one person or going to one event can change the trajectory of your life — through Danny and that non-profit event I found Concordance, which put me on a path I never would have anticipated.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
This work is rife with interesting stories, but one strange coincidence that pops to mind is from about a year ago. From early on, our long-term vision was for Concordance to be completely funded through pay for success / social impact financing structure. One night I was researching innovators in that space and one name in Utah kept popping up. I knew I had a connection to someone originally from the Utah area, so on a whim I reached out to see if he had any connection, not expecting anything to come of it. Through a series of who-knows-who, I was able to get connected to this person and it’s become one of our strongest partnerships in the Pay for Success space…all because I took a shot on the dark.
I think that story is a good reminder to be bolder than you would normally be in making connections and relying on your network. Steve Jobs told a great story about asking for help as a young teen trying to start a company, and that led to an internship that led to other connections that helped him create and grow Apple. I’ve seen in practice that you won’t get anywhere If you don’t make the ask, and sometimes those long-shots are the connections that carry you to something unexpected and great.
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’ve been with Concordance since nearly inception, and in that initial start-up phase there were certainly some funny learning moments. This isn’t necessarily a funny story, but I do remember one particular night that taught me a few important lessons. There was a participant in our very first class who we were hoping to enroll in an outside sobriety program, but his team was having trouble convincing him it was the right move. So, being extremely passionate and equally naïve, Danny and I thought if WE took him directly he would surely recognize our leadership positions and clout at Concordance and entirely change his mind. You can probably imagine where this story is going already! We picked him up for the 45 minute drive to the facility. Along the way, he kept finding excuses to stop — he needed to pick up his girlfriend, buy some cigarettes (with my personal money), and grab some White Castle burgers. After meeting his every wish, we were sure we had persuaded him to stay for the duration of the program and went home feeling great about the work we had done. The next day, I received a call that he had already left that program.
This story is such a great example of how far we’ve come — we had to learn quickly that there are some details that executive leadership isn’t necessary or even helpful in handling, and they are better left to our highly capable team of expert clinicians and case managers. Back then we had no discipline as to organizational roles or boundaries with participants. Since then, we have learned that the organization runs more effectively, and participants are better served by allowing team members to do what they do best.
That was also my first firsthand lesson that you can’t force someone to choose sobriety; it has to happen when they are ready. Occasionally we see participants back in our program after a relapse or recidivism event. They do great the second time around, because they are more ready to own their sobriety for themselves. Relapse is a part of healing, and we had to build that reality into our program. Initially we were going to such extreme lengths to help participants avoid relapse that we were not holding healthy boundaries, but that wasn’t helpful for anyone. I now know that while we aren’t always our participants’ best friends, we are their partner on the journey and we are helping them access what they need (even if it’s not always what they want).
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I had an amazing mentor at Gettysburg College, Dr. Eileen Stillwagon. She helped me land my first internship with the DOJ antitrust division through a personal connection, helped me get into Georgetown for my PhD program, and helped me understand the importance of networking and how you can advocate for others through your circle of influence. As an adjunct professor later in life, I was able to pay that forward by helping my students connect to job positions and educational opportunities that fit their passions.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
In general, I find my best stress relief is my morning routine — I start every day with prayer, meditation, and a run. This helps me find strength and calm to start my (often hectic) days.
As for the stress of high-stakes meetings, I am the ultimate prepare-er — I prefer to avoid off-the-cuff presenting, and I instead like to be prepared with a detailed plan for what I hope to convey. At my core I am an introvert, so I often need a quiet moment alone to gather my thoughts before a high-stakes meeting or decision.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity is crucial to a high-functioning organization. By ensuring an organization proportionally represents the clientele, population, or community it serves, it ensures important perspectives and voices are included in organizational decision-making and day-to-day operations. For us specifically, we work with justice involved adults, so it is important that our team members represent our participants and can speak to their perspective and experiences. It is also inspirational for participants to work with diverse team members from all different backgrounds and walks of life.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Concordance’s mission of reducing reincarceration directly promotes a more inclusive and equitable society. Mass incarceration affects 100 million people in the United States, and disproportionately members of the Black community. By breaking the cycle of reincarceration, we are elevating returning citizens and driving toward more equitable communities. Supporting our efforts is a big step anyone can take in creating a more equitable society.
From an organizational level, diversity in the workplace is crucial to promoting inclusivity and equity. At Concordance we are intentional to include diverse voices in the workplace, not just racially but also various backgrounds, family statuses, orientations, and experience with the criminal justice system. We intentionally seek to hire team members with lived experience with the justice system, incarceration, substance abuse, mental illness, and trauma, as we believe this shared experience with out participants makes us better service providers. And just like we hope to provide a first real chance to participants, we’re also committed to providing an opportunity for our team members with lived experiences.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Leadership is about a lot of things, but executive leadership is about inspiration. They say that people with great passion can make the impossible happen. At Concordance, we’re trying to do the impossible — for over three decades, the rate of reincarceration in this country has not changed — 77% of people who return to society from prison are rearrested within five years. We are trying to move the needle on a seemingly immovable problem. Our participants are up against horrific trauma, systemic racism and inequity, and crushing addiction, and we are trying not only to break the cycle of reincarceration in their lives and the lives of their families, but also to systematize and operationalize our model to scale nationwide. This is a big dream, and it’s my role to inspire others in the organization to create great ideas and encourage them to believe in and chase this big dream. If an executive has a passion for what they are creating, the feeling is contagious, and I take that charge to be an inspirational leader seriously every day.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think perhaps one myth out there — that I even believed earlier in my career — was that once you got to the executive level you had it easy. This could not be further from the truth. Often at the executive level you lead and manage a lot of divergent departments, including some that were not your field for much of your career, so you have to be up to speed on a host of different areas. Assuming you build an excellent team of leaders and team members in your organization, much of the simpler day-to-day problems and queries get addressed at non-executive levels. The questions that rise to an executive’s desk are novel, complex, and highly consequential. Hopefully an executive has executive coaches, mentors, and experience to lean on, but often they are asked to create solutions that have not been created before, so it is certainly not an “easy” job.
I also think another myth may be that the executive lifestyle is glamorous, lived on private jets and golf courses. This is far from true, at least for me — my work doesn’t stop when I’m away from the office, and I balance a ton of different spinning plates. On a typical day, that means waking up in the wee hours of the morning to get in my morning routine and a few hours of work before my family wakes up, then helping my sons get ready for school. I then head into the office and juggle a full schedule, grabbing whatever quick food I can find between back-to-back meetings. I head home to help with homework and get dinner on the table, and then respond to emails and prep for my next day after my boys are asleep. And should any work emergencies arise during the night, I’m the one on deck to take those calls.
In addition to their role as a public face for the organization, executives put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes that isn’t necessarily seen but is crucial to keeping an organization afloat.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
As a female executive, I often find myself as the only woman in the room. One of my mentors taught me early on that a woman’s voice is just as (or often more so!) valued at the table — even if it’s a table full of men. Thankfully, I work with excellent male colleagues who value my perspective and opinions, but I still have to consciously remind myself that I come with a unique set of experiences, ideas, and ways of thinking that are valuable and necessary to the organization, and because of that I need to speak up. I don’t think my male counterparts have to put so much intentionality behind their confidence in meetings, since they aren’t the only person with that perspective in the room.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought I would get more accomplished — start to finish. That is how you are taught — you start a task, you finish it. When I was young, my mom had a list of chores for me, and she expected me to complete one before moving on to the next. Or my teachers gave me assignments, and I would diligently work through them until they were completed. Even as a consultant, I worked on one project until my clients were satisfied before moving to my next project. Now my days are just the opposite — they are spent in meetings, offering advice, listening to others, soliciting feedback, or starting something and then putting it down before it’s complete because I’m interrupted by another issue to resolve. Except for the very early morning hours when hardly no one else is awake (and I find I can be most productive), it is very difficult to start and end a task in the same sitting.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There are a few that spring to mind — a successful executive must be:
- agile — able to constantly adapt and thrive on new challenges
- comfortable in a complex field without prior knowledge — particularly since you often lead departments that were not your field initially
- a transformational leader — able to motivate and empower, collaborate well, build trust, and actively listen
Executive leadership is equal parts operational tasks and strategic questions from a business perspective and motivating and supporting people that are executing the vision — if you are not interested fully in both pieces, executive leadership may not be for you.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Prioritizing yourself isn’t selfish. There are always competing priorities, and it may be tempting to place everything else ahead of yourself, but without taking care of yourself first you simply won’t have the bandwidth to effectively take care of anything else. Women are used to being caregivers — of family, friends, kids, or even co-workers — but you have to put your own mask first to be able to care for anyone else without burning out. For me, that looks like waking up at 4:00am every day to get in my morning routine alone — if I don’t take this important step of putting my mental, spiritual, and physical health first, it will affect my entire day.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Most directly, I get up every day and devote my time to helping our participants heal from trauma, avoid reincarceration, and live joyful, abundant, and purposeful lives. But I also think my role as a female COO is making the world a better place — as a woman, I manage differently than my male counterparts. I try to lead with empathy and understanding, and I add an important perspective to decision-making rooms that otherwise might be all men. I hope my role serves as an example to other women, and I am intentional to pour into the women on my team and at our organization. Through my position, I am hopefully making even more space for the next generation of female leaders that the table.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Either you run the day or the day runs you
- Practice the art of active listening — don’t think about what your saying next, listen for comprehension and repeat to show understanding. This saves time on having to redo things after mishearing, solves most disagreements, and builds deeper and better relationships
- Don’t think you can do all the work, leadership is about delegating
- Continuously network — there will always be work to consume the day, so prioritize and be intentional to network. Particularly during COVID, I learned it takes a particular intentionality to maintain and grow my network, but that will serve me and Concordance in the long run
- You’ll invest a lot of yourself into this mission, and it isn’t always going to be pretty. You may have to keep a calm composure especially in times of unease, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of tears shed — so make sure you keep the box of tissues handy. The first time a participant overdosed, the time a team member told me that she had a miscarriage, when a colleague fell ill and was hospitalized, when you hear about a participant who passes away … those are instances that call for a leader to step up and be there as a rock for the rest of the organization. But don’t fool yourself if you think you aren’t breaking down at some point in private, especially if you care about this place.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
This one is perhaps obvious from me — the cycle of reincarceration in this country has a devastating impact on individuals, their families, and their communities. There are so many reasons to champion this cause, but for me its about the next generation. I have two sons, and there both already past the age where all of our participants as children had experienced horrific trauma. If we can help participants stay out of prison and offer a safer, more stable, more loving life for their kids, that’s how I’ll know we’ve made a lasting difference. To me, that’s what makes this a large-scale movement — helping one person returning home trickles down into their families, healing the next generation and breaking the cycle of trauma and incarceration, lowering mass incarceration over time generationally.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
All my best life lessons come from my mom — she was an amazing woman and my best friend, and I learned so much from her. She passed 10 years ago, but I still carry lessons from her with me every day. These are my favorites:
- There are no shortcuts to any place worth going
- Give without remembering, receive without forgetting
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
There are so many! But high on the list is definitely John Legend — not only do I love his music (All of Me is on repeat in my office) and admire him as a father, husband, and family man, but he has a personal connection to mass incarceration through his mother. He is using that experience and his platform to combat this issue. I think he may be intrigued by the work we’re doing, and we could have a fruitful conversation — plus maybe I could get a recipe or two from Chrissy!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.