Shelley Sylva: “Good leaders have to take time for themselves”

Good leaders have to take time for themselves. A lot of leaders think that they need to give all their time away. That’s not the case. Sometimes you need to take care of yourself first so that you are strong enough to help someone else. In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis […]

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Good leaders have to take time for themselves. A lot of leaders think that they need to give all their time away. That’s not the case. Sometimes you need to take care of yourself first so that you are strong enough to help someone else.

In many large cities in the US, there is a crisis caused by a shortage of affordable housing options. This has led to a host of social challenges. In this series called “How We Are Helping To Make Housing More Affordable” We are talking to successful business leaders, real estate leaders, and builders, who share the initiatives they are undertaking to create more affordable housing options in the US.

As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Shelley Sylva.

Shelley Sylva is Senior Vice President and Head of U.S. Social Impact at TD Bank, America’s Most Convenient Bank®. In this role, Shelley is responsible for leading TD’s Ready Commitment — the bank’s corporate citizenship platform. Shelley joined TD Bank in 2013, bringing more than 20 years of legal experience and over 15 years of executive leadership. She was previously Deputy Executive Director of Administration (COO) for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the fourth largest housing authority in the United States.

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?

Growing up, I always wanted to be an attorney. So, I did what aspiring lawyers do — went to law school and then went to work at a law firm. I soon realized that I wasn’t feeling fulfilled, and as luck would have it, a friend called me and told me about a great job at the Philadelphia Housing Authority. I interviewed and got the job, and from that point onwards, I knew that what I truly wanted was a role that connected me directly with the community.

When I first came to TD, I started in legal operations. As fate would have it, I later met the woman who became my boss at an event, and she pulled me back into doing what I loved most — working with underserved communities. My career trajectory wasn’t a straight line, but I was lucky to be guided in the direction that made the most sense for me. I often tell people who ask that their career path won’t always be linear, which is why it’s important to surround themselves with people who they trust to guide them.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

When I worked at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, my job was, essentially, to evict people from affordable housing units if they were not abiding by the rules outlined. I remember being on site when a man stumbled in, smelling of alcohol. He was responsible for his three grandchildren, and we were going to terminate his benefits because he wasn’t following the housing accommodation rules. But when I went to talk to him, he was serious about not losing his housing. I remember he said to me, “I’m going to get help. You’ve got to help me, Ms. Shelley.”

In that moment I realized that we all have a choice. We can either choose to help people or hurt people. I realized that every decision I made in that role had an impact, and from that point on, I embraced the opportunity, but also the responsibility, to help all people feel more confident — not just about their finances, but also in their ability to achieve their personal goals in a changing world.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

To garner success, people must want to see you become successful. I used to have tunnel vision. I didn’t understand the importance of building relationships. As I began to understand how to build better relationships, I realized how critical it was to establish personalized connections with the people I worked with — a connection bigger than just doing the job. Once I started putting that thought into action, I saw my success begin to take off.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I worked at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the General Counsel (the Chief Lawyer of the legal department) was my boss. She had one of the greatest impacts on me and helped me shape my career outlook. She nurtured me, and occasionally gave me critical feedback, but always in a constructive way. By the time I worked for her, I had already graduated law school, passed the bar, and become a lawyer. I thought I knew what I was doing.

One day, she gave me an assignment, and the end result did not meet her standards. But what resonated most was the way she shared her feedback, which showed that she had a deep understanding of me as a worker, but most importantly as an individual. She knew me well enough to give feedback that inspired me to do better. From that point on, I raised my standards for myself. I realized, there’s good enough, good, and then there’s excellent — which is what I wanted to be. Throughout my time at the Philadelphia Housing Authority, she continued to check on my development and growth. Working with a leader like her was a turning point for me.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

The Road Less Traveled, by M. Scott Peck, starts with the sentence, “Life is difficult.” That resonated with me because growing up, and now as a parent myself, I understand that we do our best to give our kids lives that are free of difficulty. But reading that sentence over and over again helps me recognize that while life is difficult, it doesn’t mean people can’t overcome hardships. It serves as a reminder that it’s important to understand that life is not easy, but we have it in us to overcome obstacles in our way.

I also listen to The Daily podcast every morning, and that’s how I like to start my day. Another good one is The Breakdown with Shaun King because he is progressive and operates with a strong opinion. I challenge myself consistently to listen to various perspectives, and Shaun helps to provide that.

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

“To whom much is given, much will be required.” Essentially, lift as you climb. This is the principle that guides my existence. I am happiest helping others reach their goals, and I don’t live in a space of fear of other’s success. I always tell people that I would love to work for them one day. If someone I taught, could then begin to teach me, that would show me that I’ve done what I needed to do. Giving back and carving a pathway to success for others are my guiding principles.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about the shortage of affordable housing. Lack of affordable housing has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. I know this is a huge topic, but for the benefit of our readers can you briefly explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

There are many reasons, but to name a few: stagnant wages, an increase in people wanting to move into urban centers, and the building boom — especially in big cities — all have contributed to where we are now. Prices of houses have increased, but wages have not.

In previous years, there were many programs and initiatives — like the GI Bill — that paved the way to home ownership But today, home ownership is no longer an attainable goal for many people. When I got my first home, it was through my employer — the Philadelphia Housing Authority. They had an employee matching program, and I met with a bank that helped me figure out what made the most sense for me.

Now, we’re seeing a whole new generation of people whose parents didn’t own homes, which makes home ownership seem even further out of reach for people.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact to address this crisis? Can you share some of the initiatives you are leading to help correct this issue?

First, we have the TD Ready Commitment, where the mission is to give everyone a chance to succeed in an ever-changing world. As part of the TD Ready Commitment, we have four key pillars: Financial Security, Vibrant Planet, Connected Communities and Better Health. Financial security and inclusion are key to the issue of affordable housing, and under the umbrella of financial security, affordable housing is one of our key issues to address.

Taking it a step further, we have our Housing for Everyone grant program through the TD Charitable Foundation. This year, we awarded more than $4.9 million in grants to 32 local organizations across the US working to help COVID-impacted households remain in safe, affordable rental units. We understood that the pandemic worsened the rental housing crisis, so we shifted our efforts this year to include direct rental assistance, instead of focusing on home ownership like in previous years. When people lose their jobs, they can’t pay their rent or mortgage, and so it turns into a vicious cycle. We are helping to solve this problem through our grants.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

I am especially proud of how we evolved the TD Ready Challenge this year to confront the most pressing needs brought on by the global health crisis. The TD Ready Challenge is another program under our broader TD Ready Commitment that this year granted $2.8 million to six US organizations that are addressing the widespread impacts of the pandemic in their local communities. It’s early days, and I’ve already seen the impact those dollars can have. By showing up hyper-locally and prioritizing the communities most severely impacted, we were able to use our resources to address critical needs.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

Affordable housing is no longer on the list of issues that are popular, which is why it’s so important to keep talking about it.

The first thing people can do to help address affordable housing is to understand what their own community is facing.

The second step is to get educated on the facts so they can come from a place of empathy and understanding, not judgement. I recommend a really great book on affordable housing called Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. It talks about how hard it is to get yourself out of a bad rental situation and become a homeowner.

Step number three is to support organizations that drive affordable housing initiatives. There are organizations across the U.S. whose focus is building homes and providing people with an opportunity for home ownership. Invest in these organizations.

If you had the power to influence legislation, are there laws which you would like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

I would really like to see a higher federal minimum wage. I think about my parents and grandparents, and they were all homeowners. That was because they had wages that were enough to sustain a family and own a home. Now, we all know people that work two or three jobs and still can’t afford to buy a home. While I understand the complexity of the issue, raising the federal minimum wage would create a pathway to home ownership.

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

The first goes for any leader: leadership is a journey. You don’t have all the answers your first day on the job. The day I got named Head of Social Impact was just another day. I didn’t suddenly know everything when I got the position. You have to work at being a good leader, which means reading, studying, and connecting.

Second, you’ve got to lead from a place of empathy and connect with the people you work with.

Third, you can’t lead from a place of fear.

Fourth, you’re either helping people or hurting people. I know this is simplifying to an extent, but that’s my perspective.

Lastly, good leaders have to take time for themselves. A lot of leaders think that they need to give all their time away. That’s not the case. Sometimes you need to take care of yourself first so that you are strong enough to help someone else.

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

I’m going to have to say Thasunda Duckett, who is the new CEO of TIAA. She’s of my era, she’s reached the highest levels of leadership in the U.S., and she looks like me. I would love to have a conversation with her about how she did it.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me on LinkedIn, at Shelley R. Sylva.

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