There are a few myths about being a CEO. The first is that we have all the answers. Just because you’re the CEO doesn’t mean you’ll have an answer for everything — or even that you should! It’s important to build a strong team around you to help you get those answers. The other myth is that you’re untouchable. You’re a human, and your team needs to know you’re a human. You have to be personable, to feel. Especially as an executive of a nonprofit organization.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tibi Guzmán. Tibi has served as Executive Director and CEO of The Arc Westchester since June, 2018. Prior to her appointment, she was the Associate Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer at the organization. She is part of the leadership team for the last 13 years overseeing different aspects of the nonprofit, starting with Wellness Center for Diagnostic and Therapeutic Services followed by programs to enhance life skills and Career Supports services. In this capacity, Ms. Guzmán was integral in redesigning prevocational services to better prepare individuals for employment in the community and introduced UNC TEACCH framework to enhance performance. As COO, she oversaw an operating budget of 56 million with services ranging from Early Intervention/Preschool, programs for students transitioning from High School to supports for adults residing in the organization’s 44 homes. While her professional background is in Health Care Administration, Ms. Guzmán has personal experience with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD)as a parent of a son with Autism. Ms. Guzmán came from the Healthcare field as an Executive Vice President of Riverside Health Care Inc., a multi-healthcare system in Yonkers, NY. Additionally, Ms, Guzmán was recently a board member of the New York State APSE chapter and participated in local I/DD, mental health, behavioral services, education and fund-raising boards. Ms, Guzmán sat on the Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, Community Service Board for more than 12 years, and certified as a Fellow of the American College of Health Care Executives. Her community participations include serving on the Board of Education for Bronxville Schools for six years and the board of Heartsong Inc., an art and music therapy program for children with developmental disabilities, for more than 12 years as Treasurer and Program Chair. She has two sons and a B.S. from Fordham University, M.P.S. from The New School for Health Service Administration and a M.A. in Economics from Fordham University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I always like to say that my professional story starts with a personal story: my son brought me to The Arc Westchester. Because my son has Autism, I was trying to find an organization that would help support him. That’s what brought me here.
I have a background in the hospital system, including holding executive positions. I made the decision to retire to focus on my son when he was an adolescent; I needed to find the right supports for him. My involvement in my previous career introduced me to the organization: I met Tom Hughes, who has been involved with The Arc Westchester in several capacities for many years, on the board of another organization. When I retired, Tom told me I should come meet with The Arc, and I was subsequently offered the opportunity to join the board or step into an internal position, which I ended up choosing to do. Joining the organization was the perfect way for me to learn more about it and how it could support my son.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It’s not a particular story, but the thing that I find most interesting about leading a company, especially when you have held other positions within it, is how you can forget how trusting people are, and how appreciative they can be. Overall, being in this role has been very humbling for me. It’s remarkable to know how much you are trusted by the staff as well as those your organization supports. You don’t realize that until you step into the CEO role, because then you are faced with how impactful everything you do and say can be.
OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
The thing that most attracted me to the CEO position was the ability to take my vision and know that it will become part of the bigger vision for the organization. I have a talented team around me to help examine my vision and expand upon it. I’m in awe when I see it come to life.
The structure that we use at The Arc Westchester is a strategic plan. During our most recent planning period, I was a big proponent of instilling and defining values that we could weave into every area of our organization. I wasn’t sure how everyone would react to this new way of doing things, but it opened up some wonderful dialogue and engagement with the leadership team. Even though I knew many of those involved for years, I was able to see a new inspiration that they brought to the table by developing this particular shared vision concept.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
You have influence and you have an impact. Your words are measured, evaluated and followed. Your actions are monitored. You’re no longer just another member of the team. To me, that’s the biggest difference.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
Seeing some of my own vision come to fruition. You have no idea how much it means to me when people are quoting our values. It’s a reminder of what influence I have.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
You become more of a public entity. I was recently in Europe with my family visiting my son who works there. I walked into his office — an open concept environment — and was greeted by everyone. One of his colleagues stepped up to me and said, “Oh, I just Googled you.” You forget that people are watching your actions, and that there is a record of everything you do and say. You’re just doing your job. I wouldn’t say it’s a downside, but you have to be aware because people see what you do and say.
And in terms of being a female executive, you constantly have to explain your credentials. My predecessor in this role’s title was Executive Director. I had to add the CEO in order to get across my role in the company and the experience I bring to the position. I don’t think male executives have to even think about that.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There are a few. The first is that we have all the answers. Just because you’re the CEO doesn’t mean you’ll have an answer for everything — or even that you should! It’s important to build a strong team around you to help you get those answers.
The other myth is that you’re untouchable. You’re a human, and your team needs to know you’re a human. You have to be personable, to feel. Especially as an executive of a nonprofit organization.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Having to explain why you are in that role and why you deserve it. There is an unfair pressure to be better than your male counterparts. You feel like you have to be better in order to be respected.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
This is probably specific to the not-for-profit world, but I didn’t realize how much time you need to spend with your volunteer board members. Their interests are different, there’s no monetary compensation. They are focused on the mission — many of our board members are parents or siblings of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or those with these disabilities themselves. There is a lot of education involved with your board — the communication and connection are a lot more than I thought they would be.
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?
I think you have to be extremely conscientious. You have to lead with your values all the time. Executives have to be sure of who they are and be self-aware enough to see the gaps in their talent and know how to fill those gaps. You have to understand that the biggest part of being in this role is managing people. It’s not about the profit line — you’re working with humans.
You have to be broader than just your organization. When I was interviewing for the role, especially because I have been with The Arc for several years, they told me, “We know what you do here…but how are you going to expand our reach?”
You also have to be resilient. Everything has to roll off your back, you have to stand up again and cheer no matter what happens. You also have to be intelligent — not in topics but in dealing with people.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Lean in. Automatically take a seat at the table. Immediately when I’m with colleagues I sit up front, I don’t sit in the back. You have to remember that your POV is important and you can’t discount it. Also, don’t allow mansplaining. You have to cut that off immediately. Focus on the issues at hand, but don’t feel like you have to solve everyone’s problems. You’re their to listen and help steer.
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 only realized it much later, but my first CEO supervisor made a tremendous impact on me. I was in an assistant role, not an executive one. He gave me an extreme amount of latitude in making an impact on the organization. I was very young and it was a very different time. Women didn’t have a lot of opportunities like that. He’s no longer with us, and I thank him in spirit often for giving me the confidence that I was able to build off of for the rest of my career.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m very mission-focused. I believe in our mission and I want people and organizations around the world to be open to supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I don’t have five specific examples or five things I wish someone told me to do. I believe that everything that goes on in your career is a learning opportunity. Everything that goes wrong, everything that goes right, is a chance to self-reflect.
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.
What I sincerely believe in is the importance of being truthful. I think that you don’t gain from lying or being deceitful. Nothing grows from that. If I could inspire one person to live their life with integrity, I would consider myself successful. Think of the world we would live in if everyone was truthful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” — Jim Collins
It’s definitely well known, but the first time I heard it I felt that it spoke to me. From a young age I have been driven. I definitely think it comes from my family. My goal was always to be great. You have to decide if you want to drive yourself to be a leader. You have to seek it out and do the work. It doesn’t come without hard work.
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
I find that what Oprah Winfrey has done, the challenges she’s been through, the ceiling she has broken, the adversity she has faced is just so inspiring. I can relate to so many things about her — I’m a minority, I grew up poor. To me, it is incredible that a woman like her exists. She is a great example and so brave. A woman is influential when she is brave and when she steps out of the norm…that’s a woman I want to talk to.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.