“Why you should admit when you don’t have the answer or when you were wrong” with Candice Georgiadis & Lesslie Keller

Try to let your actions speak louder than your words and do a lot of listening. This is hard for those of us who think we usually know the right answer. Admit when you don’t have the answer or when you were wrong. Hire good people, train them well, and then get out of the […]

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Try to let your actions speak louder than your words and do a lot of listening. This is hard for those of us who think we usually know the right answer. Admit when you don’t have the answer or when you were wrong. Hire good people, train them well, and then get out of the way and let them do their jobs. Trust but verify. You’re still where the buck stops but you can’t do it alone.

Asa part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lesslie Keller.

Lesslie Keller has been the CEO of Episcopal Community Services (ECS) since March 2007. Founded in 1927, ECS provides more than $30 million in health and human services in the areas of homelessness, mental health, substance use disorder treatment, and early childhood education to more than 6,000 clients in San Diego over five programs. With more than 20 locations, the agency employs more than 400 people.

Lesslie is an alumnae of LEAD San Diego Influence, the Fieldstone Foundation Executive Learning Group and the Harvard Business School’s Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. She serves on the Audit Committees of Cygnet Theater and St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and as a moderator for the San Diego Harvard Business School’s Nonprofit Management Development program.

Lesslie moved to San Diego from Chicago where she had been the Director of Finance and Administration for the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago for 14 years, overseeing all financial and administrative services for the Diocese’s six corporations and one association. A CPA, she joined the diocese after working in the public accounting and private corporate sectors.

Born in Tennessee and educated in Virginia and North Carolina, Lesslie’s college major was in mass communications and she worked in several television and radio stations before switching to business and finance.

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?

Istarted my career in the for-profit world as a CPA, but through client and volunteer work I discovered that the environment which most inspired and stimulated me was in the nonprofit sector. Mission-based work was my motivator. When I had the opportunity to make a switch, I took it. Thankfully, ECS’s $29 Million budget, allows me to continue to utilize my financial experience but in a different context.

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

An early encounter I had with a mentally ill, homeless man left me with an experience I will never forget. When I welcomed him to a Thanksgiving luncheon we were serving, he yelled and cursed at me and accused me of hating him and said he would be leaving to go and get drunk. Taken aback, I assured him that I did not hate him and that he was welcome at our outreach program. Over the course of the next hour, I had another similar encounter with the same man who was obviously agitated and hostile. He was every bit the stereotype of a scary street person. But to my surprise, our last encounter was very different. When I offered him a piece of pie, he took my hand in his and met my gaze and we had a very civil conversation in which he apologized for his earlier behavior and thanked me for affirming him. I realized in that moment that he was likely more frightened of me than I was of him and the defenses that were necessary for him to survive on the street initially prevented us from connecting. I had to get past my own stereotype of him as he did of me. It was deeply moving to me to be able to break through those defenses, to really see and connect with a human being whose life experience was so different from my own. The staff assured me later than he was a complete teetotaler and never got drunk! I saw people in his situation differently after that.

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 moved to San Diego from Chicago where it is common to navigate according to where Lake Michigan is (on the east) so you know if the water is on your right you are going north. It’s funny how that directional sense gets ingrained in your subconscious. When I moved to San Diego the water was on the west and I was lost and late for meetings on more than one occasion thinking I was heading north (water on the right) when I was headed south for the Mexican border. I suppose the message was that a new job can turn your world upside down for a while.

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 have been fortunate to have many mentors in my career. It would be difficult to name them all. So, I will name an important group in my professional development. Almost a decade ago I became part of a small leadership development group made up of nonprofit CEOs. Aware that often our job can be a lonely one, the safe space we created for sharing our joys and challenges — or peaches and pits, as we call them — has been a real gift. These 10 talented people are my trusted cohort to bounce ideas off, share frustrations and victories with, and just relax and have a good time. The trust and honesty we have shared has made my job easier and I have benefitted from their wisdom. It also makes me feel very optimistic to know that our community is filled with such good leaders. It is important to have a support system and a safe space to just let down.

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?

Self-care is so very important if we are to be able to guide others. For me, good centering exercises to enhance focus and balance include walking, yoga, meditation, and spending time with friends. Sometimes just a simple breathing exercise is enough to refocus. Oh, and I love movies and theater and travel! So, the pandemic is making things harder. I have doubled up on the physical exercise and escaping with good books and podcasts. Just getting ‘outside my head’ is a good way to refresh my perspective.

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?

Early in my career, I was part of an executive leadership team where each of us participated in a tool known as the Whole Brain Test in which each person’s abilities and style are correlated to one part of the brain — frontal or basal and left or right. To our surprise — and delight — we discovered that each of the four of us operated primarily from a different quadrant. Each quadrant has its own strengths and weaknesses. That certainly explained our different approaches to various aspects of our organization. It turned out to also explain our strength. The lesson which we gained was that this diversity allowed us to be prepared for all different types of situations. There would be some member of the team fit for what was required. It also gave us permission to allow people to exercise their strengths and acknowledge their weaknesses in a constructive way. Having a “whole brain” is something an organization needs to reach its full potential. It is also important to have diverse experiences among the leadership. I believe that without this wholistic approach, an organization will be handicapped. This is especially important in an organization like Episcopal Community Services which serves such a variety of clients and the ‘lived experience’ of many of our staff are invaluable as we design the most effective programs and modalities.

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.

To have an inclusive, representative, and equitable society requires leveling the playing field for those who have not enjoyed the same advantages. This means access to high-quality education for everyone, safe housing, and the ability to have good healthcare. It also means acknowledging where these basic human needs have been missing and trying to mitigate the hardship that has caused them. As business leaders, we can contribute by, among other things, ensuring that our organizations provide equal access to the hiring process for all, equitable pay, a respectful and ethical workplace, access to good healthcare and other benefits, and opportunities for training and growth. I am proud that Episcopal Community Services values its workforce and shows it by doing these things — including an annual contribution to a 401k for our employees.

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?

The CEO needs to have a comfort level with multi-tasking because we’re often simultaneously serving as ringmaster and juggler. It’s not unusual to be dealing with serious internal issues one minute and being the smiling accessible face of the agency at a community event the next or vice versa. It can mean celebrating a victory in one department and at the same time dealing with a tragedy in another. It took me a while to realize that the unexpected is as much a part of my job as are the carefully planned daily calendar appointments. The CEO lives in a fishbowl of sorts and is expected to always exemplify the values of the agency, even at times when you don’t feel up to it. It’s part of the job.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

I suppose for many, being “the boss” sounds like a pretty cushy job and, to be honest, the job does come with advantages of authority and respect and higher compensation. What is not always understood is the near-constant stress and responsibility of always being where the buck stops and being in that fishbowl. The CEO is expected to have the answers and solve the problems. There are many different constituencies one must answer to — staff, board, clients, donors, contractors and funders, etc. It is not a 9 to 5 job and often the elation of great success is closely followed by the weight of the next problem. Emotionally the job can be a roller coaster.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

When I first started my career one of the differences was juggling a career and motherhood. While fathers take a more active role now than then, there are work/ life balance issues that are constantly surfacing and important to address. And there are still places where misogyny can be found, although I have been fortunate to have escaped much of that. Generally, women must try a little harder to earn respect and prove themselves able to stand up to the rigors of leadership. At some time or other we have all experienced “mansplaining”. We have learned when to develop a thick skin and ignore the small and petty things without losing our compassion and empathy.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I don’t think I had any expectations of what the job would be like. It has been an adventure from the beginning. In my previous world as a CPA my work life was much more predictable, and the excitement of a new challenge was part of what drew me to my current position.

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?

Flexibility, good self-care, a sense of humor, a belief in the work of your organization, and an acceptance that you are expected to be on duty more or less 24/7 helps.

But the most important thing is to have a north star. By that, I mean to understand what your ethical and moral principles are and what lines you won’t cross. You should not become a CEO if you need to be popular and have lots of affirmation because the truth is that you won’t get that a lot of the time. But if you can believe that you are being true to your principles and are acting in the best interest of your organization as well as maintaining your self-respect, you can handle the times when you disappoint people and are criticized, even though they hurt.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Try to let your actions speak louder than your words and do a lot of listening. This is hard for those of us who think we usually know the right answer. Admit when you don’t have the answer or when you were wrong. Hire good people, train them well, and then get out of the way and let them do their jobs. Trust but verify. You’re still where the buck stops but you can’t do it alone.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I can only pray that that is true. Through the programs at ECS, serving people who are dealing with mental illness, addiction, poverty, homelessness and the impact of adverse life conditions, I believe that we have made it possible for many thousands of people to reach their potential and live healthier, happier lives. I have tried to do my part to make that happen, but I am well aware that I am but one part of a mighty team. It takes a village to change lives.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

To be a healthier, happier leader:

Pace yourself — it’s a marathon, not a sprint

Practice good self-care, you can’t help others if you don’t take care of yourself

Be patient and try to listen more than you talk, sometimes there is wisdom where you least expect it

Expect the unexpected

Create a safe support system where you can get honest feedback

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.

My BHAG would be to invest more in the future of our country by investing more in the children — making sure that they all have access to good housing, a high-quality education, good nutrition, good healthcare — both physical and emotional. We know that a huge number of children are impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) — exposure to toxic stress — which has a lasting effect on health, well-being, and opportunity. The impact of ACEs can be passed from generation to generation without proper intervention. Creating and sustaining safe, nurturing relationships can prevent ACEs but we need to educate and advocate for programs and support to do that.

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

Frederick Buechner said, “our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” When you find the place where those intersect, no matter how difficult the task, it is worth doing. I have been very blessed to have had an opportunity to work at that intersection.

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

Michelle Obama. Her common sense, grace, intelligence, and real-world, down to earth practicality are admirable. Her dedication to making life healthier and more equitable, especially for children, is inspiring. I love the way she is a doer and relatable without her ego getting in the way.

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