Ep. 154 – Gary Sinise Foundation COO, Elizabeth A. Fields

Mar 29, 2021

Our guest today is COO Alliance Member Elizabeth A. Fields, COO of the Gary Sinise Foundation. 

Elizabeth joined the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2018 as its Director of Development before being promoted to Chief Operating Officer.​ She brings over 20 years of non-profit leadership experience to the Foundation, having previously held a variety of executive roles with NPR, the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management and Michigan State University.

Learning to collaborate during a crisis was a pivotal building block in ​her leadership development, particularly in the weeks and months after 9/11. Taking collective action with a unified goal in mind, and in keeping with the best interests of ​her colleagues​, has likewise proved crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic — particularly in how the Foundation accomplishes its mission.

Throughout her career, Elizabeth has learned that passion is the most important trait of being happy and successful as a leader. Using this passion has allowed her to evaluate and build short-term and long-term approaches in multiple industries. 

Creating collaborative environments, trusting people to do their jobs, empowering staff, giving credit where credit is due, and providing support and guidance are all values she takes to heart.

In her leisure time, Elizabeth enjoys surfing, baseball, cycling, and playing golf. She thrives on the grit, passion, determination, and strength required of each activity.  

In This Conversation We Discuss:

  • What were some of the big lessons Elizabeth learned from fundraising 
  • How to bring the good parts into the business world to avoid the complications and bureaucracy that some of the universities can get caught up
  • How the Gary Sinise Foundation operates and what the programs it raises funds for 
  • How does a successful non profit as a whole runs 

 

Resources:

Connect with Elizabeth A. Fields: LinkedIn 

Gary Sinise Foundation. – http://garysinisefoundation.org

 

Connect with Cameron: Website | LinkedIn

Get Cameron’s latest book “Meetings Suck: Turning One of The Most Loathed Elements of Business into One of the Most Valuable

Our guest for this episode is Elizabeth Fields, the COO of the Gary Sinise Foundation. Elizabeth joined the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2018 as its Director of Development before being promoted to Chief Operating Officer. She brings over twenty years of nonprofit leadership experience to the Foundation, having previously held a variety of executive roles with NPR, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management and Michigan State University.

Learning to collaborate during a crisis was a pivotal building block in her leadership development, particularly in the weeks and months after 9/11. Taking collective action with a unified goal in mind and in keeping with the best interests of her colleagues has likewise proved crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in how the Foundation accomplishes its mission.

Throughout her career, Elizabeth has learned that passion is the most important trait of being happy and successful as a leader. Using this passion has allowed her to evaluate and build short-term and long-term approaches in multiple industries. Creating collaborative environments, trusting people to do their jobs, empowering staff, giving credit where credit is due and providing support and guidance are all values she takes to heart. In her leisure time, Elizabeth enjoys surfing, baseball, cycling and playing golf. She thrives on the grit, passion, determination and strength required of each activity. Elizabeth is also a member of the COO Alliance. Elizabeth, thanks for joining us on the show.

Thank you for having me on your show. I am very excited to be here.

I missed that on my first read-through. When did you get into surfing?

I grew up in Los Angeles but I didn’t get into surfing until my husband, and I moved back to California from Chicago in 2006. I wasn’t a big fan of coming back to California. I said, “If we are going to move back there, I’m going to create a list of my top three things that I want to do.” Surfing lessons were number one, so I love them. Relaxing.

It’s one of those super fringy sports that when people find it, they find their flow, and the rest of the world sits and watches you. It’s pretty beautiful to see it.

I would say I’m very bad at it but it’s very relaxing. I love being in the ocean. Maybe that’s why I took it up later in life. I don’t know.

I’ve tried to do it 3 times, and all 3 times, I got so frustrated that I finally said, “It’s for Elizabeth and not for me. I can’t pull that one off.” When we were talking earlier, I wanted to find out a little bit about some of the background that you’ve come into your COO role at the Gary Sinise Foundation but some of it was the skillsets that you’ve picked up at working at the different universities and being in the senior roles at those universities. I’m curious if you can tell us what you’ve pulled from those different roles, and you can migrate through your resume and talk about some of the leadership lessons you’ve pulled through. I’m curious about that.

In the university world, I was focused on fundraising. There were times when I would be dedicated to a particular department. You listed off a couple of schools I was with that were business school related. At Michigan State University, I raised money for libraries competing in the technology department. At UPenn, it was for the university as a whole.

Depending on where I was at would be what the need was in that particular situation. At Michigan State University, I was able to be a lot more entrepreneurial that had never had a dedicated fundraiser there before. While I had to abide by the university’s policies, the provost of the division was a big fan of throwing things at the wall to see if it sticks and develop the strategy from there.

Where at UPenn, there was a lot more structure and policies that you had to abide by but I was able to learn those specific policies and guidelines that were very successful. There’s a reason why Ivy League schools raise so much money, and they have such a pain. Being able to take their systems and bring them with me to an NPR or Gary Sinise Foundation but then also bring that entrepreneurial spirit has allowed me to help develop a leadership style throughout my career.

What do you think your big lessons then were from fundraising specifically? That’s a tough role. It almost seems like the role in the nonprofit world that a lot of people wouldn’t want to get into because you are having to ask for money. It’s socially like unacceptable. What are the big lessons from that?

In some circumstances, it’s socially unacceptable. This was interesting when I was working at NPR, which is National Public Radio, in case, for some reason, somebody in your audience doesn’t realize that. I was in charge of fundraising for their Western Regional Office, which is NPR West. There, the fundraiser was like the Holy Grail. You had to raise money for the programming to exist.

The member stations, the reporters and even the supporters wanted to talk to you. A lot of times at universities, they are running from you. The alumni are like, “We know what you do. You are poisoned. You are going to come to ask us for money.” The big lesson would be that it’s not about raising money. It’s about building relationships.

I was wondering if that’s where you are going to go.

That’s the other interesting thing about fundraising. There’s the annual fund, which is when you get a phone call, an email or something in the mail that asks you for the $50, which is important to a nonprofit. There are the major gift officers and principal gift officers that tend to ask people for $500,000 plus. Those take a long time to develop. You don’t call somebody and say, “I want to have a meeting, and will you give us $500,000?”

On average, the industry says it takes about eighteen months to cultivate that relationship once you’ve identified a person who has the intent and interest in giving to your specific nonprofit, charity or university. It’s about building rapport and matching that interest with the need of the nonprofit. It makes it fun. It’s a little puzzle almost.

You are probably picking up the whole, keeping your prospects warm and going and taking them through a longer sales cycle and building that trust and relationship with them, which is critical in every business sales cycle as well.

It’s interesting to have observed colleagues throughout my career and their style. Some of them are, every single time you have to talk about the nonprofit, and I’m not a big fan of that. You always have to bring it back to the organization at some point because you want them to support it. You need to hear what they are saying.

SIC 154 | Fundraising Programs

Fundraising Programs: Every time you talk about your non-profit, you have to bring it back to the organization at some point because you want them to support it.

 

I had a donor. Luckily, she became a donor at UPenn up in the Bay Area. It’s interesting that she finally took a meeting, and to this day, I’m not sure why she took the meeting but I’m grateful she did. She was going through her 25th reunion. We started talking about her joining the reunion committee, and from there, we found out that her son was into baseball. I said, “Maybe you will be interested in joining one of the sports boards.”

The son had noticed. I’m a big fan of baseball, as you mentioned. My backpack is made out of Rawlings baseball material. That’s how big of a fan I am. It’s sitting next to me on the chair. The kid comes home from baseball practice and starts asking me all kinds of questions about baseball. The reason why I bring this up is that about three months later, we had already closed the loop on her joining the committee and being a board member and giving money. She came up to me and said, “My son asked me where I was going tonight,” because there was a Penn event.

She said, “I’m going to go to a Penn event.” He like, “Are you going to see Elizabeth?” He’s like, “Can you ask her what spring training game she’s going to go to this year?” The whole conversation became about spring training baseball. I had a colleague standing next to me who said, “Why did you never bring a Penn?” I’m like, “I listened to the donor, and she wanted to talk about baseball.” It doesn’t have to be the same conversation every time. She didn’t want it to be that time. That’s critical. Listening to what they are saying and having a conversation. Again, it’s about building relationships and rapport. If there are a couple of times, they want to talk about baseball.

Talk about baseball. We learned that back in our college pro painters days where it was part of the upfront for when you arrived at the person’s home. You had to look for 1 or 2 things that you could have some commonality. It was like a picture of their children or a picture that showed a sport, a hobby or something in their living room that would show some interest of theirs.

We actively practiced walking into a room and finding something to talk about. You are right, and that is so similar to some of our prospects too. It’s also very interesting with some of our international customers as well, how they do business very differently from how we might in the US or Canada too, to be cognizant of that.

You worked around the universities in fundraising, again, the universities have a lot of systems and processes. Did you see the bad parts of systems as well as the good parts? How do you bring that into the business world so that you don’t overcomplicate and develop all the red tape and corporate bureaucracy that some of the universities could get involved in, or do they? Is that a perception but not reality?

Most perception. It’s very bureaucratic. I haven’t been to one university where that is not the case. Even going through interviews, it’s unbelievable. If you go for an interview, no matter what level you are coming in at, you have to meet three days of interviews from the building manager to the dean to everybody in between. They get very offended too. Everything is bureaucratic. It’s unbelievable.

You said they do have some systems that are good or they wouldn’t be able to do what they do.

That’s the thing. Now some of them are outstanding. What I have been able to do is take these systems that work and say, “I’m going to bring them to the next organization, and I can adapt the systems to where I’m at,” at that particular organization at the time and grow the systems accordingly. The hindrance of it is, in some circumstances. There’s no room. I don’t want to say there’s no room for changing it but there’s no willingness to change it. In some circumstances, you are sitting there thinking, if you would even consider it, it might strengthen the process but it’s so rigid in some circumstances. It is what it is, and that can hurt an organization as well.

SIC 154 | Fundraising Programs

Fundraising Programs: Integrating new systems into existing organizations can be quite a challenge. In some circumstances, there is no room for changing it, or there is no willingness in the people to change it.

 

Tell us about the Gary Sinise Foundation. What do you do? I always want to talk a little bit about some of the nonprofits before we get into your specific role. What’s the Gary Sinise Foundation do?

Gary Sinise, who is an actor and humanitarian, started the foundation years ago. It focuses on serving our nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders, their families and those in need. We have 4 programs and 14 initiatives that serve in these programs. Anytime that I talk to somebody and they sit there and say, “What is it you do?” I usually say, “What is it that we don’t do?” We do a little bit of everything.

We work with World War II Veterans, Gold Star families, and high school students. We build homes and modify homes. Gary’s band, Gary Sinise and the Lieutenant Dan Band goes and plays concerts at bases and military and hospitals. It’s a lot of different things in this space. It’s exciting to be here. It’s a great cause, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Tell us about nonprofits as a whole. I used to and have a very different view now but I used to feel like nonprofits were almost like the parent-teacher board. Nothing would ever get done but that isn’t the case. How does a successful nonprofit run? What’s the structure like? How do you operate?

A successful nonprofit runs as a successful business does. If you go to a nonprofit and say, “Here’s our cause but to achieve that, we are going to run it as if it’s a private business. It’s going to be much more successful.” What happens a lot out there is the perception, and this isn’t true in some cases for grassroots organizations or smaller organizations. There’s such a rush to raise money that year to be able to offer their programs that they can’t focus on a proper structure that will make them run a little more efficiently.

Here at the Gary Sinise Foundation, our founder and the executive director at the time had the foresight to sit there and say, “We are going to raise money for the next year.” We always know that we are fully funded rather than scrambling around, we could run it like a business and be successful, so then we were going to be fully funded for the next year.

That’s super smart. You are leaning ahead. You fundraise so the money that you are working off of for 2021, you know what you’ve got to spend, then you reverse engineer that and work into it. You are never running out of cash. You are operating. That’s smart. That’s smarter than most businesses even operate. Most businesses don’t operate that way.

It was smart. I have to say, if I ever opened my own nonprofit or business, I’m going to sit there and say, “This is the way to do it for sure.”

There’s something interesting about that. You mentioned to me earlier on when we were talking prior to going live something around the fact that nonprofits have a rating system or something in place to show what percentage of revenue is getting out to the causes so that it’s not being sucked up by the managers or the family. How does that work?

There’s an organization called Charity Navigator. They are the watchdogs of the nonprofit world. You work hard to get what’s called a four-star rating. We’ve had it here at the Gary Sinise Foundation for four years running. It’s when you make sure that no more than 15% of the money you raise goes back to admin services.

Here, we are running about 88% of the money raised going back to our programs, thus, having a great impact on the communities in which we serve. The remainder goes to our admin fees. There are a lot of charities and nonprofits out there. What will happen is the sophisticated donor will go to this website, and they will sit there and say, “I’m interested in supporting a nonprofit that does first responder work,” which is one of our programs. They will type it in, and it will show that Gary Sinise Foundation has a four-star rating, which means we are being fiscally responsible and ensuring that the money raise goes back to our program. It’s important. It is powerful.

It’s the better business bureau for nonprofits.

That’s a good way to look at it.

Like a Yelp or a Yelp Review.

That’s a good point because you do go on there, and if there’s some red flag, it will show it. It will give a little like warning about the foundation. Not our foundation but about an organization if you are looking it up.

Gary Sinise is not actively involved in the foundation or is he still alive?

He’s still alive and very active. People always ask me, “Is he as humble as he seems to be? Is he hands-on? Do you talk to him?” The answer is yes, yes, yes. He’s not one of those actors that just throw his name on a foundation. He’s the legit thing. He does about, not in 2020 but about 40 concerts a year. He will always sit there and say, “I’m going to back off,” and you are like, “What are you going to do?”

He will back off to 42.

He will add them. All of a sudden, here are six more that I want to do.

I will only grow by 5% this year. I’m going to back off, and we will only grow. You are the COO of the Gary Sinise Foundation, and there’s a CEO as well. There’s something intriguing about the CEO. Can you want to tell us about him?

It’s Robin Rand. He served in the Air Force’s entire life. He’s a four-star general, and there are not a lot of them out there. Here’s another thing I always tell people I didn’t have the privilege of serving myself. Even years ago, somebody would’ve said to me, “You are going to report to a four-star general at some point in your life.” I would’ve thought they were crazy but here I am reporting to a four-star general. It’s nothing like you would think. At first, I was very scared.

I would be too.

He’s so humble, genuine, and often forgiving that it’s hard to remember that he is a retired four-star general. I’m privileged to work with him.

Did the movies do a disservice for this role or is he an exception to the rule in that four-star general role? In the movies, I don’t even want to look at them on this screen, in case.

It’s interesting that you asked that. We have another four-star general on our board and some three-star generals who are on our advisory council. Now that I think about it, none of them are like what you see in the movies at all. Maybe when they retire and come to the civilian world. That’s what it is.

I wonder if it is more the level five leadership, the drive but that humility they recognize. I remember watching a movie many years ago called Taps. It was about this military cadet school, and the father figure was telling one of the heads of the cadets, the president of the school, and the student council president. He said, “The other cadets will respect your title but they need to respect the person.” I think that was something that I saw there. They had to be more human, and I wonder whether that is what gets these four-star generals to that four-star level is they are more human. They are more approachable, open and relatable. They aren’t the dictator that the movies show them to be.

That would make a lot of sense because my interaction so far indicates that. That’s a great observation.

Talk about your role. What have you had to work on? What do you work on day-to-day in your role now as COO?

The COO position didn’t exist before Robin came aboard. He switched. This is the four-star general, and him top down because there is that ranking of command that he’s used to in the military. He went ahead and created what he calls a C-Suite so that he could go out and focus on the long-term strategy, work with the board of directors, and go out and represent the foundation when Gary is not available. You have the movie star and then the four-star general. It was a good one too.

That would leave me then to work on the day-to-day operations of the organization. When I came into the role, we were at the point of going to, I would say, a mid-major foundation to a larger size organization and required a lot of building out policies, procedures and guidelines. The focus initially was that now it’s making sure that we are revisiting that things still align with where we are at the organization. It’s adapting and implementing things.

Basically, everybody in the organization reports to me or at least the team leads do. It’s working with them to develop annual tactical plans, ensuring that their goals are being met or adjusting them accordingly if there’s, for some reason, the outlook wasn’t predicted correctly. It’s the general day-to-day operations. Nothing that exciting. For most people, it’s probably boring but I’m finding it challenging for sure.

You folks were location-based for the foundation before COVID or did you have some remote employees prior to COVID as well?

The majority of the staff here is in the Los Angeles, California, area. We do have remote employees throughout the country. Our programs are nationwide. It’s an advantage to have some employees out and about. Now we are primarily remote. We are having colleagues and staff come in as needed. When we see some numbers drop here in California, we will probably start doing some office reintegration but what the news looks like moving forward is the answer everybody is waiting to hear. We do come in. I’m here now.

What’s your gut say on that? Do you think you will go back to a full five days a week or go back to more rotation or people coming in once in a while? What’s your thought on that?

We are going to go more into a rotation. At some point, we did start office reintegration, and then we had to stop it because numbers started to spike again. We have enough space to be able to rotate people in whether we do morning shifts and afternoon shifts or at a certain percentage. Again, we have a decent amount of space, so we are able to separate out safely, wear masks and wipe down everything. If you are in an office, close the door and make sure that people are in cubicles.

There are only 1 or 2 people in that cubicle area at a time. I would like to think we could get rotating and get at 50% capacity at some point. There’s something to be said about human interaction, and being able to talk in person and come up with ideas without being on Zoom or the phone is an advantage. I know some of our younger professionals would probably rather be at home the entire time and never come back.

SIC 154 | Fundraising Programs

Fundraising Programs: There is something about being able to talk in person and come up with ideas without Zoom calls. But some younger professionals may prefer to stay home and never return to the office.

 

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens there with companies. Whether they migrate back into the in-person or stay away from that. In terms of growing your employees, what’s your team look like now? Walk us through what your direct reports are and who they are.

We have 44 people total on the staff. We also have some 1099 contractors. For instance, the home build. We don’t do them in-house. We contract with a company that builds homes. We still consider our contractor’s family, however. There’s the development department, which raises money. We have a marketing communications department. Our outreach program is the department that goes and puts on the programs and spends the money. We have a finance and administration department.

Is that the complicated part, that outreach department? That’s out there putting the stuff in place. Is that where the complexity of the business comes in?

I would say so because what happens is we will go and put our four programs into place and the initiatives that are part of those programs. That’s where we spend the majority of the money that we raise. There are circumstances where other organizations that are like-minded and are things that we might not do will come to us and ask us for money.

That’s where the complexity comes in. We have to sit there and say, “X organization on paper seems like it’s a nonprofit partner that we want to have our name associated with,” but then we have to go through a process to make sure that everything isn’t up and up. We don’t want to partner with an organization and give them some money to help execute their programs if they are getting that red warning on Charity Navigator, for instance.

Robin did something interesting when he came to the organization. He said, “When we go and evaluate potential nonprofit partners, we are going to put them through a system called V2S2, which stands for Vision, Values, Strategy and Structure. We will put them through this V2S2. If they pass it and we’ve had some good conversations, usually it’s going to end up being a partner of ours.

You said you manage the home builds through some outsourced groups or partner groups. You have a lot of programs that you are funding. How many of those are rolled out through partners as well?

The only other one is Gary’s band. He’s not a contractor but his band members are also on a contract. They play other gigs and stuff. I would say the majority of the time, with the exception of 2021, we were the primary gig. We have some one-off situations. We do a home build. We will send a photographer out there. We will have a film crew go out there. These are people Gary’s worked with forever, so they are technically on contract too. The biggest one is our RISE program, which is the Restoring Independent Supporting Empowerment, the one that does home bills and home modifications, and we provide specially adapted vehicles through that program as well.

How do you prioritize where to spend the money and the time as an organization?

The board helps us with that. When we are building out our budget, we will make recommendations of where we think we need to prioritize spending time. We make a presentation of the recommendations to the board, and they come back and let us know what pockets and the priorities are going to be. That’s, I would say, one of their main functions is fiscal oversight in any program recommendations.

Is that a legal oversight? Is that something the board has to do for a nonprofit or is that more a way that you’ve set it up because it’s you feel it’s going to make you run the business in a more optimized way?

No, it’s legal.

They have legal oversight, and then you have to run with not restrictions but guidelines that they give you.

There are bylaws and guidelines that are put in place. There’s a clear structure of who’s responsible for what but when it comes to programmatic change and budget, it’s the board and their oversight.

How about pay levels? Do they do anything in that area at all to control what people get paid?

They control Robin, the CEO and COO’s salary. Everything else falls under the CEO’s discretion.

You operate more like a normal business there as well. I launched a course called Invest in Your Leaders. I have been thinking a lot about growing people and growing the skill of our leaders. Are there any areas of the business day-to-day that you focus on growing your people more than others?

Professional development is brand new to the organization. I would say that a few years ago, it didn’t exist at all. It’s something that we are invested in. We think it’s exceptionally important to grow your leaders in the organization and your leaders to be. At some point, this going to sound very old school but it was something people enjoyed.

At some point, we had a book club. We would assign readings and have group meetings to discuss what they learned in the book. We did podcast listening. It’s similar to a book club but you listen to certain podcasts and then have a discussion. We have been sending people to professional development. The reason why I’m in your COO Alliance is that we believe in professional development. Now, it’s webinars. We’ve had team outings or we used to have team outings. We will come out and, at some point, have them leadership retreats. It’s a huge emphasis for us. You’ve got to grow your team. You are not going to retain people if you don’t.

SIC 154 | Fundraising Programs

Fundraising Programs: It is essential to grow leaders in an organization through activities like book clubs, group meetings, and even podcast listening.

 

It’s interesting. It seems to be that there are two core things that Gen Y wants in their job. The first one is to work with a company that has a purpose and meaning so that they have day-to-day meetings in their work but they feel like they are doing something for an organization that has meaning or purpose. Secondly, they want to continue to grow in their jobs. They want to grow and develop as people, which is interesting because it wasn’t there for Gen X or Baby Boomers. It’s fairly new. The oldest Gen Y is 40 or 41.

The second part of that is that I loved your book club and podcast club idea, where you are not having people read a book or listen to a podcast. You are having them come back and talk about what they’ve learned. I was telling a COO that he’s got fifteen of his employees signing up for the Invest in Your Leaders course. I said, “Do two modules this week and have them come into a lunch and learn and talk a five-minute book report like what did I learn from the course, and what am I putting in place.” Is that where you are getting the real value from that book club and the podcast club with your employees, do you think?

We don’t have the same person lead the discussion. It rotates. It started with our leadership team, and we would take fifteen minutes of the leadership meetings that we would have and have the discussion and then we realized it was so valuable. We opened it up to the entire organization. Almost every single person raised their hand and wanted to participate in it. We brought in podcasts because we, at least I thought people would be like, “I don’t want to read a book. That’s too old school,” so let’s mix it up a little bit. Mixing it up makes it fun too.

You can also listen to audiobooks as well. You don’t have to read with your eyes anymore. We can read with our ears now, which is a little bit weird.

We always offer both. We purchased the book, the podcast or, to your point, the audiobook. We don’t certainly want that expense to be on our employees. That wouldn’t be right.

Companies have to allocate a budget for that. Back in the day, when we were building a 1-800-GOT-JUNK, we had our leadership team read 1 or 2 Chapters a week out of a book. Instead of reading the whole book, we said, “Read Chapters 1 and 2 and then let’s talk about that. We will come back and read Chapters 3 and 4, and we will talk about that.” That was interesting as well. It almost seemed like it was learning with a little bit more purpose than forcing people to read an entire book which sometimes can be a little bit overwhelming.

I like that idea.

Where do you think you’ve grown over the years as a COO?

I don’t even know how to answer that question, to be honest with you. I’ve learned that although this is something that I’ve always believed in. I do believe in people taking responsibility and being accountable and giving credit where credit is due. I believe in that one. I’ve learned that getting people to buy into that sometimes is more challenging than I expected. This organization is going through so much growth, and we are thriving that we are having a lot of change and leadership styles.

This leadership style is very different from my predecessor. I want to sit there and say, “She did an amazing job.” What she and Gary did to this, up until a few years ago, was incredible, and the foresight they had but the leadership style was very different. It has been very challenging for some of my colleagues to accept. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to understand why wanting the best in somebody is a challenge.

It’s funny that I’ve even seen some COOs and CEOs, mostly COOs, worry that they are delegating more projects and working with their team more. If they are not doing work, they don’t feel like they are doing their job. I said, “Sometimes growing your leaders or growing your people is your job.” How do you balance that in terms of the day-to-day that you could be doing work versus growing people? How do you or do you focus on that at all?

I would like to think I’m growing people. I like to think that I’m continually growing as well. There are people who report to me that has more experience in the professional world, and I learned from them as well. Even with some of the younger colleagues, clearly, I’m always continuing to grow. It’s interesting that you said that because there are days when I’m thinking to myself, “I’m having a whole bunch of meetings with my direct reports and finding out what’s going on. I hope this is productive enough.”

I then realize it is because then you get the special assignments. I would say the biggest growth is trusting your team leads and trusting your colleagues. Again, allowing them to make some mistakes as long as they learn from them and teaching them how to learn and why that was okay and why this wasn’t okay and let’s walk through the steps.

Unpack that one for me. If an employee of yours has a mistake on a project, how do you handle that? What’s the discussion like after that?

I don’t want to call that an employee but there was somebody when I was still in development. They were worried that they lost a big gift. Quite frankly, if donors were around because they support this mission, they would’ve had to do something very bad for the donor to walk away. It’s very easy, especially if you are younger, to sit there and say, “I forgot to submit paperwork on time. That’s the end. They are going to fire me.”

That wasn’t the case. The donor gave us an extension. I remember walking through this calling and saying, “Let’s figure out why did you miss the deadline. Let’s figure out what the problem was initially. Is it too much work? Is it not understanding instructions?” Whatever it was, and fix that problem. Sit there and talk about what did you learn from it and encourage, “It’s okay that you made a mistake. Let’s not do it fifteen times.” It’s like that balance of why did it happen or what did you learn from it? What can we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?

It’s the debriefing. It sounds like Mondays or you do a fairly busy day of meetings. Is that your one-on-one meetings with your teams?

It’s spread out throughout the week, depending on the department. I used to do weekly meetings and I realized it was almost too much. We used to do weekly leadership meetings, weekly one-on-one meetings, and some group meetings, depending on what was going on. I’m like, “We are saying the same thing a lot over and over again.” Depending on which department it is, sometimes it’s biweekly.

I changed our leadership meetings to every other week. There’s one leadership meeting that’s a report out that Robin joins and hears directly what’s going on with the departments and the team leads. The other meeting that month is some professional development. Going back to that, whether or not everybody is going to start using Asana, for instance. We are going to have Asana training during a leadership meeting.

Talk about that. You said Asana training during a leadership meeting. What are you doing? Bringing it outside people to teach on the technology tools? Are you doing that internally with people demoing it? How are you doing that?

We are doing it internally. Our marketing communication team has been the one that adopted the software. They have been using it, and now we realize it’s a tool that should be adopted organizationally-wide. They are going to go ahead and do the training. Now you talked about professional development. Something that makes the organization unique here with professional development. It isn’t here’s how to learn a new tool.

A lot of times, it’s having ambassadors who are hand-selected associates of Gary, for instance, come in and tell their story and why they are part of the foundation. There have been times when we were able to do in-person events where we had Medal of Honor recipients come in and share their stories. It’s reminding everybody why we are here and why we are doing what we do every day. That’s part of our professional development, too.

You spoke to me offline about something that your father was also part of the inspiration for you at the Gary Sinise Foundation. What’s that about?

My dad, who was an influential part of my life, did serve in the Army in the Korean War. For some reason, when I grew up, my parents decided that they want to tell me he was a cook. He was a cook in the Army. I was proud of it because what’s interesting in the military is that not everybody goes out and is on the battlefield. They are little art musicians, photographers, and veterinarians.

Anyhow, he was a cook. I was very proud of it. I took this position, and I was going out to do a speech and they wanted to have a little more background about my dad. I called my mom and said, “They are asking some specific questions.” She said, “Why do you think he’s a cook?” I’m like, “You told me he was a cook.” She’s like, “We didn’t want you to be worried. He was a sniper.” I’m like, “That’s a whole different story. That’s a whole different position.”

That’s hilarious.

I couldn’t figure out how he hurt his eye and burned his hand. I was like, “He burned his hand being a cook but how do you hear his eye?” I never understood it but now I do.

Your dad was a sniper and they told you he was a cook. That’s crazy.

I don’t know why it took them so long to tell me but the truth of the matter is, and this is probably why I worked so well with Robin. My dad was also very genuine and honest and a humble man and did so much philanthropic work throughout his time on Earth. He always sat there and said, “Respect those who go on the front lines and protect us and make what we have a possibility.” That’s always resonated with me.

That’s pretty cool. I want to go back to the 21 or 22-year-old self. You are getting ready to go off on your business career. This advice could be advice from your dad that you wish you’d known back then or advice from you that you wish you’d known back then. What do you wish you’d known when you were 21 that you know to be true now but you wish you’d known back then?

You need to be honest with yourself. I started in higher education because I was very passionate about it. I knew it was going to give me a strong background in going into fundraising. I’m always going to appreciate it. What I didn’t do and regret, and now I know, is that when I lost passion for it, I wasn’t honest with myself and didn’t leave it. I should have left a moment that I said, “I no longer want to raise money for higher education,” I should have sat there and said, “I should leave,” but I didn’t do it.

I did that years ago as well. The last months have been horrible. Elizabeth Fields, the COO of the Gary Sinise Foundation. Thanks very much for sharing with us on the Second in Command show. Appreciate all the time again.

I appreciate your time. Thank you again.

It was great.

 

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Written By Cameron Herold

Written By Cameron Herold

Cameron Herold is known around the world as THE CEO WHISPERER. He is the mastermind behind hundreds of companies’ exponential growth. Cameron’s built a dynamic consultancy: his current clients include a “Big 4” wireless carrier and a monarchy. What do his clients say they like most about him? He isn’t a theory guy—they like that Cameron speaks only from experience. He earned his reputation as the CEO Whisperer by guiding his clients to double their profit and double their revenue in just three years or less. Cameron is a top-rated international speaker and has been paid to speak in 26 countries. He is also the top-rated lecturer at EO/MIT’s Entrepreneurial Masters Program and a powerful and effective speaker at Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operating Officer leadership events around the world.

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