Column: Some advice for the next generation of female leaders

Kathleen Walsh, president and CEO of YMCA Metro North, wrote for the July 2023 issue of Impact Magazine

Author: Kathleen Walsh

Date: August 3, 2023

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Businesswoman having a meeting with her staff.
Businesswoman having a meeting with her staff.

Ahhh the corner office. It is something out of a dream…. isn’t it? You work your whole career to land in the fancy chair…with wheels that don’t squeak, arm handles that make you look powerful and a comfortable seat cushion for the long, lonely hours you have to work. Ha. Welcome to the world of being a CEO!

Let me start with the obvious. I did not wake up when I was 21 and say, “I want to be a CEO at a YMCA someday.” In fact, my mantra was all about making a lot of money and not having to do a lot to earn it. Seemed reasonable at the time and in step with my recent college graduate colleagues! But, as you know, after nearly 30 years with the Y organization, here I sit at the helm of an amazing social service organization focused on Youth Development, Healthy Living and Social Responsibility – the YMCA of Metro North.

What have I learned over my career that may serve as pearls of wisdom for the next generation of female CEOs? Rest assured, there will be lots more of us. I hope as I read my newspaper with size 48 font in my retirement village, the stories of female leadership will dominate the headlines. Let’s face it…we get stuff done! So here goes:

Find a mentor. It is lonely at the top. The old joke of going into a restaurant and asking for a “table for one” is the story of my life. But now, I have a full menu of mentors, coaches, professional advisors, and friends that help me process, rethink, rebuild, reflect, and respond appropriately. Look for folks that may have had some shared experiences and simply ask to meet for coffee (and pick up the tab). Before you know it, your bucket will be filled with a list of people to serve as your personal advisory council!

Don’t say No. Work is “something a person or thing has to do”…so in the words of my second favorite running shoe, Just Do It. Do not complain and certainly do not say ‘no’ to an opportunity or a new role at your job. I remember, like it was yesterday, when my former boss, turned friend and mentor, asked me to oversee summer camp. At the Y, this is the considered one of the most challenging (aka dreaded) roles as it is 10 weeks of 300 campers which equals 600 (up to 1200) parents, bugs, rainy days and so much more. My first obvious question was, “how much more money will I get?” She unapologetically said “none.” Oh. So, I accepted the opportunity (to be clear, I did not really have a choice) and it was exactly what I needed to advance my career!

Dress for the job you want NEXT! How do you want to present yourself when you walk into an office, a meeting, or an event? It matters! And certainly nearly two years in Covid sweatpants hasn’t helped the suit & dress industry! Co-workers may notice that there are days when I look like I belong at the Paper Store. Well, that is because that is going to be my retirement job (which is still many years away)! I want to wrap Yankee Candles in cute little bags and fill my house with employee discounted purchases. Truth be told, I have applied to be a seasonal worker at the Paper Store and did not even receive a call back. Twice.

Love what you do! My mom was very vocal about this. Every time I tossed out a career path, she would ever so gently remind me that I need to “have passion about what I do.” And guess what…I am in the fun business with the ability to positively impact so many people in our communities! Thank You, Mom! Two lessons with this one – follow your heart when choosing your professional path and more obvious, Listen to your Mom.

Most importantly, remember your roots. No one becomes a manager, supervisor or CEO overnight. Usually, there is a progressive path of successes and failures, fabulous days and those that are a little more chaotic, employee hits and misses and so much more. Embrace it. It is all part of the ride! Ladies, grow your network. Find your people and soak in the knowledge. Be ready for wild success and painful failure. But, go for it! It is worth it! And, well, if anyone has any connections to the Paper Store, I would appreciate you putting in a good word for me!

Kathleen Walsh is the president and CEO of YMCA Metro North. The above column was featured in the July 2023 issue of The Chamber’s Impact Magazine.