After seven years, Sarri Gilman is resigning as Executive Director of Leadership Snohomish County at the close of this program year. Gilman has just marked her twentieth year of running nonprofit organizations. She founded Cocoon House in Everett and served as its Executive Director for ten years. Cocoon House has been Snohomish County's only resource exclusively serving homeless and at-risk youth ages 13-17. After leaving Cocoon House, Gilman was awarded a one million dollar grant to work for three years to improve conditions for children in family shelters. For the past seven years, Gilman has served as Executive Director of Leadership Snohomish County, working with professionals from all sectors to cultivate sustainable community leadership and encourage ongoing civic engagement.
At this year’s Signature Class graduation, Sarri was the featured speaker. She shared her key leadership lessons.
When the going gets tough, notice who is in the room with you. We made it look easy. It really has not been easy. It took strength, a very wide range of skills and a committed team. I am looking back at 20 years of being an executive director of three organizations. I was the founder of two of those organizations. Knowing that each of three has left a sustained imprint on the lives of the people here is truly overwhelming. I leave knowing that these organizations were never in the red and more importantly have been positioned for decades of making a difference. I believe in social leverage and our leadership class is deeply engaged in that force. I am so proud of what they will carry forward from this experience we call LSC.
Don't remember me for what I achieved; tonight, I want to remember what made those achievements possible. Take risks. Leadership starts where the comfort zone ends. Many of my highlights started with, “I’m not sure if this is going to work, but I’m to willing to work hard to make it work.” The thing about taking risks is the more you do it, the more likely the risks are diminished. So when leaders doesn’t take risks, they can’t get better at the breakthroughs we need leaders to have.
Find partners. I have had big partners. I find there is a lot of confusion about what the word partnership means. Here is my definition: partners are people who will get dirty and do the work with you. Many people in the room have been my partners, so they know I’m not kidding. Partners are people who will get in the sandbox and bring their own pails.
Say thank you to the people who brought their own pails. People say I over-thank. I prefer to be remembered that way than to be someone who ignored the hard work of others.
Solve problems. Don't let problems fester. My “3 Fs” for problems are face them, fix them, and then feature the people who brought their pails to help. Always point out how well everyone has managed to handle the changes. Change is hard for some people.
Take good care of each other. When I had a brain injury a few years ago, I had to be able to accept help. This did not come naturally or easy for me. The very person to call this to my attention was the then-president of the Leadership board, Carl Zapora. He said, “There are great services at Providence to help you recover. Let people help you.” He made it really simple. My other board members, particularly Lyle Ryan, drove me around. I was having a hard time with such simple tasks, but I didn't want to leave my job. I had to cut hours, but this board kept me and said, we'll get you staff help; we'll pay for cabs when you need to attend meetings; we will drive you, whatever you need. Crystal Donner flew to Texas with me for a conference. I couldn’t travel alone at that time. She was there, boots up. Their genuine care healed something deep inside me. I came from a rough childhood, and my parents weren’t really capable of taking care of me. It left a mark on my life and made me very able to always to take care of myself and many others. For the first time, I couldn't do that, but it was my silver lining moment. This board was part of healing something deep inside me. Leaders have an incredible opportunity to deeply touch people, and real leaders know that, through and through. My husband also carried me through that incredibly healing experience.
Celebrate accomplishments, but more accurately, do your work and lead in a way that makes you proud. This was something I missed out earlier in my career. I did not stop to celebrate of mark milestones. This was a terrible mistake as a leader. In LSC, I made it my mission to celebrate milestones. Celebrating is a powerful teacher about the quality of our work. It is not just what we do, but how we did it. Everyone feels better and stands up taller when there is genuine pride.
This was not an easy job. Leadership is not easy. There are many things to consider in every decision. Leaders question, what are the impacts of my actions, my words, my thoughts? Leaders know everything big and small creates a ripple in a pond and pretty soon those ripples start a momentum. Before you know it, there is a wave. Leaders think about their actions, their words, their thoughts, long after the day ends. The only way I can manage all of that is to knit. Leaders need a contemplative practice to sift through all the sand in their pails.
Try not to take yourself too seriously. Staying reasonable in the face of some unreasonable things requires good humor. It’s helped to laugh, a lot. At Cocoon House, every solution brought three new problems. It was like a curse of some kind. Now in hindsight, I wonder, maybe it was me? A new leader just doesn’t approach problem solving the same way as does someone with 15 or 20 years of experience.
Leadership is one thing and one thing only. It is relationship. It is what has sustained me. The people I have worked with closely have grabbed the reins and lead me when necessary. Relationships have been the essential part of every solution. They have not always been the long-standing relationships. I have learned to value every relationship, including the new ones.
As I retire from leading non-profits, it is not the buildings, the money, or even the exciting programs that I will miss. For me, it will be the people. Thank you for the most incredible seven years.
After leaving LSC on May 9th, Sarri Gilman will continue to see people in private practice as a therapist, and is offering workshops and publishing a book on building boundaries and resiliency. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.