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Testimonial: YWCA of Greater Atlanta

“He asked me a simple question: Are you finding the session helpful so far? I answered the facilitator honestly. “Well,” I began, “I see how the topics you are presenting about visioning and applying strategic thinking to our organizational framework really apply toward the successful achievement of the YWCA’s overall goals, yet ironically my thought patterns keep drifting towards applying these same principles to my personal goals and objectives!”

Michael Wilkinson’s face immediately brightened. He whipped out a napkin and quickly began writing. “That’s interesting,” he said smiling, “because our company has begun exploring ways to translate our business strategic planning model into helping people set goals in their personal lives.”

Faith Carmichael is the former Director of Marketing and Communications for the YWCA of Greater Atlanta. The YWCA of Greater Atlanta transforms the lives of women and girls, helping them reach their full potential by delivering innovative affordable programs and promoting equal opportunities for all.

“Initially, I went into this strategic planning session with my communications director’s hat on. The YWCA was in the midst of a major strategic change initiative. The Board of Directors and executive team sat down to determine from scratch what types of programs to offer to the community. Up until then, when the community heard the name YWCA they immediately identified our branded name with a community organization providing women’s programs and aquatic center. Additional market research and analysis concluded that several of our programs were being duplicated in the surrounding community. Upon further examination, the YWCA discovered untapped resources and areas of expertise among the staff that could be effectively translated into services offered by the YWCA. For example, they realized a more effective use of their child care expertise would be to provide information and resources to providers rather than duplicating the child care services already being offered in the community. We also realized we had among our ranks, some of the city’s most influential and well-connected women leaders. The Board decided that pursuing advocacy efforts on behalf of women related to child care, homelessness and youth development may be a more effective use of our resources than providing direct services in these areas. What better way to be a voice for women-our YWCA tagline!”

The Board agreed it was the opportune time to bring in an outside resource to lead them through a strategic path designed to identify strengths, weaknesses and untapped areas of potential growth. Faith’s role during the session was providing community input concerning their opinions of the YWCA organization. It so happened, that after four years in this role, she was also at a phase in her life where she was beginning to seriously explore her future career aspirations. Michael Wilkinson, their facilitator, began asking poignant questions: What is it that the YWCA really wants to accomplish?

“As he was asking the group a series of questions, it struck me that every question he was asking applied to me! What are you strong at? What are you passionate about? What do you offer that someone else doesn’t offer? He explained how, at the end of the day, the answers to these questions create the big picture which becomes your vision. From there the question becomes, “What does your vision say and what kinds of steps would you need to take in order to get there?” It was uncanny. He was speaking to the YWCA, yet he was presenting several challenging questions that I needed to personally ask myself!”

“During a group session break, Michael came over and asked how I was enjoying the session. I told him I found it quite interesting because the discussion and exercises were very compelling-so much so that I was getting a ton of personal gain out of what he was saying in terms of my own personal path.”

“Michael’s eyes began dancing as he reached for the first available piece of paper-which happened to be a napkin. Translating the professional strategic planning tools he’d used that morning into personal ones, he drew three overlapping circles on the napkin. These circles each represent your passions, your strengths and your needs or the community’s needs, he began. The point of where these 3 circles meet is the direction you should go in. Always ask yourself four questions: where am I now, where do I want to be, how do I get there, and how do I monitor my progress?”

“It was like a light bulb went off in my head when he mentioned the word passion. I know the methodology seems simple but the concept of being passionate about my work never hit me like it did that day. I’d never looked at my professional life this way; it had always been through the lens of ‘What’s the best business plan and what makes sense in terms of financial gain?’ When I began asking myself, What is it that I’m really passionate about and what do I feel strongly about, I realized that I truly enjoy writing and strategic thinking; I also enjoy helping community organizations get their message out. I was already doing this work for the YWCA but I began asking myself, in addition to the YWCA, why not assist more organizations whose services are important not only to our economy but to the fiber of our community? I knew of several organizations that didn’t have the resources or the tools to get their message out. I also knew I was good at this type of work, so I actually began pulling together a business plan about 6-weeks after the session. It wasn’t long before I was consulting for 3 or 4 solid clients and made the decision to officially resign from the YWCA and open Mustard Seed Communications, a communications and public relations group.”

How was it-starting your own business?

“It was terrifying to be perfectly honest! Yet I realized it was a calling and a true exercise in stepping out in faith. It would have been helpful at the time to realize that all entrepreneurs experience the same fear on some level or another; yet looking back I wouldn’t trade this amazing experience for the world! You can be afraid to try something new and still be successful.”

How did Leadership Strategies help improve the YWCA’s performance?

“After the session with Leadership Strategies, the YWCA made some changes in terms of their programming which allowed their organization to become even more financially sound than they were prior to this session. By capitalizing on specific skill sets, knowledge and ability to reach a certain audience of women, their programs took on more of an advocacy focus. For example, the YWCA is a relatively small organization. Running childcare, teen programs and providing direct services is very costly. Because they don’t have the reach that larger organizations do, the YWCA created a niche in advocating for child care in the state of Georgia. They also created a financial literacy program enabling women to be financially independent. The literacy project is a great example of the mindset, Give a woman a fish and she’ll eat for a day. Teach her how to fish and she’ll eat forever.”

Any long term bonuses?

“The YWCA board and executive committee became significantly more unified when Leadership Strategies came on board; their process caused us to look at every area of our organization and promoted laser focus thinking on the things we were strong at. We were able to identify a unifying thread with 5-6 programs and audiences.”

Anything else?

“I kept that napkin for quite some time to remind myself to stay focused on the vision, the big picture. It really helped catapult me into starting my own business. Interestingly enough, there have been times when I’ve been offered opportunities to engage with organizations or projects that haven’t fit in to my company’s vision (i.e., my passion). There is a mindset in the consultant arena that as an up-and-coming consultancy, one should take whatever opportunities come their way. The first or second time I took on business that didn’t match my vision, it felt uncomfortable because it was not in line with my passion. Each time I was reminded to focus on the area that is the overlap of the three circles Michael drew on the napkin that day: my strengths, passions and needs. When I do this, doors just open.”

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