Thinking of Great Ideas AND Making Them Walk, Too: An Interview with Becky Roloff

Becky Roloff is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the YWCA of Minneapolis.  As their website describes, the YWCA serves over 30,000 annually with a budget of $23 million through a dedicated staff of over 600 full and part-time employees.  I’ve met Becky socially several times but had never sat down to talk with her before our bold leader interview.  Walking into our conversation, I knew that she had also been recognized as one of the most thoughtful leaders in the Twin Cities with a long, distinguished corporate career before stepping out of that world to take the helm at the YWCA.  Walking out, I knew why.

Becky leads an organization tied to two unflinching bold missions. Becky Roloff

  • First is the YWCA: Eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all
  • The YWCA also affiliates with Girls, Inc., whose mission is: Inspiring all girls to be strong, smart and bold

I asked Becky if it was even possible to imagine a “non-bold” person leading an organization under that calling.  She replied, “When I was considering this position, I wondered, ‘Could I be credible?’  As a privileged, white woman, would I be effective as I take on these challenges?  What I’ve come to know is that sometimes I can deliver the messages because I am the unexpected messenger.  I have opportunities to point out the need and invite someone in that can help to do something.”

We talked about her transition from the for-profit executive ranks to the not-for-profit leadership role.  Becky explained:

There is a difference between bold and courage.  Many people told me I was bold when I left corporate life for the non-profit work.  I had a wonderful career in great organizations and worked with wonderful leaders.  But leaving wasn’t bold.  I was just wanting to grow again, and in new ways.  It takes some courage to make a significant personal change.  Courage is seeing what you want to do and going about doing it.  

I believe that bold is:

  • Standing on one’s own two feet
  • Not blinking in the face of adversity or challenge
  • Learning and growing

For Becky, bold even shows up in her dress.  “Some time ago, I settled on a personal dressing style that I think of as ‘elegant and bold,’” she said.  “Ever since I got clear about that, I have less and less ‘mistakes’ in my closet!”  For all the women I know, we can all relate.  Although I confess I haven’t quite sorted out my dressing style or my closet!

Becky’s bold leadership is clearly about people – those she serves and those that work with her.  Walking through the YWCA, you can tell she is loved.  Little children in pre-school classes squeal with joy when they see her; members call to her from a distance; employees smile broadly as she introduces them and shares heartfelt praise for each of them.  So we talked about how she instills boldness in others.

She said, “Boldness happens on the ground.  I can influence, but our mission has to flow through the fingertips and brains of everyone on the ground.  At every interaction point.  You have to see it in action, not in slogans on coffee cups!”

She talked about staying focused, listening and taking action – showing others how to make a change.  “Whenever I need to focus (myself or others), I go back to those two missions.  Communication is so central to bold leadership.  You have to find simple ways to convey your intent.”  She points to the YWCA’s Early Childhood Education programs as an example.  “There is no achievement gap in our YWCA children.  We really do even the playing field.  I’ve lived it.  I see it every day.”

Becky, like every bold leader I’ve met, believes her team is critical.  She talked about tapping into the power and strength of diverse backgrounds and surrounding yourself with great people.  She said, “I really do believe in hiring smarter, better people, and after this experience, I cannot imagine going back to an all-white leadership and management structure.  We have a very candid and collaborative team.  Every once in a while, I’ll say, ‘I just don’t get it.  Is it only me?’  And, sometimes the answer is, ‘Yes, Becky, it is only you.’  I’ve learned to listen to that – to be surrounded by people that will tell you that – who are bold in response.”

She added, “I respect that my team is seeing something I’m not and sometimes I will say, ‘Let me think about it.’ As a leader, you plant seeds… then water-water-water.  Then I listen-listen-listen.  I’ve learned that if I suggest something but others are in a different place, it’s not the right time.  The idea, even if a good one, is dormant.  The seeds aren’t taking root.  The timing isn’t right.  These times really require that you check your ego.  You have to let go of the ‘By God, I said so, so we are doing it!’”

We talked about negative stress situations like the economic crunch between 2008 – 2011.  She said, “Stop ‘awfulizing’!  It is very hard to think when you are afraid.  If I can define the challenge, then I can figure out how to go through it.

It’s not blind hope nor is it being a Pollyanna or refusing to deal with reality.  It is realism with a strong belief in the future.  Becky told a story of participating in a 300-mile bike ride for AIDS that was filled with hills.  She said she learned an important thing on that ride: “If you look too far ahead, it is paralyzing.  Take it one hill at a time, get to the top of the hill and stop, drink your water, appreciate what you’ve accomplished, and enjoy the view. Then enjoy the ride downhill.  If you do that, you’ll do great.”  There is always another hill she says, so “Take them one at a time and laugh out loud and a lot!”

Becky was told by someone years ago, “You can think of great ideas AND you can make them walk!”  She said, “I always want to be worthy of that praise.”

Based on what I heard and saw, she clearly earns this praise every day.

Share your story. What praise from others do you strive to deserve every day?

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.