10 things you should know about Leadership Austin staff

10 things you should know about Leadership Austin staff

By Elizabeth McGuire

How well do you know the engine that keeps Leadership Austin running? We recently gathered some of the staff members for a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of our organization’s leaders.

Joining in the talk were Carol Collins (Director of Development and Marketing), Nancy Lewis (Administrative Coordinator), Ashley Phillips (Leadership Programs Manager), Seth Sather (Assistant Director for Development) and Julie Smith (Leadership Programs Manager).

It’s clear that the team rapport is genuine and warm. They laugh easily, swap inside jokes, and tease each other about quirky habits. They are everything you might expect considering the work they do: composed, professional and interesting. But they are also light-hearted, witty and much more…

1. Their resumes are bursting with impressiveness.
The entire team is well educated and broadly experienced. Between them, they all have masters degrees in varying subjects. They have worked for varied nonprofits, international organizations and large corporations. They serve on boards, volunteer in the community and raise kids. Despite their accomplishments, they are quickest to tout the skills of their coworkers instead of their own.

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Nancy Lewis at her Essential 2004 Class Reunion

2. Four of them are Leadership Austin alumni as well as employees.
Christopher, Essential 1995; Nancy, Essential 2004; Ashley, Affiliate 2011; Julie, Emerge 2011.

3. They have great hiring stories.
Nancy was a 10-year Essential alumna working for a large communications corporation when at that time, Interim CEO Christopher Kennedy approached her about a job. He said, “You know, we have a position open…” And without hearing any details she immediately said, “Yes, please!”

Before Carol’s interview, she called a few alumni to get inside scoop. “I was surprised how quickly they called back–that day! It was amazing that people felt so strongly about Leadership Austin.”

Ashley interviewed for her position while 8 months pregnant. She was offered the job and 48 hours later went into labor. She started her new job directly after maternity leave. “I tell that story and people say, ‘What a progressive organization!’ I was excited to be part of a organization that saw talent in me and was willing to wait for it.”

Julie heard about Leadership Austin when she was working at Habitat for Humanity. “We had hired a new Development Director. He was in the Essential Class when we hired him, and he was my direct boss. In the very first few days of getting to know him, he said, “Ok, so there’s this thing called Leadership Austin…. A.) You have to go through the program and B.) You need to work there someday.”

4. They are fun and funny.
Just ask them to recount their recent staff outing at an old-school arcade bar/restaurant. Ashley can share hilarious stories about a certain sandbag bowler. “Julie came out and said, ‘Get ready for some gutter balls’ and then BAM…STRIKE, SPARE, STRIKE!”

Meanwhile Carol nailed a come-from-behind 100-pointer to win skeeball. Christopher jumped on Centipede and immediately landed the top score. He was no match for Seth on Donkey Kong, though. The general consensus is that Christopher was too worried about Donkey’s emotional well being. “He was thinking, ‘If only Donkey Kong had decent housing he wouldn’t be so angry,” they joked.

Seth Sather at the Four Corners.

5. When they aren’t working, they are playing.
Seth is trying to visit all 50 state capitols, and he just hit his 25th. Carol plays tennis and travels. Julie loves dining out with friends and volunteering for Big Brothers, Big Sisters. Nancy watches a lot of movies, especially ones that are “in black and white and have an accent!” Ashley loves playing with her daughter and husband and connecting with other families. “I try to cultivate community wherever I am–I love bringing people together!”

6. They believe in the organization.
They appreciate what makes Leadership Austin special in the community.

Julie believes that they are unique to other organizations within Austin because of the diversity of people they bring together. “We hear a lot: “Never before and never again, will you be in a room with such a cross section of people.’ And we continue to get better and better at that.”

Nancy appreciates that Leadership Austin highlights the importance of intelligent dialogue and of helping foster those communication skills in local leaders.

Julie Smith at the Ice Ball.

Julie Smith at Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Ice Ball.

Ashley explains that she and Julie never feel like they are teaching leadership–they are merely facilitating. “We try to focus on answering the question: ‘What does it mean for you, in the space that you’re in, in the community, with your resources, to lead?’ It’s all about expanding your own capacity to have the energy and time to be most effective where you are.”

Seth notes that you can see the effectiveness of the Austin programs rolling up from an organizational level. “Other leadership programs look to us as thought leaders, so not only are we training leaders but we are training our organization to lead.”

7. They are plugged in.
On Monday mornings, their first topic is almost always, “What did you eat this weekend?” But after that, it’s often the news of the day. No surprise, it’s a great office to discuss current events. “Everybody is paying attention,” said Julie. “To some degree, we are going to respond to it in the community, so typically we all know what’s going on.”

Ashley said that if you come to work saying, “Oh I was just listening to NPR…” half of the staff will have heard the story too. “We are all news junkies!”


Carol Collins in India.

8. They are well traveled.
Carol spent some of her college years studying in Oxford and more recently lived in India. She spent 7 years in remote India, where she opened and ran an orphanage for abandoned and orphaned children who are HIV positive.

“Living abroad is eye opening,” Carol said. “You have a whole new appreciation for America when you live outside of it, even in a place that’s very similar, like England. Then when you go somewhere like India, it makes you really grateful. Especially as a woman, the amount of freedom we have here: to take a walk, the exercise, to wear shorts, to date who we want, to drink a beer. You can only discreetly do these things in India, or you might be judged harshly.”

Ashley has traveled and worked in several African countries, with her longest stay in Burkina Foso, which at the time was the third poorest country in the world. Her graduate work led her to Uganda and she considered moving there, but eventually decided she didn’t have to live internationally in order to help international issues.

Namibia was a young nation when Seth went to work there with the Peace Corps. The experience was incredible, in spite him being held at knifepoint by a robber who stole his money, his watch, and the lunch Seth was holding.

Nancy and her husband lived in Belgium as a young married couple. They moved there for a year and stayed for more than 7 years. “It was such a great perspective to go outside the United States. I thought we would be instantly popular because we were from Texas. Not exactly the case, but we loved the experience.”

In college Julie studied aboriginal culture in Perth, Australia. She has also traveled to Haiti a few times, and credits her first trip there as one of the reasons she chose her career path. “I was 20 or 21 the first time I went…and I didn’t understand how the people were so happy. I quickly realized how naive and privileged I was.”

Ashley Phillips with her husband and daughter

Ashley Phillips with her husband and daughter

9. They love Austin.
Carol (Austin Native) and Nancy both spent some of their childhoods here, and the entire group has lived in the city off and on between 4 and 40 years.

Seth’s list of favorite things about Austin is lengthy, and he likes to take full advantage of everything Austin offers. He enjoys the food, weather, disc golf, the outdoor-focused lifestyle and Texas breweries.

Nancy could make an excellent Austin tour guide, hitting her favorite spots such as the many parks, the State Capitol, and the Blanton Museum.

Carol and Ashley both love that it’s an easy place to be themselves. Julie appreciates the energy of the city. “I love the growth and the vitality that comes with it, along with the opportunity to work through its challenges.”

10. When asked how long they would survive on a deserted island together, their first and immediate comment was: “Wait, do we get Christopher??”

And then…

Seth: “All I need is a lighter and a knife.”

Nancy: “I would be the gatherer and the nester.”

Carol: “I would be in charge of cupcakes.”

Julie: “Ashley and I would facilitate discussion about how we all feel about it.”