Children's Voice September/October 2007

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A Conversation with Chris James-Brown

By Jennifer Michael

The number of people who have contributed their leadership to CWLA during the League's long history is a small circle. Last spring, Christine James-Brown joined that distinguished group as CWLA's ninth leader in 87 years, bringing with her a fresh outlook on the League's future. She stands strongly behind issues related to children and families, and she loves a challenge--"The bigger the better."

CWLA, the nation's oldest and largest coalition of child welfare organizations, certainly faces many challenges. When CWLA's Board of Directors appointed James-Brown the League's new President and CEO in April, they put two items on top of her agenda: secure CWLA's financial standing, and begin to build membership.

James-Brown's track record indicates she is more than capable of accomplishing these goals. As President and CEO of United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania for 10 years, she directed a staff of 130 that managed an annual fundraising effort, raising more than $50 million and distributing funds to more than 2,500 community-based agencies.

In 2004, she moved from Philadelphia to Alexandria, Virginia, to become CEO of United Way International (UWI). Over three years, she prepared UWI for a merger with United Way of America and worked to develop UWI into a membership organization, with global standards for members in 30-some countries.

In addition to her work at United Way, James-Brown has served on the boards of the School District of Philadelphia, Community College of Philadelphia, the William T. Grant Foundation, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Citizens Bank, Public/Private Ventures, and Pennsylvania Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Commission.

James-Brown gives Children's Voice readers a glimpse of her vision for CWLA's future, including how she plans to facilitate and manage a "transformation" for the League. Although she admits one of her greatest challenges is not having eight days in the week to work with, she does find time for fun outside of work, and she shares with readers some of her personal side as well, including her love of cookbooks, flower gardens, and her grown daughter Arica.

Why did you accept the job as CWLA's CEO?

I come with a real commitment to children and families, and have worked for the last 25 years in that area. Secondly, I like not-for-profit management, I like governance, I like working with boards.

I like challenges and, in fact, we do have a challenge here around transformation and how we take the core mission of an organization that's been around--that's been valued--and make it work in today's world.

It's the same challenge the United Way had. When United Way was started, it was supposed to be the fundraiser for all the organizations in the community. Well, that may have been true 100 years ago when it started, but it's not true now because there are thousands and thousands of organizations in the community. So even the United Way had to rethink. I loved being at United Way in Philadelphia when we were going through that rethinking process.

You have spent most of your career at the United Way. You have also served on many boards. How does this past experience apply to your new job leading an organization that deals with all the issues affecting children and families at risk?

One of the things for me that I've learned is how siloed services for kids are. I'll sit on a board that is dealing with health care needs of kids, and I'll sit on another board that is dealing with educational needs, and there is not enough understanding of how connected those two things should be.

The United Way deals with services across the board and has an understanding of how important it is to not be siloed. United Way recognizes that to get to the whole, you have to sometimes focus on a certain population that will give you the most leverage for forward movement, and kids tend to be that. Most of the United Ways give at least a third or more of their resources to issues related to children. The biggest initiatives of most United Ways--and there are about 1,400 of them--are around early childhood development, because of the recognition that if you are really going to make the community better, you really do need to start with kids and families and then build out from there.

CWLA's Board of Directors has given you two primary directives--in the short term, make sure CWLA is fiscally sound, and in the long term, build CWLA's membership. How are you approaching these goals?

The two goals are interrelated and require a rethinking of how we do our business in today's world. Getting at the core of these two questions, I think, is a matter of asking how CWLA can ensure that it plays a major role in making children and families a priority.

The Board asked you to create a 100-day plan. You elected to develop a 300-day plan. What does this plan look like?

The 300-day plan starts with a careful assessment of our mission and an acknowledgement of the need for transformation, not just of CWLA, but of child welfare services in general, which I think all of our members are dealing with right now. It includes a commitment to input from members of the League, and staff and volunteers of the League.

First of all, CWLA's Board of Directors has committed to a few things. It has committed to understanding there is urgency, that kids can't wait for us to figure out how to change. The Board has been working for a year on governance. It's redone its bylaws, it's sharpened its committees, and it's looked at ways to better involve members. Now it's going to the next step in saying, "Okay, with this good foundation, we are really committing to moving forward quickly."

On the members' side, we have to promote leadership among our members, and that means giving them the tools and the information and the opportunity for sharing in a way that will bring their leadership to bear on what we do. That's what kids need right now. They need leaders at every level. They need their parents to be leaders and advocates for them, they need their communities and their families to advocate, and our organizations to advocate.

We have already brought members on to the National Conference planning committee, and I'm going to be looking at other ways to involve members in working with us to think through this transformation. And we are going to move on from there, really trying to look at communication, communication, communication; involvement, involvement, involvement; urgency, urgency, urgency.

What's going to be your greatest challenge?

I think the biggest challenge is inertia. The League has been around for a long time, our members have been around a long time and continue to do some extraordinarily great things, and so what's the burning platform?

Part of it is just the financial challenges that we all have. But that, in and of itself, is not enough, because one of the things I've become so clear about in my meetings with staff and with the members is that the passion around the mission is so intense. People will be very protective of anything they perceive as potentially affecting the mission, so we really need to understand what the mission is.

Describe your management style.

It's collaborative. I like to hear a lot of ideas from people and I like to manage against goals. I try not to micromanage, although I love details.

I think we have a lot of work to do here around what are the goals--what's your job's connection to mission, and what do you need to do? You have to hire the right people, who bring the right work ethic, and then you give them clear goals and you depend on them to be real creative and innovative. The power rests with the people you work with.

Do you have a hero?

Without a doubt, my hero is my mother, period. She's not been with me physically since I was in college, but she is with me every single day, otherwise. She was sick most of my life, really seriously sick with lupus, and struggled every single day, and still volunteered in the community. She was just this unbelievably remarkable person. We had such a good relationship. She was my best friend; she was my biggest supporter.

I have different heroes for different things--my dad, my brother, my best friend. My daughter is also my hero. Arica is just an extraordinary young woman and she and I, again, are best friends.

Heroes are like mentors, and I really believe you should have a mentor-rich environment--an environment where you can look to lots of different people for help and for support. I am very fortunate there are lots of people I can look to for support, and I'm not shy about it. When I started the job in Philadelphia, I called up about four people I had seen run organizations I really admired, and I asked if I could come out and see them, and they all said yes. They thought I was coming to raise money for the United Way, but the reality was I wanted to find out from them what they did when they started in a new role and, more importantly, if I could also call on them. I think they felt better when I left because I had called on them for their expertise.

Already as CWLA's leader, you have traveled across the country; and as the former CEO at United Way International, you did even more traveling worldwide. In what little leisure time you have, what constitutes fun for you?

I'm crazy about cookbooks. I have probably a few hundred cookbooks, and I'll probably still keep buying them. I'll never get to cook all these recipes, but I love cookbooks.

I love gardening. I love flowers. When I lived in Philly, I had a big yard. I had an old-fashioned rose garden, I had a moon garden, I had a fragrance garden, and I had vegetables. But now I have a balcony. It's a container garden.

The other thing I do is I love home remodeling and decorating. I do a lot of it myself. I watch those shows on HGTV. You get addicted to them.

One of the first things you asked CWLA's staff to do is read the business management book, Good to Great, by Jim Collins. Why?

Again, we need to understand what our mission is: What end are we looking for, not the means? Good to Great provides examples of companies that have successfully tackled this question.

In the United Way world, if I asked you, "What is United Way?" you'd say, "A fundraising organization for health and human services." Right? That's the means. The end is a better community for people. If you confuse ends with means, you start to protect the wrong things.

So we've got to, as staff and board and members, get real clear about what we want to protect, then we can change everything else and really reflect what children and families need from us now, which is very different from what they needed from us 80 years ago, because families are different, children are different, communities are different.

What other books have inspired you, either personally or professionally?

I have probably read every management book that has come down. I love to read. I don't have as much time, but I am going to figure out a way. Right before I left Philadelphia, I had started a book club with a bunch of women. We were doing more talking about life than the book, but it was still fun.

What do you see as the principal issues facing children, youth, and families in the United States?

Poverty, the lack of public will to do anything--it's just remarkable--and the breakdown of communities.

What's CWLA's role in responding to those issues?

I think it's being a strong voice for children and cutting through the differences, like foster care versus adoption, residential versus nonresidential, public versus private. We have to be the one that pulls it all together and provides a unified voice for kids and families.

Our role also is in empowering our members to do more--empowering them with good information and research tools so they can do their jobs in their local communities, because we can't do it at the national level. But we can empower. We can put a spotlight on innovation so that innovation can be shared. We can bring them the latest in research about what works and doesn't.

CWLA has a vast network of skilled, knowledgeable members. How can CWLA better tap their expertise?

In resource development, what's the number one reason people don't give? It's because you never asked. So I think we have to start asking more, and we have to provide vehicles for that input to be heard. And we have to ask around vision; otherwise, people are going to come back with, again, a siloed answer.

What will CWLA's policy agenda be under your leadership?

It's going to be proactive. We have a really, really extraordinary reputation at the federal level in public policy, so we need to be a little bit bolder now that we have this great reputation, and get out in front. We've got to establish what we want for kids and families, and challenge everyone to figure out how to get there, versus our fighting when someone else wants to change something.

As CWLA's ninth leader in its 87-year history, what would you like your legacy to be?

In Good to Great, there is an analogy about a clockmaker versus a time teller. The clockmaker is building the future of an organization. The time teller is promoting the current time. Within that context, I'll say that I definitely want to be a clock builder, so my greatest legacy will be that the person who comes behind me will be extraordinarily successful, and that I will be irrelevant to the equation.

I think an interesting thing about the League is that it's often defined based on who the leader was at any particular time. So there was the David Liederman time [CWLA's Executive Director, 1984-1999] and the Shay Bilchik time [CWLA's President and CEO, 2000-2007]. I clearly accept the leadership responsibility of the person in the job, but I don't think it should blend into being the League. The League has to be bigger--way, way bigger--than the leader in place at any particular time.

Jennifer Michael is Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.


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