The Leadership Lattice: Jesse Wolff

The Leadership Lattice, an interview series designed to cultivate conversation on building strong leadership in the public and private sector, presents: Jesse Wolff, President and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Denver.

How is leading in non- profit different from leading in the for-profit sector?

In a non-profit, your bottom line is how well you deliver on your mission. Whether it’s serving people, preserving the environment, or social justice. In the for-profit sector, you are looking for a monetary return on your bottom line. At Goodwill we are a mix. We are a non-profit but, we have a large business component so we focus on what we call the triple bottom line- earned income, recycling/repurposing, and helping people change their lives for the better. We strive to accomplish all three. Another difference is that every non-profit has a Board of Directors, and that’s not always the case in the private sector. This adds a level of governance and oversight that is critical, but this adds a layer of complexity. These Boards tend to be very active and involved in everything from operations to fundraising.

How has your leadership approach differed in the different organizations that you’ve run, from large non-profit, smaller non-profit to for profit?

You have to adapt your leadership, priorities and style in large part due to the size of an organization. At a small non-profit, it’s very hands-on, and the harder you work the more impact that you can see and feel. For a larger organization like Goodwill with 1,000 employees and a lot of moving parts, you have to be much more of a delegator as a leader. At the end of the day, the main tenants of good leadership hold true regardless of the type and size of organization – lead by example, get people comfortable with change, communicate the strategic vision, maintain a good set of values, multi-task and work with a variety of people on a variety of projects.

How do you hire?

I look primarily for talent. There needs to be some skill set that’s connected to the job but my focus is on talent and energy. I like generalists. I like people that have done a lot of different things not only professionally but, personally. I find that they’re well developed, they’ve got a broad perspective on life and they tend to be fairly confident about what they’re able to do.

What questions do you ask in an interview?

I focus on problem solving and so I pose a couple of real life examples and see what their approach to providing a solution might be. We all have fires and problems that come up. I want people that can think on their feet and independently provide solutions.

Have you had mentors in your career and can you tell me a little bit about that experience?

I’m a big believer in the benefits of mentors. I had a boss early in my career who was a great mentor to me. I learned a lot and continue to have a close relationship with him even though we haven’t worked together for many years. The non-profit sector is really unique when it comes to mentors because it’s part of the culture. People tend to share more and they’re less competitive. It’s very collegial and a tight-knit network. Your opportunity to find a mentor, particularly if you are entering the sector for the first time, is very high.

What have been some important leadership lessons for you?

First is that when you are running an organization it can be isolating and lonely so you’ve got to be prepared for that. A mentor can be invaluable in this regard. The second thing I’ve found is that you always need to share the success with your team and organization but, when there is a problem or a fire to put out, you take 100 percent of the blame for what happened and do it quickly. Finally, you must be able to get people comfortable with change.

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Categories: Management & Leadership