June 14, 2017
Begin interview. Today is June 14, 2017. This is Ryan Bean interviewing Carolyn Creager, on behalf of the YMCA Retirement Fund. Mrs. Creager, thank you for agreeing to share your story with me, today.
Happy to be here.
The first question for you is, what was your first YMCA experience?
My very first YMCA experience was one that I was unaware of. My son, had a son who was adopted from Vietnam, and we enrolled him in karate. He took karate at the East Madison Y in Madison, Wisconsin, and for years, it never occurred to me that I was going to the Y, or that I was really interacting with the Y. So, that was my very first experience.
My first personal experience was when I came to interview at the Y, and I was recruited. That is an interesting story. I was in New Mexico at the University of New Mexico when I was manager over all employment for the staff side of the University.
My best friend lived in Minneapolis, and she was working with an executive recruiter for her firm, which was an energy firm. That recruiter came back from a meeting and said, “I just picked up a job; I have to find a vice president of human resources for both St. Paul and Minneapolis. They’re doing shared services. She was talking with her, in general, about this job.
My friend said, “I have the perfect person for you.” So, she gave her my resume, and I received a call. I came to the Twin Cities; I was invited in to interview, and, at the time, I had really no intention of accepting a job with the YMCA, but, that was before I met Harold Mezile and Tom Brinsko, and Pat Lynch.
I interviewed with the three of them. We still tell the story that I did secret shopping. I went to the downtown Y because I was not that serious about the opportunity, but I wanted to see how it felt. I came in an hour early and I went to the front desk. I said, “I’m new in town; I’m thinking of joining a gym. Do you have someone who can show me around?” It was at noon, and my interview was at one or one-thirty. They took me on a tour; I saw people like me, I saw staff like me, which was very important. If you haven’t noticed, I’m African American female, so I wanted to make sure it was a diverse environment.
I went on the tour and, when I finished, it was over lunch; the place was packed. I was so hot and this is just part of my legend, or my story. I was having hot flashes, and next door to the downtown Y was a beauty shop that sold Aveda products. I went in and I said, “Do you have any spritzer, and can you spritz me down; I’m going for an interview, next door?” So, they did.
I went into the interview, again, because I wasn’t terribly serious about the opportunity, I told them about taking the secret shopper, and we had a wonderful interview. I ended my interview by telling them about having hot flashes and having to be spritzed down. Pat Lynch just about fell off her chair laughing.
They liked me so much that Tom Brinsko asked me if I would interview—when I went for the interview the next day, if I would secret shop his downtown branch. I did, and I shared with a group of vice presidents that I interviewed on the second day.
They offered me the job, I was a little surprised. After much soul-searching, I actually took the job and never looked back; it’s the best decision I could have made.
What year was that?
That was 1999.
It seemed like something changed in those couple interviews of going from being serious—.
—surprised yourself, is that right, that you took it? Any thoughts on what changed for you?
Yes. I loved Harold Mezile. I interviewed with him, and Harold Mezile was an African American CEO; didn’t expect it, didn’t know about it. Pat Lynch was sitting there, so, it was a diverse group. Tom Brinsko was a white male, but, for me, that was very important because, at that age—and I sometimes tell the story about Noah, taking care of yourself because you never know when God is going to ask you to do something really big. I was 50 years old, at that time.
To start a new job and to come in, I didn’t need it; I didn’t have to do it, but something had to fit, and it had to feel right. It absolutely did. I just really fell in love with Harold Mezile. I love and respect Tom Brinsko, and Pat Lynch I loved, absolutely, because she got it when I was having the hot flashes. She said, she fell off her chair laughing.
You came in late in your career. How many years did you work for the Y? You got your first job; what was your last job at the YMCA?
My last job with the YMCA was with YMCA of the USA. That was, also, quite a story. I was hired at Y-USA to be a human resources consultant. I thought that was my dream job. I thought I had arrived and gone to heaven, and that would be the job I would do until I retired, because I’m a human resources professional. I love human resources; I love employee relations issues, and resolving those things.
In 2003, they had the Anthony Bowen 150th Anniversary in Washington, DC, at the Anthony Bowen branch. At that time, a group of African American CEOs met with the CEO of Y-USA, who was Ken Gladish, and met with my boss, who was Dan Nusbaum, head of Y-USA training—Y-USA University, it was known at the time.
When the conference was over, they asked me if I needed a ride to the airport. On the way to the airport, they said, “Well, we have something we want you to consider.
The African American CEOs are talking about retiring in the next 10 years; they are very concerned that they don’t see other African Americans coming in the pipeline to become CEOs. They want Y-USA to do something about it, and we all agreed that we thought you might be the person to do this.”
I thanked them very politely and said, “No, thank you; I’m in my dream job. I don’t want to do that kind of work. I did it years ago, and I am not interested in doing it again.”
I’m assuming they told Harold that that was my answer. I get a call from Harold Mezile, and he tells me that the only reason he let me go to Y-USA was because he was going to have work for me to do, and that he really thought that I should re-think this. He really wanted me to take on this project of creating a pipeline into senior roles, particularly, the CEO role.
That was the last job that I had. I moved into creating the Multicultural Executive Development Institute. The whole creation of that took a couple of years. There were a number of people at Y-USA, we were all senior in our careers, so there were people who were all consultants at the time. We called ourselves “Los Amigos,” and Los Amigos was composed of John Green, from California, Walt Overby, who lived in Albuquerque, Jose Casado, who lived in Texas, Jo Harris, who lived in Texas, Maurice Horsey, who at the time, I think, lived in Winston-Salem, and Suki Sundora was our youngster. She was our support person; later on, we added Ken Phillips to that group, and myself.
We sat around my table in New Mexico, and we dreamed up this whole program. We knew that it would involve coaching, so, we had all formed a learning circle based on a book called, “Leading in Black and White.” We went to the Center for Creative Leadership, and one of the authors of the book—her name was Dr. Livers—we asked her if she would create a coaching program for us, and that it have an orientation of how to coach people of color. How can people of color coach people of color? We knew that that was going to be a key component of whatever this program was going to turn out to be.
We went; we were all certified in coaching, and, really, the key was the one difference she said, is in coaching staff of color. When you are a person of color, is, you can be sympathetic, you can be empathetic, but, you cannot be overly so. So, you cannot buy into their idea that a supervisor or the failure of their career is someone else’s fault. It is being intentional; it is making sure that they take responsibility for their career, that they take responsibility for their performance.
When we created the program, they had to be at a branch executive level or above, and they had to have consistently above-average performance reviews. They had to have a degree, and they had to be a senior director in our training and certification, because we were talking about dealing with the three Cs.
The three Cs were competency, and we said you had to come with that. We weren’t really about developing competencies. Then, it was about confidence and competitiveness. Those were the three Cs that we felt were going to be the signature components of whether you could pursue these higher-level positions, or not. We still feel that way.
We did get, as you might understand, we got push-back from all sides. We got push-back because there were not a lot of people of color that had the senior director certification. There were some people who did not have the degree. There were a number of people throughout the Movement, CEOs, that did not like the idea of this program because they said, “Why would I send my best person of color—of which I might only have one—to this program where you’re going to encourage them to leave my Y?” We had people tell us that, that, over their dead body would they allow their staff person to come into our program, which we ended up naming, “The Multicultural Executive Development Institute.”
The Institute was over a 12 to 16-month period; it began with a week-long institute, and it ended with a week-long institute. To this day, your coach goes through the institute with you; so, it’s a five-day institute on the front end, it’s a five-day institute on the back end. The participants are there, but, the coaches are also there. Then, during that period between the institutes, you get individualized coaching; you get some more development around how to pursue jobs. You get encouragement to pursue jobs, and it seems to still be working. That was the first program that was created.
During that time, there was a transition between Ken Gladish as our CEO, and then, Neil Nicoll came on board before we launched our first institute. We were in the process of getting ready to launch it. I had an opportunity to talk with Neil and to share with him the concept, the strategy.
The strategy was not popular, but it was a very intentional strategy that staff of color who were more successful were going to work with staff of color, and that we would not be afraid to hold them accountable for performance. We would not be afraid to hold them accountable for whatever they said their goals were, as a coach. We said that we don’t have the answers, necessarily, but we have the questions. The first thing in our coaching agreement is that, “You’re asking us to help you stay accountable for the goals that you’ve put down in terms of things you’re going to do, positions you’re going to pursue.”
That, essentially, is what we did. Neil asked if he could come to the very first institute. He showed support; I let Neil run interference with many of the CEOs, and Harold and Kevin Washington, and all the people who were in YNAN, or North American Urban groups at the time, because those CEOs were livid; they thought they were going to lose their best staff. Many of them did.
I didn’t have that kind of energy to deal with that kind of negativity, because I considered it a diversion from where you have your energy, and what you do with your energy. I decided that I had a laser focus on what I wanted to do, and everything else was a diversion that I could live without.
I was at a point in my career where my attitude was, and, actually, all of us, the Los Amigos—our mantra was, “What are you going to do to us? If you want to fire us, we’ll just retire.” Many of us were at the height of our career, and we definitely knew that, from where we were, we were going to retire. That makes you really courageous; it makes you willing to take risks. It makes you willing to stand up to people who may not believe in what you’re doing, but it gave us the courage not to care what others said.
We knew that there were staff of color out there, because, as consultants, we visited local Ys; we’d see them. We knew they were there; we just didn’t know what their names were, and we didn’t know how to get to them.
In the beginning, we would literally run off a report, and it would have all staff of color who had a degree and who had their senior director certification. The Los Amigos would sit down around the table, and we would, literally, go down the list.
We would find people that were at the branch executive level, and we’d try to figure out, “Does anyone know this person?” That was both good and bad, because there were a few people of color in the Movement that were always picked for Expo—they got all the visibility. But, we knew there were more people out there, and we knew there were people that had talent; we knew there were people that should be on the stage, but they didn’t have the opportunity because the practice had actually been, hide your best people so that another CEO won’t come and steal them.
We broke that cycle of the best that would happen to these people is that, if they went to Expo, if they went to General Assembly, CEOs from other organizations would go, and part of their goal would be to look for staff of color, because they had a black Y in their association.
They would hire someone, and they would say, “Come on over to my association,” but, they would go from one black Y, or one urban Y, or one inner-city Y to another one. What they learned in MEDI is that their career was stagnant. Their career was lateral; they were not going up.
I would tell them and they would proudly say, “I haven’t had to do a resume,” because resumes were awful. “I haven’t had to do a resume since I first came to the Y.” The coaches would say, “And, you’re saying that like you’re really proud?” And they’d say, “Well, yeah, we are; people always come after us.” “Are you satisfied with the jobs offered you? “Well, it’s another urban Y; maybe I went from a half-million-dollar Y to a million-dollar Y.” But, you were still pegged for that black Y.
What we did was, we created career maps. That was one of our keystone pieces to the program. We said, “Where do you want to ultimately end up, and how are you going to get there?” There’s a formula we use; we help people when they see how many steps they have, and how many years they have to get to the ultimate job. Then, they would call their coach and say, “Well, so-and-so offered me a job.” Our question was, holding their agenda, our question was, “And, how is this going to help you get to that ultimate job?”
We helped them think more strategically about their careers, which they’d never done. Most people, after they get the first job, they really don’t think strategically about their career. One of our sayings is that, “If you don’t have a career map, then, 30 years later, you’ll wonder, ‘How in the heck did I get here?’ and, it’s because you let other people control your career.”
I love it. The next question is about—. You set the stage very well for the next question, which is about mentoring. Clearly, coaching and mentoring was the work that you were doing. You mentioned Harold before; you tell me he was a mentor to you, and brought you into understanding the Y. Could you talk about either him, or other mentors you had at the Y and how they influenced you in your accelerated YMCA career?
Harold Mezile was definitely a mentor, and he still is; he, probably, is much more of a friend, since we’re both retired. Harold has been a guide in my career since I’ve been here, within the Y, or while I was at the Y. There were times when Harold would say, like, moving from HR into this multicultural leadership development. Ultimately, they created a department; before, it was just part of my other duties. After Neil came on board, it became an actual department. We really started developing other programs.
Harold was a kind of historian, on top of being a very successful CEO and a mentor. He is definitely highly regarded within the movement. He would be one of the people that I would call at critical moments. He would offer assistance.
When we were first talking about creating the beginning of the program, he invited me back to Minneapolis. We went to visit the executives at Cargill, at one of the banks, Wells Fargo, I believe it was, and General Mills or Pillsbury, whichever is big here. And we asked them and 3M, I believe.
We asked them about their efforts around developing staff of color for senior level positions. They shared what they were doing. Most of them really weren’t doing a whole lot; they were doing things to try to retain staff of color, but they didn’t have that specific kind of leadership development program.
We took bits and pieces of what we learned; I did a lot of research online and looked at other programs. There were programs, really at universities, for women in leadership, and blacks in leadership, and Latinos in leadership, and Asians in leadership.
Within the Y, we just didn’t have enough people in each of those categories to break them out. That’s where the multicultural aspect came from; we did it for all people of color. It was a racial/ethnic segment of diversity and inclusion. That was intentional.
We got a lot of flack, but that was our strategy, and it seemed to work. We had to pour a lot of energy, we had to pour a lot of support into the program just to get people into it in the beginning. It’s much easier to get people to apply for it now, but, back then, we were calling people and saying, “You really need to be in this program.”
As you told that story about developing the program, I sensed pride in what you had created, and clearly you influenced people’s lives. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, so, if there’s something else you want to speak to, as well. What are you most proud of when you reflect on your career in the Y?
Everything around that multicultural leadership development. I did not want to do it even after Harold talked about it. I did not want to do it even after I found my allies in the Los Amigos, because we were all Y-USA staff. At that point, I was doing it reluctantly, but I was doing it. It was only when we launched it and we started seeing the impact that we were having on individuals.
In our second institute, we had a young man who shared his story. He said that, and he stood up at the end of the first institute, and he said, “I’ve been in my association for most of my career. I’ve worked there for 16 years, and I could work there for another 16 years and retire from here. But, I realize, I owe it to myself and to others that are looking at people to see, ‘Well, who’s out there? Who are the CEOs? Do they look like me?’ because we all know, if you don’t see yourself, then you don’t think that’s for you.”
He stood up and said, “The promise I’m making is that, by the time we have our second institute, I will no longer be in this association, and I will be in a higher position.”
Sure enough, when we had the second institute, he went from being the branch executive of a beautiful downtown branch of one of our largest associations; he was now the executive vice president in a large association, and he was there specifically to get the experience of working with a board and with the marketing—so, those components that he needed that he couldn’t have as an operator.
Then, two years later, he was sought out and was hired as a COO in another large YMCA, and two years after that, he became the first African American CEO of Birmingham, Alabama. We had thought that we would never have the African American CEOs used to talk about, “There’s no way we can penetrate the deep south.”
Then, you have this young man whose name is Stan Law, and he is the first African American CEO in Birmingham. He’s the CEO of the largest YMCA in Alabama.
Within six months, we have another one of our people who went through our program who had told me, “Oh, my wife would never go for this; I love where I am. I’m happy here. Maybe, eventually—.” He becomes the CEO in Montgomery, Alabama, so, the second-largest YMCA in Alabama.
We had two African American male CEOs who went through our program and realized that, in order to move up, they had to move out. Those were—that’s a highlight of how proud I am of what the people did. And I retired right after that. I actually said, “I can’t top that. This is a good time to retire, having two wonderful people who are African American males become CEOs in the deep south.”
That is one of the things I’m most proud of. What I’m most proud of now, is EMLE, that you’ve heard of, the Emerging Multicultural Leadership Experience. That is, I get a lot of credit as the mother of EMLE—but, that came out of our second cohort.
They were given projects to work on. It was on retaining—retention of staff of color. Each one gave their presentation. At the end, they had discussion, and, they said, “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to start a mentoring program. Each of us is going to mentor at least two people, and, if we don’t have another minority in our own association, we’ll call each other and we’ll mentor someone else.”
That was how our mentoring program started. It took off like wild fire. We had—I can’t even tell you in the first year—I think that we had, maybe, 50 to 100 young people that wanted mentors, so, it’s always been a challenge having enough—who wanted mentors, so we had a challenge of having enough mentors for the people who want to be mentored.
Then, probably, a year-and-a-half or two years after that, we realized that most of our mentors were actually mentoring people who were not in their association. They may be across country, but they were somewhere else, so all the mentoring was being handled via email and telephone.
We actually had an advisory committee made up of MEDI graduates; each cohort after that second one, were recruited to become mentors. Even the cohort before, they were recruited to become mentors. They decided that we needed to provide an opportunity for the mentors and the mentees to have a face-to-face experience.
In our first one, which I believe, might have been in 2010, we thought, “Okay. We have about a hundred mentees; we have, maybe 30 mentors, so, let’s plan on this emerging multicultural leadership experience—affectionately known as EMLE—and, let’s plan on a hundred.”
Before the early-bird registration was done, we had blown the number away, because there were people that had not heard of the program, but they heard of the event. They thought, “This is for me.” Historically, while I was working any way, each year EMLE would be about 50 percent people who were in our mentoring program, and 50 percent people who were not. Many of them hadn’t heard of the program, but they come because it resonates with them.
Now, this year, they are planning on 650 to 700 people for the EMLE that’s coming up this year. It has grown just in an amazing way, each year. Again, I think about, and when I retired, I asked if I could tell my story because I had not shared my story with the group. I shared bits and pieces of it, but I’d never shared my whole story.
Part of it was, really, I did not know, but I was born and put here on this earth to develop these programs. I didn’t come to the Y until I was 50 years old. So, be careful of what you do, because you just don’t know, the greatest thing you do might be at the end of your career, which it was for me. All of those programs I am so blessed, and very, very proud of.
What does the YMCA mean to you?
The YMCA saved my life. So, even at 50. The story that I would sometimes share with people is that, at the age of 42, I lost my son; my son was from Viet Nam. He was adopted; he came at four months, and apparently, he had been infected in the womb with hepatitis B.
So, at age 18, he was diagnosed with liver cancer, and very advanced. He lived such a life. People described him forever as an old soul. He made a difference in people’s lives. He was very affectionate; he taught people how to say, “I love you,” to friends and family.
When he was at the end of his life, we were at the hospital, and it was actually in August, so school was not in session. To this day, it was magical. I have no idea how the word got out, but we were given permission to allow visitors around the clock because we knew he was on life-support and that he was going to not make it.
At this hospital, people were coming in constantly; they were telling me stories of how he had impacted them. At about four o’clock in the morning, the nurse came into me and said, “You have to see this.” I was manning the phone, so I was in the guest suite, and I walked into his room. To get to the guest suite to his room, I had to go across the hall. There were kids everywhere. The nurses had brought out pillows and blankets.
The vigil was just amazing; in his room, there were young people everywhere, as well. They had left enough space for the nurses to be able to get around the bed.
He had lived such a full life that, number one, I had to do group counseling, and I wanted my life to have meaning. I wanted everything to be intentional from then on. So, everything I do—in my faith, we believe that good deeds done in the name and the honor of someone else, helps that person’s soul progress.
So, sometimes, at MEDI, at the very end, I would tell my story. But, I would only tell this part of the story. I would say, “So, MEDI, doing the work in multicultural leadership development, making other people’s lives better, all of that is really done in the name of, and in the soul of my son, as well as myself, and the Y gave me the vehicle to do that.”
What is your son’s name?
What is some advice leaders could know about the Y? What advice would you share with leadership?
Depending on which group of leaders we’re talking to, we would say, “It’s the movement; it’s not your association. So, don’t be afraid of having someone else hire your staff away, regardless of what color they are, or regardless of their sexual orientation, or regardless of their gender. Don’t be afraid of that.”
Often times, people would call me because they were—and we have so many examples of this, they would say, “My CEO won’t let me go to MEDI; my CEO does not want me to apply for this job, so, I’m leaving the Y.” My question to them would be, “Wait a minute; if you’re leaving the Y, why don’t you just leave that association, and why don’t you find a Y where you will fit, that will help you with your career map, that will get you where you want to go? Because, are you relocating?
If they say, “Well, I need a job,” because oftentimes people would say, “My family is here; I can’t relocate right now.” So, occasionally, the coaches would laugh; we would say, “Well, sometimes the best thing that happens to them is that they get fired.” It’s taken out of their hands.
We actually have a young man in California who is now in his second CEO job in wine country. He’s in heaven, but, he came out of San Diego. That was his story. He shares his story that, “I said, ‘No, I can’t. I’ll move up here, but I can’t move away. This is where my family is. I’ll be here for a long time.’” Well, the new CEO comes in and things get reorganized. All of a sudden, he doesn’t have a job.
Then, he gets in touch with his network, because that’s the other thing that these programs do, it creates a nationwide network, and he’s saying, “I need a job. I have a family. I will relocate if I have to.” He relocated and became a CEO; he went from a branch exec to a CEO of a small Y, did very well there, and now has moved on to become a CEO of a larger Y, and is having the time of his life. It wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been moved out. That happens often.
That would be my first piece of advice: don’t be afraid. You’re part of the Movement. It’s not just your association. If you try to hold onto someone like that, it’s like spaghetti. It starts to come out, and you might lose the person to the Movement. Rather than do that, support them and let them go where they can be successful, because then, they will say really great things about you. You’ll be able to recruit someone else, or other people.
The second important thing that I would say to young people who are looking at their careers, I would tell them they have to be intentional. I would tell them to create a career map so that they’re able to measure as their career evolves, whether they’re on the right path, to get mentors, to get—we call it within our programs, we call it a “personal board of directors.”
We would say, “Get a personal board of directors, so, it’s a mentor, it’s a coach, it’s a cheerleader, it’s your significant other because they have veto power. Get your personal board of directors together so that when someone offers you something, your cheerleader is always going to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, you can do that.’ Your coach is going to say, ‘Well, tell me how that fits into your career plan.’ Your mentor is going to say, ‘Don’t do it.’ And, then, of course, your significant other is going to say, ‘Yes, I support you, or no, I don’t support you.’”
Is there anything that I did not ask you about, today, that you’d like to share?
I guess the one thing I would like to share is that your life does not end when you retire. My connection to this multicultural work continues, and it’s so interesting that, today, it interlinks around this whole aspect of remembering the leaders who built the road that you’re on, right now. I’m doing that with the Sioux Y. I think that organization has a very special niche and rich history.
I’m doing that with—I work for—volunteer for the first African American nonsectarian cemetery in St. Louis. That’s all about ancestors and trying to make the place beautiful, again. It’s an historic landmark, but if volunteers aren’t cleaning it up, it becomes overgrown.
It’s doing this project—the rememberers’ project. That has to do with telling the story, or finding the stories and recording the stories of our leaders of color, and having them preserved in a way that people a generation from now will be able to go back and see a picture of Harold Mezile, or Julius Jones, or Stan Law, or Gary Cobbs, who’s in Montgomery, and see those wonderful individuals and hear their stories—hear how they got there, some of the challenges they faced. So, they know they are not alone, and that, if these guys could do it, or, if these people could do it, then, they certainly can do it.
Those are the stories. And, my personal life, I’m very excited. We found our great-great grandfather, and, that has been life-changing and very emotional. We discovered him through Ancestry, and found out this man was born in 1815 as a slave. His slave-owner was also his father. We just recently had a huge family reunion of his descendants, and we all found each other through networking and Facebook, and that type of thing. That was very, very special, and it’s very, very fresh. It just happened.
Thank you for sharing your story. It was lovely.
Thank you for asking me to share.