April 29, 2017
Today is April 29, 10:00 AM Pacific Standard Time. This is Ed Toole on behalf of the YMCA Retirement Fund interviewing Mary Zoller. Mary, thank you for agreeing to share your story with me today.
Well, thank you for asking me. I’m honored to have the opportunity.
Great. My first question for you is, what was your first YMCA experience?
My first YMCA experience as a child was actually getting kicked out of a YMCA. I was walking with a friend. We were looking for a place to play volleyball. I think I was 10 years old. The gym door was open, and the court was empty, so we walked in and just started playing and the staff person came over and told us we weren’t members and we would have to leave.
So that was my first experience with the Y. I wasn’t one that grew up in the Y at all. I tried desperately to get a job as a camp counselor at a Y when I was in high school and I didn’t get hired. Then I tried to do my internship in the Y with my degree in recreation and they didn’t pick me. It was only after I was out of college that I finally had a chance to get engaged with the Y.
Tell me about your first actual YMCA job. How did that come about and what did you do?
My first job, we had just moved to the New Orleans area. It was a few weeks after my wedding and one of the gentlemen my husband worked with said, “We belong to a fabulous YMCA, you should have your wife go talk to them.” So, I set up an interview with the executive director there and went in and told him that I have a degree in recreation and I have always wanted to work for the Y, this is my experience, working with kids, which is primarily my love.
And he said, “Well we don’t have any openings right now, but if you want to talk to the program director in the office next door, she may have something you can do part-time for the time being.” So, here you are with the college degree and ready to launch your professional life and she had an opening in day camp as an assistant camp director.
I said well, “I need to get my foot in the door, it’s better than doing nothing. I will just start and show them that I’m capable of way more than just being an assistant camp director.”
But the more important thing that happened that day was while I was waiting to talk with her, she was actually on the phone talking to a Y in California about a job. I right away knew if the program director was looking for a job, maybe she would get it and maybe I would have a shot at a full-time job with the Y as a program director, which was exactly what I wanted to do.
I ended up that summer doing part-time as day camp, I taught some arts and craft classes to kids and then summer ended, and she hadn’t left yet. I was devastated that now what was I going to do.
I told them, I’ll volunteer. Whatever you would like to get done, just tell me in terms of program development and I’ll do it. I wasn’t getting paid anything, but I started their first After School Program. I knew that eventually she would have to move on and finally she did. I applied for the job and ended up getting it. It was a total of six months I kind of worked part-time, then volunteered, and was just determined that that was the job for me and I was going to get it.
That’s great. So after that role, and you started working full time for the Y, take me through kind of your career path; and what formed that career path? Was it something specific that you had in mind or just what led to way? Talk to me.
I was never one that had a five-year plan. None of the coaching that they give you for how to set goals ever made sense to me. I just knew always what I loved to do and that I felt very strongly that you can create your own career path. That was actually an article I wrote at one point for Perspective. That not everybody wants the same things in a career and that you should find what you want and make that happen.
Even if it doesn’t go the traditional way of program director, branch exec, CEO, whatever, that there is a place in this organization for your skills and you’ve got to make it for yourself, because it is not going to be that other people see that direction for you.
Program was my passion and particularly nonphysical. There was a fitness director and an aquatic director and me, so I did everything that didn’t fit in the other two categories, which would have been day camp, after school, preschool, teen programs, family programs, adult education, that whole realm.
I quickly discovered that those kinds of programs did not have the support nationally that physical fitness and aquatics programs had. I saw them have all these great certifications to go to and training, and there was almost nothing for people like me. So that became part of kind of what drove my own career path. That if I ever had the chance to impact that, that would be something that would be valuable, I felt, to the Movement, as well as to me personally.
Basically, the other piece that fell into place that ended up impacting my career was one of my jobs was Youth In Government and within the first 18 months, I suddenly found myself as Louisiana State Director for it. So in terms of planning large-scale events, it actually started with organizing that program. And that was while I was simultaneously doing the other programs I described at the local Y.
I was very lucky that Ben Casey became our CEO in New Orleans and he was very tied into the national Movement and wanting to have a lot of national visibility for what we did. Through his vision there were chances for me then to highlight programs I was creating at the national level at a very early stage in my career.
That’s kind of how I started getting asked to be on different national committees and work on different national projects. Because this was our chance as New Orleans to have a CEO, who was very visionary and wanted to move us kind of into a progressive mode as opposed to doing what had always been done.
Through Youth In Government, I got connected with the other State Directors and did that for seven years, while career wise, I was moving up within New Orleans. I actually ended up as the Vice President for Program Services. It was there that I first got into developing standards for all the branches in all Program disciplines and I felt if I could do it there, I could do it anywhere and took that with me when Ron Kinnamon called me and asked if I would apply for his West Field Program Consultant job.
That was my dream job. To get to be a Program Consultant for Y-USA and to have Ron Kinnamon, who then became my mentor as my boss. He was just passionate about Program. That was what drove him, and I was the same way, so it was a great match for the two of us. He had lots of ideas and I like to implement.
So between the two of us, we were able to start some things in the West Field that when he then went to Chicago, he took me with him and that’s how I ended up in charge of Program training as national events under him for the national office.
It was not a traditional way to go exactly, but that’s what I wanted. To give national leadership to the areas of Program. The job there, basically the ‘90s when the whole focus was on legendary service under Dave Mercer, was on what can we do to support Y’s to better serve communities through the programs that we offer. It was all about the very things I tried to do first in New Orleans, which was standardize programs, develop resources. We wrote all sorts of manuals to support them.
We developed training and what really got me on managing events was the system of program schools we started that eventually led to membership universities and we had this massive structure that basically that was what I did, I managed it and felt that I was giving to the Y Program Directors like I once was, much more in terms of support and direction, and a definition of excellence for them to try to achieve.
Simultaneously with that the national events piece, Solon Cousins had this vision for a general assembly event. So from the first one in Boston in ‘88, I had a major role in each of those and that was alongside all of the Program training pieces, but I had the chance for most of my career to be involved in large scale events offered by the Y.
Then I had the opportunity to coordinate 150th Anniversary in New Orleans in 2001. That was like my dream come true because to this day it is still the biggest event with 8000, that we have ever had. It was just a privilege to get to work with Dan Maier. He coordinated from a marketing standpoint the overall anniversary and I coordinated the event. It will always be one of the greatest moments for me in my life getting to do that and seeing it happen.
That’s great. Eventually you work your way into NAYDO. Maybe you can tell us what NAYDO is, how you got involved in it and then why you’ve been with it all these years.
It was actually not long after that general assembly event that I decided that events and the opportunity to create experiences for Y people and for others was really how I wanted to focus, more so than on operations. I could tell that working in a local Y as a CEO was burning me out and it was the first time I had ever experienced that in my life and I knew I had to do something different because I was losing my spirit. I ended up going with one of my former bosses, Tom Massey, who had just created Triangle2, and the first contract I got was with another member of Triangle2 doing NAYDO. It was just a small contract as the registrar. That was it.
I was not one that had been going to NAYDO. I had only been there once and that was the previous year, so I wasn’t known really to those on the NAYDO council. People like Kevin Washington were actually on the NAYDO council at that point in time.
NAYDO was at a turning point in terms of they felt they were getting bigger and they needed to have staff. Really what happened is the contract that started as just a registrar and I was doing a bunch of other work for other entities at the same time, it became a bigger job and then the thing that turned it into much more, what it is today, was actually a few years into it when the conference director lost her job just two months before the conference. I said to the council, “Don’t worry, I can do this. Let me show you. We’re going to be fine.”
It was after that that then I became much more than just a person doing it as a part-time registration thing and a few other details. It actually became much more of the conference director role and then it kind of exploded when the council was changing direction and not making it just for development people, but for anybody that worked for the Y to kind of create a culture of philanthropy, including volunteers and that’s when the growth kind of started.
This was the mid 2000s; simultaneously with my job responsibilities for NAYDO growing. Then Katrina hit New Orleans, which is where I was working from and that kind of changed my life for a bit because we were not able to go back home.
And when home is your office also, it does provide some challenges, so I was very, very fortunate that Y-USA approached me and asked was there anything they could do to help; and I said, “Well actually, yes.” Because through all sorts of circumstances related to that, we lost our health insurance. So anyway, at that point then, I ended up back on Y-USA staff and NAYDO paid them for a portion of my time.
We did that for a while and as that was happening, NAYDO was growing and getting bigger and bigger and bigger and to the point where I really didn’t have time to do any other kinds of contracts. It was just the work with NAYDO and I was doing work for Y-USA then on expos, as well.
It’s a little complicated, but the bottom line is finally by 2010, NAYDO was big enough to have me be full time. So that is what I have been doing since. I just love doing it because it’s not ever the same. Every year I’ve got a different host Y to work with, so I have a whole different team because it’s all volunteer based. It keeps it exciting. It keeps it unique for me because every city and every staff is quite different and they bring their own personality to it. That is what I have been doing and continue to do.
That’s wonderful. A little bit earlier you mentioned Ron Kinnamon, as a mentor. I was going to ask you, tell me about a mentor or mentors that you have had at the Y and how that person or persons have influenced and shaped your work and thinking and career.
First of all, Ron, before he was a mentor, I had had the opportunity to go to a lot of his trainings, and that’s where I learned a lot about how to develop training, just by watching him and by hearing him. It was always important to him to make it fun and I think the element of fun in training, that was a huge part of what mattered to me.
Originally when I was growing up, I wanted to be a teacher, but then I quickly learned in high school that what really got me motivated and inspired wasn’t the classroom learning I was getting so much as the opportunity to be in student government and in sports and that kind of thing.
That shifted what I wanted to do in terms of I wanted to teach, but I wanted to teach in a recreational environment. So that kind of fit with the whole fun concept. That you are not with a strict curriculum and somebody is telling you, you have to teach this, and you have to do it this way, but rather you can be more creative.
Ron was the epitome of creativity and the need for that. To think outside the box and to also get to know people and have a kind of personal touch with them. That is really very much me. He gave me opportunities to make my dreams come true. He really did.
I had some other mentors, as well. Gary Kuenzli taught me an awful lot. Ken Vogt definitely through what was the APD, I had the opportunity to get very involved that way and learn about training and other things, as well. But I just had a lot of really great people that kind of took me under their wing and showed me and directed me and gave me the chance to learn and I took advantage of it.
That’s great. You started your career in ’77, in that first job. So 40 years later now with all you’ve done in the Movement, what do you believe is the most significant thing that has happened in the Y Movement during your career? Think about just the Y in general.
The most significant thing over that time. I would hope that it would be the emphasis on, and this has come about in various ways, the emphasis on training and staff development. It has gone through several phases during that time, but I think it’s where it needs to be in terms of equipping people to succeed.
There is so much more in terms of support and structure than there was say 40 years ago that I think we are only as good as the people that we hire and we recruit as volunteers. So the investment into that aspect I would say, that’s what does and will continue to make the biggest difference. Investment into our people in various ways.
Great. When you think about your career, what are you most proud of?
I think I’m most proud of the opportunities that I’ve been able to be involved with where people learn and get inspired. So that would be related to all the training work that I did in the ‘90s, as well as NAYDO, and general assemblies. Because I don’t view any of those as events so much as you are creating experiences and you get a chance to inspire people and to learn and you know that there’s a ripple effect.
If you’re effective, there’s a ripple effect basically all over the world because they are from all sorts of places and all sorts of Ys and different communities. You may just be tossing a stone, but the ripple effect is going across the whole ocean based on something they learned or some interaction they had. I think knowing the broad scope of the Movement and being able to think in some small way that it’s making the world a better place, I would say that’s it.
Can you, and it’s okay if you can’t, can you think of a particular person or a particular YMCA association where you know that happened because they came to NAYDO and made some impact with their volunteers, with their staff, and you know it just took off from there?
I can’t think of one actually, but I can see it in people that were Program School Directors that I got to work with back in the ‘80s, are leading successful YMCAs as CEOs today. One is right here in San Diego, Baron. He was a Program School Director. Dan Dummermuth was a Program School Director. There are so many more that I could name, but I see in them that we knew each other at the beginning and they’re running successful operations today. I would say that’s where I see that versus one example.
Great. When you hear the word or letters or term YMCA, what does that mean to you, the YMCA?
To me the most important letter there is Association and that it’s not about any of the other letters that might be limiting, but rather it’s the Association that brings people together and unifies communities and I believe that the world has a greater need for that now than perhaps any time in my lifetime. The place to be that brings people of different backgrounds, religions, ages together is a place that the world needs far more of and so that’s what I think of.
Great. Back to your career a little bit. I’m curious about a couple things that I know, and that was two thoughts, but share other things about your career that you think might be or will be. One was having a home office, back in I think it was the late ‘80s, but also being a female CEO within the Y at a time there were probably female CEOs, but I’m sure there weren’t many when you would go to conferences or trainings.
Talk to me about both of those things; being a female CEO earlier in the Y, as well as what was it like to work from home back in the days when no one really did that too much.
It was much different working at home. There were maybe four of us on the YUSA staff that were working at home and this was definitely part of the Ron Kinnamon vision that people could do this, and circumstances were such that I needed to do that, and he was very supportive of it.
It was just the verge of when email was coming out. I can remember you would be FedExing packages back and forth and phone was easy, but it was before cell phones and texting and all that. It was probably more cumbersome then. I loved it. I had a whole staff in Chicago and it made me, I think, a better supervisor of them because I wasn’t able to look over their shoulder.
I had to trust that they would implement what they were supposed to be doing. I had a great team up there and I would come up once a month and spend time with them, but it was not anywhere as easy as it is now. Video conferencing, any of those things just weren’t out there yet.
It was definitely more challenging, but I made sure that I was successful at doing it back then when it was harder. Because I said if anybody else was going to get to do this, if I don’t do well at it, I’m going to ruin their chances and I believed in the vision that one day people would be working from home. It just seemed the way the world was going. It was important to me to prove that you could do it.
The question on a female CEO. I did not feel anything unique in terms of my interaction in the Y at that time. But in terms of locally and in terms of, we had both a board of trustees and a board of directors who were pretty male dominated in the South and traditional, and so, it was much harder for them to feel comfortable even meeting with me publicly because it might appear to them and their wife that that wasn’t appropriate.
So, they would bring a secretary with them or some third party. They couldn’t invite me to the male-only club. They always took the male CEO. It was those kinds of things that it was like we haven’t really made as much progress as a world on this issue as I had hoped. It was harder with the local community than it was within the Y.
So you get to these national conferences annually and if at one of these conferences you could have every single CEO and CVO in the room and you only had time to tell them one thing that they needed to know, what would it be? What would you tell that audience from the experiences you had? What do those CEOs and CVOs need to know about the Y Movement going forward?
How much time do I have on this?
As much time as you want.
I would tell them the most important thing you can do is listen. Listen to your staff of all ages, not just your seasoned staff and volunteers, but listen to people coming in and evaluate what they are saying in the context of what they know and where they are at because lots of times the longer you are in something you forget the basics and what matters when you’re at that entry level whether it’s a board member or a staff person.
You just forget because you’ve been doing it so long. I would say listen. Listen to your staff, your volunteers. Listen to your members. They are the secret to what you need to be doing and they will tell you if you will listen and if once you have listened, if they see evidence of that in what you then do.
That’s certainly something that we try to do at NAYDO, is to pay close attention to what they are telling us and then do that the next year and that’s one of the reasons we are able to continue to grow and add new things, but never lose sight of the core of why people come, but be open to innovations and a little different way of looking at things and don’t be afraid to experiment.
That’s great. I know you’ve been passionate about volleyball during your life. Obviously, you have been kicked out of a Y just because you wanted to play some volleyball. When did you learn that volleyball was invented by the YMCA?
I think I learned that early on. I don’t remember the exact moment, but part of our career development program training was history and I had an executive director Chuck Book, who firmly believed in educating his staff.
So, he sent me right away to training. I was only there a few months when I started the Career Development Program and various other things and I am pretty sure now that I think about it, it was within the first year that I did learn that and I was surprised.
That’s great. Is there anything I didn’t ask you today that you would like to share? Some thoughts you have.
I think that the Y is really in a great place right now. I think that the young people coming up, they get it and they just need opportunities to be nurtured and recognized. It is the first time in history that so many generations have worked in the work place at the same time, which brings some unique challenges. But every one of those age groups has something terrific to offer, and I think it goes both ways.
Older workers can be written off too quickly. That they’ve been around too long. Oh, it’s just the old way of doing things. But their experience is very valuable to the Movement. There’s a whole lot of my generation that are retiring and out there and still want to give back to the Y. I think that is a lot of energy we should harness for sure.
But at the opposite end of the spectrum, too often I don’t think young professionals are listened to as much. They, therefore, don’t think the Y is the place for them and we lose them. Not that that didn’t always happen, but when I was one of them, I know I felt it. But I had people that did take the time to listen to my ideas and coach me and I hope that we have a generation of Y current leaders that are taking that same interest.
Not only in just young professionals, but the teens in our programs and the people that can grow up to be Y board members, Y donors, Y staff. Because we are so focused on measuring everything that I hope that we don’t lose the emphasis on taking time to spend with people and not just measure what happens as a result of it.
Mary, it’s been a pleasure having some time with you this morning. Thanks for all you do for this Movement, all you have done, and again absolute pleasure.
Thank you. This is such an honor. Thank you very much.