September 20, 2017
Begin interview. Today is September 20, 2017, and the time is 9 AM Pacific standard time. This is Ed Toole on behalf of the YMCA Retirement Fund interviewing Richard Wallis.
Rich, thank you for agreeing to share your story with me today.
Thanks for having me here.
My first question for you is, what was your very first YMCA experience?
My very first experience was working as a junior counselor at a YMCA day camp and it would have been the summer of 1969. I remember I was sitting on the couch in our living room at home and it must have been May of ’69. I remember my mother coming into the room and she had clipped an ad in the paper that they were looking for volunteer junior counselors at the Y camp. She handed it to me and she said, “Richie, you’re not going to be sitting around on the couch all summer.”
I had done a lot of babysitting in the neighborhood. She said, “You like working with kids; go check this out.” So, that put my life on a trajectory within the Y.
What was it you liked about that first experience, or didn’t like?
I loved it; it was great. I liked the fact that I was working outside. My brother worked with my father; my father was a chemical engineer who worked for Underwriters Laboratories so, my brother was in the laboratory all day doing really boring stuff. I was outside doing archery, canoeing, swimming, and hiking with kids and I just had a ball with that. That was part of it.
The people I worked with were terrific and still have friends that I stay in touch with today that I worked with in ’69, so I made some good friends there. I met my wife at day camp; we’ve known each other for a long time.
Probably the biggest thing is that the camp director, who was the Y program director at the time, Gary Meyer, was very encouraging. I didn’t have a lot of self-confidence when I was that age and I was kind of shy. Gary did a lot to help me come out of that, to develop more confidence—come out of my shell—just very encouraging. He’d gradually give me more responsibilities, let me fail and kind of build me up afterwards.
He’s one of the people that I’ve stayed in touch with all this time. He left the Y a number of years ago and is now a missionary but, we still stay in touch. It was probably that relationship with Gary that continued on after summer camp and led to other volunteer opportunities and part-time employment at the Y that kept me in there. We developed a very close relationship at that point.
Tell me how many total years you worked for the Y and take me through a brief history of your career all the way through retirement.
Well, I started when I was 15 and I’m still working for the Y part-time now, even though I’m mostly retired. I’ve just turned 64 so, it’s been 49 years in the YMCA.
I started when I was 15 so, I would have been a sophomore in high school and all through high school and college I worked at my hometown Y for most of that time. Then, when I went to college, I went to George Williams, which was only 45 minutes away from home; I grew up in the Chicago area. I worked at the YMCA in that town, Downers Grove—the Indian Boundary YMCA.
I worked at summer camps in the summertime; I taught swimming during the year, I did building supervision, I was a lifeguard, ran a high school basketball league and all different things like that through high school and college.
When I graduated in ’75, I started work as a program director for the branch of the Y in Chicago, at the Elmhurst YMCA and I did adult fitness programs and managed their ice rink; I managed a youth hockey program. It was a seasonal ice rink operation. I also did youth programming I did that for a couple of years.
Then my friend that I mentioned earlier, Gary Meyer, had taken a CEO job in Henderson, Kentucky. He called me up and they were looking for a program director. Like I said, we had been very close so, I left Elmhurst to go to Henderson, Kentucky.
I did the same type of programming down there: I did adult fitness, youth programs, ran their summer camp program, started a resident camp program using leased facilities there, and also coached a girls’ gymnastics team, which was a first. I’m proud to say that we were the Kentucky state champions one year, which, if you know gymnastics in Kentucky, it wasn’t a great achievement. We were very proud of it.
I worked in Kentucky four a couple of years and we moved back to Chicago; my wife was pregnant with our first child. We wanted to be closer to family so, we moved back to the Chicago area and I worked at the Bridgeport YMCA, another branch of the Chicago Y. I did community programming there for a couple of years. Then I went back to the Elmhurst YMCA as their senior program director. I managed; I led a group of three program directors in Elmhurst. The executive director position came open at Elmhurst and I applied for that and got that so, I was the branch executive at the Elmhurst YMCA for two-and-a-half years or so.
Then, another friend of mine in the Y that I had met at the Bridgeport Y, John Ireland, called me up. He was working for the national Y at that time. John told me about a CEO opening in Spokane and encouraged me to apply for that. So, after talking it over with Diane, we decided that I would give it a shot.
I came out here and interviewed in 1985 and got the job here, the CEO of the YMCA in Spokane. I was here for 16 years before leaving Spokane to work for the YMCA of the USA, which I did for another 11 or 12 years. Now I’ve been retired for about almost five years but, working for Y-USA part-time now managing their CEO coaching program so, it continues.
Talk to me a little bit about the decision that you and Diane made to move really far away from family and where you were from because that’s always an interesting thing for a lot of Y professionals to go through when they have to. What tilted it for you to say that this is the right thing to do and spend a greater portion of my career doing that?
That’s a good question. I think at that time, people were more mobile. Everybody I knew in the Y was moving around. I think it was more typical then that it is now to uproot your family. Our kids were young so, we thought it was a good time in terms of the lives of our kids; our two boys were in third and first grade and our daughter was a preschooler. We thought if we were going to make a move, it was a good time.
It seemed like a good opportunity for me to go from a branch executive to a CEO spot. We’d never been to this part of the country before and, quite honestly, we thought it would be a three to a five-year gig and then, we’d move on someplace else after that. But after being out here for a period of time and putting roots down and making lots of friends, the Y was doing well and Diane had a good job, we got more and more kind of grounded in the community.
Our three to five years turned into—we’ve lived in Spokane 32 years now and don’t have any visions of going anyplace else, since two of our kids are how-still here and we have four grandchildren here now. That roots us even stronger.
Tell me about a mentor you had in the Y and how that person or people influenced you. You mentioned Gary Meyer and maybe you can mention some others. Talk to me about mentors and what they did for you and what you learned.
Gary was probably the most influential Y person in my life. He started me on the trajectory. Like I said, I was pretty shy as a kid and didn’t have a lot of confidence there. Working with Gary, he seemed to know how much responsibility he could give me and he held me accountable for things; but, he allowed me to grow there and challenged me to do new things, which I really enjoyed.
I had some early successes; I was organizing youth programs when I was 18 or 19 years old, bringing staff in and putting small budgets together and the whole program plan thing. I really enjoyed the responsibility; I enjoyed the progressive nature of it because I would do one thing and then, he would ask me to do something else and it would be something after that. So, I grew into the job.
It was his encouragement and also I think one of the biggest things was at camp, the sense of mission that he led with. I knew from a very young age that the work I was doing was important work and that it was hopefully impacting lives; we were there for a higher purpose than just entertaining kids and keeping them busy during the day. He really had a strong sense of mission.
Like I said, we’ve maintained contact all these years. Other people? I’ve got to say that Steve Hambright was very influential for a lot of the same reasons. When I went to Y-USA and was a senior resource director, it was such a totally different world than leading a YMCA operation. At times I felt like I was in over my head and floundering, trying to grasp, “What is this job all about?”
It wasn’t just that it was a different world but, Y-USA was in a state of transition when I joined in 2001. We had a new national executive at that point so everything was changing; everything was kind of in a state of flux. So, what I thought the job was and what the job turned out to be were a little bit different.
I often turned to Steve and asked for help and advice and he is such a good coach because he will never tell you what to do. He will never say, “This is the way I did that when I was in the job,” but he would ask good questions; he would make suggestions when that was appropriate. He really helped me get my feet planted at Y USA and understand the role and how it was different and how to be effective in that role.
We ended up, when I went to Y-USA, I was the—it was called “management consultants” then; I was the senior management consultant of a region that consisted of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska. We had a total of 30 Ys or something like that; it made no sense at all to have a region that big.
I remember Steve talking to me and suggesting that we merge our areas and so, we did that; it made a lot more sense and then Steve and I worked together as the senior management consultants for that region. He had a big impact; it really felt like he helped me get grounded; he’s a super-smart guy and very savvy, so he was a big influence on me.
Then other folks that I could think of would be some of the different board presidents I worked with who were phenomenal. One here in Spokane, and I think she passed away—I’m not sure of that. We didn’t stay in touch but, Harriet Fix was our board president for a couple of years and on the board here at the Y in Spokane for many years. A very classy lady and I never worked with another board president who handled the job as gracefully as she did, who applied themselves as much as she did.
She got involved in every aspect of the work and was truly—. You know how they talk about what a CEO, CVO partnership looks like, I’d have to say that the relationship with Harriet was the epitome of that partnership. We would meet once a month to review the agenda but, she was always there when I needed her, a great leader of the board, well-respected in the community here and so thoughtful in the approach that she had.
After she had left the board, I would often think, when I’d get into a situation I wasn’t sure what to do, my thought was, “What would Harriet do,” because she was so thoughtful about analyzing situations. I don’t know if methodical is the right word; she was just phenomenal to work with.
I had other board chairs here in Spokane who were wonderful to work with. That was one of the things that I’m most proud of is the board of directors that I left. When I left Spokane, they had a very, very strong board and I know they still do today.
That’s great. Tell me what you believe is the most significant thing that happened in the Y during your career; we’re spanning almost 50 years so, I will allow you more than one thing if you think of some significant—.
There might have been two significant things.
What were the most significant things that you felt happened during your Y career from any perspective?
Nationally, I feel like with the last maybe 10 years—. I feel like when Neil Nicoll came in as the national CEO, it felt like we moved back to more of a mission focus and really asking ourselves, “How can we have more impact? How do you harness the power of all these 800-some YMCAs to solve real problems in our country and work collectively to do that?” I think that’s probably the biggest thing.
It seemed like, as I think back on my Y career, it seemed like the late 70s and 80s were very, very fitness oriented and membership oriented; then, in my perspective, kind of moved into more of a childcare period—preschool, after school care.
My early time in the Y seemed very much focused on those as priorities and so, I was really glad to see more of an emphasis on working together, collectively, and not just as independent Ys, and somebody challenging us saying, “We can do more. We’ve got all this potential out there and why aren’t we doing more?” I think from a national perspective, that’s what I would say would be the biggest accomplishment: changing that framework of how we work together as a Movement.
The next question is, what are you most proud of when you reflect on your own career within the Y?
I’m very proud of mostly of here at Spokane because I was here the longest; I was CEO here for almost 16 years. I think of a couple of things, one of the things was the board of directors leaving such a strong group. We had an engaged board, good board structure, people who were well-respected and connected in the community. I felt like I left the Y in really good hands there. I think that’s still true today; I think they’ve carried that on.
One of the biggest things here in Spokane personally that I think that set the Y in a different trajectory is in 2001 we opened a new branch east of here. When I came and for 14 of the 16 years that I was here was very much a program-oriented Y. So I think membership was about 15 percent of our budget and the rest was childcare, youth sports, and camping.
The good thing about that was that we were everywhere. We had lots of childcare sites in the community, lots of youth sports sites in the community, day camp sites; we had a lot of fingers out into the community but, we didn’t have much of a membership presence or base.
We embarked on a capital campaign in the late 90s and we built a full facility, membership-type branch east of here in the Spokane valley. I think it set the Y in a new trajectory because we went from this old—it was built in ’64—downtown compartmentalized YMCA. The typical Y with all the hallways, meeting rooms in a maze that you get lost in—more office space than program space.
We went from that concept of a Y to what a real family-based membership Y looks like with the play features in the pool, the water slides, a teen center. It gave people in Spokane a different picture of what the Y could and should be.
The CEO that followed me, Rig Riggins, then built two new facilities. They replaced the downtown facility with a central Y and then they built another Y out north; now they have three spectacular membership facilities.
The other thing I was real proud of is this Y has a phenomenal resident camp. When I came here in ’85, I’d heard all—the board had told me all about the camp and how popular it was and had an excellent reputation. Then they took me out there before the interview.
If they hadn’t have said that about the camp, I never would have guessed it because the facilities were horrible. You walk into a cabin and you could see the sky through the roof of the cabins; it was very run down and obvious that the Y hadn’t put any money into it in a long time.
Over the course of I don’t know how many years it was, we had one capital campaign for camp that replaced, built a new bath house and a brand-new dining facility there; that was one big investment. But, every year we put more money back into camp. The condition of camp when I left the Y versus the condition of camp when I came here was like a night and day difference. The most important thing was the contribution I feel like I made was getting the facilities up to the same quality of the program.
The thing that held camp together was we had excellent camp directors, some of the best leaders of youth I’ve ever seen. One of them is either an assistant principal or principal out in the school district where my kids go to school, Dave Stenersen. His camp name was “Duckie Dave,” and his wife, Bonnie, were the codirectors out at camp; they were superb leaders and they surrounded themselves with a marvelous staff.
The kids had the best experience out at camp. That’s really what kept it going and what got it growing. I felt like my contribution would be, “Well, let’s get the facilities where we know camp is going to be there in 30 years.” I know that they’ve continued that and have done much more out at camp.
That was something I really felt good about—being a part of getting camp back in order. Those were two things.
One thing you mentioned and one thing you didn’t when you talked about them being important to you especially in the last 15 years, was helping out YMCAs and that’s with supporting the CEO with tools and resources. Talk to me a little more about why you feel the CEO coaching program is so important. And I know you were involved in helping create and expand mission cost analysis tool, which for most people doesn’t sound very sexy; I know what it is.
Oh, it is sexy.
But it is important. I just know from having been able to use it myself with Ys the impact it can have. Talk to me about those two things and why you feel it’s so important to have those resources for the CEOs.
I was very proud of the mission and cost analysis tool. I’m an excel geek so, I enjoyed working on it. But I don’t know how it was that the need became apparent; it might have been in conversation with the resource directors that—. I think there were a couple of different cost analysis tools that were out there and being used but that hadn’t been updated so, we put together a task force with a resource director from every region and just thought that we could make something a little bit better.
What we wanted to do is not make just a cost analysis tool but, work the mission in there, too. You’ve got to look at all of your activities from two viewpoints: how do they help you achieve the mission as well as what do they contribute to the bottom line and kind of balance those two things.
Over the course of maybe six months, we built and tested that tool and I know from conversations I’ve had with resource directors who’ve used it and gone through the process with the Y of looking at all your programs; rate them in terms of the impact they’re having and the contribution they’re making to the bottom line. And make some decisions based on where you put those programs and how they look economically.
The feedback I would get would be how that Ys were making decisions that were making them stronger; they were getting rid of programs that didn’t have any impact and were losing money.
Probably the biggest thing was that it seemed like a lot of YMCAs didn’t look closely at the financially what they were putting into individual programs; they would tend to bundle them together, look at all the programs together and not separate them. How much money are we actually putting into this one program as opposed to lumping them all together?
And so in the course of doing that, I think it made Ys take a hard look at where they’re spending their money and are they spending it in ways that maximize the resources they’re putting into them and get bang for the buck, in terms of the mission.
Based on what I hear, I think it has saved Ys millions of dollars because I know that there have been hundreds of Ys that have gone through the process of looking closely at that and developing plans and making changes based on it. I felt that helps make Ys stronger.
The CEO coaching program has been a phenomenal experience. I’ve been doing that for about four-and-a-half years. We have a cadre of about 55 volunteer coaches; they’re almost all retired CEOs or senior management at larger Ys, so they’re all volunteering their time to be coaches.
Our target audience is that first-time Y CEO so, somebody that goes into the role and has never been a Y CEO before. About a quarter of them are new to the Y; they’re not only a first-time CEO but, they’re also new to the Y. We match them with a coach who works with them for nine months. They have coaching conversations on an every-other-week basis.
What I’ve learned from this from the feedback we’re getting from the CEOs is, probably number one, just how much they appreciate having someone to talk to. There’s truth in the saying that it’s lonely at the top. CEOs are having to make decisions that they can’t necessarily talk to staff about; sometimes you can’t even talk to board. You might not want to talk to your board about it so, it’s nice to have a confidant that you can talk to and somebody that understands what you’re going through, who has been in those shoes before.
That’s probably what I hear the most from CEOs, just how helpful it was to get constructive feedback and to have somebody—. One of the CEOs had a name for it that I thought was really good. She said, “It was so helpful to have a thought partner, someone that I can think out loud with this person and they’re going to give me feedback. They’re going to ask probing questions that maybe help me look at the situation from a different perspective.”
We ask the CEOs when they’re through with the program how they have benefitted. What they overwhelmingly tell us is that it helped them be a more effective CEO; helped them climb the learning curve faster being a new CEO; gave them more confidence; helped them deal with sensitive situations and tough operational issues.
It was Neil Nicoll’s idea to start the program and I think the motivation behind it was that there was a lot of turnover in new CEO positions. What I heard is that he thought, “Maybe if we give people coaches they’ll do better and they’ll stick around longer and have more success on the job.”
The program itself has been in operation now for 11 years; I think we’ve place about 300 coach placements during that time. Overwhelmingly, the feedback we get from the CEOs is, “This was so helpful; I’ve made another friend; I have another supporter.”
In most cases, when the relationship is officially over after nine months, the coach and the CEO stay in contact with each other; they developed a relationship. It may not be on an every-other-week basis but, I still have coaches telling me that, “Oh, yeah. This CEO I coached five years ago will call me a couple times a year and check in and tell me how she’s doing or ask for advice.”
It’s been a wonderful experience and I’ve met more people in the Y, too, this way because most of my contacts have been out on the western United States and a lot of our coaches are back east—actually, they’re more with the warmer weather, I found out. Florida is a popular place for our coaches.
What was the YMCA mean to you—49 years with the YMCA mean to you?
It’s defined my life. It’s given me a purpose; I think that’s probably the biggest thing. I’ve always felt like there was a higher purpose to my work, that what I was doing was having an impact on individuals; it was having an impact on families; it was having an impact on community.
When I look today at the Y here in Spokane versus what it was like in 1985 and I certainly can’t take credit for that because there have been two superb CEOs that followed me. But, wow; it’s phenomenal what the Y now is. I think they have close to 40,000 members here; all kinds of social responsibility programs, teen leadership—all kinds of excellent programs touching so many lives here.
That’s probably been the biggest thing, having a sense of purpose in my life. That’s probably a selfish concept but, it’s important to me and something I wanted to continue into retirement.
One of the things that really drove it home and it was something that happened here in Spokane and unplanned. We were overhauling our scholarship program. Part of that overhaul said, “We ought to ask scholarship recipients for their input into the process.”
We were trying to streamline it and we were asking ourselves, “How can we reach more people, especially people we felt like the very low income had access to us but, we felt like there was a middle group that were falling through the cracks. Maybe they wouldn’t ask for support but still needed some help.
We sent a survey out to all of our scholarship recipients and asked them several questions trying to get some feedback. One of the questions was, “How have you been impacted by your scholarship you have received?” We didn’t put any great thought into that. The responses we got back blew me away.
We had put a lot of emphasis on scholarships and make the Y inclusive and reach out to all areas of the community, especially people who couldn’t afford it, that had always been important to us. It wasn’t until we started getting responses from that survey that I really understood what impact that was having on people
I remember one person said, “This literally saved my life,” because she was on an unhealthy track. She said, “I got involved with some of the health and fitness programs,” and she named some instructors that were helpful to her and she’s coming to the Y now and working out now three times a week. It literally saved her life.
We had letters from single parents who said, “This has been such a blessing to our family. I can’t afford to take the kids to movies; I can’t afford to take them bowling; I can’t afford to go to the amusement park. We’ll go swimming at the Y and we love that time together.”
A note from a person who I knew—one of the members who I knew at the Y was an ex-gang member from LA and I don’t know what brought him to Spokane but, it was kind of the same thing. He said, “This helped turn my life around because I was not going in a good direction and I probably would have fallen into my same habits here had I not been welcomed at the Y and connected with a new group of friends and had support there.”
That was a real eye-opener because conceptually, I always knew that we are helping people with these scholarships but, I had no idea of the impact; that was pretty moving for me.
That’s great; that’s what it’s all about. If you could share any advice with leadership about the entire Y Movement—they all hop on a conference call right now and they’re waiting to hear it from you—what would it be? What would that advice be that you would give them?
That’s a great question. There are a couple of things that come to mind. The first would be to always keep the focus on the mission and I don’t say that because I think it’s fallen off but. What I had said earlier, I think there were times in our history when we were focused more on products like fitness and childcare. I think now we have our attention in the right areas and how do we solve important problems? How do we maximize our impact? I think it’s important to keep that as the focus.
The other thing, and this comes from my time at Y-USA. The other thing I would say is, “Keep it simple.” I think we all can be guilty of this: we make things too complicated. It seems like the more you read about leadership and the more you read about successful organizations, successful companies, they keep it simple.
The principles of leadership and good management are not complicated. The more we can simplify the resources we give people and the messages, the better able they are to absorb it.
One of the things I noticed at Y-USA is that sometimes resources would come out and they would be so voluminous, the limited staff would be overwhelmed. You need to go in and say, “You don’t need to do this whole thing. Pick a couple of pieces of it that are relevant to you and do that.”
Maybe the sub-message there is, keep the smaller Ys in mind because. I see this a lot in the coaching program because it seems like that’s where the greatest turnover is but the CEO of the small Ys, as you know, they wear all the hats; it’s easy to get overwhelmed with things. The more we keep them in mind and keep things simple and give them tools that they can practically use, that are practical for their situation, the better off we’re all going to be.
Great. Is there anything I did not ask you today that you would like to share?
My wife said to make sure that I mention that I met my lovely wife at YMCA camp. That’s been the other benefit of being in the Y. I wouldn’t have met Diane if I hadn’t worked at camp. We just celebrated our 42nd anniversary in August, and my kids have enjoyed Y programs, mainly camp when they were younger and some youth sports. It’s been an important part of my life. A lot of my good friends are obviously Y people. And join the Retirement Fund.
Keep those contributions going to retirement. You hear that all the time but, it’s been the best thing; it’s given us a comfortable retirement here and I can enjoy the things that I enjoy doing now because all the Ys that I’ve worked at have been part of the Retirement Plan.
Rich, pleasure, as always.
Thanks for inviting me.