June 4, 2018
Begin interview. Today is June 4, 2018 and the time is 3 PM Pacific. This is Ed Toole and Vanessa Boulous on behalf of the YMCA Retirement Fund interviewing Steve Hambright. Steve, thank you for agreeing to share your story with both of us today.
First question for you is what was your very first YMCA experience?
Very first story to be told: I was 12 years old and my best school friend—sixth grade, I think it was. His father took us to the Y to sign us up because he wanted his son to be participating in the Y. He was a retired army general, brigadier general—interesting guy in himself. He enlisted in World War I, retired after three wars as a brigadier general, and took us everywhere. He got me introduced to the Y.
The funny part is that my brother had been a Y member for a long time, and because of some health issues my parents never thought it wise for me to go to the Y. General thought I needed toughening up, so he took us to the Y and signed us up. It’s all history from there.
I took swim lessons, the standard drill, but by age 12 had joined the Leaders Club. Once we joined the Leaders Club we were there four, five times a week and every Saturday morning to help teach little kids gymnastics and swimming at the Y. That’s my beginning experience.
Talk to us a little bit about how long you worked for the Y in your very first job, and then tell us about how you ended your career with the Y.
My very first job—the Y really took care of me and saw to my development. And so from Leader’s Club, the Y staff person Bob Haldeman really was a mentor to me but in summers he made sure we had things to do. So, at age 14 I was the assistant assistant day camp counselor, and 50 years later retired as the senior resource executor from Y-USA. There’s quite a span to cover.
They just wanted to make sure we had things to do. That guy—for all of my junior high school career and college I had to send him my report card. He wanted to make sure I was doing well at school. If I wanted to be a Y professional, he was going to make sure I didn’t fall down on the job.
Tell me about when you felt like, “I’m 14 years old, assistant to the assistant.” When did you feel like you were a Y professional? At what point did you feel like, “I’m a Y professional.”
Y Professional. I had a summer opportunity to lead a project on drug abuse prevention for the state of Delaware, and again my mentor here got me into this—said, “You’re home for the summer and we have this project to do.” It kind of extended. I did the lead-up work in the summer, and then on breaks from Springfield I was able to continue with the project for about a year. We turned out a thing called the Drug Information Action Line Dial back in the days of dial phones—was our logo.
I really felt like I was doing something important. We recruited some 200 volunteers, I think. We had a call-in drug information center for anybody actually, but it was open from 2 PM to 2 AM every day and had—I remember them being very proud—one of the first automatic answering devices that would either trigger a call to the mental health department or trigger a standard, “Here’s where you can go for help” menu.
These answering machines were this big, and the phone company was very proud that they were part of this project. It was the first statewide drug information center, but led by the YMCA. And they let me be the coordinator of the project, so that was really cool.
Do you know why that was on the YMCA’s radar?
This was about ’67—early ‘60s. Drug abuse had captured the nation’s interest. It was the flower children’s—hippies’ age. You know people were concerned about what was going on. It was a big cultural paradigm shift.
My roots were in physical education, but as my mentor graduated to civil rights and community issues, so did I. He really got this on the radar screen. It was part of our outreach went to the community and it surfaced as a major thing. How do we get to kids? How do we get them the right information? I spent inordinate hours in coffee houses and street corners talking to kids about, “What do you know about this? What could be helpful? Do you know some friends that have had a problem? Where do they go for help?” and all the standard community work kind of stuff.
Tell me about a mentor or mentors you had at the Y and how that person or people influenced you throughout your career.
I’ve had a lot of them. My whole career has been getting developed by the Y. They gave me opportunities to grow, so that’s where all my jobs came from. Mentors—Bob Haldeman was the first, and Paul Tedford, who were the physical directors at the Wilmington Y in Wilmington, Delaware. They sent me to Silver Bay Leader School and I came back saying, “I know what I want to do. I want to be a YMCA director.” They said, “You want to do that? Then let’s get busy.”
I remember discussions about, “This C in English isn’t going to cut it, kid. Maybe skip this Saturday and spend a little more time on your English so that you do better on the next test.” You can’t take my Saturday at the Y away from me, but they made sure I did good.
My second real professional assignment—I worked with the Walnut Street YMCA, which today would be called the Heritage Y—inner city Wilmington. The staff was entirely African American except for Bob Haldeman and me. I developed some great mentors and influences there. John Redmond was the branch executive. Charles Henry was the youth director. Charles and I have friends since he was in his 20s and I was still a teenager—19, 18.
George Poe—probably the greatest group work teacher in the Y. George was a neighborhood outreach worker who in the ‘60s had a master’s degree from Pittsburgh—an uncommon professional who believed in neighborhood work and certainly could have done anything he wanted—a brilliant man. Talk about being taken by the hand and into the community and taught about group work and how to bring community groups together—just outstanding.
Other mentors—how long have we got? The list goes on and on. Rick Sprague I met early on—great mentor on consulting and management work. Dave Thornton is one of the best people I ever worked for—gave me opportunities to grow and develop that I don’t think anybody would have but him. He was a truly outstanding Y leader whom I admire tremendously. Larry Rosen, Gary Kuenzli—really changed the direction of the way we did consulting. We moved from training and edutainment—my word for that—to aggressive consulting. What kind of priority issues did people have and how do we really help you get the resources to work on them?
Tim Robinson, whom we found to bring performance consulting to our profession, turned out to be an unanticipated friend and mentor. It’s almost been a year now, but he was in Phoenix and called me up, said, “We have to have dinner.” I was really quite surprised. His wife tells me, “Of all the things he’s done, he talks about the Y all the time. You guys really made an impression on him.” I said, “He certainly made an impression on us.” That’s a pretty good list of mentors when you think.
Absolutely. During your career, and you said 50 years of what do you think were one or more of the most significant things that happened in the Y Movement, whether you were involved in it or not? Just want to go on scale. What were some of those interesting or most important things that happened within the Movement over that time?
Early and memorable—the whole civil rights era I think changed the Y. There was this huge swing to community work—some good, some bad. You had some great people like Julius Jones and some of the outreach folks who really called us to task to take the mission to the community and not just rest in the buildings and not just rest on those who could afford.
It really challenges to say, “This is what we’re really about. Take the mission statement seriously. What are you going to do about it?” The personal issues there—I was an inner city kid. I probably didn’t know that. Where you lived is where you lived. You don’t think about that. The experiences with Charles Henry and George Poe and going into the neighborhoods and experiencing a different view of life was not only good for me but good for the organization because it forces to confront some issues.
Another great guy I worked for was Bob Bunting. Bob Bunting was the central branch executive in Worcester, Massachusetts. His brother was Jim Bunting, former national executive director, who was a major leader in advocating for women professionals in the YMCA. A lot of people probably forgot that. Those people were the people that influenced me and said, “Wow. This organization is quite exceptional in its development of people and giving people the opportunity to experience different things.” Those years were memorable changes.
There was a huge swing in the late ‘70s and ‘80s that changed fitness. It changed the Y from the handball—basketball players to healthy living kinds of approaches. The whole aerobics movement. The physical directors who were more conscientious about total health than just sports. There was a big pendulum swing there, and in that big pendulum swing, a lot of the community work kind of went by the wayside, although interestingly enough those were some of the heyday of the last of the forefront programs—the Gra-Y, the Hi-Y, the Indian Guides in particular I remember in the early ‘80s was huge in many places.
Again, here’s the YMCA being a pioneer and recognizing the value of parenting programs in an age when computers were beginning to take children’s attention and TV was becoming more sophisticated. The Indian Guides was giving parents an opportunity to spend quality time with their children and the Y recognized that.
In that same transition, another big change I remember in the mid-‘70s to mid-‘80s—in the mid-‘70s I was looking at childcare as a means to get welfare mothers back to work. It was damn near impossible to get out of poverty. If you’re a single mother, what do you do with the kids in preschool age and how do you get retrained to provide income for the family and break the welfare cycle?
We hit on this idea of—childcare and preschool wasn’t new, but applying it this way in the neighborhood was, for us. There was no prescription. Preschools were not predominant. It triggered this thought: where do you start? The only people that were doing quality childcare at that time, in the ‘70s, were the kibbutzes in Israel, so I put an ad in the paper and I was looking for an experienced childcare leader from an Israeli kibbutz, and I found one in Worcester. How crazy is this? Marta Robof. I said, “Here’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to break this cycle.”
So we started this preschool center in the Y and I got permission to take over this former youth work area because we had moved out into the neighborhoods. There wasn’t children members coming the Y anymore, so we started looking for some funding to support it. There was some school lunch funding—those kind of things.
They’d started the new office for children in Massachusetts at this time, so I applied to that and they said, “We can’t do anything for you.” Then they came back and said, “We’re not sure you can run this program.” “What do you mean, we can’t run this program?” “We’re the office for children. We’re trying to protect children. The YMCA doesn’t deal with kids under six.” Membership age was eight in most YMCAs at that time. “So we may have to shut you down.” I’m going, “You can’t—this is crazy.”
I said to the guy, “If they were YMCA members, you would actually have nothing to say about this, would you?” He said, “No.” I said, “If they’re YMCA members and this is a members program, you have nothing to say about it as the office for children.” He said, “That probably would be right.” So I went back to the board of directors and we changed the age of membership to two and we ran our childcare programs.
From a historical point of view, I saw the beginning of formalized childcare in Connecticut. I sent my childcare director to New York for some extensive training in early childhood education, and this was unheard of, because most people were running, coloring and painting—crafty type half-day programs. We went full-bore, so for me today to see where that has evolved to childcare is pretty rewarding. We’re at the front end of that. That became much bigger than I ever imagined in the Y. That was a major change in YMCA focus.
How about the consulting work that you’ve been involved with? You feel that changed the landscape at all in terms of how YMCA of USA worked with local Ys?
Yeah. I signed on in ’91. The Westfield office has a consultant. Pretty much our focus was key leaders conferences and trainings. If you look closely, they’re pretty much the same thing. The field office did a lot of the management modules back then, but coordinated the field in training for Y professionals. In about ’95, I went to the MRC and Larry Rosen, another mentor, and Gary Kuenzli really wanted to start what we called aggressive consulting. Less training, less feel-good stuff, but truly trying to uncover, work with, bring resources to priority management and business priorities of Ys.
We also put a very heavy emphasis on dysfunctional autonomy, which was a term we used. It’s okay to be an independent Y, but if you’re struggling because you don’t have the proper management resources and in the long run you look at where that train goes down the track, if you don’t have adequate resources you start to develop risk issues. You start to put members at risk. You start to put children at risk. You start to put community members at risk who are supporting the Y and don’t know that they have those risks.
The aggressive consulting was aimed at truly surfacing some issues and maybe the beginnings of pushing, cajoling, suggesting, encouraging Ys to merge and-or do joint services so that they could afford those resources. That wasn’t real comfortable for a lot of people, but we also started to see some results and we started to see you can’t cover everything with a workshop. You can’t change a Y’s resources with a two-hour feel-good workshop. That’s not meant as a slight because we ran some great workshops, but we needed to change the landscape and confront some issues head-on.
As I progressed through that, we saw some different iterations. In 2000, 2001, we eliminated the MRCs and the field offices and went with one national field service. From a history of consulting point of view I played both sides of that street, so my point of view was being a field consultant was like being a country doctor. What ever you brought with you, what ever experience you had in your hip pocket, that’s what you took to the CEOs you were working with.
Being an MRC director was like being a hospital’s administrator. I had CFO. I had HR experts. I had financial development experts. When a Y needed something—“Marsha, I need you to go talk to Pomona. They need some help here with their finances,” and they did it. The early experiments were kind of tough because I don’t think we were quite ready to do aggressive consulting nationwide.
The discovery of the performance consulting really seemed to fit the bill of, “We’re trying to improve performance. That should be a good thing, not an intimidating thing and not a criticism, but how can we help you improve your performance?” We embarked on that line.
The next iteration was to look at Neil Nicoll, who’s not only a great friend but I worked with in different projects for years since we were in our 20s—said, “I want the best of both worlds. How do we do that?” That was the formation of the partner Y’s expertise to team up with the resource director’s consulting ability. We thought that was a good next step. I don’t know what the next step will be, but I think that’s an evolution of where we went with consulting.
Steve, knowing that this is still a constant challenge for the Y Movement, there is a project called Thriving Ys Consolidation, making sure that Ys are picking up with the brand and the expertise. If you could reflect on some of your key learnings as the difficult conversations you’ve had over the years with local Y board members, Y CEOs, even Y-USA leadership, and I was a new consultant in that space, what might you remember that you learned—an approach, how you positioned it, anything in that space of key learnings that might shed some light for future consultants and people trying to do similar work that you did?
First key learning is never assume you’re right. I’ve gone in with great answers and it was to the wrong questions. One of the things I liked the most about consulting—and I was just telling somebody this the other day—what I learned on Tuesday I guarantee you by Wednesday or Thursday I was using that learning. For the consultants the recommendation is to keep in mind that whatever problem you’re solving with one YMCA is going to come back.
I really believed in what we were doing with the performance consulting. I think the access credibility and trust is a great learning, and without those things you’re just going to spin your wheels. I think the other thing is that as a national organization you really need to concentrate on who you’re putting in that role in terms of experience, knowledge, education, and perhaps an intense period of training to do that.
A mistake that I made, if I can put it that way—we hired some really good people and my assumption was that they wanted to be good consultants. I’m not sure that was always true in terms of their pursuit of learning how to be a good consultant. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the busy-ness of the work that we forget to learn how to help people identify priorities, how to help people really bring out what’s an issue for their YMCA, and then have the openness to use your resources wisely.
I get very concerned when I see consultants who try to do everything themselves when they have this enormous network of resources available to them. If your focus is on helping this YMCA, then your job is to bring as many of those resources as you can by being accurate on the situation—accurately diagnosing what’s going on and having the access credibility in agreement with the CEO that, “Yes. This is what we need to work on.” It ain’t as easy as it looks. I’m guilty as charged here.
We all have an assessment of our own background and our own successes and how they would be helpful to this person, but it may not be what they’re looking for. The ability to listen closely—the whole diagnostic end of the consulting I think is a critical issue. I was talking to Vanessa earlier. Particularly as the work has become so much more sophisticated and overburdened with regulations and legalities, the bulk of our Ys really need what large Ys have as their C suite. One of our challenges is how to get that kind of resource to a local YMCA.
Tell us about any involvement in various YMCA groups or task forces that were meaningful to you over your career, whether that was AEP, AYP-those iterations, or something else you were involved in, or a task force that came up to put something together that we wouldn’t even know about?
My goodness. You’re testing my memory here this afternoon. I was so fortunate to have so many pioneering experiences. One that comes to mind—I started in the field office working with the California Collaboration for Youth. What is that? It was a disguised name for lobbyists that was born out of the tax challenge area. The Ys in California partnered with the other traditional key nonprofits for youth—Boys and Girls Club, Campfire, American Camping Association, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts.
We formed this coalition and we hired a lobbyist to help us to look at legislation that was coming that could adversely affect our ability to work with children. That’s now morphed into a national office of public policy—not the California Collaboration for Youth—but we were kind of out there experimenting. I think New York or Massachusetts was doing some similar kind of work. We met on a regular basis. We reviewed legislation. We lobbied, went to visit state senators about issues concerning legislation for youth.
One crazy example: we caught a piece of legislation which was an exact replica of the 990 and took the nonprofit 990 to the legislators and said, “Have you guys seen this? Do you actually understand that you’re replicating a process that is already—which by doing so for nonprofit agencies in this state would cost us a fortune to redo the whole thing? When you do that, you take away services from children.” They were stunned because the people writing it had never seen the 990.
These were some of the early days. Born out of the tax challenge, how do we protect the Y from things that are going to hurt our ability to deliver, especially to children? Out of the Collaboration for Youth we actually got the Ys in California to hire that lobbyist on a separate contract just for YMCAs, and as of this day I think Judy Barrett Miller is still working for Y-USA. It was her and her sister that were the lobbyists we hired for the Collaboration for Youth and later for the Ys of California.
You get to see these things evolve and morph. Other task groups—if I can ramble, I started with this drug information thing. That was a great task group to be on. I was on a task group for crisis intervention in YMCAs, and this was right after the Oklahoma bombing. What should be the national Y position and resources when Ys are involved in a crisis—great group of folks. Worked on that with Myrtis Meyer, who was head of research for Y-USA at the time.
I was on a national task force for property management—I think was the proper title. It was a first thing, but we started to look at if you grasped the amount of real estate that YMCAs control, are we giving enough attention and professional treatment to our property managers? You follow that train down the track—property management has a direct correlation to risk management, and if we’re going to run enormous facilities and multiple large facilities, then we ought to be looking at that as a professional step within the YMCA. Who are the people that are going to be experts at that? We’re getting more and more sophisticated. They are more sophisticated now. How do we manage that whole effort?
I look at this as my development. The Y gave me these opportunities. I got to work with a group of all the HR specialists in California—actually in the west. It was the Westfield HR group—brilliant group. Playing back to the theme of, “All Ys need the resources of the C suite that large Ys have,” these guys would meet quarterly. They would bring the best of their materials.
This is 1991, so email, electronic transfer was not readily available. We would meet. They would bring the best of their materials. We would all review it and we’d put in a box the very best of the best that was transferable, youth easily usable by local YMCAs. I’d take it back to the field office. We’d photocopy it and make booklets and send it to all the Ys that were a part of the West field. All those Ys got the benefit of the Sheila Tiemens and Bea Hawk, John Medler, some of the best HR people of the time. Brilliant use of task force in the Y, I thought.
She still works with us.
Yeah. The local Ys—again with the aggressive consulting approach, tying things together—they were coming back to me and saying, “Now this is usable stuff. This is great. I didn’t know you couldn’t fire a person like this and not get sued.” Great things. I was on a task force that maybe didn’t come out as great as we expected, but one for the movement. You had to be involved in that. It was going to affect all of consulting. I was involved in a much smaller task force in the reorganization of consulting.
When we use our group work skills and bring people together to focus on an issue, we can do some really great stuff. Maybe my timing was right. I was part of this Movement in a time when I got those opportunities and just learned so much—far more than you can teach in a classroom.
What are you most proud of, Steve, when you reflect on your career with the Y? What’s one thing that you’re so proud of?
If I can digress for a moment on that, I’ve never been really comfortable with comparison and contrast and some of the evaluations we do. For me to say what I’m most proud of, I was generally part of something else. I was proud to be part of the YMCA. I’m proud that I spent 50 years working for the YMCA because I think we did some really great work.
Probably my proudest moment was a 15-minute discussion with Neil Nicoll. I went into his office. He was in Chicago. I happened to be in Chicago, so I stopped in, and he had just announced that he was going to retire. I went in and closed the door. He looked at me and said, “You thought you were going to beat me out of the door, didn’t you?” I said, “The reason I’m here is because I am, because I’m retiring two months before you, and you’re the first one I’m telling.”
We had a great chuckle over that, and he may have said this to a lot of people, but he shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said, “Over all these years we did some pretty good work together.” I said, “Yeah. I think we did.” That was my proudest moment.
That’s great. What does the YMCA mean to you?
What does your life mean to you? I spent 50 years of my life—half a century dedicated to this organization. I believe in the mission. You can have all kinds of intellectual banter about what was good and what was bad of a particular program or a particular year or month, but in all, I think it’s a pretty fabulous organization, both in the United States and worldwide, that has done an awful lot of good for an awful lot of people and made an awful big difference in a lot of lives. You get that by talking to those people.
When somebody tells you, “You made a difference in my kid’s life,” or, “The Y made a difference in our family’s life.” When you sit down one-to-one with people—I worked in one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. I had guys sitting across from me at the desk who had lost their six-figure job, couldn’t pay the bills and were worried about how they could keep their kid in the gymnastics program. As a Y you say, “That shouldn’t even be an issue to you. How else can we help your family?” Where else can you get that kind of opportunity?
What does the Y mean to me? I said, “What does your life mean to you?” It was my mentor, it was my religion, it was my existence. It made a life for my family. It’s a great organization.
Maybe this is not quite worded the right way for a consultant at heart, but go with the question and then answer the way you want. If you could share any advice with leadership throughout the entire YMCA Movement, what would it be?
Read the mission statement and interpret it through your actions the best you can. Like you said, as a consultant I try not to tell people what to do. I think if we read our mission statement and follow that train down its path, there are certain conclusions you almost have to come to. The genius of this organization has been being able to interpret that guidance through programs or through positions that help people develop those programs that help others.
The advice is about commitment to your work—not commitment to titles, not commitment to advancements, not commitment to size and more and bigger and better, but are you doing what the people need you to do for them? What’s their question? Why did they come to you? How do you serve them? The members are the Y, not us.
Steve, is there anything I did not ask you today that you’d like to share with us?
No. I think you’ve done an outstanding job and I thank you. It’s been my pleasure. I’m humbled by your questions.
Steve, pleasure being with you today. Thank you.