After T. VanHook’s CEO Round Table event in August, we had a chance to sit down and find out a little bit more about her and lessons she’s learned as the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity Tucson. Above is our flash interview with T., below is our full length close up interview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Are you from Tucson originally? If not, how long have you lived here?
I come from a Tucson family, but I was raised in Cochise County. I came to Tucson when I graduated from high school to attend the University of Arizona. I’m not a Tucsonan, but I’m the family of Tucsonan, my father grew up here, we just lived elsewhere.
What is your favorite type of food and/or what is your favorite restaurant in Tucson?
That’s a hard question – I love Feast, they have a really varied menu that changes throughout the year so you can always find something great and different.
What kind of music do you listen to? Who’s your favorite artist?
Here in the office we mostly listen to throwback, like 70’s and 80’s music, a lot of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I walk every morning to Rusted Root. I listen to a real variety of stuff – if you were to look in my phone you’d find a wide range of stuff.
In my office when people get stressed out, I play Krishna Das (which is played in a lot of yoga studies). When people think of nonprofits, people tend to think everyone’s holding hands and signing kumbaya. But the reality is that we’re all here because we have a passion for the mission of serving the community and sometimes those passions clash. Unless someone’s injured or killed – nothing is so urgent it can’t wait for 15 minutes. There’s this Krishna Das song which is kind of quiet and lasts about 14 minutes and we’ll play that and just sit on the couch. Anytime there’s a conflict and emotions are up people come in to my office and we chill, we listen to the one song, then we can say what’s going on. Music is really about the moment and what the mood prescribes.
Can you tell us about your educational background and how it led you to current leadership role at Habitat?
Sure, I have a degree in Art Education and a MA in Art Education from the University of Arizona. I went to the University of Frankfurt where I studied Aesthetic Theory. I did several internships in museums – none of which led to my current position.
So how did you end up falling into the executive leadership at Habitat? It sounds like you had a pretty different background from your current role.
It’s actually a quick leap. I think there are basic [relevant] skills, certainly when you’re doing post graduate research in philosophy, about writing, reasoning, and learning. After I finished studying at the University of Frankfurt, I came back to Tucson and worked in a little restaurant called Grill on Congress. Pat Benechik, who was the Executive Director at COPE Behavioral Services at the time, was a regular customer at Grill. Steve Liao was a City Council Member for the City of Tucson and he’d meet once a week with Pat.
COPE was looking for someone who could write, that would work for various departments, write grants, and do copy writing on various things. Steve Liao had told Pat I was a good writer, so one day he asked me if I’d be interested in working for COPE on a trial basis to do some writing. I went on a 90 day trial and with my first attempt at a federal grant we received $5.3 million.
Around 2002 they spun off something called RISE, which ran a homeless feeding center. I became the President and CEO of RISE. So, in my early 30’s, that was my first jaunt as a CEO of a nonprofit corporation. I stayed there until 2006, when the Town of Marana asked me to come out and look at their grant and affordable housing programs and I was there for eight and half years.
In 2000 my mother retired, and took a volunteer position in Habitat. She had no skills – zero skills in construction – she was a technical report writer. At the end of her first day, in January 2000, she called and said she’s going back. I said, “So you’re going to do construction?” She said “No, I figured out in about the first 20 minutes I don’t know how to do that, but they have regular people that come every week – I’m going to take their orders and make sandwiches for them.” She ended up doing that for almost two years. In 2002, they were doing a women’s build, and I was invited to be a part of it.
So that’s how you found out about the organization?
Absolutely, and unfortunately my mother passed away a couple years after she started here at Habitat. But it was a really wonderful legacy, and [Habitat] just seemed to be a good fit for me.
Do you have any hobbies? What do you do in your spare time?
I do a few things, I speed walk three to five miles every morning. That’s just to clear my head, think, listen to music, and get ready for the day. I make cards and I quilt. I also love to bake and cook – I like to make elaborate meals and I try to do that at least once a week for family and friends.
Do you have a leadership style you identify with?
Yes, I think every job on earth is equal. What is important is for people to know what their role is and how they fit into the bigger organization. I feel like my job as CEO isn’t to do everyone else’s job, it’s to get the right people in the right job and make sure they have the resources they need to complete the mission. It’s really about visioning and missioning. I have an entire wall in my office painted as a white board which I use and it’s there so people can come in, talk about, and illustrate how we all come together to make the system work so that we’re meeting our goals by the end of the year – that’s all that really matters.
I think it’s critical that we think things through, that we have people to talk things through with, and that we allow people to do the jobs they were hired to do. That means letting others make some of the decisions but every decision made in this corporation is my responsibility. I always say “I am responsible, I take full responsibility for my actions and I take full responsibility for the actions others take when I empower them to do so.” I think that’s really important: I’ve got everybody’s back, nobody’s going to be left out flailing because ultimately it’s my responsibility. I try to communicate that very fully to people.
What do you think is the key success factor to your personal leadership style?
I think it’s keeping it real, and I talked about this at the round-table event. There are really only a couple things you do as a leader. One, you have to be your genuine self, you have to put yourself out there – if it’s quirky or uptight – whatever it is, you have to be genuine to who you are and what your core values are. As soon as you start decision making or asking someone else to decision make contrary to their core values it’s a disaster for everyone.
Two, you have to be nice to everybody. Everybody has an equal say. You never know where the next great idea is going to come from and you want everyone in the organization to have ownership. So it’s really critical that you make sure it’s an inclusive environment. It’s knowing when to empower people to make decisions and when to take responsibility for a decision and say, I’m really excited to hear your feedback but ultimately this is my decision. The trick is making sure people understand when it isn’t a joint decision, when I’m going to listen to the feedback and think something over to make sure it’s the best decision, best fit, and best direction for the corporation.
Can you tell us about an obstacle you or your organization has faced and how it was overcome?
We’ve just come through, as an organization, a critical time of change. We had an amazing Executive Director, Michael McDonald who moved on to the Community Food Bank. Early in my conversations with Michael, he said something that really struck me, he said that he needed to put is eyes on something new, he needed a new challenge, he needed a change, and Habitat needed someone new to put their eyes on it. To the outside, it’s sometimes a negative when someone leaves or there’s big transition or big change. But here at Habitat, I think it’s been an extreme positive.
The legacy that Michael and his predecessors left was a really strong and stable organization. Now we have an opportunity to start adjusting our model, forecasting, and looking at the future so we can ensure the stability of the corporation. To the outside it looks like a set of hurdles – there’s turnover or all of these changes and that’s an obstacle – that perception.
In some cases change is very, very difficult. For long term employees change can be a huge obstacle. But what we have work through that together and continually communicate. My door is open, people can come in, and we can talk things through. Rumor mills are everywhere, external or internal in every workplace. Anyone that says that false information doesn’t move through their organization is either in denial or delusional. But I like to say let’s face it: here’s what I’ve heard, here’s what’s going on, and this is what I understand. Again, it’s where the whiteboard works – we can see by fiscal year where we want to move, what we want to do, and see a timeline of what we’re doing this year. Any person in this organization can come in and see exactly where we’re at.
I think change creates its own obstacles and what we had to do was figure out what chutes and ladders we needed to navigate that change, to make sure it was a comfortable transition for the people who transitioned with us, and that it was a comfortable landing or a positive move for people who did not stay with the organization. We’ve worked hard to do that, to make sure it’s a win-win.
Do you find that when people come to talk to you about change, that they leave here with a sense of calmness, that they know everything is going to be fine?
I think it can go both ways. Sometimes we talk really big ideas and I’ll tell people that the idea has to percolate in their brain for a bit and that they may have questions tomorrow or the next day. It may be more confusing once they see the big vision, but once they start settling in and they see they how things are going – you know it takes time to build trust. I’ve been here 14 months and I’ve worked hard to check in with every person every day. When I get here first thing in the morning I do a circle around of the building, say hello, see how their weekend was, and see what’s going on with everybody. It takes time for the vision or changes to really become ingrained in people. I hope people leave my office knowing they’ve been listened to and I hope they leave knowing that I care about their concerns, that I’ve been open with my answers. But sometimes, they aren’t leaving with clarity or self-confidence, but they come back.
A follow-up question: organizational change is a big deal, especially when leadership changes – was there anything really surprising or unexpected that you found in the transition?
I was surprised a little bit at how hard the transition was for some key players. We had some public positions change and I was a little surprised early on when a department manager left after I had only been here 5 weeks. When we sat down to talk after they’d accepted another position, I found out they actually left based on an assumption. It wasn’t my intent at all – what their fear was – and we’ve continued our relationship since they left, we have lunch on a regular basis, and talk. I think it’s important to get those things out on the table and talk about them. What could’ve been an adversarial parting has actually been very positive for us and extremely positive for the person who left.
One more follow-up question: was there any sort of new skill or talent that you developed – maybe something that forced you outside of your comfort zone as a result of managing the leadership transition?
Transitions are just hard, people leaving is hard. I think I took it too personally – a lot harder than I thought I would. I remember speaking with a CEO, who I perceive as the sweetest, most loved person in Tucson, who told me that 40% of the staff left within her first 90 days because of new goals, new ideas, new objectives, and new processes. That conversation made me feel a little better – that she had had that amount of turnover.
CEOs are supposed to have these boundaries around them and it goes back to being your genuine self, I don’t think I intentionally put up boundaries, but early on to protect myself I maybe wasn’t as personally open with people, for example laughing or telling a story. As soon as I was able to kind of relax and do that, I met my husband.
He’d spoken at Building Freedom Day last year. I’d been to a SAHBA (Southern Arizona Home Builders Association), where he, Martha McSally, and a general from the Air Force talked about the transition of military families and some stuff around the A-10. I thought there’s someone really interesting and articulate about change within an organization.
So Colonel Schuld was speaking somewhere, and I called him, and I thought there’s someone out of sector that I could ask about how they handled transition, what they do, and so I went and interviewed him and asked about how he handled transition.
What is something would be surprised to find out about you?
I think people are surprised – because I’m a vegetarian, I have my dogs, I will not use plastic shopping bags – that I drive a race car that is a gas guzzler, but only on Sundays. I have a 2010 Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500 with 606 horsepower. I love the car and I work on it myself – I’m sort of a motor-head.
I think that qualifies as surprising – what’s your favorite road to go fast on?
Well, I try not to exceed the speed limit, but the new segment of Twin Peaks Road between I-10 and Dove Mountain Boulevard is a really beautiful and smooth road. Certainly the road between I-10 and Sonoita is a lovely one to drive with a Shelby Cobra.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
I would say Tom Donovan with COPE Behavioral Services is the smartest human being I have ever been around. He’s calm, he doesn’t believe in drama. He’s creative and then takes an analytical look at the ideas. He’s that person who’s not afraid to tell me when I’m full of it or that I’m not walking my talk. He’ll also tell me when I’m not taking a risk because of fear. He reminds me to think about what my values are and to be who I am and to bring what I am to the table. So, I think he’s critical in my life for almost 20 years – in fact he’d be great for CEO Round Table.
Last question, and it may be a little cliché – but asking people who have a lot of experience who’ve been around awhile can often give some interesting answers. So the question is – what is the meaning of life?
This is a good question for me. My first husband was terminally ill for a number of years. I cared for him at home and he passed in early 2013. You learn a lot about what your priorities are and who your friends are when you’re in that type of situation. I think people talk about a home/life balance – as something you need, but I’ll take it back to the idea that you have to be your authentic you. Every day is an amazing gift.
Near my desk there are two stickers that have traveled with me throughout my career. They say two things: “Good clothes (or in my case shoes) open all doors” and “Life isn’t about finding yourself, it’s about creating yourself.” Every day I make the decision, no matter what’s thrown at me, can I take a positive look at this or am I going to be negative? You’re entitled to a pity party, to your raw emotion. But we get to make choices every day. We can choose to make choices that may make the world a little better or that may not. So, I think for me the meaning of life is living every day and taking full advantage while not taking advantage of what’s around you. You have to live your life without damaging others or taking resources that don’t belong to you.