When we think of titles like ‘CEO’ and ‘CFO,’ we think of power, importance, influence, and dominance. But, according to Laura Whitaker, our guest this week and Executive Director of Extra Special People, that’s an unhelpful facade. Instead, humility has been the difference between her success and failure.
For an organization like ESP, service and sacrifice are part of their main business model. Helping adults and children with developmental disabilities, they make it their mission to allow their clients to “engage, connect, and thrive,” as Whitaker puts it. This is done via after school enrichment programs, an eight-week summer camp, family support, and free counseling. By doing so, ESP has created a community for the 300 individuals from over 35 countries that they serve in the Northeast Georgia area.
Joined by one of her Board Members, Jake Berton, Whitaker discusses her take on using business as a platform to do good in the world. In her mind, humility is one of the most valuable personality traits for a leader to have. Whitaker finds that being humble and honest has lead her and her organization to create authentic connections both internally and externally. Taking off the mask of perfection has brought her achievement, standing, and most importantly, a thriving organization.
Admit You Don’t Know Everything
Laura works hard to get her largely millennial workforce off to a solid start. “We do something called “humble pie,” Whitaker says, using a brunch-like setting to have open and honest discussions with the staff about the nitty gritty of working at ESP. “We talk about humility and the impact of humility, ” she adds, while providing her employees an outlet to raise their concerns, discuss their goals, and address both the need for transparency, as well as the ability to own up to mistakes and miscalculations.
For Whitaker, leading is a constant learning process. “I love to learn and we’re learning at a really rapid rate. Everything from corporate partnership and culture and engagement, and all the way to raising millennials in the workplace.” There’s teaching involved as well. “I really feel like I’m raising over 150 young college students,” she says, “Coming out of college and teaching them how to have a job, how to stay engaged in a job, and how to be successful in a job.”
Humility Is Not Weakness
For Whitaker, humility has become her “secret ingredient” as a leader. As she puts it, “From a fundraising standpoint, I always say if you want money, then ask for advice. If you want advice, ask for money. When it comes to fundraising, humility is key. Going to people and asking their advice on things and getting them invested into our organization.”
It goes beyond such a basic approach in Whitaker’s mind. “I am managed by a group of board members who are executives in their field and so if I go with my own agenda, often times I’m told what to do. But if I go asking questions, there’s real power in that and people feel invested in your life if you can come to them in a humble way.”
This approach allows for an open dialogue between leadership and those in the trenches. “I think for my staff, a fabric of humility has been key in letting them own their mistakes,” Whitaker points out. “I give a lot of autonomy to my staff and so we have a lot of conversations, a lot of one on one conversations, where they come in, they’re not humiliated when they make a mistake, but they come in and I just say, so talk to me.”
For her, honesty and openness remain the best and only policy. “Give me the real deal…it’s kind of been my phrase,” Whitaker says.
Nurture Mentorship in Your Organization
“All of my staff are required to have a mentorship,” she points out. “It’s part of who we are at ESP and mentorship really goes down all the way to the kids. We are ultimately mentoring every kid with autism, down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy that walks through our door. It really is the fabric of who ESP is.”
Berton agrees. “One of my favorite quotes, and one that sits in the office regularly is, ‘every person you meet knows something you don’t,’ and I think that’s a starting point for every conversation.” As for ESP’s main core value, he also sees the benefit in being humble. “And I think humility, we’re in January, it’s kind of the new reflection time period and it is,” he says. “I look forward to this time every single year, to look back and gain a little more humility each year and say, what in the world did I think I knew last year and I didn’t and I learned? And what do I think I’m going to learn in this year upcoming.”
Whitaker agrees with such an assessment. “I feel like the more that I learn, the more that I realize I don’t know, you know?” she says. “And the more we grow and the more children that we serve and the more funds that we raise and the more buildings we build and the more people that I know, I realize more and more that I don’t know everything. So, it’s really the opposite in that as the humility has grown, the more knowledge I have, the more humility comes along with it.”
Use Culture to Create Lasting Emotions
Berton shares, “People won’t always remember what you say, but how you made them feel, and I think that’s the saying with any company, any brand, any group of people,” he points out.” And it’s that sensation that somebody draws from that is the culture. And then, I think in trying to define a culture for a company, simplicity is so important.”
“When I took over the nonprofit, I was 19 years old and I made a lot of mistakes those first few years,” Whitaker admits. “I didn’t spend time on company culture and it wasn’t something that was a priority to me. And because of that, I lost a lot of staff and I really had to learn what was important to me, what was important to our employees and what’s important in general.”
One of the chief ways ESP has established its brand is via a mobile coffee cart service known as Java Joy. “The idea is that we go into businesses to help increase company culture,” Whitaker points out. Run by what ESP calls “joyreestas”, they employee 11 adults with developmental disabilities, with the idea being “to give joy and great coffee.” Whitaker sees clear advantages in this strategy. “The cart is booked every single day and what we’ve found is that our secret to company culture, our individuals with disabilities need to be in other businesses to help increase company culture.”
For ESP, it’s all about remembering who you are at your core. As Whitaker points out over and over again, “culture is that feeling you get, that people will remember a company or a brand by.” Staying true to that core is a product of her willingness to reveal both good and bad. Also, by dropping the “know-it-all” persona and being open and honest with your staff, you learn more, and the more you learn, the more you want to know. All at the heart of being humble, that’s also at the heart of being a good leader.