Walking in, Damon blends right in. Wearing a sweater and jeans, he sits relaxed with the young leaders in the room. He talks with everyone, never listing off his credentials or what he does; simply introducing himself as Damon. Even as he presented, he sat down to create a more intimate and conversational setting. His career path helps provide insight into his humility and energetic personality.
When it comes to careers, Damon Shoholm has done it all. On a Powerpoint slide with over fifteen jobs and careers, Damon breezes through them with ease and brevity. Over twenty-six years, Damon was an actor, high school social studies teacher, correctional deputy, marketing associate, and an intern in the Mayor of Saint Paul’s Office. While his resume is expansive, impressive, and unexpectant of a nonprofit director, these same careers helped define Damon’s leadership at his current position.
The director of the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute at Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, Damon joined us recently at YNPN’s Leadership Breakfast where he outlined his career path through a series of seemingly unrelated jobs and challenges.
“In my 20s, I was in college so I did the normal stuff that was just making sure I could have a little extra food here and there. But it started being a slippery slope. While I was in college, I got a gig and I was thinking, ‘Oh, maybe I can do this,’ and I stopped going to school. The gig was the Mayor’s Office. I did this for two years and I was doing good, but the mayor wasn’t. So when he wasn’t re-elected, I lost my job. By this time, I had started a life of bills and did jobs that I wasn’t drawn to at all.”
For a few years, Damon worked odd jobs, including starting a computer graphics company with friends. Despite being okay at these odd jobs, they never aligned with his skills and talents.
Paying attention to the world
Kicking the breakfast off, Damon asked attendees to answer three questions: What do you do? How do you deploy your skills and talents? And why do you care? Damon did not expect the young leaders to have all the answers, asking each person to only share one or two statements.
After, he told of how soccer came to help him answer each of these questions.
“I grew up playing soccer. I was the Minnesota kid that played hockey for two years, but played soccer the rest of my life,” said Damon, smiling as he reflected on his childhood. “So that community became a big part of my life. I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for soccer because of the relationships I developed. The relationships led me down this path that I’m currently on. I had a close friend that asked me to help coach his high school [soccer] team. I came out, did a couple of weeks with them, and at the end of it, he was like, ‘Dude, I don’t know what you’re doing, but you need to be working with kids.”
“That brings me to one of the first lessons I learned. There are so many people in this world who see something in you, that you don’t see in yourself. You can only hope that one, they’re kind enough to share that with you, and two, that you’re listening.”
Damon was moved by this lesson. After two years, he finally jumped at the opportunity to work at a high school as the dean. He was there less than two months when he realized helping young people was something he loved. This helped set him up for his current career at the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute.
Continuing to learn
“Identifying my core values is critical for me. So, lifelong learning is one of those. I love to learn. I love being in spaces where people are learning. That made me recognize that this was the space I needed to stay in some way, shape, or form. But this position allowed me to do that, and work with adults as well as youth.”
Ten years later, Damon is still with Wilder and it is the longest he’s ever been anywhere.
“And it’s been fantastic. It’s great work and I can’t always say the foundation or the organization has always been in alignment with what I care about, but you will always be challenged by some of the decisions your organization makes. But you have to have a set of core values, a clarity of purpose, and decide what type of leadership you want to be behind. During my time at Wilder, I’ve been fortunate to have leaders that I believe exemplified values that have been easy to get behind and made me feel a particular connection to the collective work.”
When an attendee asked Damon to define leadership, his energetic demeanor becomes more relaxed, but hesitant. Damon paused for a minute, before taking a deep breath.
“I don’t have a straight definition for leadership, but the first responsibility of any leader is to know yourself. If you’re spending the time to get to know yourself and how you operate, I think you’ll lead yourself to implement or define your own leadership. Second, part of why I support changemakers is because I believe you can be a leader no matter what your place is in a community. We need to stop defining it as only connected to positional leadership, or action, [and] you have to be doing something extraordinary. You can find leadership wherever you need to. You’ll see it in places you never considered before.”
Breakfast of Champions: Damon Shoholm Photo Gallery