Words by Meher Khan. Photos by Marie Ketring.
YouthLink has a strong vision:
“A community in which all youth, without regard to their living situation, have an equal opportunity to pursue their goals and dreams, and an equal likelihood of achieving them.”
The Minneapolis nonprofit, focused on providing services and support for youth ages 16-23 experiencing homelessness, keeps this vision as the foundation of everything they do, and is a driving factor in the work and leadership of Executive Director Dr. Heather Huseby. As Heather outlined her leadership philosophies and experience for those attending YNPN’s Leadership Breakfast in April, it was clear how this vision manifests in all of YouthLink’s work, as well as in her own approach to being a leader and throughout her professional journey. Heather had some sage advice for burgeoning leaders in the nonprofit world—advice that she herself follows as she continues on the path to leading YouthLink.
The journey is continuing
Heather stressed that her path to leadership is a continuing journey. This approach doesn’t stop at her running the organization; it follows through into how the issue of homelessness among youth, who make up a staggering 46% of the homeless population in Minnesota, is addressed in the structure, programming, and everyday activity of the organization. In fact, YouthLink’s messaging includes the phrase, “Homelessness is not a final destination.” Approaching the issue of homelessness as a stop on a journey means those using YouthLink’s services are met exactly where they are. Their immediate needs are addressed so they can find opportunities and get back on the path to pursuing their full potential.
Vision is everything, and a tool to overcome challenges
When Heather was hired as interim executive director for YouthLink in 2004, the organization’s leadership was in a disorganized state. Heather, who has a doctorate in education and leadership and wrote her thesis on visionary leadership, immediately tried to find the common vision among staff to get them moving in the same direction again. The youth they serve were always the most important factor in the organization’s work, and once a vision was solidly crafted and all were on board, it became a touchstone to return to again and again whenever the organization was in need of refocusing.
A strong and shared vision can also help with logistical and financial challenges. Heather says, “An organization doesn’t have to die because of lack of resources.” She is confident that a strong vision will lead you to find alternative resources or methods to reach the same goal, because how you get it done isn’t important, as long as it gets done.
Vision played a role in Heather’s own life when she lost her husband six years ago. Although she felt like giving up on her work, someone reminded her that her purpose hadn’t changed, and her vision hadn’t changed. That kept her moving past the difficult times in her life.
In order to stay effective, the vision shouldn’t focus on you.
This is a trap Heather warned us to stay away from. “A vision will fail when it becomes so much about you that it’s no longer about everyone else.”
Core staff is important
Heather told us it’s difficult for her to hide her emotions and feelings. This can make it challenging to, say, deliver bad news to staff. To work around this, Heather says it’s important to keep a core staff of people in your leadership team who can fill in the gaps. If Heather has to give her staff bad news, she first discusses it with her leadership team with honesty and all her emotions on display, and from there the group works on how to talk to staff while maintaining morale and without sending them into a panic.
This is a common thread in most of YNPN’s Leadership Breakfast events, and Heather’s talk was no different. Be hungry for knowledge and self-improvement, and that hunger will create opportunities. Ask lots of questions, follow up with people about points that interest you, and show up prepared and informed to get everything you can out of your work, conversations, and relationships.
Heather’s unwavering dedication to her mission and vision is the most apparent thing about her, and it’s easy to see how much she cares about the youth she seeks to support. She sees them not as victims of circumstance or charity cases, but as young people experiencing homelessness on a stop along the journey to their full potential. Heather’s reminds us that she, too, is on a journey, always striving to be a better leader. Wherever you might be in your own journey, having a strong vision can keep you focused on continually growing as a leader.