Words by Meher Khan | Photos by Josh Olson
When Tish Bolger was in fourth grade, she found herself in a new school with less than friendly classmates. During a time when she wanted to develop self-confidence, Tish struggled to make friends and was the victim of bullying. When a camp director talked to her class about a camp in northern Wisconsin, Tish felt a need to attend and started doing everything she could to get there. Taking on extra chores to earn money to pay for her camp admission paid off because she had a transformative experience at camp—the chance to try new things, build confidence, and have the support and motivation she needed to feel like she could do anything she wanted. School was still a difficult place for her, but it didn’t matter. She had her camp friends and the confidence she built with them. This experience kept Tish returning to the camp for 15 years and helped set the stage for her future career.
Today, Tish is CEO of Girl Scouts River Valleys. She shared her experience, both familiar and motivating, at a Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Leadership Breakfast event in October. Tish’s career has taken her through several jobs and positions to get to where she is now, including assistant director of the first camp she attended and loved, a house parent at a detention center for young women, a graduate student of recreation, a co-op owner, and a program director. It’s certainly impressive, but even more so when you realize that Tish’s career stands on an intentional, underlying foundation: a highly aware and methodical approach to each career decision.
Tish takes time every few years to reflect on where she has been and where she is going. She has a strong sense of her values and uses these reflections to assure she is connecting her values to her work. And she actively seeks out strong coaches and mentors to help shape her thinking.
Tish actively and consciously takes time for herself alone—a day skiing or canoeing—to reflect. It gives her a productive way to make decisions. For example, where Tish lives is very important to her. She uses her reflection time to help her decide where her next career move might take her geographically.
In her reflections, Tish found two experiences had a profound affect on her. The first was her camp experience, which played a strong role in her work with the Girl Scouts River Valleys. The second was the pregnancy of a high school friend. Tish and her friends tried to help by getting teachers involved and the young, pregnant woman was taken out of school. They didn’t see her again or know what happened to her for six months. Traumatized, Tish told herself, “I will never let this happen to any girl ever again.” These two experiences appeared again and again as deciding factors in Tish’s career path, and in her retrospection, she told us, “a die is sometimes cast for us.”
Tish found herself working with young women multiple times, often supporting them through pregnancy and maternity. Although these resources weren’t there for her friend during high school, Tish realized she could use her growing expertise in social work and recreation to help other girls in similar situations.
All of Tish’s career experiences taught her something important. Her first job was a terrible experience, but helped Tish understand her values in more depth. She decided she would make sure her work and her work environment were of high quality.
She realized how important it was for her and her co-workers to fully commit to what they were doing, to foster a sense of community, integrity and honesty, and to take an innovative approach to their work.
Through a variety of positions with increasing responsibility, Tish learned about decision making, patience in working with all kinds of people, and writing and obtaining her first grant with no prior grant-writing experience. She grew to be an expert in her field and each new experience gave her the confidence to look for more responsibility in her next role. She eventually discovered she wanted to be a proactive leader, rather than a reactive one, and found that opportunity as CEO of the Girl Scouts River Valleys.
Coaches and Mentors
Tish has people in her life who are coaches and others who are mentors. Coaches help her with skill development, performance questions, working through specific problems at work. Mentors work with her to discover her own wisdom through their own. These two types of relationships are different, but integral in developing leadership.
If you’re in a position where no one in your workplace can be your coach or mentor, don’t be afraid to look outside for help. A great place to find potential people to fill this role? Look in your communities, field of work, and other networks. People who are doing work similar to yours or have similar values are bound to emerge, and as Tish says, people love talking about their work. All you have to do is reach out and ask. (Another great place to look: YNPN and the Leadership Breakfast group!)
Tish had so much meaningful advice for us. What rose to the top was sticking to your values, acting with integrity, and continuing to trust yourself and building your confidence. The profound impact that Tish’s first camp experience had on her not only helped her develop into the amazing leader of Girl Scouts River Valleys, but also served as a motivator for the emerging leaders in room who came to hear about her leadership journey.