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Leader development sits at the core of all our efforts. At ONEplace, we define a leader as someone who takes full responsibility and ownership for his/her role, developing the skills, knowledge, connections and awareness needed to fulfill that role, listens and learns from others, and teaches and shares with others. Or, to put it in a phrase:

Leaders keep learning.

An article in the recent McKinsey Quarterly reminded me of a fascinating, yet disturbing aspect of learning: neuroplasticity. It fascinates me because, thanks to fMRI’s and other imaging techniques, we’re being flooded with new insights and knowledge. It disturbs me because, like many of you, I continue to draw upon concepts of the hardwired brain, left-brain/right-brain preferences, and the fine art of multitasking – all which have been debunked.

Neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change its physical structure and functional organization – changed the game.

We now know that the brain rewires itself (makes new neural connections) when we learn new things. This happens at any age. We also know that everyone utilizes both sides of their brains without strict preferences and, in fact, the brain is more active than we previously thought. Further, calming practices (such as mindfulness or meditation) actually generate more brain matter in the executive functioning areas of the brain giving us a greater capacity for complex thinking. Again, this happens at any age.

Recent brain research offers us more and more insights into brain functioning, learning capacity, and so much more. Furthermore, it’s giving us direction in what we can do to keep our minds sharp and nimble (e.g., See Ten Habits of Highly Effective Brains). 

All this reminds me of a humbling and challenging notion: knowledge is dynamic.

Facts change. Theories come and go. Best practices become past practices. And radical notions end up being mainstream. The world, with all its varied and wonderful parts, keeps changing. And the good news is: your brain can handle it.



P.S. Keep up on brain research and effective brain building practices at

Latte With Jesselyn Leach

Jesselyn Leach is the Office Administrator/Program Mentor for Speak It Forward, an organization that uses spoken word poetry to transform lives. She happily discussed why she loves her job, and how mentorship has played a huge role in both her job duties and her own personal growth.


1.  What is one of the most energizing aspects of your job?

Mentoring the youth that we work with and watching them progress as they write down their stories and produce a piece of poetry or a story or a song that they can be proud of. So, the growing process.

2. Do you feel like your early life and education directed you to your current career path, or are you surprised at where you are?

I believe that travelling from the north, Michigan, to the south, Texas, as a child really opened my eyes and allowed me to connect with more diverse people because I was constantly going through culture shock. And, I believe the painful and traumatic experiences I went through growing up allow me to connect with the youth on a very honest and deep level. Through learning my own way of using writing as healing, I’m able to teach other people how to do that.

3. What has been one of your most impactful professional experiences?

On May 1 we had a show at Chenery where we brought out a few of the youth we work with. I performed as well, and the piece I performed was about the impact my mother’s drug addiction had on my life. The reason it was so impactful was because of the steps I took leading up to that day, like the talks that I had with my mother and processing myself through that pain. Being able to share an honest experience with the people that were there was really impactful.

[View Jess’s performance on Youtube]

4. Are there many early career professionals in your workplace? Does that make your job more challenging/simpler?

There are three of us in the office, myself and the co-founders. The two co-founders of Speak It Forward started this organization when they were much older than I am now – they were in their mid-twenties, and I’m 20 now. So, in some ways that makes it easier because they’ve gone through what I’m going through, and in some ways it makes it difficult because it’s harder for me to connect with them in the space that they’re in now, which is [that of] professionals.

5. What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about millennials/early career professionals today?

People feel that we don’t have enough experience to do what we’re doing, and specifically in my area [of poetry]. It’s not about how long you’ve gone to school or how many years you’ve written poetry. It’s about the life experiences you’ve gone through and your personal self-growth. Sometimes I feel like I have to explain myself or justify why I’m in this position.

6. What has been one of your most useful professional development experiences? (e.g. trainings, education programs, mentorship, etc.)

Mentorship. As I grow as a person I grow as a professional, and to just have mentors-- the people that I work with and people on our Board [of Directors]--that want to help guide me through life and help me grow through what I’m going through has been really helpful. Not only am I learning from them but I’m learning from myself. And then I can help teach the youth. So it’s an ongoing learning process.

7. What do you most love about the Kalamazoo community?

The collaboration between organizations. You meet so many people that have [worked between] organizations. Like Yolanda [Lavender] from the Black Arts & Cultural Center: I met her as an artist and now she’s grown into her position as Executive Director. And through my work at the Resource Center, we brought the youth to the Black Arts and Cultural Center. The Kalamazoo Community Foundation and all the wonderful things they’re doing…and Communities in Schools is doing a lot of really great things. So, the potential for collaboration and the way organizations link up to offer their services to the community is really awesome to see.

8. What is the best piece of advice you've received to date, and who gave it to you?

It was a question, and the question is: if the world were going to end tomorrow, what are the things that you would do today, and what’s stopping you from doing it today? That came from one of my co-workers and mentors, Gabriel Giron. I received it right before our show in May. To me it just means being honest and genuine and kind, today. Those are the things that I would do. It creates awareness.

9. Which natural talent do you get to use most often in your work?

I have two. [First], making connections with people has always been something that happened naturally. So that could be the people we work with, or the youth, or even in my day-to-day life. I’ve also been a really strong writer, and that’s definitely something I use often because we use spoken word poetry as a tool.

10. What's your favorite way to spend your free time?

Listening to music and singing the music, and playing all the instruments in the song all at once. I’m a really great air musician, if that makes sense. I can make it seem like I can play instruments. We have this room in our office, and we have a mic stand. Sometimes when I need a mental break from work, I’ll go into the room and set up the mic stand and listen to music and pretend to perform.

11. Lastly, how do you take your coffee?     

 I like coffee that doesn’t taste like coffee. I take it with two creamers, two sugars. You can’t go wrong with French vanilla creamer.

Peer Learning Groups for Leader Development

Everyone needs to be a leader…just not in every situation.

Each of us takes the lead at some time. We take the lead in our own lives. Many of us take the lead in our household. At work, we take the lead in the role we’re given to play.

At ONEplace, we define leadership as

  • taking responsibility and ownership of your role(s), which includes 
  • developing the skills, knowledge, connections and awareness needed to fulfill your role(s) 
  • listening and learning from others and
  • teaching and sharing with others

Our Peer Learning Program provides a disciplined, intensive approach to leader development for managers, supervisors, and directors. It’s also perfect for executive leaders of small organizations.

The Peer Learning Group design helps you become more attuned to your strengths and challenges, engage your own insights and wisdom, build a network of supportive connections, and develop coaching skills. It requires commitment, and it delivers much more.

How it works

Peer Learning Groups meet for eight monthly sessions from September through April. The facilitator guides and participates in each session. 

The basic 90’ session agenda includes a brief introduction to the day’s topic, time to explore the topic on your own, focused discussion in pairs, and a full group discussion and resource-sharing. Learning occurs as each participant pursues their own path to effective performance and job satisfaction. Together, we create a welcoming and open space to work on our own leadership issues within the supportive context of colleagues who are doing the same thing.

Within the discussions, we listen carefully and engage our curiosity, imagination, and inspiration through asking open, honest questions. The questions create space for a substantial conversation that doesn’t judge or try to fix but allows each person to find what they need within a confidential environment.

Groups start in September and space is limited. For more information, attend one of our information sessions on Thursday, August 13 or Tuesday, August 18, or contact the ONEplace Director at

Just ONEthing - August 2015

Last week, Michele McGowen and Dale Abbot of the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan presented a Management Track workshop on Creating Accessible Content. During the session, we heard not only the importance of having content accessible via print, screen, and audio, but some how-to helps as well.

Our first thought of accessible content often goes to print – large print or braille. Surprisingly, only 7% of those who are blind or low-vision know braille, so they recommended not running out and getting braille versions of your print materials until you know the need. Also, while “large print” is often defined as 18 point font, it’s good to ask the person requesting accommodation what size font they need.

In fact, asking the person requesting accommodation what would work best for them is often a good idea. For example, while some who identify as blind would like large print, others may prefer electronic versions to use with screen readers.

When working with print, Dale made several basic suggestions: use plain san serif fonts, ensure high contrast of print to background (best is black and white), use color to highlight rather than to communicate importance, and avoid busy backgrounds.

Michele and Dale offered other suggestions relative to print as well as website development, social media, slide presentations, and video captioning. They encouraged organizations to take first or next steps toward inclusion. Include statements such as, “This document is available in alternative format upon request” or “To request an accommodation, contact ___ at ___.” Just be sure you can deliver on what you promise.

Their bottom line was to move toward inclusion, do your best, and learn from your mistakes.


Creating Accessible Content was the first of three workshops in our Inclusion Series. Additional workshops include Immigration 101 on August 5 and Trans*, Gender Non-Conforming, and Genderqueer: A Workshop for Allies on August 12.

No short cut to great

Famed UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, is remembered for leading the Bruins to 10 National Championships in 12 seasons (1964-75) including four undefeated seasons. Do you know how many years he coached the team prior to winning his first championship? Fifteen. With this vignette, Jim Collins makes a key point in Good to Great.

Becoming great is a long-term venture.

He gave other, business-related examples: Gillette, Nucor, Pitney Bowes, and others. While the press and public hailed them as upstarts and newcomers that burst on to the scene, each company’s “overnight success” had taken years to build: focused, slow, and methodical.

In contrast, the comparison companies (that faced the same circumstances but failed to transition to a great company) looked to the next big thing to save the day: the next merger, the next new product, or the next major initiative. As a result, most bounced from one thing to the next, never committing long enough to sink deep roots into their market.

There simply is no short cut to great:

Focused, slow, and methodical – sinking deep roots that will hold the organization in place through high winds and fierce storms; Deep roots that will allow the organization to branch out and sustain new initiatives that are anchored to the core purpose; Deep roots that spread into the underpinnings of the community, contributing to a diverse ecosystem of success.

So, where is your organization headed? You may or may not have a clear, guiding mission or vision. You may or may not have a useful strategic plan. Regardless of what tools you use, you need to know where you’re headed so that each small step builds on the last and prepares for the next.

The tortoise wins the race every time.



Inclusion Series: How Listening Can Be Transformative

Struck dumb by the size and airiness of the Arcus Center's atrium, I tentatively approached the right side of the room, which is bordered by floor-to-ceiling windows that showcase a neat array of tall maple trees. I sat in one of the brightly colored chairs arranged in a circle and craned my neck to read some of the phrases printed on the back wall--"curious creatures" and "things like locusts" jumped out. By then I had a hunch that I had entered a transformative space.

I was right. That night I attended a training at Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership called Trans*, Genderqueer, & Gender Non-Conforming: A Workshop for Allies. In just over three hours I and about 50 others (primarily Kalamazoo College students) participated in a variety of interactive activities and discussions. Two hours into the training, several people of different gender identities spoke about aspects of their identity and experience, and that's when the transformative piece clicked. The participants engaged in a radical act: listening. We embodied allyship by giving attention and time to community members who rarely have a platform to be heard.

That act, just listening, might be the right first step. When working with issues around which there is little widely-available, trustworthy information, I think this is the best approach to learning. Implementation is critical, but can nonprofits be expected to make thoughtful, studied practical decisions without first listening?


Join us at ONEplace for our new Inclusion Series, which focuses on how nonprofits can make our workplaces and services more inclusive. There will be plenty of opportunities for listening. Creating Accessible Content will kick-off the series on July 21. Immigration 101 is August 5, and Trans*, Gender Non-Conforming, & Genderqueer: A Workshop for Allies will take place August 12.

Do the generous thing

My work grants me the privilege of working with many boards. It’s been great to work with boards involved in food security, the arts, housing, health, the environment, community welfare, and more. One thing continually impresses me about boards of directors:

they are extremely generous people.

Board members give – hugely – of their time, talent, and treasure. Their passion and commitment fill the room with a palpable spirit. When I ask, “What do you love about your organization?” each person beams as they given genuine expression to that spirit. It’s a pleasure to behold.

The same may be said for our area’s executive directors (EDs) as well. With the weight of the organization on their shoulders, EDs give richly of themselves at every turn. To hear one speak openly of their concern and commitment stirs the heart, and to gain insight into the myriad of things they do behind the scenes inspires the soul.

So, it’s painful to see how disconnects between Boards and EDs can rattle an organization.

Everyone plays a part. According to BridgeSpan, BoardSource, and other references, Boards carry the responsibility to “support and evaluate the executive director,” and EDs carry the responsibility to “develop, maintain, and support” the board. When communication fails, that mutual support often shatters into shards of shaky accusations and puzzled disbelief.

All parties end up hurt and disillusioned. It’s very sad.

If you’re feeling even an inkling of this disconnect, then have a meeting and name it. Take the lead and set intentional steps to improve communication. Don’t wait for someone else to act. As seen above, if you’re an ED or a board member, it’s your responsibility.

Not sure how to start? Feeling stuck? Please contact ONEplace before it goes any further. Each day that a problem isn’t addressed adds another degree of difficulty to implementing a solution.

Take the lead. Make the call. It’s the generous thing to do.



One nation...indivisible

Emerging from this July Fourth weekend, one phrase sticks with me.

“One nation...indivisible”

We say it in the Pledge of Allegiance as both an aspiration and recognition that, once the debate is done, the votes are tallied, and the commitments are made, we act as one. On the world stage, there is only one USA voice.

This understanding is scalable, too.

It’s true for states, cities, neighborhoods, organizations, boards, senior management teams, departments, and even individuals. Each may puzzle out its myriad of daily routines, acute concerns and seasonal celebrations. Internal debates may rage on, but the entity acts as one.

Leaders know this. 

Leaders occupy seats both in the balcony and on the stage, observing the forest and navigating amongst the trees. They know this about their organizations: presenting unified services to the public while dismantling silos in-house. They know this about their boards and leadership teams: encouraging stakeholders with a focused message while mining productive conflict and encouraging debate inside the conference room. 

They also know this about themselves.

Leaders in any position recognize that we bring all of who we are to every situation. We may separate and compartmentalize our activities, behaviors, concerns, et al to analyze and understand them. Yet, on the ground, where life is lived, we must acknowledge and manage the swirling, indivisible mix of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors; choose our path; and move forward. We may understand things in categories, but we function as one.

One nation (one city, one organization, one board, one person), indivisible: it’s how we want it, and it’s how it is.



In the moment

In last week’s NEWSletter article I mentioned being on retreat with several of our nonprofit colleagues. We gathered Wednesday evening and worked together through Friday noon, pilot testing a service we’re considering for ONEplace. While I’m still pulling together all that I learned, I can tell you this:

It was a moment for me.

As we entered our time together on Wednesday, I marveled at what I saw. Here I was in a familiar environment. I had been on retreat at this venue several times. And, here I was with people I knew. I had worked with almost everyone there. However, these had been two different worlds for me, and now they were coming together. More than that…

It was a fulfillment of a two-year plan, a two-year vision.

Various strands of activity over the past two years were slowly woven together to arrive at this moment – and the impact hit me square in the chest. Yet, it was different.

I’ve worked on long-term projects before. In a previous job, I led a four-year effort that culminated in five regional conferences at sites all across the country. I recall the moment when we closed the fifth conference and headed for the airport. It was a sense of completion, achievement, and success. 

While holding a sense of fulfillment, this recent moment pointed more to the future than the past. It was like finally cresting the hill to see the green valley below. Yes, we made it up the hill, and now the fun work begins.

So, I offer my thanks to those who participated in the retreat and to those supervisors and colleagues who supported their participation. It was a moment to treasure.

And, we’ve only just begun.



The power of coffee

“I’m having coffee with….”

How often do you say that? Monthly? Every other week? Weekly? More?

Having coffee, tea, lunch, a drink, etc. with a nonprofit colleague means you’re making connections, and these connections energize your work and your organization.

Even if the conversation is purely social, you’re deepening your relationship. This makes it more likely that you’ll pick up the phone and call this person when you need to sound out an idea or concern. You’ll also be on each other’s radars when a future conversation touches on an issue or opportunity of mutual interest.

The idea of “building your network” sometimes gets a slimy reputation when it’s seen as serving one’s own interests and careers. Don’t throw out the proverbial toddler with the mud puddle! Developing relationships across the nonprofit sector, and especially your particular corner of the sector, is critical to your organization’s impact and your cause’s success.

The ROI on relationship building is huge and…better yet…it compounds. Don’t believe me? Not sure where to start? Ask me to coffee and I’ll explain it…ask nicely and I’ll buy.