Transcript: Building a Culture of Excellence and Respect

Read this post or download the pdf of the Born Leader Podcast: Episode 6 transcript.

 

Welcome to the Born Leader podcast, where we believe everyone is born to lead.  The show explores leadership in its many forms through interviews with, and profiles of, leaders in our communities—people who demonstrate that we are all born leaders and there are many paths to discovering that potential. I’m your host Gaea Honeycutt, Founder and CEO of the Hypatian Institute, a leadership development organization that creates innovative vehicles to cultivate competitive advantage for emerging and established leaders.

Throughout a Navy career, and several years of consulting, Ulysses James never lost his love of music and, more broadly, the arts.  At the same time, it was those experiences that prepared him to lead and grow an orchestra — both his 20-year career in the military where Ul learned organizational development, and leading his own consulting firm where he put his expertise to work in the private sector.  It was a pleasure to sit down with the unassuming maestro to discuss the similarities between music and the military, the evolution of his career, and his second life leading the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association.

 

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

 

Gaea: Thank you for joining us.

Ul: Well, thank you for asking me to be here.

Gaea: So, let’s get right to it because there’s so much to ask you about. As a young man, you studied music in college and attended the graduate program at Tanglewood, which for those of us in the DC area is kind of like Wolf Trap, right?

Ul: Mm-hm.

Gaea: And music is arguably the furthest thing from military service, really, when you think about it . . . so what was that transition like, going from an emerging musical career into the Navy?

Ul: Well, I guess I would say that the Navy is based on the whole notion of teamwork . . . and, uh . . . fairness and honorable behavior, I would say.  And that’s not much different from the kind of behaviors and attitudes that you have as a musician playing in groups or orchestras.  So, I didn’t really find that that was such a jarring difference.  The difference was, probably, mostly to do with the use of one’s mind. I don’t know whether this is applicable or not, but the right-brain, left-brain issues are somewhat simplified — maybe too simplified for neurologists or neurosurgeons.  But when you’re in the military you have to turn off the kind of things that you would probably be experiencing in the music world, in the art world — the emotional component of making music, of the artistic drive to make something that’s intangible and that kind of change was dramatic because the military in general is not interested in that kind of experience.  It doesn’t really promote that very much.  And, I would also say that I didn’t miss it when I was doing my work, I missed it in between doing my work.  For example, when I went on leave or when I was in between duty stations, I was immediately drawn to the arts.  I think the military is quite a competitive place in that you’re always striving to be better and it’s . . . it’s primarily, I think a meritocracy, although it may not seem that way sometimes.  And so are the arts, because you’re never ever finished preparing or trying to become a better artist or musician. It never ends, so it’s the same.                      

Gaea: And, you had a really long career in the military — 20 years?

Ul: Yes.

Gaea: And in the last half of that career, I guess you were in organizational development. How did you get into organizational development?

Ul: Well, I went to Naval Postgraduate School, and I got very deeply involved with group development issues and the behaviors that are associated with teams of people.  And got to know enough about it so that I knew that that’s something I was interested in.  After that, I did go to a one-year unaccompanied tour to Vietnam.  When I was ready to leave that, I was offered XO of a new destroyer or something else, and I chose the something else because I didn’t want to be away from my family for an extended period of time, going to sea and so on, so I wound up going into the Z55 program, which stands for “Zumwalt”— Admiral Zumwalt was then CNO — 55.  It’s the number of the message he put out that established the organization development program in the Navy.  So, I was trained by Sloan School MIT people for . . . it seems to me it was something like eight weeks, it was quite an intensive program.  And then I became an organizational development consultant, in uniform in the Navy, for the next…probably three years or more.  I did a lot of consulting with commanding officers and things like that.  Ultimately, I wound up developing and delivering survey-guided development methodology from the University of Michigan throughout all of the daily detachments, that were then organizational development centers, and training everybody.

Gaea: Mm-hmm.

Ul: So, that’s how it happened.  And of course, that led me to other things as well.

Gaea: So, what did you like most about organizational development?

Ul: What I liked most about it was the prospect that if you could find the right keys to the behaviors of a group, and the leaders of the group, you could have them function at a higher level to the benefit of all.  That sounds simple, but it’s very, very complicated. And in the Navy, probably it’s a little less complicated because the roles and responsibilities in the Navy are so clear. In the civilian world, I found that they’re much more confounding because there’s so much more external distraction, and there’s so much more complexity in both the people and the situations. However, I think that’s something that is very much needed in almost any organization and it was a wonderful experience to try to do it. I would have to say also that having been an organization development consultant, it was much different being on the other side of the table. So, I was an OD consultant.  Then, I became an executive officer of a very large ship. I attempted to employ some of the things that I thought about and valued as an XO and I found that it was . . . the paradigms and belief systems around the consulting are sometimes a little bit unrealistic and impractical.

Gaea: Hmm.

Ul: You really can’t know whether things will work until you have the opportunity to try to make them work yourself.

Gaea: Right.

Ul: And, uh, you know the old saw of “I’m a consultant, let tell you what time it is.  Can I see your watch?”

[LAUGHTER]

You really have to . . . you really have to have a very, very firm grounding, I think, in organizations and organization life as a member of it, to figure out whether the things that you’re doing as a consultant, in OD will work…and if it’s fair to do them. When I got out, I then worked for Arthur Young and Company, a former “Big Eight,” and I was a practice manager for organization management and development in Washington. We won a big contract with Army Research Institute to evaluate the Army’s organization.  That was an eye-opener as well.

Gaea: You did the DC thing, where you come back, and come out of the military, and become a consultant.

Ul: Well, that’s right. It was quite a big contract that I was able to get.  And, I’m not sure it went as well as I’d like it to because the Army didn’t . . . the Army was reluctant at that point to let my team do what we needed to do to collect the data.  So, it was difficult. One other aspect of it is that we got involved with a fellow named Ned Hermann, and Ned had developed an instrument that people sometimes think is similar to the Meyers-Briggs, and any of those various kinds of instruments, called the Herrmann Brain Dominance instrument. And it was formulated on the basis of what was then known about right-brain, left-brain, and the kinds of . . . of things that you could detect in brain processing by people’s behaviors, selections of things that they like or don’t like, etc. We found that it was a very, very predictive instrument.  And I used that in my own company that I formed after I worked with Arthur Young as the basis for what I did. It’s one of those rare things that you find that really works. I’ve found that Meyers-Briggs only works with scores that are very high. You have to get a 25 in any category or it’s not — otherwise it’s kind of mushy. The Herrmann Brain Dominance instrument was quite different.  It was very, very predictive.  And I used that as an organizational development person, primarily in banks. That’s where I started with it in technical . . . In the technical sections of banks.  And it must have been useful or they wouldn’t have let me do it for so long.  Because I did it for a number of years.

Gaea: [LAUGHS]  Mm-hmm.

Ul: When I stopped working on that business it was in 1997, I believe.

Gaea: Oh really? So, you were still doing that when you started with the orchestra.

Ul: I started in ’84 with the orchestra. I was very busy.

[LAUGHTER]

Gaea: I can imagine. And when you started with the orchestra, that actually really leads me to my next question.  You took over after a tragedy — when the last conductor had passed away in an accident.  And they must have been really devastated at that time.  That’s a hard period to get through. How did you rebuild the organization during that transition?

Ul: Well, his name was H. Stevens Brewster. He was the principal bassist of the National Symphony and he started both what is now the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic and also the Washington Metropolitan Youth Orchestra—they were not known by those names then—and when that happened, I took the Youth Orchestra because the family, the family was devastated.  They knew I was a music major, and that my daughter was the concertmaster of the Youth Orchestra at the time, so they figured well, that’s a nice thing to do and we’ll let him do that.  And they, of course, were looking for a quick solution because of the situation. Shortly thereafter, the . . . what is now the Philharmonic, and what was then known as the Mount Vernon Chamber Orchestra, had a falling out internally where the professional musicians left.  And what was left was a fairly modest group of local string players.  And I was among them because I had started taking cello lessons when I got out of the Navy, and I was not a very . . . you know, it takes a long time to learn to play the cello.

Gaea: [LAUGHS]  Okay.

Ul: So, I wasn’t very great, but I was . . . I loved it, and I was one of those musicians.  So, I said “Well okay.  I’m conducting the Youth Orchestra now, but I think I can help us put this back together again.”

Gaea: Mm-hmm.

Ul: Based on my organization development background, and . . . uh . . . I didn’t tell them that.

Gaea: [LAUGHS]  Okay.

Ul: I just said, “Let’s see if we can put this back together again and keep going.”  So, I managed to find another conductor from the Air Force Band. He came and conducted maybe two times, and then he said the third time, he said “Well, why don’t you take it?” That happened a couple times, and finally, I said to the group, “Let’s have a vote. I’ve got this piece worked out.  Just tell me what you want me to do.  Go to the back to the cello section, disappear or continue to conduct?”  They said, “Stay.” And it was 100%, so I figured I must be doing something right.

Gaea: Yes.

Ul: And, that’s how it started.

Gaea: And that was over 30 years ago?

Ul: Yes.

 

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

 

When we return, we’ll learn more about Ul’s work in the orchestra and his efforts to grow it.

 

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

 

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 [MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

 

Welcome back. We’ve learned about Ul James’ expertise in organizational development, which was grounded in his early career in the Navy.  In part two of his interview, Ul discusses the ongoing growth and evolution of the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association and the needs of small nonprofits.

 

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

 

Gaea:  So, one of the things that I’ve read about you and the orchestra and how you run it, is that you keep it out of the politics of organizations.  So, other orchestras might be a little more political, but you really focus on having a different kind of organizational culture.  How do you do that?  How did you build that and how do you maintain that?

Ul: I don’t know if we’re all that much different from some of the other orchestras in, for example, in the area.  Some of them do very well. The way I do it myself is follow some fairly rigid rules. One is that fairness is most important. Fairness, in its basic structural element, is absolutely important. Secondly, is that I try not to have anybody in between me and the members.  Because no matter how you try, when you put somebody in between you and a group, things are misunderstood and get . . . can get to be a problem.

Gaea: Mm-hmm.

Ul: So, essentially, I’m my own personnel manager. I know that I could save myself some time if I didn’t do that. On the other hand, however, it keeps the communication process very, very clean and clear.

Gaea: Mm-hmm.

Ul: The third thing I do is I really attempt to value and treat everyone with respect and caring.  Because that’s just the way it should be.  And I do feel that way as well. And finally, if I get a sense that there’s some discord, I attempt to remove it.  And do it in a gentle, but very forceful way. . . . Gentle and forceful . . . I’m not sure that makes sense.

[LAUGHTER]

Gentle and considerate way. You can get a sense of what’s going on when people start talking behind your back.

Gaea: Mmmm, mm-hmm.

Ul: And when they become a little surly, because they think they have the sub-group’s support of their surliness, then that’s when you know you’ve got a problem.  And if that’s the case, then there’s some discontent.  And if there’s discontent, then you need to find why and fix it or ask that person or persons to leave.

Gaea: So, aside from your training in organizational development, what lessons from Naval service have best served you as both a music director and as a conductor?

Ul: There are some things that, as a Naval officer, you really should do.  And that is you’re timely; you walk the talk; you don’t ask people to do things you would not do; you’re respectful; and you do your job. I mean, those are things that you have to do if you’re going to be a good Naval officer.

Gaea:  Mm-hmm.

Ul:  And that’s what I do as a music director, too. Now, I’m not sure that that’s different from any other walk of life, but that’s the only thing I can really think of.

Gaea:  I remember my first job, I was doing PR at a publishing center funded by the Department of Education.

Ul:  Mm-hmm.

Gaea:  And, I had to send out press releases and we always timed them to do bulk mail. So, I’d get these press releases out three weeks ahead of time when they needed to go somewhere, and there were twelve hundred press releases to stuff. And it was all me, right? And, um . . .  And so, I think that, you know, understanding what drudgery that can be has always made me very willing to do that — pitch in whenever I’ve had someone reporting to me that has to do that kind of job. 

Ul:  Mm-hmm.

Gaea:  Because it’s kind of—aside from being boring, it just, it kind of sucks.

[LAUGHTER]

Right? Bulk mailing sucks.

Ul:  I’ve had to do an awful lot of that in my last 32 years because we started from nothing.  We started with a budget of, uh . . . I think it was . . . about $1400 and it was from membership fees.  In fact, it was probably less than that.  Now, it’s up to $150,000.  And, it’s just in the past two years that I’ve had what I consider to be substantial administrative help — somebody who can act as an executive director, knows what to do in that capacity, and we’re paying that person to do it. It’s been really wonderful to have that happen because I have a little more of a life. Plus, I can do what I’m supposed to do, which is prepare for music. Before it was just the general admin.

Gaea:  Do you believe that’s key to a nonprofit organization?  To be able to hire someone — particularly a membership group — to be able to hire someone to run it, to allow it to grow?

Ul:  In my view, the problem is lack of resources.  That’s real simple. Until you have enough funding, or enough in the way of donations or some kind of financial backing, you can’t hire people who are willing to do the kind of things that you need to get done.  So, if you have a bunch of volunteers now working every day themselves, or they don’t have a concept of what needs to be done in order to make it run, you . . . the person who has the most interest in it has to work 50 or 60 hours a week or more.  And they can only do so much.  And basically, it turns into a maintenance situation as I’m sure you know.

Gaea:  I’m familiar with that, yes.

Ul:  You’re just running like crazy to maintain what you have, and hope that every once in a while you can reach out and make a change that will help in very profound ways. But, it’s very difficult to find that change, and it’s very difficult to find the time to execute it and maintain it. What I’ve found—find the most difficult thing for me is . . . that, as this begins to unfold, I have to let go of all the things that I used to do.  And somebody else is doing them. I t’s somewhat . . . it’s somewhat disconcerting because I’m used to controlling almost everything and in the last two years that stopped happening.  And that’s fine because it’s going to be done much better.  But, it does take a little bit of willpower to let go.

Gaea:  Now, do you think that’s because you’re a control freak, or because you’re just so comfortable and used to doing it?  When it’s hard to let go?

Ul:  Uh, the latter. I’m not a control freak.  I’m perfectly happy with other people doing all these things. It’s just that I feel sometimes that less effective or less important, less . . . um

Gaea:  “Does anybody need me anymore?”

Ul:  Yeah, right. I’m here, still, and am I still in the game?  And, the answer of course is yes. It’s just fine. It’s just working the way it should.

Gaea:  Which is nice.

Ul:  Which is nice.

Gaea:  You have a great team in place.

Ul:  Yeah, right.  And we’re building the team more because the things we want to do take more people.  If you’re going to make changes, you have to have the right people to make the change.  It can’t just be anybody.  They have to have certain skills.  They have to have a certain attitude about what you’re trying to do — especially if they’re volunteers.  My relationships with people are pretty much limited, after 30 years, to musicians.

Gaea:  Uh-huh.

Ul:  Musicians, in general, don’t want to be on boards.  That’s not anything that they enjoy doing.  And so, we’re populating our board with people who really have a good track record as board members, which is pretty unusual.

Gaea:  You know, one of the things . . . um . . . in particular . . . Particularly, I guess, ever since I used to work at my alma mater — actually, in doing fundraising — and one of the things I used to say to people when we would have some kind of board or program advisory or even a board of directors for a program that we were running:  Do they have connections?  Can they bring in connections, can they bring in funding?  Or, are they going to roll up their sleeves?  Usually, you’d want them to do two of those things.  Now, would you say that’s something you agree with or do you have a different kind of framework, which you think about boards?

Ul:  No, I think all of those are pretty, pretty, pretty . . . those three things are pretty good.  Now, rolling up the sleeves is particularly good.

[LAUGHTER]

We don’t . . . we haven’t worked on the connections side so much.  What was the third?

Gaea:      Ah, fundraising.  If they’re able to bring in money — whether they give it themselves or they’re able to find others.

Ul:  Well, that is a key . . . that’s a key criterion.  But boards, in my view, are in various . . . there are various stages of development for boards, as you I’m sure know.  And the problem with the literature on boards in general is that it’s all written about boards that have already been formed and are fairly mature. We talk about staff members and we talk about the executive director and we talk about this and that and a budget committee and that’s not realistic for small organizations. They don’t have a staff, for example, so we’re being in between. The board members are actually wearing two hats — they’re wearing the fundraising board member hat, but they’re also staff.

Gaea:  Right.

Ul:  And that’s where we are.  So, board members that we have we hope have connections with fundraising kinds of things, but the main thing is we have to get the work done.

Gaea:  Right.

Ul:  And they do the work.  The other part of that is, as I‘m sure you know, too, people who have connections and who have money and who could fund . . . help fund are not going to do that for an organization that has some possibility of not being around for a while . . .

Gaea:  Mm-hmm.

Ul:  . . . in a while, and is still trying to establish itself for the long term.  And, they do join boards that have some kind of social stature.  So, you don’t have any trouble finding people to serve on the National Symphony Orchestra Board because to be seen there is really important.

Gaea:  Right.

Ul:  Even if it costs you 10,000, right? But to be seen as a board member for Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic . . . so, what?

Gaea:  Mm-hmm.

Ul:  And so, it’s kind of a double-edged sword and you just have to live with it. It’s really nice to have those three criteria, but the reality is that you want somebody who has the talent to do things to make it possible to fundraise.

 

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

 

And on that note, I’m afraid our time with Ul James is over.  But the example of his second life career as a maestro highlights a challenge leaders often face that I’d like to discuss in this episode’s Leadership Moment — that’s stepping back to allow others to step up.

 

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

 

Does this sound familiar? You’ve spent years learning every aspect of your profession so that you can now lead an organization – nonprofit, for profit, government agency . . . it doesn’t matter.  It’s been a long journey.  You are sure of your skills and knowledge, and that confidence is well earned.But shifting into that leadership role requires giving up management and trusting the team.  Sometimes, that means letting the team we’ve trained grow and learn through the same experiences that have benefited us.  Or, it may mean learning to share responsibilities with fellow volunteers on a board of directors.  It can also mean realizing that while we have the skill and talent to do it all, we don’t have the capacity – that’s time and energy – to be all things.

The evolution of an organization is an opportunity for a leader to grow and continue to learn the many facets of leadership.  So, the next time you tell a team member not to worry and that you’ll do this task, here are some things to consider:

Although it may be true that you could do it better yourself, that will continue to be the case until you teach someone else how to do it.

Maybe, you think it’s easier to do it yourself because teaching someone takes so much time. Is it really a better use of your time to continue performing this task, for the foreseeable future, rather than focusing on more strategic concerns?  Leverage that broad skill set and knowledge base for your organization’s benefit.

Or, could it be that this is something you truly enjoy and you hate to give it up?  Remember that you won’t always have the time and your organization needs the security of greater capacity. Find balance by training a protégé and only occasionally dipping your toe back in the pool every now and again to fill your own well.

Once you make that shift from management to leadership, like Ul, you’ll find that your experience is still valuable and you’ll learn to leverage it in increasingly impactful ways.

That’s this episode’s Leadership Moment. Let us know your thoughts via email at info@HypatianInstitute.org or through our Facebook page, LinkedIn group or on Twitter. Our handle is @ H-Y-P-A-T-I-A-N-I-N-S-T.

 

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

 

I want to thank Ulysses James, maestro of the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association, for speaking with us about applying the lessons of organizational development to growing a small nonprofit.  You can learn more about the orchestra at www.WMPAmusic.org.  I’d like to also thank Therese Arkenberg, who provides assistance on the business side of this venture. And, thank you for listening.  We’d love to hear from you in the comments section or on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

In the next episode of Born Leader, we’ll speak with Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris, a retired Major General and the first female and nurse to command a medical clinic, and the first African American to be promoted to General Officer of the National Guard.

If you want to learn more about Ulysses James or other guests on Born Leader, visit HypatianInstitute.org.  That’s H-Y-P-A-T-I-A-N institute dot O-R-G.  Or, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.  Talk to you next time on Born Leader from the Hypatian Institute.

Produced by the Hypatian Institute, Inc., Born Leader is a podcast founded on the belief that everyone is a born leader and there are many paths to discovering your own potential. We explore leadership through interviews with and profiles about everyday people who demonstrate we’re all born leaders.

Building a Culture of Excellence and Respect

Born Leader - Episode 6

Leadership Lessons from Ulysses James, Washington metropolitan Philharmonic Association

Born Leader is a podcast founded on the belief that everyone is a born leader and there are many paths to discovering your own potential.  We explore leadership through interviews with and profiles about everyday people who demonstrate we’re all born leaders.  Hypatian Institute, Inc. Founder and CEO Gaea L. Honeycutt hosts Born Leader.

In this third episode, Ulysses James, Maestro of the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association discusses applying the lessons of organizational development consuting to growing a small nonprofit. Throughout a Navy career and several years of consulting, Ul James never lost his love of music and, more broadly, the arts.  At the same time, it was those experiences that prepared him to lead and grow an orchestra – both his 20-year career in the military where Ul learned organizational development, and leading his own consulting firm where he put his expertise to work in the private sector.  It was a pleasure to sit down with the unassuming maestro to discuss the similarities between music and the military, the evolution of his career, and his second life leading the WMPA.

In the next episode of Born Leader, we’ll speak with Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris, a retired Major General and the first female and nurse to command a medical clinic, and the first African American to be promoted to General Officer in the National Guard. If you want to learn more about Ul James or other guests on the Born Leader podcast, visit www.HypatianInstitute.org.

 

Keywords: leadership, business consulting, organizational development, corporate culture, music, orchestra, planning, strategy, transformation, collaboration, teamwork, nonprofits, small nonprofits, corporate culture, organizational culture, dc, maryland, virginia

 

MENTIONED ON THE SHOW

Hypatian Institute - http://www.hypatianinstitute.com

Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association - http://www.wmpamusic.org/

U.S. Navy - http://www.navy.mil/

Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument - http://www.herrmannsolutions.com/

 


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Produced by the Hypatian Institute, Inc., Born Leader is a podcast founded on the belief that everyone is a born leader and there are many paths to discovering your own potential. We explore leadership through interviews with and profiles about everyday people who demonstrate we’re all born leaders.

Transcript: Servant Leaders Pay It Forward

born_leader_podcast

Read this post or download the pdf of the Born Leader Podcast: Episode 5 transcript.

 

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

Welcome to the Born Leader podcast, where we believe everyone is born to lead. The show explores leadership in its many forms through interviews with, and profiles of, leaders in our communities—people who demonstrate that we are all born leaders and there are many paths to discovering that potential. I’m your host Gaea Honeycutt, Founder and CEO of the Hypatian Institute, Inc., a leadership development organization that creates innovative vehicles to cultivate competitive advantage for emerging and established leaders.

In this episode we welcome Michel Zajur, Founder and CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, an organization dedicated to building bridges to create, promote and enhance business opportunities for its membership by providing linkages with special emphasis on the Hispanic community. Our discussion focuses on the trajectory of his career and how Michel’s business savvy and commitment to serving the Richmond community evolved into an entity that fosters cultural and economic exchange.

We begin with the foundations of his work ethic, the challenges and rewards of growing a family business, and how his family’s business built connections with the entire community.

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

Gaea: Tell me a little bit about how you got started in business, and how you were involved in your family’s restaurant.

Michel: Well, I always liked business. I guess I started with a Kool-Aid® stand, raking leaves, shoveling snow, selling bubblegum in school. But I . . . I always liked business and always looked on creating things in ways to start a business or build an income stream.

Gaea: You were not one of the kids out there trying to gather an allowance; you were making your own money.

Michel: Yes, since a really young, young age.

Gaea: So, when did you start working in the restaurant with your parents, or did you always do that?

Michel: Being in a family business, you know, it was expected that as soon as you could, help out with the family and work.  So, I was always…uh, grew up in the restaurant, washing dishes, bussing tables, waiting tables and management — every aspect of it, I’ve done.

Gaea: What would you say are maybe the biggest lessons that your parents taught you in terms of the work in the restaurant?

Michel: Well, first of all, it’s a work ethic. We were never handed anything, we had to work. We expected in our family that everyone helped contribute, and I think it’s really important. I think a lot of times, you have to have expectations set for you so you become an achiever and just don’t expect to take what is given you. But, um, I very much grew up in that environment and really it was a need because my family worked really hard. My dad worked from sunup to 12, 15 hours a day.  My mother raised six, six of us. So, it was a very busy family, a large family, and so we all had to help each other.

Gaea: Are you the oldest, or the youngest, or — ?

Michel: No, I’m the middle.

Gaea: Okay.

Michel: I have two older sisters and the three of us were born in Mexico. And then, I have three other siblings and they were born here in Virginia.

Gaea: Okay. So, how old were you when you all moved to the States?

Michel: Um, it was the early ‘60s. I was just a young infant. I grew up and my parents didn’t speak English. We grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school. And I have a large family in Mexico, so I’d go back pretty often. But, that’s how I was raised — dual cultures and so…so I really can understand a lot of what these families are going through now, that are here.

Gaea: Right. Well gosh, that means… Okay, you have six kids here in this family, you’re saying have a large family . . . it sounds . . . when you say “large,” I get the impression of larger than your family, everyone else back in Mexico.

Michel: Very, very large. I’ve got cousins and aunts and uncles everywhere.

Gaea: Wow. You know, you’ve really been involved in this restaurant. What about the other five kids? Was everyone as involved in working in the restaurant, certainly growing up but then after?

Michel: I think, I was the oldest son . . . I was the oldest son, so as soon as I was old enough, you know, I . . . again, my father worked 15 hours a day . . . and when I got my driver’s license, um, even my learner’s, I was working. Then, my mother started and we would go and work so he could come home and rest. Being the oldest son, I think I had more, in that sense, the responsibility. My sisters, probably more at home and helping take care of the family.

Gaea: You went off to school at VCU, correct?

Michel: Yes, uh-huh.

Gaea: And studied business, and then brought that back to, um, to work at the restaurant, correct?

Michel: Right, involved in lots of different businesses. But the restaurant, you know, it really grew the restaurant. It became an icon in Richmond. If you go to The Valentine museum here in Richmond there’s a display of La Siesta [Mexican] Restaurant. We sold our sauces in the grocery stores, had a big catering business, too. So, very involved business in the restaurant industry.

Gaea: What made you all decide to take it into those directions, into the catering and the packaged foods and other items like that?

Michel: I just saw the opportunities of growing the business. You know, a family business is wonderful, but at the same time, it has its negative aspects. And I would have probably expanded and did a lot more but, you know, there’s certain, um… My parents had the philosophy, you know, “You have the business, you’ve got to be at the register” and that really wasn’t the way that I saw things. So, I probably would have done things a lot different, so… But I think growing as we did in different areas, we did a large division . . . we had a . . . for kids and we had, uh . . . We started, I started a Spanish  “Siesta Town”. And what we did there, we had schools that would come on field trips and they would have lunch, they would learn to speak Spanish, they’d have a little fiesta, but it was a really a great program. They would, they would leave speaking, being able to put their hands up, down. Their, uh, their eyes, their mouth, their nose. And it really gave them an appreciation to learning a second language and understanding the culture. But it was very, very popular, you know. Parents would come . . . they’d come in busses a hundred at a time.

[LAUGHTER]

And, we’d put this on. But we, uh, we did a lot of catering for businesses and… But it was a… And it’s, I like the business . . . You got to really know a lot of people . . . and again, it was sharing my culture.

Gaea: So, how did running the restaurant . . . and starting the Siesta program with the kids and opening up to the community even more . . . how did that translate for you then into launching the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce?

Michel: Well, first of all, I had no ambition to start a chamber of commerce, but I was very involved in the community. I really feel that, you know, it’s important to give back and to be involved in the community. So, I was very involved. At La Siesta, we would have . . . because at that time there wasn’t really . . . many Mexican restaurants or . . . people would come in just asking for help. As they moved here, they saw a Mexican restaurant: “Well, someone can speak Spanish there.” So they would come and, you know, if they were looking for a job, if they were looking for a place to live, if they wanted to open a business or so forth . . . and it became an informal kind of place that you go to just to help people. At the same time, you know, we would…held a Cinco de Mayo party, back then when nobody knew what Cinco de Mayo was, in the parking lot.

[LAUGHTER]

Gaea: Uh-huh.

Michel: But it was very community. We did a lot of community events at the restaurant. So, it really was a community hub.

Gaea: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And so, with all these people coming to . . . sort of using the restaurant as a focal place . . . that’s what led you then into starting the Chamber?

Michel: Yeah, you know, well we’re doing these programs for the kids and lots of parents were coming. We’d get them in from kindergarten all the way through high school and college that would come for this program.  It just made me see how people wanted to, to learn the different language, to learn a different culture, and I really thought how it was very important. I thought that it really enhances the way that you look at, at the world. Especially for international…so many opportunities exist in the world internationally. You could open your horizons, able to speak a different language. It opens the possibilities of . . . in so many ways. So, doing the program at La Siesta, I got involved in developing a sister city relationship with Richmond and Mexico. Specifically, my parent (my father) was from Zacatecas, Mexico. So, I was working to build a sister city relationship between Richmond, Virginia and Zacatecas, Mexico. And the group that was helping to do this, you know, someone came up to me and said, “You ought to start a chamber of commerce because you are a chamber of commerce.”

 [LAUGHTER]

“What you do in your restaurant and how you help people.” And not knowing better at the time, I said . . . I told . . . and I knew there was a reporter, and I said . . . who was interviewing me, and I said. “I’m gonna to start something to help people.” And so when . . . you say that in front of people, I guess you have to follow through.

Gaea: [LAUGHTER] Yes, absolutely.

Michel: I really didn’t intend to lead the effort, just to get it started. But I realized very quickly that if I didn’t follow through with it, it wasn’t going to happen.

Gaea: Mm-hmm.

Michel: And so um, with my relationships that I had and getting people, I, I . . . again, not knowing better, not really totally understanding what a chamber of commerce did . . . I started it.

Gaea: That really resonates well, because, um, when we started the Northern Virginia Black Chamber of Commerce, we thought we wanted to start a chamber of commerce, we wanted to create a place for, um, black-owned . . . black business owners to come learn and be able to create partnerships because it wasn’t really happening in Northern Virginia. And very quickly it grew into something, I think, much bigger than any of us had initially anticipated. So, did it carry you forward or did you carry it forward initially?

Michel: Well, I, you know, I gathered Hispanic business owners and leaders in the community to come together. The thing is, they didn’t know each other. Nobody knew each other really. Informally. Really, it was very powerful. I think, to bring people together and to see the possibilities. And really, just for them to know each other. Every time we would get together and have a meeting, you could see business happening. You know, opportunities coming to life that . . . someone would say something like, “Oh, they never knew it.” So, it really took off, um, took off like that. It was at…it started at the restaurant. It was informal. We’d have meetings and events there, and it grew very, very rapidly. But it really brought a community, for the first time together to really know each other. And have people that, you know, that wanted to be part of the opportunities that they saw had many potential . . . opportunities of growth and business opportunities.

 [MUSIC INTERLUDE]

We’ll be back after this break to speak more with Michel about building the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

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[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

Welcome back. You’re listening to Born Leader from the Hypatian Institute.  I’m your host Gaea Honeycutt and joining us today is entrepreneur and Chamber executive Michel Zajur. 

In the second part of this episode, we look at how Michel approached building the chamber and his lessons learned, and we’ll also discuss how his passion for the community compliments his wife Lisa’s passion for education. And how their pursuits come together to foster cultural exchange.

 [MUSIC INTERLUDE]

Michel: Well, I definitely see the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce as a two-way street. It’s Hispanics becoming, disseminating into the community at-large, understanding the American culture — how to do business here, how to take advantage of this great country we live in, and building their American dream. But, likewise, I saw the opportunity for non-Hispanic businesses that want to do business with the Hispanic community. They want to grow their business internationally in Latin America. You know, how they would have the opportunity. Lisa, when she married into my family, you know, she quickly learned that she had to learn Spanish or she’s going to get talked about.

[LAUGHTER]

And she did. Her background is education . . .

Gaea: Okay.

Michel: . . . curriculum design, and she studied with some leading experts in memory and language. So, she went to learn to take Spanish at the community college and it’s just . . . just a long process. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t engaging, and she just thought it could be done in a much better way than, than that. So, she developed a Spanish program she ran when my kids were growing up. She was a school teacher and she opened, opened up a bilingual preschool. Our kids were raised bilingual and she really, at that time, taught herself and learned from memory experts and, and really experts. And she developed a system of learning and she has a patent pending on it.

Gaea: Hmm!

Michel: But this is really what we did with the La Siesta program with the schools, and it grew. Lisa started the Spanish Academy. She does . . . goes into businesses and does industry-specific—she works with the medical field doing medical Spanish. Goes into law enforcement agencies and does that, Coast Guard. Retail Spanish, construction and so forth. But it’s done in a vibrant way. At the same time, I realized being able to do this for the Hispanic Community to disseminate, to learn English, to understand how to do business … So, it really came together as, you know, bringing people together. So, you know, when you join the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, it’s . . . you’re not going to have to . . . people would arrive and say, “Do I have to know Spanish?” No, but if you want to learn Spanish, we can help you. If you, ah, if you want to learn English, we’re going to help you, you know. We’re going to help that.

But one of the things I didn’t miss, when I did start the Chamber, one of the first things I went to do is I went to see Jim Dunn, who is president of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce.

Gaea: Right.

Michel: And I . . . before I started it, I did not want to start something that would divide people because that’s not what I’m about. It’s bringing people together. And he very much encouraged me to, to start it, and offered his support. And, and because it really enhances the whole community… I’ve gone around the state and I’ve reached out to almost every chamber of commerce around the state…

Gaea: Mm-hmm.

Michel: Letting them know about this organization. Working with them to really help develop, um, the business community in their area to help them, and to build a statewide network that we have here today.

Gaea: I notice that in Northern Virginia there are about, um, four Hispanic Chambers operating in that space. You have the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber based in D.C., the Mid-Atlantic Hispanic Chamber based in Maryland, um, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Northern Virginia, based Northern Virginia also…

[LAUGHTER]

And so, do you find that you’re working a lot with other Hispanic chambers also?

Michel: Yeah, I work with all of them in some way or manner. I, um…at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, but it’s about being involved and really connecting each other to, you know, as a group, because it’s important that you have these relationships. But there’s more than that. There’s other, there’s a lot of smaller Chambers—the Mexican Chamber of Commerce, the Columbian Chamber of Commerce — there’s lots of, several groups, but they’re small and what I try to do is to reach out to them to bring them together in specific ways that we can work together to bring opportunity — especially to the state of Virginia.

Gaea: So, what has been probably the biggest lesson you’ve learned in this, in this time when you’ve been an entrepreneur, working first at the restaurant, starting these programs like La Siesta, the ventures that your wife is leading around education and doing the consulting and contracting with other companies and agencies, and then now with the Chamber? What do you think has been your biggest lesson . . . and you can have more than one?

[LAUGHTER]

Michel: I’ve gotten lots and lots of lessons learned. But I think it’s, um, persistence not to give up because this has not been anything easy. In hindsight, I, you know, probably would have had 20 restaurants now really if I’d focused on myself. But, I have the biggest pleasure. It’s when you give back, and you’re building something and helping other people to help to build their lives and their American dreams. It’s a satisfaction that you don’t get just from financial success.

And then, really, leadership. You’ve got to get involved. You know, you’ve got to be at the table. When I go out to meet with individuals it’s, it’s, you know, “What are you doing to give back?” A lot of times people want to join the Chamber because it’s, you know, it’s all about business. But the philosophy here at the Chamber is that you have to give back, you have to pull a hand to help someone come up, come up from the ladder. And that’s the philosophy. So, if you’re a member of the Chamber, we’re going to help you to get exposed, we’re going to help you to be successful, we’re going to promote you, we’re going to give you the recognition. But at the same time, you have to give back. And that’s why we started the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation. And this is probably a very, very important element and part of the Chamber that really is…that makes me wake up every day feeling really good about what I do. But, um, we have several programs there that I’ll share with you in a little bit.

But, um, I think another thing is, you know, how do you make it win-win? The way that I have seen that we have grown to be so successful is, how do you make partnerships, how do you build partnerships? And it’s got to be a win-win. So many times it’s all about me, and you can’t think like that. You have to make it a win-win-win. I’ll tell you, a wonderful example is the partnership that we’ve developed with the Black Chamber, the Northern Virginia Asian Chamber and the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I’ve tried this same model of doing this before. We did it in Northern Virginia in different areas, and it just never really took hold and…but it… But, I’m really glad to see how well we work together. It’s—it’s really a win-win relationship. We’re doing joint membership; we’re putting on joint events. It really helps all three organizations. We’re able to give back so much more to our membership.

Gaea: Right.

Michel: And to the community by putting this partnership together. And you were very much a part of that since the beginning.

Gaea: A long time ago!

[LAUGHTER]

Maybe not as long as you’ve been doing it. ‘Cause the Chamber is now what, 15 years old?

Michel: Yes, 15 years old.

Gaea: And what has surprised you about the Chamber now versus when you first started it? What, you know, what has been your biggest surprise in its evolution?

Michel: Well again, I had no idea that it was, that it would grow to this level. We’ve put on some major, major events around the state. The people that I have come across and met, the leaders, the . . . it’s been phenomenal. It’s just real rewarding, you know, to have just a vision, a belief, and to make it happen. Again, I did not really have any big ambition of growing a . . . the way it’s taken off. But the vision that I do see is building something that’s bigger than any individual. That’s going to last past me or anybody else, to give back. And that’s really rewarding. It makes you feel very good.

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

Michel and I concluded our interview discussing what makes Richmond the ideal location for business and the Virginia Hispanic Chamber’s headquarters, and the mentor who inspires him and drives the philosophy behind the Chamber.

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

Gaea: It really seems like Richmond is the kind of community where everyone knows everyone. Or if you don’t know that person, you’re not too many degrees of separation from them. Would you say that it’s a very intimate community, too?

Michel: Yeah, I think it’s very intimate. You know, Richmond is used as a test market for a lot of products that would come on the market. If it took off in Richmond, it’d take off anywhere is what the… But it is, it’s a very important market, a very dynamic, growing community. And growing this network past Richmond —you know, Richmond was a good starting place for us — but as we’re in Northern Virginia and we grow the Chamber in all parts of Virginia. It’s really added to the dynamics. But, being in Richmond is very important because a lot of what we do is in the General Assembly.

Gaea: Mm-hmm.

Michel: It’s working with the state government, and lobbying and working with the delegates, and really advocating for business and advocating for the Hispanic Community. So, being in Richmond, the capital city, is very important.

Gaea: Aside from your parents and your family, who was probably the greatest mentor, the most significant mentor, for you in terms of your career path and your trajectory?

Michel: Coming from Mexico, I saw my parents — they didn’t speak English, they worked extremely hard their whole life, you know — I always wanted to help them. But there was one gentleman, specifically, that helped my father. He helped my father start his first business and he was just a good man. He would come over. He would, you know . . . he looked after my family and helped them. Back then, there wasn’t an organization like this where you could go for assistance. I mean, virtually no one spoke, could help. You couldn’t go anywhere, nobody spoke Spanish. I mean, just think of now. There’s so many different areas that you could go for assistance. You can pick up your cell phone and call anywhere. You can go to the Internet, get any kind of information in any language that you want. You could pick up a newspaper in Spanish. Turn on the TV, radio, whatever. But back in the 60s, that wasn’t the case. This gentleman . . . it was my dad’s cousin . . . really helped him and I’m very grateful because I think our lives were greatly enriched because of him. I see, and I think this is my, my thought is this organization could do the same for so many other people, and um… It’s helping them to get started, helping them understand the system. It really can change people’s lives and the future of their families.

Gaea: Wow. That’s, you know, that’s really reflective of the fact that you don’t get where you are by yourself. That it’s so important to help others and there is someone who has helped you. And some work more impactfully than others, but you never know whose life you’re going to touch as you’re going through your day, too.

So, tell me this, because you are now . . . you’ve sold the restaurant and it’s now a Korean restaurant, you were saying earlier to me. And you’re kind of semi-retired, some might say, at least having sold the restaurant business, but you’re very passionate about what you do here at the Chamber. What do you see for your future? Do you see doing this until you can’t do it anymore?

Michel: Right now, I really want to grow the Chamber to make sure it’s in good financial and stable because I want this to live…I put too much into it to not have it live, live on. But right now we have so many programs that we’re doing — the business center, you know, helping people get loans, helping people start their businesses. We have legal clinics. We have some of the top lawyers here giving technical advice and assistance to individuals. We work with SCORE. One of the great programs that I’m really, really excited about is a program called Passport to Education. We’re going to probably give out $50,000 worth of scholarships this year. We’ve already given out over $124,000 and this year we’ll give out $50,000. But, um, we’re—we have the program, we have about a hundred mentors that go into five schools, mentoring youths. These are at-risk students that could, they could go either way. And if you can inspire them . . . you know, one their biggest visions it to turn 16 and get a job. If you can inspire them to…how…to stay in school and to see the future of what possibilities they can be, then it’s life changing what you can bring on. So, this program I’m very excited about. But there’s so many other programs like that. I think that’s really what I’ve put my focus on. I just enjoy it and look forward to having a legacy live on.

Gaea: Well, you are clearly a blessing to your community because there’s so much that you’ve been giving your whole life, and certainly through the Chamber. And really making a difference for people and mentoring some of these other Chambers. Certainly mentoring the Black Chamber. And creating those partnerships, too, which is so key and important to helping communities really gain a foothold and find success and help one another out. So, thank you so much for all that you do, and thank you certainly for doing this podcast with me, I appreciate it.

Michel: Well, good, and I know you’re going to do wonderful. You’re such a dynamic person, I know, with your leadership and everything I’ve worked with you on. I appreciate you interviewing me.

Gaea: Thank you!

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

Before we wrap up, I’d like to highlight a key theme from this episode. This Two-minute Leadership Moment will be a continuing feature of the Born Leader podcast, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.

[MUSIC INTERLUDE]

My interview with Michel Zajur brought home an interconnected set of ideas, what I really think of as life lessons. First, you don’t get where you are on your own. We are all working hard to build the lives and communities we envision for ourselves. However, without the people who believe in us and our ideas, without the people who support and invest in what we do, most of us are lost floating in a sea of our own thoughts. It’s that interconnection that made a difference for Michel’s family when they first came to the United States, and he pays that early kindness forward time and again through the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, its Passport to Education program and other activities in the community.

The second idea is that you never know what effect your words or actions might have on others. Did his uncle know the lasting impact that his generosity and support would have on Michel? It’s very unlikely, but that spirit has infused Michel’s entire life and produced some incredible contributions to the people in his life and to the greater community. Supporting those around us is one of the core values of servant leadership. There’s big-L leadership and little-l leadership. The first is what we often think about — being out front as a spokesperson or figurehead, being in charge. In today’s Born Leader podcast the focus was on little-l leadership — the character and skills necessary to authentically lead oneself and others and to follow a path of purpose. The things that have led Michel to success and transformation, not only in his life but many others’.

That’s this episode’s two-minute Leadership Moment. Let us know your thoughts via email at info at Hypatian Institute dot o-r-g or through our Facebook fan page, LinkedIn group or on Twitter. Our handle is @ H-Y-P-A-T-I-A-N-I-N-S-T.

 [MUSIC INTERLUDE]

I’m afraid it’s time to wrap up Born Leader today.  I want to thank Michel Zajur, founder and CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, for speaking with us about building businesses and the community at the same time. You can learn more about the Chamber, its programs and upcoming events at V-A-H-C-C dot com. I’d also like to thank our administrative partner, WSC Associates, LLP, who provides assistance on the business side of this venture. And thank you for listening. We’d love to hear from you in the comments section or on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

In the next episode of Born Leader, we’ll speak with Ulysses James, Maestro of the Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association. If you want to learn more about Michel Zajur or other guests on the Born Leader podcast, visit HypatianInstitute.org.  That’s H-Y-P-A-T-I-A-N institute dot O-R-G. Or follow us on Twitter at Hypatian I-N-S-T. Talk to you next time on Born Leader from the Hypatian Institute.

Produced by the Hypatian Institute, Inc., Born Leader is a podcast founded on the belief that everyone is a born leader and there are many paths to discovering your own potential. We explore leadership through interviews with and profiles about everyday people who demonstrate we’re all born leaders.