We had the good fortune of connecting with Kim Easton and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kim, what matters most to you?
While it is difficult to choose only one value that matters most to me, I would have to say it is to live with purpose.
My purpose is to make a positive difference in the world by taking action.
- Make a positive difference in the world (not just the bottom line)
- Advocate for others who don’t have the platform, voice or opportunity to advocate for themselves
- Help others attain their unrealized potential
- Push the status quo through innovation
- Take action at any level needed – jump in and get things done where others aren’t or aren’t willing
It has taken me many years to be able to identify and share my purpose statement. I believe we all have underlying passions and intentions that drive our decisions and determine where we invest our personal resources, but it is not always obvious or clear if we don’t take the time to reflect and recognize what those are. Interestingly, research shows that fewer than 20% of leaders have a strong sense of their own individual purpose. Fewer still can distill their purpose into a concrete statement. Once you invest the time and energy to pinpoint your purpose, it is amazing how much energy and focus you gain and how opportunities that align with your purpose become obvious and available.
To truly live and lead with purpose you must support that with other core values such as vision, relationship, authenticity and boldness.
We are drawn to leaders and to organizations that are crystal clear at communicating what they believe and why they do what they do. When everyone in an organization at every level understands the vision (the WHY), it builds a sense of belonging and connection to something bigger than themselves. As human beings, we are hard wired with the need to belong. This feeling makes us feel safe, inspired and engaged. When we feel connected, we act on the good of the whole not because we have to, but because we want to. Inspired organizations require not just inspired leaders, but every single person must also think, act and communicate from the inside out by being connected to the WHY.
Success requires interpersonal trust and relationship. Those who trust and feel trusted work hard because trust creates a sense of safety. When we lower our instincts for self-protection and defensiveness, we can truly engage the parts of our brain and thinking that allow creative and innovative results. Tapping into those parts of our brains creates an automatic feeling of joy, pride, and fulfillment. When we work in this space of safety and support, we come back again and again to do more, to give more and to achieve a collective positive impact. When we see how our efforts and our input are driving the success of the whole, we become motivated to give our best, which results in outstanding accomplishments, top notch delivery of customer service and access to the resources needed to continue this path of self-sustaining and positive growth.
Authenticity requires a leader to be vulnerable. This is often difficult to do as leaders are seen or see themselves as impenetrable. Authentic communication requires both speaking from the mind and the heart directly to the minds and hearts of others. Leaders have to be clear not just about the alignment of change or direction of organizational goals, but also about their own stake in the vision or strategy and why it is important to them personally.
When we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to face the assumptions that have been barriers in the past, we become free to look for connections and to notice patterns or relationships that had been previously veiled by assumptions. When we are able to see and experience things as they are rather than how others have told you they are, how thing have always been, or even how you think they should be, new opportunities, approaches, and ideas grow and develop. When teams are invited into this type of authentic and vulnerable thinking and all ideas are on the table, smarter decisions and more synergy, ownership and commitment to the strategy prevail.
Organizations that are mission (purpose) and passion driven face difficult conversations because teams have strong emotions, opposing opinions and all decisions feel high stake when the ultimate impact is on the individual everyone is there to serve. To impact change, a strong leader must recognize that people will only take action and change behavior if they feel that they have the tools and resources they need, if they feel they have the support of their peers and their leaders and if they are personally able and motivated to meet the new expectations. A bold leader must set clear expectations about the direction an organization is moving, but also ensure that the people they are asking to move toward that vision, have what they need to do so.
Purpose. Vision. Relationship. Authenticity. Boldness.
These are the core values that drive my thinking around who I am as a leader and what I always set out to accomplish. My big picture vision for the future is that all citizens will have access to the resources and support they need to thrive in all aspects of their lives. I have primarily worked in the nonprofit sector throughout my professional career because for me it is not about the bottom line or profit and loss, it is about making a difference in our world even if just in some small way every day.
This quote by John Quincy Adams has always resonated with me, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” We all have the capability to live from a place of purpose, have a positive impact on our world and lead boldly to a better future for all.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I am passionate about making a positive difference in the world. Through strong leadership, a collaborative spirit, vision and active relationship building in our community, I strive to connect people with the resources and support that they need to thrive and be successful in their lives. I became CEO of the National Sports center for the disabled in March of 2017. Prior to this role, I served as the CEO at Urban Peak, Colorado Bright Beginnings and also worked with other non-profit organizations as both an employee and in board governance roles. I earned my undergraduate degree from the College of Wooster and her master’s degree in Educational Psychology from the University of Colorado. I work day in and day out to be a leader who is dynamic and provide my team with solutions-orientated direction. I bring 20+ years of demonstrated achievement contributing to successful development and growth of statewide and national, multi-sited organizations. I have expertise in project/program management and implementation, operational efficiency and organization effectiveness, marketing communications, branding and positioning, evaluation design, data collection and analysis, human resources and leadership development. In 2017 I was awarded a highly sought after seat with the Livingston Fellowships Program which provides advanced learning and professional development opportunities to promising nonprofit leaders. Prior to my non-profit leadership, I was an early childhood educator immersed in research around infant mental health and healthy brain development.
More about really how it all ties together:
I did not set out to work in the nonprofit sector but ended up in this work like many of life decisions have taken me – the right thing at the right time and being open to receiving the next opportunity. I had planned on getting my PhD and doing research. After teaching early childhood for 10 years, I wanted more flexibility in my work schedule when I had my own children. I started a consulting business and a few of my clients were nonprofit organizations who needed help and support around branding, building effective systems and people development. These were some of my favorite clients because although their resources may have been tight, their heart and their passion moved their work forward. At that same time, I became a founding member and volunteer to launch a Denver Public Schools charter school called Highline Academy. I did not know anything about starting a nonprofit or a school, but through this work I learned all of the governance and policy side of nonprofit development and fell in love with the mission and passion driven focus of the sector. I researched and wrote all of the governing documents and governance policies for the school which to this day are the foundation of the organization. Shortly after launching the school, I took my first formal nonprofit position at Colorado Bright Beginnings where I fully realized how fulfilling and meaningful doing work that changes lives in my community for the better really was for me. I loved working on the development of an early childhood systems framework for the state and at the local level with several counties where we had affiliate sites. From Colorado Bright Beginnings I continued to grow as a leader and take on bigger challenges and larger organizations. My next position was as the CEO for Urban Peak. Urban Peak provides a full continuum of services for youth experiencing homelessness. This was an incredible, but grueling mission to serve. While we often got the chance to celebrate another youth or young adult getting their first apartment, high school diploma or their first job, behind them came 2-3 more youth needing our services. Unfortunately, our social service systems like foster care often create more harm and leave our young people stranded and without hope. While at Urban Peak I was able to work at the local, state and federal level on broad based systems reform and creating communities of care for this population. I am incredibly motivated by work like this that not only has direct impact on the clients being served, but on the whole system that surrounds them to make much bigger and longer lasting change for good.
My current position as the CEO of the National Sports Center for the Disabled epitomizes a true full circle of personal and professional passion coming together. When I graduated from college, I moved to Colorado to teach ski school and take a year off before returning to graduate school. I taught 3-6 year-olds how to ski and have fun on the mountain. It was the best job I ever had. While employed at Vail, I took all my required ski instructor training in adaptive skiing. At the time I did not really know how I would put these skills to work, but I knew that if there was ever an opportunity that I could share my love of skiing and the great outdoors with someone who otherwise would not be able to experience that joy and freedom that I should be prepared. This is where passion and the creation of my “why” started to grow. Now I am leading one of the largest and most comprehensive organizations providing adaptive experiences, we are expanding access, opportunities and possibilities for people living with disabilities and their caregivers. We are transforming lives by empowering individuals with any and all disabilities with a wide-range of Colorado-inspired, individualized adaptive outdoor experiences designed to transform perceived limitations into unlimited possibilities. We are fueled by our belief that everyone is able and anything is possible. We are rethinking ability, redefining what’s possible and fostering heathier, more equitable communities together that celebrates each person’s abilities.
I have always considered myself somewhat of a “reluctant” or “accidental” leader. I have been leading programs, organization, school boards, committees, etc. for over 20 years, but until recently I have questioned how I ended up in these roles. As a young person I organized day camps in the summers for all the neighborhood kids, ran student council and organized opportunities for arts and dance experiences in our schools. I have never set out to be a leader. I have always seen myself as a “doer”, a behind the scenes kind of person who is passionate about getting things done. I don’t want to take credit or be recognized for the success of a project or an organization, I just want to get the right people on board who can make visions become a reality. As a leader I see myself like the old vaudeville plate spinner act. My job is to keep all the momentum and energy moving forward so each individual can focus on what is on their particular plate. My energy and focus is on the big picture but also on supporting and providing guidance when a plate starts to wobble. One wobbly plate can bring the whole act crashing down.
I continue to grow in my perspective of myself as a leader and have learned more about why I think I keep ending up in leadership positions. For me it always comes back to my “Why” – my driving purpose, the thing that gets me out of bed every morning and gets me excited. “My leadership purpose is to make a positive difference in the world by taking action.” Regardless of WHAT I do in my life, my WHY never changes and whenever I try to veer from my WHY, life brings me back to center eventually.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
This is tough because it really depends on the person visiting and the time of year. As they say, so much to do and so little time to do it. Colorado and Denver have so many things to offer depending on what you love. I would likely spend a couple days in Denver going to the Denver Art Museum, Clyford Still Museum and a walk around the Capitol Building and City and County of Denver Building. From there a visit to the 16th Street Mall, down to Union Station. Lunch at My Brother’s Bar and a show at the DCPA. A second Denver day would include the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, followed by a walk around City Park and a photo opportunity on the stairs of the DMNS looking west to the mountains and city scape.
Dinner at Tommy’s Thai Restaurant on Colfax and a concert at the Bluebird Theater. A trip to Red Rocks Amphitheater is a MUST do with a visit to Golden or Morrison for food and fun. In terms of where in the mountains to go explore, there are just too many options to consider. A day trip to Kenosha Pass and Salida would work. Or you could continue from Salida on to Gunnison and then down Rte 149 through Lake City, Creede (a stop at the Creede Repertory Theatre), Pagosa Springs and Durango. If you haven’t done this drive, you really are missing out. The trip home could go North through Telluride, Ouray, Silverton, Montrose and Grand Junction before heading back East through Glenwood Springs (a stop at the Colorado Hotel and the hot springs) and then any of the stops between Vail and Idaho Springs. There are so many more options like the art district on Santa Fe or the antique shops on Broadway. Pearl Street restaurants and shops and a walk at Washington Park. Writing all of this is really making me excited for when we can say that the COVID-19 pandemic is in the rear view mirror. I didn’t realize how much I was missing all that our amazing state and community has to offer.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
My mentor and role model in leadership came from Mrs. Kniffin, my ballet teacher for over 10 years. She ran a small, local ballet studio two small towns over from where I grew up. In the Cynthia Kniffin Dance Academy the young dancers were mentored by and looked up to the older dancers. As you grew up in the academy you could take on more responsibility such as cleaning the studio to help pay for your lessons, volunteering to teach younger classes when coverage was needed and taking part in the creation and behind the scenes work of our bi-annual performances. We looked forward to moving up in the company to be the dancers the younger ones wanted to become. The leading roles in the academy performances were not always awarded to the best dancer, but often to those who had been the best academy members and leaders. Mrs. Kniffin never raised her voice, embarrassed dancers or pitted us against each other, yet through her clear expectations and steadfast example, we all lived the academy culture and worked extremely hard to make her proud. She was kind yet gave honest and constructive feedback when you weren’t “performing” at the level she expected either as a dancer or a leader. The Cynthia Kniffin Dance Academy was on the 3rd floor. There were days that it took every ounce of effort to physically and emotionally make it up those 72 stairs, but there was never a day that I counted them on the way back down.
I have also had the privilege of being a Bonfils Stanton Foundation Livingston Fellow since 2017. The Livingston Fellowship Program provides advanced learning opportunities to promising nonprofit leaders who hold significant leadership roles in Colorado’s nonprofit sector. Fellows are selected on the basis of exceptional leadership ability, promise for significant and unique contributions to the nonprofit sector, and the potential for the Fellowship experience to enable them to move from “success to significance” as leaders of people, organizations and the nonprofit sector. Through this program I have been able to attend trainings such as the Grove Institute visual facilitation workshops, the Center for Creative Leadership with many Fortune 500 executive leaders from around the world on Strategic Leadership, obtained a certificate in Creative Leadership and learned about design centered thinking through IDEO University and much more. But it has been the opportunity to travel to an all-women’s surf and yoga retreat, to Europe to explore art and re-engage with my creative soul by learning to play a new instrument that have really helped me push my boundaries, to learn more about myself and how my personal strengths and passions contribute to my success and approach as a leader. Being a part of the cohort of Livingston Fellows is an honor and a constant source of support and inspiration.
Locally one of my mentors and leaders I admire is George Sparks, President and CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He was the Board Chair at Colorado Bright Beginnings when I worked there and one of the reasons I took the job was because I knew that I could learn a lot about leadership from him. George had an entire career, where he was very successful, prior to taking on the leadership of the museum. He could have retired, but yet he chose to take on a new challenge. His personal goal for taking the job at the museum was twofold. First, the mission of the museum was core to his heart and passion for learning. Second, he believed the museum although great, could be so much more for our community and as a national model of innovation and learning. George is so compelling when he speaks about the mission and vision of the museum. He is genuinely excited by the exhibits, programs and research that they do. This passion shines through all he does as a leader whether that is fundraising, building the best possible team, creating community buy-in, developing great leaders or implementing a strategic plan.
AUTHORS AND THOUGHT LEADERS
Benjamin and Rosamund Zander – “The Art of Possibility.” This is a go-to message for me when I am feeling overwhelmed or frustrated with the tone and feel around the organization. I often ask my team, “Is this a downward spiral conversation or are we thinking about this through a lens of opportunity and possibility?” Too often nonprofits work from a space of scarcity and limitation due to limited resources and time rather than thinking about what they can achieve by rethinking and reprioritizing.
“People don’t buy what you do – they buy why you do it.” Simon Sinek shares this concept in his popular TED talk and book. I agree that this thinking is what makes great companies and great companies are led by great leaders. We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are crystal clear at communicating what they believe, what they stand for – their WHY. When we feel connected to a leader’s WHY then we feel like we belong, like we have a special connection, that we are safe and this gives leaders the ability to inspire us.
Brene Brown – “The Gifts of Imperfection.” This is a relatively short and simple book to read, but the concepts are life changing. One of my favorite quotes from her book is, “The first step to getting what you want is having the courage to get rid of what you don’t.” This may mean getting a new job, developing new circles of friends or it may be simply getting rid of your own negative attitude or assumptions. Her very vulnerable and authentic sharing of her journey provides a framework for living a wholehearted life based in passion driven work and fearless growth. I want to continue to work toward this type of living.
Patrick Lencioni shares his theories about leadership and organizational success through story which makes the ideas real and accessible (Death By Meeting, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Five Temptations of a CEO, etc.) His book, “The Advantage” focuses on what I believe to be a key concept for organizational success which is building healthy organizations. According to Lencioni, to be a healthy organization requires a cohesive leadership team, creating clarity, communicating clarity and reinforcing clarity. “Every policy, every program, every activity should be designed to remind employees what’s really most important.” It takes discipline, intentionality and focus to operate in this way and a willingness as a leader to be vulnerable and not “have all of the answers all of the time.” But investing leadership time in getting really clear about shared priorities and direction becomes impactful at all levels of the organization.
John Miller – “The Question Behind the Question” is a succinct book on personal accountability. Our organization, like many, struggle with intergenerational work ethics and behaviors around doing what it takes to get the job done. What I like about Miller’s message is the reminder that the only person you have control over changing is you. He provides a simple tool and approach, the QBQ, that helps reframe negative, downward spiral thinking into an action-oriented, self-oriented framework. So instead of “Why don’t I have the resources I need to do my job?” our thinking becomes “What can I do with what is available right now to make the biggest difference?”
Dan Pallotta – “Uncharitable.” In Pallotta’s book and TED talk he challenges the basic assumptions surrounding nonprofit work. He is an advocate for creative approaches to the problems nonprofits face and reframing the big picture. Although I don’t agree with all of Pallotta’s ideas, I do agree that collectively we need to rethink how nonprofit organizations can and do work. As nonprofit leaders we have to stop being resigned to doing more with less and instead through thorough program impact evaluation and self-assessment be able to tell the real story of what it takes to get our work done effectively, to demonstrate the return-on-mission investment for the community both on our people and the finances and be courageous to revamp or stop doing some things if they are detracting from the ability to have the biggest impact on the highest priorities.