Forging Your Path

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Regional leaders share lessons they’ve learned on their journeys.

When it comes to expanding communities, the focus tends to fall on young and emerging professionals: how to lure them in, how to make them stay, and how to set them up for growth. While young people are an undeniable asset to an evolving economy, it’s imperative to look to seasoned professionals as well. Lessons they have learned through their unique experiences and about their unique leadership styles are invaluable and will continue to help our economies grow as they are passed on.

In the eyes of James Liggins, senior counsel attorney at Warner Norcross + Judd, “The definition of leadership is ‘[possessing and exercising] the ability to move people in the same direction toward a shared goal.’” However, he noted, “There’s not a perfect formula or path when it comes to leading. A lot of people do that in a lot of different ways. ”

Some leaders’ journeys are punctuated with defining moments of change, while others’ are all about poise and balance along the way. However the journey to leadership pans out, studies show a direct relationship between achievement and continued leadership development. Several reports, including “Embracing leadership: a multi-faceted model of leader identity development,” conducted by the University of Wisconsin in 2015, show that leaders who embrace their unique skills and take advantage of the tools at their disposal encounter significant success.

Our editorial team turned to Liggins and a number of other Southwest Michigan leaders to shed some light on their own unique paths to leadership. Here are their stories.

Know What Matters

James Liggins | Senior Counsel at Warner Norcross + Judd

“My journey to leadership was a bit unique,” Liggins mused. “I figured out in law school that I needed to do things differently. I needed to have my foot in two worlds; I needed to be the academic, focused on law, but I also needed to feel like I was really giving time, resources, and energy to my community.”

In the later years of law school, he became involved with school organizations and sought community-based service opportunities, which “balanced out very, very well.” Liggins said, “I just began to be very happy and fulfilled in pursuing my educational desires as well as being a resource to the community.”

Once he’d struck this balance, Liggins truly began on his path toward leadership in both his profession and the community.

After graduating from law school, he returned to his hometown of Kalamazoo to impact the very community that had raised him. He found his way into a line of law where he was able to “help organizations that help people.”

These days, Liggins belongs to nine bar associations. He’s been impacting the local community for nearly ten years and serves on the Board of Directors for Bronson Healthcare Group, the Harold and Grace Upjohn Foundation, Kalamazoo County Defenders, Inc., and more.

Equal dedication to profession and people has defined Liggins’ leadership journey. “[It’s] just something that fulfills [me] as a person,” he said. But he noted, “Leadership really does look different for everybody. We’re all trying to figure out [who we are] and what our place is in the world.”

His advice for emerging leaders? “Use the filter of your real passions and feelings of purpose. What are your skill sets? How can you marry these things? Don’t be afraid to let that guide you.”

Liggins’ Toolbox:

  • Mentor relationships (as Liggins puts it, “Closed mouths don’t get fed!”)
  • Leadership programs like Southwest Michigan First’s Leadership Kalamazoo

Knock Down Barriers

Kristine Cunningham | Human Resources (HR) Director of Kalamazoo County

When Kristine Cunningham sat down before the hiring committee that was yet again in search of a Kalamazoo County HR director, she knew she had some convincing to do. For years, she’d worked in the Kalamazoo criminal justice system, directing non-attorney staff in the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney—and observing the county’s HR department from the outside.

“From the Prosecutor’s Office, I would watch the HR Department, and, at times, I’d feel frustrated,” Cunningham said. “They had a lot of turnover at the leadership level, and I knew the department wasn’t communicating as well as it could be.”

Cunningham felt confident that, given the opportunity to step in as director, she could work with the existing team and remedy many of the department’s issues. But she had a problem of her own. Cunningham had over 10 years’ experience as a county supervisor—a role in which she’d worked regularly with the HR Department—but she had no experience as an HR professional.

However, Cunningham knew that great leaders are the ones who tear down the barriers in their way. She knew that sometimes all it takes is a fresh pair of eyes and a new perspective to get the gears of a team turning once more.

Cunningham laid a simple argument before the search committee. “When I interviewed, I said, ‘Okay, you keep going outside of the county and hiring people with previous HR experience. From the outside, that strategy doesn’t appear to be working.’” She continued: “I know many of the employees. I know the leaders. I know the supervisors. I know the department heads, the personnel policies—I’ve got ideas, and I’ve got a vision.”

And so, the barrier fell. Cunningham became an HR Director with no prior experience working in HR.

As director of HR for Kalamazoo County, Cunningham now oversees more than 900 employees across the region. She and her team regularly seek input from county leaders and employees, look for creative ways to improve work life for its employees, and encourage the hiring of employees based on vision and skills rather than résumé. She and her team live in pursuit of barriers to tear down.

Cunningham’s Toolbox:

  • Master of Public Administration program at WMU
  • An overflowing bag of reading materials
  • Southwest Michigan First’s Leadership Academy

Run the Race You Were Meant to Run

Sarah Johansson | Vice President, Director of Marketing at Greenleaf Trust

Sarah Johansson joined the Greenleaf Trust team on a blind leap of faith. At her interview for the position of director of marketing almost nineteen years ago, Johansson laid her hesitations on the table: “You know, I couldn’t find anything about this company—anywhere. You don’t even have a website.” William D. Johnston, chairman of Greenleaf, countered, “That’s exactly why we need you.”

Although she didn’t set out with the goal of reaching a position in leadership, Johansson said her sense of responsibility has always driven her naturally toward opportunities to lead.

While Johansson has made remarkable strides across Greenleaf’s marketing initiatives—they do, in fact, have a website these days, thanks to Johansson—much of her impact in leadership has gone far beyond marketing. Great leaders, according to Johansson, “invest time in their people. They build trusting relationships and put their people first.” And that’s precisely what she’s done.

In the last year alone, Greenleaf has added fifteen new teammates, bringing the organization’s numbers to over 120. Throughout this growth, Johansson has retained a steadfast focus on people. “One of [my strengths] is the ability to read people, to understand what they might need at that moment,” Johansson said. “That’s something I’m passionate about, and I think it lends itself well to my passion for growing more leaders within our company.”

Johansson’s Toolbox: 

  • Collaborating with Greenleaf Trust peers
  • Greenleaf Trust Communications and Culture Workshop
  • HUMANeX Ventures’ Impact & Legacy Academy

Unveil the Future for Others

Katy Fink | Vice President, Chief Human Resources Officer at Stryker 

Katy Fink’s journey to leadership started long before she landed her role as head of HR for Stryker. Fink and her two siblings were raised by a hard-working single father—which left her to pitch in for the family. “[Leadership] started very young for me,” Fink recalled. “As a kid, it started with asking myself, ‘How can I help my family out with what needs to get done?’”

A little farther down the line, this knack and eagerness for helping others began to provide Fink with some direction in life. Although she wasn’t drawn to HR immediately, her passions never seemed far off from those of the best HR executives. In her roles prior to Stryker, she discovered an affinity for tackling difficult issues and solving problems. “Almost to a fault, I’ve often been the one with the courage to step forward and have difficult conversations,” Fink said. “I’m always willing to put forth [an unpopular] point of view. I want to jump in, solve problems, and make the environment I am in better. I’m really energized by it.”

Fink recalled the early stages of her career. “I spent lots of time really trying to understand, ‘What’s my passion—what’s the purpose of my life? How do I help other people figure out what their goals are and support them along the way?’”

As far as becoming comfortable with her own leadership status, Fink described it as a process. “I think a lot of my growth was just finding the courage to take on big challenges. It was an openness to trying new things and a willingness to listen to [and learn from] other people’s ideas and thoughts.” Half-joking, she added, “And [having] the humility to know that I’m probably going to screw up as much as I’ll do things well. But I will learn along the way.”

In Fink’s leadership journey—from a childhood spent leading within her own family to now leading HR at a multinational company—the common thread has been serving others. “I lead very much from an empathetic standpoint,” she said. “Being the strongest, loudest voice in the room—that’s not what’s most important to me. It’s all about maintaining humility; it’s about never forgetting that I’m here to stay connected and to guide and support others.”

Fink’s Toolbox: 

  • Executive Strategic HR Master’s degree from Rutgers University
  • Center for Creative Leadership

Stay True to Yourself

Jeremy Cowart | Photographer, Artist, and Entrepreneur

A Lesson from Beyond Southwest Michigan: How Jeremy Cowart leads uniquely from his home base in Franklin, Tennessee.

Jeremy Cowart is a fine artist, photographer, entrepreneur, and public speaker whose path to leadership was winding and, at times, wrought with weeds. He’s the founder of Help-Portrait, a global photography movement, a mobile social networking app called OKDOTHIS, and the online teaching platform See University. Cowart has pursued many big ideas, but they have a common thread: they’re true to Cowart’s authentic self and where he was in life when he dreamed them up.

Cowart’s career started in the wake of several people telling him it shouldn’t start at all. “I got fired from my first job,” Cowart said. “I was told I wasn’t creative. Then I nearly failed my only photography class. There were a lot of voices in my head that made me think I couldn’t do much.”

But by sheer force of will and dedication to his passions and personal truths, Cowart kept at it. Eventually, he made it. Cowart was named Huffington Post’s “Most Influential Photographer on the Internet.” He worked as a photographer for the likes of Britney Spears and the Kardashian family. He became a public speaker at a worldwide level, appearing on stages from TEDx to the United Nations. Cowart chose projects he was passionate about, projects that would help him grow and stay true to his self.

When Cowart founded the Purpose Hotel, it was because he felt this transition to be the most authentic move possible. He had the idea to create a for-profit hotel that served non-profit humanitarian companies—and he just had to go for it. “I really like being challenged,” Cowart said. “I really like learning, I really like growing, and I’m at a point where, with photography—I’m not jaded by it, I’m not burnt out by it, I just don’t feel like I’m growing. There’s nothing really left to understand [in photography], whereas looking at the hotel is like looking out at the ocean, just so vast and so deep and so mysterious. It’s really exciting to jump into.”

Because of his dedication to remaining true to himself, Cowart has grown from being called “not creative” into a highly successful and authentic leader who others can—and do—follow with full confidence.

Cowart’s Toolbox:

  • Constant reading
  • His phone’s Notes app
  • Conversations with people

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