In this series of Group Thinkers podcast episodes, our focus is on leadership. Throughout each episode, we’ll chat with leaders in the nonprofit and commercial space to learn more about their careers and the unique journeys that led them to where they are today.
On this episode, we sit down with Kelley Hecht, Team Lead, Industry Advisor, Nonprofits, AWS, to discuss:
- Two words she’d use to describe leadership (4:35)
- Being a leader in a remote work environment (5:25)
- The differences of working for both nonprofits and agencies and lessons learned along the way (14:45)
- Leaders who have helped shape her career (18:28)
- Her new role at Amazon (23:59)
Meet our guest
Team Lead, Industry Advisor, Nonprofits, AWS
“I think keeping your eyes and ears open for leadership to be all around you really has helped me in shaping not just who I become as a leader, mechanically, but also shaped my career path. Whenever I hit moments where I was thinking about the next step in my career, either inside an organization or moving between organizations, I always tapped into that full community of leaders that were at varying levels of their career … and I have always found the richness of that to be something that I'm better for.”
Justin McCord: So, we were just commenting prior to hitting record about “The Office” and about episodes of “The Office.” And I was sharing with someone recently, Ronnie, that during … one of the early things that my family and I did during lockdown was I made my kids take a Myers Briggs test.
And then one of the exercises after getting their Myers Briggs, I then began to show them how their personality aligns with personalities from various movies or character sets, et cetera.
And “The Office” was a really fun one, just in terms of the way that my family and I all lined out. So, my personality matches Jim Halpert. My wife's personality lines up with Jan, which she doesn't like for me to share. But that's because she's very much like Jan.
Kelley Hecht: Hopefully she’s not listening today. So, alright.
Justin: Oh no, she’s not. And then my kids, my son lines up as Dwight, and my daughter lines up as Michael. And it was just so interesting, especially the relationship between Dwight and Michael, and then seeing that best of friends, worst of enemies relationship lineup with my kids. Quite fascinating. Quite fascinating.
Ronnie Richard: That's got to be a dynamic household you've got going on there.
Justin: We all are in the ‘E’ category. There are no introverts in the McCord household, that's for sure.
Kelley: And then fast-forwarding to the therapy session where the kids are talking about the fact that dad made them take the Myers Briggs and then compared them to The Office characters.
Justin: Yeah, when they were in fourth and sixth grade. Yeah, that …
Kelley: Hundred percent.
Justin: We'll file that away.
OK, welcome to Group Thinkers, where we force people to take Myers Briggs in real time.
No, this is the podcast from RKD Group. And on each and every episode, we welcome someone from the nonprofit space to shed some light on the way that they think about things. And we kind of learn through things together. And we’re very excited today to welcome Kelley Hecht. Kelley, good to see you.
Kelley: You as well. Long overdue, my friend.
Justin: Long overdue. If you had to guess which Office character you would kind of line up with, what would that, who would that be?
Kelley: That's a hard one, I think. I think I'd bring an essence of each on a given day or a given chapter in my life, which maybe brings other adjectives to mind for me. I'm not sure that I align directly with one.
Kelley: Is that a cop-out answer?
Justin: Yeah, but it's OK, it's fine. And I think that that's, I think that that's accurate, that obviously, depending on the, the environment that you're in, your personality can take on different traits, right? You can minimize things or maximize different aspects of it. I don't know. I think by the end of the episode, Ronnie is going to know.
Kelley: There we go. You guys can tell me at the end of this conversation where you're putting me, but I would like it to be in this chapter of my career. I don't want it to be, like, who I am, period. Full stop. Give me a little flex.
Justin: It's just for right now.
Kelley: Thank you. Thank you.
Justin: So, Kelley is the team lead for the industry advisors on the nonprofit side at Amazon Web Services. And you know, Kelley, to your comment earlier, just kind of the, ‘hey it's about time,’ like, it's good to get to do this, it's because we've been in and out of circles kind of across the room from each other forever. And known of each other forever. And, and so it's great to be able to have a conversation with you and learn about your past and learn from the people who have shaped you along the way. So, that's our point today. That's our purpose. And so, just want to dive right in and ask you, what one word would you use to describe leadership?
Kelley: Leadership in general? Or my leadership?
Justin: Leadership in general. Good leadership, in fact, not necessarily poor leadership.
Kelley: I think good leadership is flexible and is present for the various moments that it has the opportunity to help shape and guide. Yeah, those are the two words that come to me when I think of leadership because it's a complicated thing to be a leader, and it's a more complicated thing to be led.
And so, I think both of those terms feel really essential to doing it well.
Justin: I love those words, flexible and present. When you and I were chatting a couple of weeks ago, you know, you talked about your experience of working remotely well before the world went remote. So, share a little bit of that path, you know, and then how that experience has maybe reinforced flexibility in being present in your role now.
Kelley: Yeah, it was an unexpected path. So, I started my nonprofit career at the American Cancer Society in Manhattan at the regional level, and I was in the office for a year. As that role evolved and as other roles followed, I was never interested or able to geographically relocate in order to accommodate the role that I was taking.
And, you know, keep in mind, this was, like, the early 2000, late 90s. So, this was long before we had any of the tools and resources and the sort of culture that we do today around engaging digitally and remotely. But I was fortunate enough to have leaders that were flexible, and that allowed me at numerous jobs and numerous organizations to work remotely.
I think it taught me a lot, much of which I find to be even more helpful today. I would say the first thing that it really showed me was that boundaries are super important and are yours to create. And I'm not sure that I … today, they think that's specific to remote working, but I think it's exaggerated with remote working. And I think in the world that we are in right this minute, where we all went remote and now some are back and some aren't, and it's sort of a little bit more diverse and complicated, boundaries are really healthy things you have and to find and to share with people what your boundaries are so that they know.
And with boundaries comes ownership and responsibility. And so, I would say that things I learned early on in working remotely was that there was really no room or role for being a victim. If I couldn't hear something; if I didn't know something; if I wasn't invited to something, I was remote. That was my choice to live where I lived. And so, I pretty quickly let go of any sense of it being someone else's responsibility to include me.
And over the course of time, I learned to find ways to proactively engage, connect, make sure that I was set up for an experience in the way that I wanted, which sometimes meant getting on a plane and going where I needed to be. And in another cases, it meant working with someone in advance of the meeting.
So, I learned that pretty profoundly, quickly, early on. And I think today, it still holds really true and now is something that others are joining me in learning as well. But it's true whether you're in the office or not in the office. Right? It's just helpful to have your boundaries and to own them for yourself.
Ronnie: Kelley, do you feel like the attitude, I guess, around remote work has changed from, you know, you got to experience it before the pandemic. And having talked to other people who worked remotely, they did feel kind of isolated and not part of the gang, you know, that kind of thing. Do you feel like there have been efforts? Has it changed the way people treat remote employees and the way people try to be more inclusive of them?
Kelley: I think probably, yes. And you know, the first thing that I think changed was an openness by leaders to recognize that people can be incredibly productive and valuable and skilled from a remote environment. And while there is so much trauma in COVID and in the last few years, there are some silver linings. And one of them is, I think leaders are open to finally picking the right person for the right job as opposed to the right person for the right job who lives where I need them to live.
So, I think that's the first really important change that took place. Within that, I also think there was an awakening to, you know, this sort of―it used to be put out as a joke, but there's an ounce of truth in every joke―that people were sitting at home in their pajamas and, you know, watching TV and not working, like, that was never the reality of a remote employee for me in the 90s.
And, by the way, if that's how you work, you work that way in the office, probably, too. So, I'm not so sure remote's the variable there. So, I think both of those things were healthy for the, for the culture of business and the culture of our professional environment. As it relates to the inclusivity of it, I don't know about that one, to be really honest.
I mean, I certainly think people now appreciate what it's like to be remote. I think there's an awareness to it now that there hadn't been. I am a little bit of … people that have certain jokes that it's funny that I'm the one that says this: I'm not sure that the 100% remote environment is sustainable or healthy. I really do think being in physical presence with one another is important. It's important for certain types of thinking and collaboration. It's important for building trust and rapport and respect for one another.
I think there's a real mental health piece of it as well that, you know, I can hide a lot by just living in this box that I can't hide as well when I'm coming to the office on a regular basis. Am I sad, am I stressed, am I happy, am I excited, you know? So, I hope that we won't swing a pendulum too far in the other direction. Right? I hope we'll find some of that balance because it's shown us that we were too stringent over here. Right? There needs to be some flexibility. And I do think there's value in being together. So, here's to a new challenge for leadership to find what that looks like for your organization and for your staffing blend.
Justin: Yeah, I can agree with so much that you said there. And I think that the key, I believe that the key in a lot of it is empowerment. And so, you know, being an effective remote employee comes from, yes, establishing boundaries, but also empowering someone to establish those boundaries and setting the right expectation.
And then, likewise, you know, there's something about the value, like you said, of being in a physical space together. The members of our team met yesterday in one of our office locations, to work on a project together. But there's something that makes that special that you want to continue to foster, but also empower them to be productive and effective as a part of that. So, I think that that's true. And I'm so curious to see how over time we will rightly correct back to what that looks like.
Kelley: One more thing, Justin, before I forget, this wasn't my idea. And I feel badly that I can remember who the smart person was who said it to me. But there was another takeaway that I found really interesting. So, being remote, I didn't experience this, but they pointed out that for most professionals, they grew up in a physical office environment. And they talked about how much learning young leaders get from observing the way people engage in an office environment.
And they were sharing this real concern about what does that look like in a remote environment? And I thought, that's so interesting because it’s a blind spot for me, having always been remote. I learned a little bit that way, but for a very short period of time. Right? But the majority of leaders who are leading today learned from a lot of, for lack of a better word, osmosis of living in an office.
Kelley: So, I just wanted to throw that in because that isn't my experience. It does strike me as a really astute observation or one of the reasons to find some blend of in and out.
Justin: And it really challenges the leaders to be even that much more intentional with new, you know, employees, whether or not that’s someone at an entry level or even a senior level.
Kelley: Great point.
Justin: After nine years on the client side, you then left and went to the agency space. So, I don't know which is the, you know, the dark side and the light side. You know, sometimes we'll talk about joining the agency side, the dark side. Sometimes we’ll talk about, you know, going to the client’s side as the dark side. But I'm so curious about that, about not just that decision and that chapter, I'm curious about what you found that was unexpected about moving into the agency side. And then what you actually found was kind of what you were expecting when you think about the lessons and your time from ACS to Pursuant.
Kelley: Yeah, I mean, I think in short, I was so naive in that particular moment, despite the fact that anyone who knew me then would tell you that I thought I knew quite a lot. I was pretty sure during that sad juncture of my career that I was the smartest person in the room. As humbling as it is to admit that. And I was not, to be very blunt.
I was very fortunate in that I had worked with a leader who was a vendor partner to me when I was at American Cancer Society who really saw something in me that I didn't even see in myself. And he invested in me and sort of invited me onto the agency side. And I remember feeling incredibly honored and excited and nervous and scared to make that jump. But I don't know that in the moment I knew exactly what all those feelings were rooted in.
I did know that it was something that I was dedicated to doing well and committed to, and I'm forever grateful to him for that opportunity. I think the thing that was really interesting when I look back, I wouldn't call either the dark or the light side. They both have sun, and they both have clouds. But being on the agency side offered a breadth of exposure that is just profoundly interesting. To be able to work across that many missions, to work with incredibly diverse leaders in both their backgrounds and their styles and their visions and their natural gifts versus learned gifts.
I mean, I was there for 11 years, and we worked with churches, and we worked with hospitals and everything in between. And so, really getting a sense of where there was commonality in all of that diversity and where there was really distinction, I think was one of the unexpected but truly extraordinary gifts that those 11 years gave me. And I learned so much from each of those interactions.
And yet, I will say, I don't think any of my agency time would have been as valuable had I not already spent 10 years on the client or organization side. And my journey from dark to light or light to dark, depending on how you talk about it, started there because I started at a chapter of American Cancer Society and then went to national. And if anyone on the podcast today is from an affiliate organization, they know that there's a lot of tension between chapters and their national home offices.
So, having spent 10 years there was sort of a necessary, for me at least, prerequisite to being able to value and embrace all that the 11 years on the agency side exposed to me to.
Ronnie: You mentioned a mentor or leader who saw something in you that brought you into that space. As you think about your career, both on the dark and light side, we won't specify which, who's kind of stood out to you as, you know, someone who has just been like a mentor or somebody that's really taught you things and kind of just elevated your career in a way?
Kelley: So many, that should go without saying. I mean, I like to believe that I am present in my interactions and each one is different, right? Each person, each conversation sort of has a little thumbprint on the way that I show up the next day.
For me, it really started with my first leader. Her name is Karen. Karen Borkowski. Now Karen Kennedy. She took an incredible risk on me. I was a couple of years out of college. I had been working in the for-profit sector with a start-up, and I quit my job and took a year traveling in Europe. And when I came back, I knew very specifically that I wanted to work for the American Cancer Society. And I went through an interview process for a role that I ended up pulling my name out of because it wasn't the right role for me. During the interview process, Karen had been one of the people that I had interviewed with, and I called her after and said, hey, if you ever had a job, I would love to work for you.
And she said, the only job I have here you're overqualified for, it is a temporary employee for the summer to make cold calls to strangers, to sign people up, to walk in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk. It pays minimum wage, and I can only guarantee you a job for seven weeks. And I said, I'll take it.
It was one of the most humbling roles I've ever had. But she, she didn't close the door on me because I was, quote unquote, overqualified, and she didn't close the door on me for anything else. She just created a path and allowed me to make it my own. So, I'm forever grateful to her. I'm still in touch with her. And I’ve now worked for her a couple of times. And then from that role, I got exposed to two more leaders that were in a different role in American Cancer Society, Lisa and Chris. And the two of them also saw something in me and invested.
So, I think you're seeing a theme, right? Like, leaders who looked beyond the surface and started to invest in me.
What's interesting is that I look at those experiences at the beginning and the sort of foundation of my professional development. When I think more broadly about my entire journey, it's actually really more my customer interactions; interactions with people I've hired over the years. I find that I learned a lot from these guys early on as mentors and leaders, and now I learn so much from, you know, I worked so deeply with JDRF for years and worked with extraordinary leaders in that org. Cleveland Clinic, a woman named Laura, just, like, forever changed the way I think about leadership.
And an ops guy that I worked with at Pursuant, Gary, you know, totally different mindset than me and a really significant influence in how I wanted to show up in my leadership as a professional in the world. So, lots and lots and lots of extraordinary people I've been exposed to.
Justin: Ronnie, I can't help but think about one of our recent conversations with Meg LeFauve, one of the co-writers of “Inside Out.” And we were talking, Kelley, about storytelling and the power of storytelling. And she said this thing, you know, she made this reference to the Wizard of Oz that within a great story, you have to have a path. That the Wizard of Oz isn't the Wizard of Oz without the yellow brick road. And what I love about what you're saying, and maybe I've just got the Wizard of Oz stuck in my brain, is that there's Glenda as the mentor, maybe, you know, that plays a part in the beginning of Dorothy's journey. But it's actually the people that she's with as she's walking that are just as big of an influence. And so, I really appreciate you framing it that way in terms of the people who have had an influence are those around you as you walk through and have walked through this journey.
Kelley: Yeah, and being aware of and open to leadership, not being hierarchical, but being … the way that you show up in a room or in a conversation or in a challenge. And I think that was never explicitly said to me but was always modeled for me by leaders that I respected.
And so, I think keeping your eyes and ears open for leadership to be all around you really has helped me in shaping not just who I become as a leader, mechanically, but also shaped my career path. Whenever I hit moments where I was thinking about the next step in my career, either inside an organization or moving between organizations, I always tapped into that full community of leaders that were at varying levels of their career, varying levels within their organizations. And I have always found the richness of that to be something that I'm better for.
Justin: So, let's talk about how that has shaped you in your new role. Yeah, and then, so after a decade plus at Pursuant, where you were a very influential and instrumental leader both to colleagues that we have now from some of our shared contacts and, you know, to nonprofit organizations, you shifted and moved to a little startup.
Kelley: A little tech company.
Justin: Yeah, small little tech company. And so, I'm curious about ... you’ve shared so many different aspects that could play a role now. But in your role now, what do you think? What do you draw from your experiences that help you lead in your role now at AWS?
Kelley: Again, cliché, all of them. Certainly, some stand out more than others. You know, it was surprising to many, myself included, that I went to work for the tech company that I went to work for because I'm not known for being particularly technical. And in fact, I'm often made fun of for printing things in large quantities. And also because I've really always worked for smaller teams and companies. I mean, even though American Cancer Society is huge, I was always sort of within a niche within a larger company.
So, this was a big stretch on both of those sides for me. And I came into it with an open mind and open heart and sort of ready to embrace whatever it ended up being, right? Which, almost a year in―today's actually the year anniversary of my interview, I’m almost a year in―I am, I could not be more grateful for where I am and what it is. But to answer your actual question, when I started it at AWS for nonprofits, they had at Amazon something called leadership principles publicly available, worth googling, worth reading.
One of their core leadership principles is, Learn and Be Curious. And I would say that is something that I learned a little bit later in my career. I would say I was probably halfway through my journey at Pursuant when I really fully embraced how incredibly powerful a leadership tool it is to enter into your work with a learn-to-be-curious mindset.
And I would say it is probably the one I have had to lean on most fully in the last year as I have been learning, like, from 20 fire hoses at once, not just one. But I think that is also how we bring out the best in each other as leaders. ‘Learn to be curious’ to me leaves room for everyone to share their strengths and to shine and to bring something to the conversation, which inevitably makes it richer. And so, I try to really ground myself in my leadership in that and my customer experiences with that in the way that I approach the world. Because I find that it's what keeps the openness to make room for everyone. And when everyone is participating and present, that's where the really good work comes. And I would say that learn-to-be-curious piece, which, again, I learned later, is probably what I pull on the most frequently in my current role.
Ronnie: For those who are looking to learn and be curious, Kelley, AWS has the Imagine event coming up, and can you tell us a little bit about that, kind of, just what you’re going for at the event and what sort of things people can expect?
Kelley: Yeah, the Imagine event is amazing. And if you can be in D.C. on March 14, 2023, do it. It's free, and it's got some great speakers and content this year. There's also a lot of content that will follow if you're not able to be there. You know, to paraphrase it for how I experience it―so, you know, reminder that I'm not technical. I don't come from an IT background. I did not know what, you know, the cloud or a data lake or a Kubernetes was before I started at AWS for nonprofits.
But technology is the world we live in. It's no longer a channel. It's no longer just a vehicle. It's all around us. And so, really, the vision of Imagine is to help more nonprofit leaders and all nonprofit leaders from all departments understand technology in a way that allows them to deliver on their mission more fully. So, when you think about, you know, IT, that's pretty linear, right? Like, where are you storing your information? How are you securing your information? How are you preventing latency when people need to access something? That tends to be a little bit more prescriptive. But when you get into the world of marketing and fundraising and business, it's not always quite as clear.
We are used to using SaaS tools, or we're used to using platforms, but the technology behind that is not always something that's clear and obvious to us. So, this is really an opportunity to speak in common language about the role of technology, to provide some new opportunities to open your mind to the way that you're doing your business and explore what might make sense for you. Because we've all got some pretty ambitious goals that stand before us, and it requires us to continually adapt and learn and grow. So, this is a fun group to do that with.
Justin: Kelley, it’s going to be a really cool event. And so, I know we've got teammates that are looking forward to it and can't wait to see what comes of it. And we're so thankful for your time today and for you to set aside time to chat with us, to share some of the lessons that you've learned.
You know, it's fun whenever you can take a step back and think about, you know, like I mentioned earlier, the people across the room, the people that you either compete against or, you know, that you are aware of. And when you can sharpen each other, and you've certainly done that for us today. And so, we're super appreciative.
Kelley: Well, this was really fun for me. Not only have I sat across the room from you guys, but I've been almost stalking you on social media, on LinkedIn, for years. I really appreciate the thinking you bring into this space. And I would say, as a sense of gratitude for you both, one of the most important ways to learn and be curious in the world is to continually expose yourself to things that are outside of your day-to-day work, and you both, through this vehicle, do an incredible job of that. So, thank you for giving us something that's not only helpful and informative to listen to, but quite frankly, fun.
Justin: Thank you. That that is incredibly kind, incredibly kind. Ronnie, you have to follow that by delivering on what we talked about earlier. And so, what “Office” character do you think Kelley's Myers Briggs would most likely align with?
Ronnie: For Kelley? See, I thought you were going to ask me about mine because I did look it up as we were talking here.
Justin: OK, yours.
Ronnie: I was quite shocked that I'm Darrell from “The Office.” Darrell rocks the keyboard from time to time.
Justin: Kelley, I'm going to go on out on a limb. I think maybe David Wallace, I think maybe David Wallace. I see some David-like qualities.
Kelley: What's the best David Wallace episode for me to rewatch tonight? That’s the hard one.
Justin: Yeah, that is the hard one.
Kelley: You can follow up with me after.
Justin: I don't know the best one, but I do think his character is oftentimes this unexpected pinnacle, like, within a show? Like, he is consistent and oftentimes has a vision and puts up with the nonsense around him. And you've done that in this conversation.
Kelley: Doesn’t he cause the nonsense a little because I’ve been known to cause the nonsense.
Ronnie: He’s generally the sense of calm around craziness.
Justin: Well, Kelley, we really do, we're so thankful for your time. We really, really are.
Kelley: This was really fun, you guys, thank you so much.
Justin: So, if you want to check out other episodes, you can find them on rkdgroup.com/podcast. You can find them on all the different platforms where podcasts are available. And so with that, we will see you next time.
Group Thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, visit rkdgroup.com/podcast. Special thanks to our production team, including the talented Ryan Mellinger for his work on mixing every episode. Also, a shout out to the content team that helps pull together research and guests, puts the marketing efforts behind Group Thinkers, Suzanne, Ronnie and others for their work on this and every episode of Group Thinkers.