Monday, May 8, 2023

2023 - Leadership and Gratitude to Ken Stein



Robin and Ken Stein - YMCA Mentors

(Fifty Nifty Years in United States Series)

Ken Stein – I wrote most of this upon Ken’s retirement in 2012 (I've made several edits and updates as well) Ken's memorial service is Saturday, May 13, 2023 11am at the Redlands Family YMCA in Redlands, California.

I had the pleasure of working for Ken Stein from February 1998 to end of 2003 - primarily as the Camp Director for YMCA Camp Edwards. I also served for nearly two years as an operations person for an aquatics branch, three day camps, 63 after school sites, and a rural Y center that operated in schools and fields as well as and helping open a large community center (built in collaboration with a local municipality). It was one of the most complex times of learning as a leader and set me up for future success on the lessons learned (cue Sabre Dance music as a theme).

At the time I obtained the position in 1998, I had just left another YMCA Camp and I recall my conversation with Ken. He indicated this may not be where I wanted to be ultimately, but he had a need for a camp director right now and I was available. I felt wanted and needed and agreed to come and work for Ken Stein. 

As a younger version of my current self, I thought I knew a great deal about camp (the older I get, the less I know). But the lessons and opportunities that emerged over that almost 6 year period were tremendous.

I had the opportunity to watch Ken (and Robin Stein) transform the YMCA. I had the opportunity during most of each school year (summers being what they were) to have lunch with Ken almost every week. It was a front row seat to what I believe was a master’s program.

With well over 150 hours of mini-Druckeresque (Peter Drucker link) lunch meetings; this was his way to coach and direct as I worked to learn more about being a leader and transforming a culture. I am so grateful for the amount of time and investment that Ken provided. It was like a mini course of non-profit management right down to the values and culture an organization must have to move forward. 

Ken let me stretch and grow and even fail. He provided leadership and knowledge and a kick in the right direction when needed. I learned about the Y, our mission, camping and the financial and budget considerations of “innies and outies” (a term Ken used as well as Howard Pease at a previous YMCA) as well as a hundred other things. I recall that while serving as a branch director one of the things he asked me to do was always go throw the front doors as if I was a member. I had been using a side door entrance close to where I was parking and he wanted me to have the same view that participants would have and an appreciation for what they would see. It was also a way to have access to members who might be walking through at the same time. Creating opportunities to interact with customers. Simple, profound, and essential.

I recall one particular summer where I had had an extreme challenge with a few volunteers and had learned the hard way, that I did not have all the answers. That Saturday, upon departure of the campers, volunteers, and most of the staff team, I was still upset by the situation and by my choices. While finishing up with some clean up, Ken and Robin walked into camp. (Did I mention that they lived an hour away and had to drive up the mountain to camp?)

Ken had that huge engaging smile and came up and hugged me. As he did so, he said, “I know it’s been a challenging week and I’m proud of you.” I teared up and we talked about choices and how best to make decisions when you are stressed, tired, and irritated. In our discussion, he showed compassion as a leader and made it clear that he expected different choices in the future.

Our time together at that YMCA had some difficult times and some huge challenges. Throughout that it was always clear that Ken led with his values. From the simplest lessons, to the most difficult when a member of the staff team passed away, Ken always made it clear that leadership was something that he valued.

At one point, I had an office at one of the local branches and Ken had learned I was using a back door to go into the YMCA. It was not something I had considered as a camp director and Ken made it clear that leaders lead. He suggested (read directed) that as leaders we always go through the same doors that our members use; that we greet everyone along the way; and that it was important that leaders be seen. It was a simple lesson and yet so profound.

Ken gave me so many opportunities. Perhaps the best and greatest was the opportunity to grow. My last 18 months or so with Ken, were spent leading camp, three day camps and lead in a recently completed merger with another local YMCA. Ken suggested that for me to grow and get larger opportunities to work at bigger camps, I would need to grow my leadership responsibilities. That growth led to my departure and brought me full circle to where our story started. Ken and I came to a point where he indicated this may not be where I should be any longer and that my road would need to go in different direction  Again, I was available for that challenge.

In my years of work at the Y, I have worked for at least 13 different CEOs and I have to say that I learned the greatest amount of what it is to be a true leader in my time with Ken Stein. 

To this day, when faced with a choice or difficult situation - I often think about what would Ken Stein do? Peter Drucker stated, “Success in the knowledge economy comes to those who know themselves - their strengths, their values, and how they best perform.” Ken Stein clearly taught me this concept. He was clear about what he knew, and he wanted to help me be clear as well.

For this I am extremely grateful as I have spent these last 50 plus years in these United States.


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