I Want to Lead Like Her

By Executive Scheduling Associates CEO Mitch Santala


Who do you admire as a leader? Who do you imitate? One of my heroes is a nonprofit executive named Kimberly Johnson. I think her story might inspire you.


Before describing her work improving the plight of sexually abused children in her state, you should know one other piece of her leadership story. She is a mom raising five, count them, five young ones. While busy and successful outside her home, starting an organization, interacting with local and state officials, and assisting leaders of 21 counties, she lives family first.


I'm the proud father of four. I too want my contribution to start at home.


Now, here is Kimberly's outside-the-home leadership story, as told during a conversation that began with a question about the backstory of her project.


"If a child has been abused, neglected, or trafficked," she told me, "they naturally become part of an investigative process conducted by various law enforcement entities. These children must retell their painful stories of abuse multiple times to various officials. They speak to child welfare officials, for example, and to law enforcement officers and undergo a medical evaluation. Often, they explain what happened to them six or seven times, sometimes in sterile, somewhat intimidating settings."


"In the process," she continued, "distressed children can unintentionally be retraumatized by needed justice and child welfare processes managed by good people. So, several of us launched a project that brings these responders together under one roof and ensures that a child experiences the least amount of added stress during the investigation process. The victims arrive in a warm, inviting care center we designed just for them. We lovingly welcome them. A trained staff member interviews them while the legally required observers – prosecutors, investigators, and physicians – observe from another room, feeding questions in their area of expertise to our staff member via an earpiece. All the while, the child is sitting in a setting that feels a little like home."


Kimberly's project explanation reminded me of a favorite definition of entrepreneurial leadership – the search for a better way. She has found one. I asked if I heard correctly that, absent this type of care facility, an abuse victim might be required to retell their experience as many as six or seven times.


"Let's imagine a worst-case scenario," she said. "A teacher notices something is not right about a child. When they inquire if everything is OK, let's say the child is honest and transparent and a story of horrible mistreatment surfaces. That is the child's first experience telling their story. The teacher must then speak to the school administrator, who will likely have a brief conversation with that child. That's number two. The administrator is required to fill out a child abuse reporting form. Child welfare officials send out an investigator who talks to the child. This is the third person to ask the child to retell their painful story. Let's say law enforcement is called. The child is now facing a uniformed police officer. An assigned social worker will need to know the details of the case. Meanwhile, someone will take the child to an emergency room for a medical evaluation and care. We are now at six or more requests for the child to tell the most harrowing story of their life. That's what we mean by searching for a way to avoid retraumatizing a victim."


Listening to her development process was also intriguing. After seeing the need and identifying a dream solution, she moved on to collaboration. She pulled together the government bodies responsible for abused children, described the new, centralized approach, and created a partnership. The result is a board made up of senior representatives of all related agencies. Kimberly then led a fundraising effort that has resulted in millions of dollars of support, a beautiful, fully outfitted care facility, and a beginning staff. Since its opening, Northern California's Children's Legacy Center has expanded its services to include a child counseling center plus an adoption agency.


How might we describe Kimberly's leadership style? I would say – Family first. A focus on community needs. Searching for that better way. Creative. Collaborative. Persistence.


I want to lead like that.


If you would enjoy listening to this entire conversation, click here.