Still, I Rise: Reflections on the June CEO Luncheon

June’s CEO Luncheon offered by YPS featured Dora Robinson, President and CEO of the United Way of the Pioneer Valley.

“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
– Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son

At the June CEO Luncheon hosted by the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS), Dora Robinson began her presentation with a recitation of a favorite poem, “Mother to Son,” by the great poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. In our work settings, we don’t often get to hear poetry, but Mrs. Robinson’s clear voice set the perfect tone for her discussion with a group of about 20 YPS members. In the poem, a mother tells her son about the challenges she’s faced (the stairs had “tacks, and splinters…” and sometimes were bare), and urges him not to give up, even when it’s hard, as she hasn’t given up either. Robinson, the President and CEO of the United Way of the Pioneer Valley, shared her background and her leadership style and values.

Robinson believes in leading from the front, from behind, and from the center.  Her core values that inform how she leads from the front are integrity, acting in a way that holds up to scrutiny, and consistency, so that people know what to expect from you.  When leading from behind, Robinson aims to position people to present her work and her thoughts as if it were their own. In this way, she moves people forward; mentoring is key to this. In order to lead from the middle, she recommends surrounding yourself with good people and strong networks, having multiple mentors who can offer multiple perspectives or advice in different areas of your work life.  A succession plan is also a must for an organization to continue progressing after you leave it.

Robinson, who has brought her commitment to education and years of public service to bear on her role as CEO, re-prioritized the work of the United Way of the Pioneer Valley to focus more strategically on the issues underlying the struggles many local families face: poverty and financial literacy; struggles with education, including dropping out before attaining a diploma; health; and basic needs, all within a framework of accountability, relevance, and diversity. She has converted the UWPV from a fundraising organization to an impact organization, strengthening our community through targeted grant-making and collaborative partnerships.

How does a CEO like Robinson maintain a work/life balance? She made YPS members around the table laugh when she said, “The balance of being awesome is being exhausted!” She went on to demonstrate some of the ways she continues to lead and give back to the community, while keeping happy and healthy.  Family is very important to Robinson’s work/life balance; she made many references to her husband, her mother, her mother-in-law, and her daughter. Other ways to reflect and recharge include prayer, meditation, and reading, which Robinson said gives her connections and helps her learn about different people and points of view. Poetry is obviously among Robinson’s favorite reading material, as she also shared with us Maya Angelou’s iconic poem, Still, I Rise. From Dr. Angelou’s words, Robinson draws inspiration to be bold; sometime you literally have to stand up! This is central to her overall philosophy: be present, make things happen for other people, and realize that the best thing about being the first (in anything, as Robinson was the first woman to lead the UWPV), is opening the door for the second, third, fourth, and fifth, rising up behind you.

Submitted by Jean Canosa Albano