Q&A with Michelle Holt
Executive Director, Benton-Franklin Council of Governments
Number of employees you oversee: 9
What is the Benton-Franklin Council of Governments:
The Benton-Franklin Council of Governments (BFCG) was established in 1966 as a voluntary association of the units of government in Benton and Franklin counties. The organization is structured as a regional planning commission, a council of governments and a regional transportation planning organization under state law and as a metropolitan planning organization and an economic development district under federal laws. BFCG’s focus is on economic development, community development and transportation planning by providing a regional forum for multijurisdictional decision-making and provision of multi-jurisdictional programs.
How did you land your current role? How long have you been in it? What attracted you to the Tri-Cities?
I have been an executive director/CEO running nonprofit organizations in economic development fields for over 20 years, including rural economic development, chamber of commerce, tourism, workforce development and entrepreneurship. I had the opportunity to visit to the Tri-Cities in 2019, and my husband and I immediately fell in love with the community. We are both from eastern Idaho and the Tri-Cities is very similar in many respects, including a desert-type climate and being home to a national laboratory with energy and nuclear cleanup focuses. I began to keep an eye out for career opportunities in the Tri-Cities, which led me to BFCG. We moved to Tri-Cities in February 2021 for the position with BFCG.
Why should the Tri-Cities care about the BFCG?
BFCG is an organization that provides services behind the scenes impacting the lives of every citizen of the region. Individuals move fluidly between multiple cities and counties and utilize services that cross jurisdictional boundaries every day. BFCG provides a framework for those jurisdictions to collaborate on planning for interconnected infrastructure like transportation and community development. It also provides access to important federal funding through the Federal Highway Administration for transportation planning, and the Economic Development Administration for economic development capital projects, as well as state funding through WSDOT. BFCG also manages several revolving loan fund programs that provide funding to businesses in the region which has helped several small businesses to get their start.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
Heart. The backbone of every organization is its people. When it comes to getting the most out of your employees, you need heart to value the human side of the human resource. All the planning, strategy, supply chain and equipment are only as valuable as the people who execute them.
What is the biggest challenge facing business owners/managers today?
I think it is the speed at which technology is changing the world. Technological advancement provides unprecedented opportunities for efficiency and growth, but the cost, logistics of implementation and employee development necessary to take advantage of those opportunities can be intimidating. The pandemic was a shock for many companies in that regard. They were forced to leap into the virtual world to continue operations. It shined light on the many tools that exist and the need for businesses to evolve operations to survive.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about your field?
When it comes to economic and community development, I would simplify the processes. There are so many resources available to support the growth of businesses and communities, and yet often people do not know where to begin or how to access support. When it comes to state and federal programs, there are so many hoops to jump through that accessing the resources is often much more complicated than it should be.
What advice would you give someone going into a leadership position for the first time?
Find a mentor. Someone who will share their experience – good and bad. Someone you can share your frustrations with. Someone you can ask the “dumb” questions of without fear of judgement. Someone who will encourage you to excel and grow. Be teachable. You won’t know everything so don’t pretend that you do.
Who are your role models or mentors?
I have had so many role models and mentors I cannot begin to list them. I try to surround myself with people who encourage me, inspire me and from whom I can learn.
How do you keep your employees (or team members) motivated?
I asked my staff this question and what they told me is my positive attitude is motivating and the way I ask questions helps them to consider other ideas rather than dictating what I want to see. I try to celebrate even small changes as successes. It is motivating to look back and see transformation taking shape. I try to incorporate lighthearted fun because when people are happy and enjoying themselves, they are more productive. I try to express gratitude often. It is amazing what happens when you share genuine praise.
How did you decide to pursue the career that you are working in today?
It wasn’t so much a choice as the destination my experiences led me. I have been so blessed throughout my career to have employers who saw potential and were willing to give me opportunities to prove myself and grow. My first nonprofit executive position happened by chance. I was put in a position of interim leadership during an executive search when the executive director abruptly left the organization I was working for. The national search was a slow process, allowing me time to realize I liked the work, so I asked to be considered. That board ultimately hired me and groomed me as an executive director. Through future roles, I realized I have a passion for helping communities grow and thrive. I also found that I have a talent for revitalizing organizations, enabling them to better fulfill their missions. Each role brought more skills and more opportunities, leading to where I am today.
How do you measure success in your workplace?
I am always evaluating how we are meeting the expectations of our members and if we are fulfilling the organization mission. I am very outcomes oriented. Having clear accountabilities and measurables makes it easy to measure success. I love the concept that if more than one person is accountable, no one is accountable.
What do you consider your leadership style to be?
I consider myself a collaborative enabler. I am usually trying to effect change so bringing people into the process through collaboration creates buy-in and ultimately produces better outcomes. “Enabler” often has a negative connotation, but for me it means hiring skilled people and then removing barriers to enable them to do their best work. I ask questions that allow them to solve problems or challenge them to look at things from a different perspective. I encourage innovation.
How do you balance work and family life?
This is one of the things my husband and I are really focused on with our move to Tri-Cities is discovering new hobbies outside of work. Having been a working mother for most of my career, when my kids were young, I was much better about the balance because I had to be. As my children grew up and became more independent, the balance shifted to where I was focused more on career. The pandemic actually helped me reset a better work-life balance. Breaking the rut by having to be at home made me look at how much time I was spending away from home working. It forced better time management, organization and communication. It also helped me realize that people often work more productively when given the flexibility to work at the times that fit better into their lives.
What do you like to do when you are not at work?
In moving to Tri-Cities my husband I are looking to cultivate a more active, outdoor lifestyle. We love walking along the Columbia River walking trails. When not at work, I love to read, watch movies and spend time with friends and family. I read nearly 100 books a year, and if I am honest, mostly trash – the mental escape they provide is their only redeeming value. I especially love natural disaster movies – “Volcano,” “Dante’s Peak,” “2012,” “Twister.” I will watch them over and over.
What’s your best time management strategy?
I wish I had a good one to share. The truth is that has always been a struggle for me. I am a natural procrastinator, thriving in the drive that comes from the last minute. It’s not a time management strategy I recommend!
Best tip to relieve stress?
Self-care. I keep a poster in my office that says, “Fill your cup first, then nourish others from the overflow.” For me that is little things like eucalyptus aromatherapy lotion. Taking a computer break to walk around the block in the sun. Pampering myself with a massage or manicure. Enjoying a cup of peppermint tea and going to bed early.
What’s your favorite Ted Talk? Most-used app or website? Favorite book?
My favorite Ted Talk is “Tim Urban: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator.” His “instant gratification monkey” may be my spirit animal. Through the pandemic, I have grown to love Microsoft Teams. It allows for efficiency but also personal connection in ways I haven’t experienced in other tools. My favorite business book is “Traction, Get a Grip on Your Business,” by Gino Wickman. I have been using its strategies for the last two years with my teams with great success.
Do you have a personal mantra, phrase or quote you like to use?
Because my career is all about convening communities for the purpose of growth and change, my favorite quote, credited to Lao Tzu: “Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build on what they have. But the best leaders, when the work is done and the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.’ ”
My personal mantra is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Get.” You can’t be afraid to ask. The worst that happens is you are no worse off than when you began. But if you get what you asked for – that is always a win!