Women Of The C-Suite: Michelle Smith of Concordance Academy On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive

Headshot of Michelle Smith
Michelle Smith, Chief Operating Officer at Concordance Academy

Article courtesy of Authority Magazine.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Smith.

Michelle Smith, MA, MS, has more than a decade of experience working in the federal judicial and criminal justice systems. She was most recently managing partner of a Houston-based architectural firm. In her role as Chief Operating Officer at Concordance Academy, she spearheads new initiatives, facilitates government relations, and adjusts the firm’s processes and operations as necessary to ensure efficient and effective execution of policies and procedures, as well as manages the day-to-day administrative functions of the Academy.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Igrew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. My mom and dad did not have much to give me, but what they did have was the perfect amount. I went to Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts college, where I had my first taste of leadership as treasurer and then president of my sorority. From Gettysburg, I was accepted into Georgetown University for a PhD program. I worked my way through that program, but I was eager to enter the work world. I left before I had the chance to defend my dissertation (graduating “all but dissertation”). Looking back now, that might have been one of the biggest mistakes of my life — it was young and naïve of me to think I would return to finish it. Having been in school all my life up to that point, I was ready to jump into a professional field. I went to work for a small consulting firm that served mainly federal law enforcement and the federal judiciary. I worked on policy impact studies and business process improvements, analyzing trends that included policy and law changes, demographic and economic trends, and increasing workload and personnel. This helped my clients analyze, simulate, and understand the impact of trends on their space and facility needs. Having worked with the federal judiciary and law enforcement, I was quite familiar with the criminal justice system infrastructurally — it was not uncommon for me to walk into a prison, know three types of egress in a courthouse, or understand potential security hazards in a facility — however, I was missing the human element. My heart always yearned for more.

In December 2014, I was at a non-profit event and happened to be sitting next to Danny Ludeman. He had just recently announced his retirement as the CEO and President of Wells Fargo Advisors and was founding Concordance Academy. Danny mentioned he was looking for someone new to run the 2015 gala, and I volunteered… thinking “how difficult could it be to organize a gala?!” Over the course of 2015, Danny and I got to know each other as we prepared for what would be Concordance’s first gala. The gala was amazing — we had Colin Powell as our guest speaker, a room packed with 600 guests, and raised two million dollars! I learned a lot about Danny’s visionary style, and, I guess, in turn, Danny was impressed with my organizational skills. Danny called me the day after the event, and we started to talk about a role for me at Concordance. I started out as consultant, but every day I would wake up thinking more about Concordance than I would about my own work. That is when I knew God had led me to exactly where I was supposed to be. I took a leadership position five months later.

Looking back, it’s clear that just meeting one person or going to one event can change the trajectory of your life — through Danny and that non-profit event I found Concordance, which put me on a path I never would have anticipated.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

This work is rife with interesting stories, but one strange coincidence that pops to mind is from about a year ago. From early on, our long-term vision was for Concordance to be completely funded through pay for success / social impact financing structure. One night I was researching innovators in that space and one name in Utah kept popping up. I knew I had a connection to someone originally from the Utah area, so on a whim I reached out to see if he had any connection, not expecting anything to come of it. Through a series of who-knows-who, I was able to get connected to this person and it’s become one of our strongest partnerships in the Pay for Success space…all because I took a shot on the dark.

I think that story is a good reminder to be bolder than you would normally be in making connections and relying on your network. Steve Jobs told a great story about asking for help as a young teen trying to start a company, and that led to an internship that led to other connections that helped him create and grow Apple. I’ve seen in practice that you won’t get anywhere If you don’t make the ask, and sometimes those long-shots are the connections that carry you to something unexpected and great.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve been with Concordance since nearly inception, and in that initial start-up phase there were certainly some funny learning moments. This isn’t necessarily a funny story, but I do remember one particular night that taught me a few important lessons. There was a participant in our very first class who we were hoping to enroll in an outside sobriety program, but his team was having trouble convincing him it was the right move. So, being extremely passionate and equally naïve, Danny and I thought if WE took him directly he would surely recognize our leadership positions and clout at Concordance and entirely change his mind. You can probably imagine where this story is going already! We picked him up for the 45 minute drive to the facility. Along the way, he kept finding excuses to stop — he needed to pick up his girlfriend, buy some cigarettes (with my personal money), and grab some White Castle burgers. After meeting his every wish, we were sure we had persuaded him to stay for the duration of the program and went home feeling great about the work we had done. The next day, I received a call that he had already left that program.

This story is such a great example of how far we’ve come — we had to learn quickly that there are some details that executive leadership isn’t necessary or even helpful in handling, and they are better left to our highly capable team of expert clinicians and case managers. Back then we had no discipline as to organizational roles or boundaries with participants. Since then, we have learned that the organization runs more effectively, and participants are better served by allowing team members to do what they do best.

That was also my first firsthand lesson that you can’t force someone to choose sobriety; it has to happen when they are ready. Occasionally we see participants back in our program after a relapse or recidivism event. They do great the second time around, because they are more ready to own their sobriety for themselves. Relapse is a part of healing, and we had to build that reality into our program. Initially we were going to such extreme lengths to help participants avoid relapse that we were not holding healthy boundaries, but that wasn’t helpful for anyone. I now know that while we aren’t always our participants’ best friends, we are their partner on the journey and we are helping them access what they need (even if it’s not always what they want).

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had an amazing mentor at Gettysburg College, Dr. Eileen Stillwagon. She helped me land my first internship with the DOJ antitrust division through a personal connection, helped me get into Georgetown for my PhD program, and helped me understand the importance of networking and how you can advocate for others through your circle of influence. As an adjunct professor later in life, I was able to pay that forward by helping my students connect to job positions and educational opportunities that fit their passions.

Read the full article at Authority Magazine.

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