Scott Lewis dives into leadership, teams, and communication

Episode Thumbnail
This is a podcast episode titled, Scott Lewis dives into leadership, teams, and communication. The summary for this episode is: <p>Scott Lewis, President and CEO at YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, joins Tim for this episode. Growing up in the Y family since age 6, Scott shares his unique perspective on the YMCA, nonprofits, and his leadership roles. He also talks to us about building a great team and the importance of open communication. Listen now!</p>
The YMCA as a social enterprise
01:54 MIN
Focus on the front line
00:50 MIN
Build a team who see things differently but can work together
02:07 MIN
Handling misalignment on a team
01:52 MIN
Misconceptions about nonprofit organizations
01:37 MIN
Balancing time between work and family
02:07 MIN
Scott's edge in life
01:38 MIN

Tim Leman: Have you ever felt like you're on the edge of something great? You put in the work, you've done the hard stuff most people aren't willing to do. And now you can just sense magical run lies ahead. This season we'll talk to leaders across the wide variety of industries and learn what it's like to ride the edge and own it. We'll hear what separates those special teams from the more ordinary experiences, the kind, if we're lucky, we get to be a part of maybe three or four times in our life. Join me, Tim Leman, chairman and CEO of Gibson as we discuss Leading On The Edge. Welcome to The Edge podcast. I'm your host, Tim Leman. On this episode, we have Scott Lewis. Scott is president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids. I'm excited to have you on today, Scott. Welcome.

Scott Lewis: Thanks, Tim. Glad to be here.

Tim Leman: As we get started, just tell us a little bit about the Greater Grand Rapids YMCA, because I think we all have images of what the YMCA was to us maybe growing up in different locations. Maybe the mission's a little bit different or the focus so, tell us about Greater Grand Rapids.

Scott Lewis: Sure. Well, I always start by saying it's not your grandfather's YMCA anymore. We all have those envisions of the small pools in the basement and the track around the gym that you go around 30,000 times to get a mile. Many of our facilities have been replaced. So the Y of today really takes on a lot of different shapes and forms. Facilities have evolved as you can imagine, but many Y's are not facility as well. And so in Grand Rapids we have eight branches, seven are membership facilities, one is a resident camp. But we have over 50 locations in the community where we serve, whether it's food service or childcare, partnerships with other nonprofits. We touch such a widespread of Grand Rapids outside of our brick and mortar, if you will. So the Y is a little bit of everything to everyone. And so it really depends upon what you're looking for. There's something for everyone.

Tim Leman: Scott, along those lines. How many of those that you serve take advantage of maybe more than one of those types of services?

Scott Lewis: Many. Normally what we'll see is that a potential member will come in the door asking for something, right? So it could be a mom looking for childcare. So just walking in the door," I need childcare for my child." Or it could be someone who's looking to get in shape or recover from an injury and they're looking for health and wellness. And so their entry point to the Y really comes down to what is it that their need is at that moment. But then one of the things that we always say, the Y is so much more. So once you get in and we get your hooks on why you showed up, then we can show you everything else we do. And so many people take advantage of the many different programs and services that we have, and they probably didn't even know either of or much about before they joined. And so it's really just a matter of, again, you come in for one reason, we'll give you lots of other reasons to stay.

Tim Leman: I love it. As somebody who grew up on the side of our business, we call that cross selling. So that's great though when you can get people in and show them the other parts. What about the crossover between the people that maybe do use the Y more as an athletic club almost and pay dues and that type of thing with all the other folks that come in? Tell me a little bit about how they interact or engage with one another or how that spillover happens.

Scott Lewis: Well first to kind of explain, we are kind of a social enterprise, right? So the membership and what people say is, hey, the Y is nonprofit but they're just a gym, just like every other gym. Yes and no. Well, yeah, we have a treadmill and a track and weights and things like any other gym. But the for fee section, the earned revenue part of our business allows us to have a business model that keeps the charitable nature of our work in business. Right? So many, many nonprofits will go to you every single year asking for donations for sustaining dollars. So then they can go out and ask you for donations to go do their mission work. So our earned revenue model allows us to fund our mission work so the dollars that we raise every year actually go straight to the community. We have absolutely no... if you give a dollar, a dollar goes to the community. We don't have any overhead going into that. So when you look at the intersection of how people interact, knowing that the business model was that way, it's seamless, right? So you don't know who you're coming in contact with. You don't know if this person is just walking through the building because they were here for a meeting or they just dropped off a kid in childcare. Maybe it's a little more of a telltale if they're working out so their workout clothes or their hair's wet because they came out from the pool, but the integration is seamless. And one of the other differentiators for us is the financial assistance. We always make sure that we don't turn anyone away for the inability to pay. And so again, we also raise money every year to make sure that there's charitable funds available. So if you walk in the door and you can't pay full fare, we have a sliding scale. But if that's not enough, we also have dollars that we can go and put to reduce their fee or monthly fee to as low as possible. So I love to say that the basketball court is the great equalizer. It doesn't matter if you're a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or you're on financial assistance, you're on the court there's one goal. Get the ball in the hoop, beat the other team.

Tim Leman: Scott, love that because I think for a lot of people you might get that opportunity a little bit in high school, or maybe college where everybody's equals, you're all on that same team. You're in that moment in time, you're doing the same thing, but sometimes you get out into the work world and you have less and less opportunity in your life or less intersection with a whole lot of people. And it's great to get that. And everybody's down into T- shirts and gym shorts and like you said, just trying to put the biscuit in the basket there and have a good time doing that. So that's a really neat thing and really neat thing about your model. Tell me a little bit about Greater Grand Rapids, what that means too, because you're more than just even some of the suburbs of Grand Rapids. You guys are pretty big chunk of West Michigan, I think.

Scott Lewis: We are. So of the eight corporate YMCAs here in West Michigan which are... we're a federation so similar to a franchise. Our eight branches are considered one Y. So I have seven colleagues, counterparts at the other Y's and we try to work together, but our service area butt up against each other. And so within our eight branches, we serve four different counties. And truthfully only one of our Y's are in the City of Grand Rapids. And so we do serve more of the hub and spoke, but again, a lot of around Grand Rapids and as we continue to look for expansion, we're looking into the smaller communities, even further out into our rural areas. I'm a Y kid. I grew up in a Y. My first job was with the Y as a lifeguard and swim instructor and I truly believe that every community deserves a Y. And so we're looking at how do we bring our services and possibly bricks and mortar to these smaller communities as well?

Tim Leman: Scott, how unique or not is that relative to your peers and your role within the YMCA organization? A lot of them former Y kids also, or is that kind of unique to you?

Scott Lewis: I think it's fairly unique these days. I'd say a little less so than when I started 37 years ago. But ultimately, yeah, there's many more people that come in and it's part of their first job out of college or it's a high school job and then they're off to do something else or maybe it's a return to the workforce. So there's a lot of connectivity, but not necessarily the longstanding relationship like I have. I've known the Y since I was six in one way shape or another I've always been affiliated.

Tim Leman: Oh, that's fantastic. That's just got to be so cool though, for some of your younger employees or newer folks to the organization. You've been there and done. You've done their role or worked on the things that they've worked on so you're probably be able to relate so well.

Scott Lewis: Absolutely. And I love that. We have lots of real leaders who did not come up through the Y. But ultimately I love the fact that being the CEO and making the decisions that shape the organization, I know that I'm always making them in regard to the front line. So I'll push back on policies or procedures from our senior team and say, okay, how does this really affect our part- time staff that are dealing with our members? How does this affect our members? Because that's our business. That's where the rubber hits the road. We don't build widgets, we build people. And so if we make policies that make it harder to serve people, why are we making that policy? So I always have that lens of, I was in that seat and if you do that to me when I was life guarding or I was working the front desk or I was a membership director, here's how I would have taken that. And that's how I try to lean back into our... as you pull back out and make these decisions at a higher level to make sure we still focus on front line.

Tim Leman: Scott, speaking of decision- making and so on, I know you're a very team- oriented person. Talk to us a little bit about your leadership team at the Y and how you rely on one another and the different roles people play.

Scott Lewis: We gave six on our... seven including myself on our senior leadership team are my direct reports. And we have a branch leader at every one of the branches and we consider an executive leader. And then non- COVID times we tend to have a lot more of our full- time exempts in the branches, your traditional wellness director, membership director, aquatics director, etc. During these times, we're a little thin. A little thin right now, but ultimately our senior team really come together. It'll be six years for me here in Grand Rapids come January. And I'd say that I have two people who came up through the Y system and then everyone else has kind of come into the Y and then at a high level. And so we have diversity of thought, diversity of backgrounds. We have a diverse team in general, if you look at the dimensions of diversity. And so I look for that in building teams. I look for people who are going to think of things and see things differently, but also work as a team. This is a team sport. You don't really, as you think about raising up a kid, you can't do it by yourself. It's very hard. We know that for single parents. But when it comes down to working and building people and looking at building a community, that's certainly a team sport. So we can't have someone who's really interested in driving their agenda. It has to be our agenda. And again, looking at it from that lens of the end user. So this group of people I'm really excited to finally have the final cog in the wheel. We just hired our senior VP of operations after having a gap of almost a year and a half in that position. And so the team's finally settling down again and I would say early on this is one of the best teams I've worked with in my career. I can think of one other that was just as strong, but just the ease of people collaborating, communicating, and pushing back questioning. And that's really what I want to see. I certainly don't want anyone being a yes man in my team. I have great ideas I'll be the first one to tell you that. They're not always good ideas. So yeah, I want people to be able to push back too.

Tim Leman: That's great. We follow this thing called EOS, it's a traction system and in there they talk about CEO visionary role, and one out of 20 ideas are good, but we think all 20 are pretty good. I'd like to think my batting average is a little better than one out of 20, but I hear you in what you're saying there. I'm sure the leadership teams you've been involved with have not always been this cohesive and in sync together. How have you handled those situations in the past when somebody on the team's not really aligned with the rest of the group? How do you handle those type of situations?

Scott Lewis: Those are always fun. The interesting part about it is I don't shy away from those conversations. I think that's the number one piece. I was born and raised in the East Coast and so I'm going to call it as I see it kind of guy. And here in West Michigan we have West Michigan nice they call it. We'll tell you what you want to hear and not necessarily what we say or what we think. And I just can't subscribe to that. I think it does a disservice to the organization. It does a disservice to the employee and certainly it's going to make me and them work harder to get to the same end results. So we sit down pretty quickly and have conversations about direction and guidance and making sure that we touch base more often. We make sure that there's clear expectations and outcomes so there's certainly the ability to do the job as you see fit. That's why you're in the seat. But if we're not meeting the same outcomes that are expected, then we have to talk about outcomes too. Right? I can't just allow outcomes to happen. They have to be guided a little bit more. And then truthfully, it's really making sure that you keep on top of those things. If you're not seeing something that you like, you have to address it. The longer you let it go, the harder it will be at the end. And like I said, you do a disservice to the individual because they don't have an opportunity to learn and maybe shift. Maybe they didn't know this is what I was looking for or wanting to do differently. Or they just got this idea and ran with it. Well, let's correct now before we get too far down the path and it gets harder. But ultimately it's all about communication and that open communication. Don't cover up and be nice and use soft words. No. Right to the point. This did not work. This was bad. This we got to talk about. Whatever. And then build them back up. You got to break them down, but you got to build them back up too and support them, be with them, continue to give the praise as well as the criticism. But for me, a number one is nip it in the bud.

Tim Leman: What's the most challenging part of your role?

Scott Lewis: I think that it would be the juggling. I think it's that way for any CEO, but especially in nonprofit. We get pulled into so much more that's just someone else's work because there's just so few hands, right? So we don't have the resources all the time. And so my job is really community development, board development and fundraising. We've added on top of that in our strategic plans to be really forward thinking about growth and how do we grow the brand? How do we continue to grow in footprint service area and lives touched. And so impact is a part of the metric. It's not just, hey, can we throw up eight new branches here so we double our footprint? It's how many people and how deeply are we impacting them? And so we're looking at all kinds of different partnerships as well as new facilities. And so you throw that on top of things and again, I'm a team of one, right? It gets kind of interesting to juggle the internal, the external, the human resources, the fundraising, the gala's plus the disciplinary. You just keep throwing it on there and your day is shot before you get started. But, I will say that's also the reason I love this job because no day is the same. No two days ever are in the same. And in one sense, it makes you extremely tired and the other sense extremely reinvigorated and just energized for the next day. Because you never know when you just might get that$100, 000 ask over Zoom that goes through. Who would've thought we'd be asking for money over Zoom verse having to sit down with at that person and wreck their day because they maybe have to exit the team. Every day is a little different and the stress that you get also gives you the energy, I think. At least that's how I operate because I love the challenge.

Tim Leman: Yeah. Scott, what's something about not for profits that people in the community, business people, don't really get or have a misunderstanding about?

Scott Lewis: I think the biggest piece is just the nonprofit status. I think there's a lot of definitions of nonprofit when you look into different types of nonprofits, right? Because a church or a grassroots organization is very different from a hospital system or a university, and they all can be nonprofits. And then us in the middle kind of being a Y where some people see us as a nonprofit and others don't even know we are. So I think A, it starts with a definition. What do you think a nonprofit is and does? And then you obviously have the governmental definition and the tax exemption which some business people think is just an unfair advantage. But obviously again, our goal and our mission is to give back to the community and support the community in ways the government cannot. It's to take the burden off the government and that's why you get the tax exemption. So that's why the impact for us is so important. It's not about just driving the earned revenue. It's taking that earned revenue to then drive impact. And so I think those are the things that people don't understand, especially for us, because we're so different from most nonprofits, because there's a very small window of organizations in the midsize. Goodwill, United Way, the Y. And then you have the really large, the hospitals, universities, and the really smalls. Everybody gets the really smalls, the grassroots stuff. Everybody gets those being nonprofits. Because when you get to the big ones, you're like, okay, they're an$ 18 billion hospital system. They're nonprofit really? But they are. Right? So people just don't even think about it. It's us in the middle that we're kind of stuck. They don't really get us in how we operate because we are not that big, but we're definitely bigger than the others.

Tim Leman: Interesting perspective. I appreciate that. I know you care a lot about families in the community, but also your own family, big family guy. So how do you as a busy CEO, got branches kind of spread out all these locations, talked about all the events, the balls, those sorts of things. How do you stay close to your family and keep all that stuff in sync?

Scott Lewis: That's a work in progress. I think that is probably the one thing that I will say that I don't balance as well and I actually have reprioritized myself over the last 18 months. Some people call it integration. I still think there should be a balance there because for me integration means I work all the time and I do. I've got the phone. I go back to work after the kids go to bed at night and get on the computer again. I'm a night owl so it helps. But ultimately it's the distraction of work is very easy to do because you have so many handheld devices. And I noticed it as I'm working from home last year, like most of us were, and my kids are home because they're not in daycare and my older kids aren't in school. And I can't answer a question. My five- year- old asked me a question and I'm busy on my phone. Supposed to be paying attention to her and I had to ask her to repeat herself because I don't know what she said. And I'm like, what am I doing? I am home. I'm working from home. I have all the flexibility in the world right now and my kids are just looking for a minute of my time. Can I do that? Can I figure that out? And so I've had to be much more intentional about when I am being with the kids and being with my family, especially my wife, because we're both workaholics and we can sit in the couch right next to each other, work on our laptops and never talk. And so we have to be more intentional. And so through the pandemic, this is one thing that I said that if there is a silver lining, maybe this is it. It's allowed us to be at home, be with our families a little bit more. And then for some that meant you want to go back to work. And for others, it made us lean into family. For me, I had to realize I have to prioritize my time. So when I get home, I try to put the phone down, stop answering the emails and all of that and have the probably three- hour window of time between walking into the door, dinner, and then getting the little ones ready for bed because I do bedtime with both of them. They won't go to bed with mom. So that's my time. I say, okay, stop the working and then when they're in bed, I go back to the work and I'll pick it up again. So it's being intentional. And I can't say that I have been good at that ever until really having this realization through the pandemic.

Tim Leman: Yeah. I tell you. There's nothing like having a daughter tell a daddy something like that. It does just kind of stops you, right? You're like, oh my gosh. Could I put my dang phone down for a minute and pay attention?

Scott Lewis: Exactly.

Tim Leman: Yeah. So, last question before we go to the rapid fire. What would you say has been your edge in life?

Scott Lewis: I think that I'd say that I look at my work and my style of work and just my personality and I am someone who just is never set of satisfied with good enough. And I'm one that will always say we can do it. So I've pushed through a lot. Adversity is actually a fuel for me. One of the last personality tests I did two years ago had a question about resiliency. And so on a scale of 100 I'm a 98. So, things just don't bother me very much because I feel it, I sit in the moment and then I act on what am I going to do to get around this? So I'm very resilient and I push through just about anything. When I was at lifeguard instructor, I used to say, listen, you can tread water for as long as you have to. It's a matter of, it's a mindset. If you need to hold your breath for two minutes under water because I'm trying to drown you to show that you're not ready to be a lifeguard, you can do it, but you got to set your mind to it. You can set your mind to do anything even physically more demanding than you think you could ever do. And so I take that from the physical side and the mental side and the work side and sometimes my wife just says," Stop. Just stop. You're too intense." So I try not to supervise her at home. That's always another challenge of a leader, right? Turn it off when you walk in the door. But that's just determination that I have to see things through, especially when it's the right thing at the right time that will impact people in positive ways. Whether it's financial, physical, or whatever, I said, let's just figure out how do we break through the hurdles and get it done. And so I'm a driver.

Tim Leman: Yeah. Long after the cockroaches are gone, Scott Lewis will still be there going right at the very end. That's awesome. Okay, let's shift gears to rapid fire. This is always my favorite part of the show. We'll start with an easy one. What's your favorite color?

Scott Lewis: Blue.

Tim Leman: What was your first car?

Scott Lewis: First car that was mine not mom's was a 1978 Celica Supra two- tone gold.

Tim Leman: Yeah, that's great. What's the most memorable concert or performance you've been to?

Scott Lewis: I have not been to many concerts in a while. Not a huge fan of crowds surprisingly. But the one that would probably stand out to me probably was Hootie& The Blowfish way back in the day at Madison Square Garden.

Tim Leman: Oh cool.

Scott Lewis: Only because probably three years before, maybe not even, I saw them at a bar in Charlotte when I was in college for five bucks with all the beer you could drink and now I'm paying 60 bucks for Madison Square Garden and 10 bucks for a beer.

Tim Leman: Dude, inaudible the beer was worth it. That's great. What's something about you that very few people know?

Scott Lewis: I am an introvert. I do not like the limelight. I'm fearful of public speaking. I am truly an introvert but a learned extrovert.

Tim Leman: I was going to say, the few times I've been around you like that, that would not have been what I would have assumed. So a learned extrovert. I like that. So does that also require you to get out of the limelight then and to recharge to kind of skinny down to just yourself or maybe your family?

Scott Lewis: Absolutely. 100% of my recharge is going home and shutting it all down. Yeah. I retreat home and that's my recharge.

Tim Leman: So they're casting a movie about Scott Lewis. Who would play you?

Scott Lewis: Denzel.

Tim Leman: There's really no other choice, right?

Scott Lewis: Right?

Tim Leman: If I could get away with that I'm going to pick Denzel too because he's awesome. Three people you'd like to have dinner with.

Scott Lewis: President Obama. President Bush.

Tim Leman: Which one?

Scott Lewis: The second. Compare and contrast those conversations would be interesting. And actually I would love to, if we could go back like a Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Just someone who just saw the world in a different light than any of us, right? And that we're all good people. After everything you see, how can see us that way and still keep that positive?

Tim Leman: We could use some of that positive mojo these days.

Scott Lewis: Yes. Yes.

Tim Leman: All right. And last one here. What's something big you want to do before it's all over?

Scott Lewis: Personally, I want to make sure that I set work aside, because I feel like I'm going to be a workaholic and I have a little one and so I'm going to be working for a long time. So when I do get a chance to retire, I want to make sure work is fully done. And so, one half of it is get everything done that I want to get done in my work world so there's never this inkling to go," I want it part- time or consult or do that," because I really want to spend quality time with my wife after the kids are gone. We have a 12 year age gap and so before I lose the time, I want to spend the time and be very intentional with that because time is so precious. And not that we're guaranteed tomorrow, but if we are blessed to see retirement, I want to spend that time with her without the distraction of all of this what we do now.

Tim Leman: Well said, man. Well, Scott, I really appreciate you being on with us today. It was a lot of fun. Keep on doing all the great work you're doing there in West Michigan too. It makes a huge difference. My family and my parents live close to a Y in Fort Wayne, Indiana and it's like my mom's world. If that she didn't have that everything about her is better because she's there in the swimming pool or stretching or all that. And my single parent sister with her three boys too. It's the relief for her there as well. So, love what you all do as an organization. Thank you, man. I appreciate it.

Scott Lewis: Thank you, sir. So glad to hear that you have the family connection to the Y. We love the Y family.

Tim Leman: Thank you for tuning in today. I'm Tim Leman and remember to own your edge. Subscribe to The Edge Podcast on Apple, Google and Spotify.


Scott Lewis, President and CEO at YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids, joins Tim for this episode. Growing up in the Y family since age 6, Scott shares his unique perspective on the YMCA, nonprofits, and his leadership roles. He also talks to us about building a great team and the importance of open communication. Listen now!

Today's Host

Guest Thumbnail

Tim Leman

|Chairman & CEO, Gibson

Today's Guests

Guest Thumbnail

Scott Lewis

|President/CEO, YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids