Karinda Shanes on leadership: Give people opportunity and support to help them excel

Covid-19 guarantees that this school year will be unlike any other. The same is true at Syracuse’s Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection, which increases graduation rates and propels teens into productive and satisfying careers and lives.

Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection is part of the Hillside Family of Agencies headquartered in Rochester. The Work-Scholarship Connection has operations in Syracuse, Rochester, Binghamton, and Prince George’s, Maryland.

Karinda Shanes became regional executive director for the Syracuse area in January 2019, succeeding Wayne O’Connor.

In the Syracuse area, Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection works with about 1,200 students, especially in the Syracuse City School District. It started here in 1987 and runs programs to help students over stumbling blocks and obtain skills and confidence to succeed at home, school, and work. Hillside’s 36 youth advocates in the Syracuse area are key. They support, mentor, and counsel middle school and high school students who meet a number of risk criteria. Each advocate works daily with about 35 students.

Shanes’ parents’ hard work, their example of overcoming obstacles, and her experience growing up as the only Black female in her class helped to shape her outlook on leadership: “Look for the opportunity to help somebody else grow and advance. That’s an obligation as a leader and as a parent. It’s important to give people opportunity. If you see something in somebody, let them know about it. You can change their world.”

I like to ask leaders about dealing with change and meeting challenges. This might be a good time to talk about the special leadership challenges of Covid-19.

We’re in the middle of a pandemic, when everything is changing, sometimes by the hour, so you’ve asked the million-dollar question regarding leading through the change with Covid-19. I’d like to mention, not just Covid, but the social injustices that we’re experiencing.

As a leader, you have to make sure that you’re watching the finances. You have to make sure that your people are OK. You have to make sure that the people that they’re serving are OK. You have to be looking at people’s mental health. You have to be making sure that you understand the impact that Covid-19 and social injustices are having on people’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

For us, we work in schools. Buildings closed. I had to quickly get together with my colleagues from Rochester and from Prince George’s and say: How do we make sure that kids that we know need our services continue getting something from us? We don’t want them to regress. How can we help them to continue with their success?

Budgets are being cut. Jobs are being lost. We have kids that don’t have food on the table. Parents that don’t know where or how they’re going to pay their mortgage. We’ve been delivering food and getting supplies out to parents. We were a part of helping the school district and the community do those things.

In a crisis like this, a leader has to look at new approaches. Try to be flexible because our world is in flux. You have this ebb and flow going on. You have to dare to be different.

I don’t want to be reactive. None of us do. Being with a team that helps you be proactive and having a plan A and plan B are important.

Tell me about your early experiences. Were you in leadership roles growing up?

Yes, but not by choice. I’m one of six kids in my family. I have three older siblings and two younger siblings. It seemed like I was always looked at to take responsibility. I felt like it was an obligation.

I’m a Broome County native, and my dad moved us from Binghamton out to the suburbs. I was very reluctant and not happy with leaving my cousins and my friends and where I had grown up. It was definitely a transition.

I went to Chenango Valley High School, and I graduated in 1990. I feel like I had to be a leader because I was the only Black female in my class from fourth grade to graduation. We probably had about 70 kids in our class.

I had to learn how to adapt to my environment, and I had to learn how to adapt to the audience that I was in front of. At the same time, I was trying to discover who I was and what my identity was being a young girl of color but not surrounded by anybody that looked like me. You quickly learn to be a leader when no one else looks like you and you don’t want to be picked on and taunted.

I think in the long run, my father making that decision helped me learn how to be comfortable in various situations and how to understand and appreciate the differences of people and how people of all walks on earth have a lot of things in common, even though we don’t look alike.

Tell me about your father.

My father’s name was King Solomon Harris. He received his Heavenly wings at a young age of 64 when he lost the battle of cancer.

My father and my mother (Eleanor) were hard workers and great providers. My parents worked and worked and worked. My father was from Macon, Georgia. He quit high school in the ninth grade and went into the Army. He persevered and opened his own construction business (King Construction in Binghamton). He taught me that you have to push yourself beyond your comfort spot.

His expectation was that you would graduate high school. He told me: Get your education and never stop learning.

I took that to heart. Being the first one attempting to go to college meant doing things differently than what my family had done. I watched people say: I’m going to take the SATs. I’m going to take the ACTs. I’m going on this college tour.

I’m sitting there thinking: My grades are good. I got high honor roll, like you did. Let me take this ACT. Let me find out what the SAT is.

I watched others. I’d go over to a friend’s house. They’d be going on a college visit, and I’d say: Can I go with you?

What brought you to Syracuse?

I’ve been a resident of the city of Syracuse for about 26 years now.

For 23 of those years, I’ve passionately been involved with working beside youth in the community – Catholic Charities for eight years, Contact Community Services for 14 years, and now Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection. So my interest has been in helping young people appreciate their potential.

I left Broome County and began going to Onondaga Community College for criminal justice. I got pregnant, and I went back home for a little while to get my bearings and had my child. Something drew back me to Syracuse. I finished my associate’s degree in criminal justice at OCC. And then I went on to Keuka College and got my bachelor’s degree in criminal justice as well. My goal was to join the police force.

I remember Donna Stuccio. She was a woman police officer, which I thought was so cool. She was one of my professors at OCC – very inspiring. I had taken the civil service test for being a police officer. Then I took the civil service test for being a sheriff. Kevin Walsh (former Onondaga County sheriff) and Warren Darby (former undersheriff) taught some of my classes. I really enjoyed my experience with professors that were in the field doing the work.

Tell me about other positive influences.

Pat Leone, the executive director of Contact Community Services, got me to do things I had never done before. The opportunity came for advancement, to become the director of the department. I was a little leery. I kept saying: I have to do the work. I have to be the frontline staff. I have to make sure that kids are getting what they need. I want to be a part of that.

She explained to me that an opportunity to advance did not mean I wouldn’t be a part of that. I would still be making sure that those things continued to happen.

She challenged me to take on executive coaching. She said to me: Go do executive coaching, so you will always be in the position to say no if it’s not something that you want to do at that time. But never keep yourself from being ready to accept something that you may want.

What’s your advice for someone to be an effective or better leader?

First of all, know what your purpose is and what you stand for. Maintain your integrity and intentionally strengthen your character. Be humble and have a strong work ethic, so people that you’re leading can see you walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

Being a leader is a wonderful opportunity but it comes with a lot of responsibility. Be a passionate servant. Look for the opportunity to help somebody else grow and advance. That’s an obligation as a leader and as a parent. It’s important to give people opportunity. If you see something in somebody, let them know about it. You can change their world.

You should be looking to have other people rise right alongside of you and surpass you. I want to be surrounded by others that want to do things better than what I’ve done. That’s how I was raised, and I feel like that’s how I raised my kids – look at me as a role model but take the good stuff and try to do better than what I’ve done.

In our economic times, there’s a lot of competition for money. But you still want to invest in people. Look for ways to help them develop a new skill set or to develop better self-awareness that will ultimately help them grow, whether they stay in your organization or use those skillsets to go do something bigger and better.

A leader can’t get tired of putting in the hard work and doing what’s right. The fruits of our labor will come.

What qualities do you see with effective leadership or in the leaders that you admire?

Patience and empathy. They’re open-minded, not afraid to let someone see who they are and what really matters. It’s important for me to have somebody that listens and that’s fair and flexible.

What attributes do you see in poor leaders?

Someone that doesn’t get results because they’re using intimidation and fear.

A lack of vision can stall staff members’ engagement. You can’t dismiss other people’s ideas. Allow people to be a part of what you’re doing in order for them to be vested and willing to give their best.

You cannot always do the same thing that’s been done. Good leaders have to be willing to take a calculated risk. We see our world is quickly changing on a regular basis, so you have to be willing to change. You can’t be just comfortable in the status quo. You always have to see what competitors are doing, you always have to be looking to see what the needs are.

What do you think people want from their leaders?

They want people that put them on a meaningful journey, not just a ride. Somebody that gives them the opportunity to do the job they were hired to do. I’m really big on wanting to let people exercise their problem solving and their critical thinking skills. Of course, people want the regular qualities of leadership – they want direction, understanding, assurance, recognition, and they want to be informed.

The weekly “CNY Conversation” features Q&A interviews about leadership, success, and innovation. The conversations are condensed and edited. To suggest a leader for a Conversation, contact Stan Linhorst at [email protected]. Last week featured A.J. Damiano, CEO and co-founder of PowerSpike.

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