Resilient Leadership in a Dynamic World

Tonya Allen, President of the McKnight Foundation, alum of the University of Michigan School of Public Health

Tonya Allen, BA '94, MPH/MSW '96

President of the McKnight Foundation

This is the inaugural event for Ahead of the Curve, a new speaker series from the University of Michigan School of Public Health that will bring conversations about public health leadership to our campus and beyond. Leadership is a critical component of navigating complex public health challenges and building a better future through improved health and equity.

This conversation was recorded on November 10, 2020. As of March 1, 2021, Ms. Allen is president at the McKnight Foundation.

Dean Bowman. We are experiencing important leadership lessons firsthand as we watch the novel coronavirus affect all corners of the world. As problems become increasingly complex, we must turn our attention and resources to developing leaders, building on the well-known assertion of Warren Bennis—eminent scholar in the study of leadership—that leaders are made rather than born. Throughout this series, we will bring contemporary leaders from a variety of sectors to share their insights, vision, and experiences so we can learn more about how great leaders evolve and grow and how we can prepare and support new generations of leaders.

We’re delighted to welcome Tonya Allen to Ahead of the Curve. Allen serves as President and CEO of the Skillman Foundation and is a proud alum of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

All leaders are encountering new situations in 2020, and the Skillman Foundation, I'm sure, is no exception. Leading during a pandemic will be a thread for today’s conversation. I imagine calling upon reservoirs of lessons learned during your career to best position your organization. To begin, please tell us about your personal and professional leadership journey and about your work at the Skillman Foundation.

Tonya Allen. Thanks for having me. I am so honored to be here with you today, particularly because I appreciate your leadership in moments like this as well.

The Skillman Foundation is a private children's Foundation. We have about a half a billion dollars in assets and we give away about 5% to issues facing children in Detroit. Our mission is for every child in Detroit to be able to learn and lead so that they can have an effective life. We really believe that, because the future of Detroit is inextricably tied with its children, and so what we attempt to do is to try and make sure that those young people have opportunities to be successful and that they have opportunities quite honestly, to inherit their birthright and be prepared for it, which is the city of Detroit.

My role there is to manage the foundation, manage its resources so that we're making good investments—both for philanthropic purposes but also in the markets, so that we have resources that will sustain our organization for the long term. The last thing I would say is that that is my basic role. But what I've really chosen for my work to be is making sure the resources we have are leveraged, that the whole should equal more than the sum of those parts. We try to ensure that when we're working with partners we all are coming to some agreement to have a common agenda for children, and we will invest in that with the intention of sustained impact and essentially will try to convince them to tackle the heart of stubborn problems that most people don't want to tackle. I see my role as being a fierce champion and advocate for Detroit's children and helping to bring other people along with me.

Bowman. How do you approach leadership?

Allen. Leadership is not about an individual person doing a great thing. It's about how that person enables other people to do great things. That's how I come at leadership. I think this shows at the Skillman Foundation in our ethos. It is not about taking credit but about creating an enabling environment where we all get to win.

That's how I think about leadership—how are we enabling others.

Having that kind of selfless approach to leadership doesn't mean that you're weak, it doesn't mean that you're not confident. It means that you're actually bold and you're confident enough that you don't have to have credit for the impact of your leadership. We want to have co-ownership of whatever you're trying to accomplish, because then that gives us a muscle memory of how we get hard things done. That's how I think about leadership—how are we enabling others, how do we make sure that what we're doing isn't about ourselves but is about others and about creating a pathway for the future generations that will follow us?

Bowman. As I think about prominent leaders, I'm fascinated not just by the current position they hold but the richness of the journey. Would you take a moment just to tell our listeners about the pathway that you took to get there?

Allen. I'm happy to tell you about it. I don't know how interesting it is, but I'll tell you a couple of things I think are important. As an African American woman, I often say that I will lead like an African American woman. What I mean is that if we don't lead from our lived experiences and from our diversity, we're not really showing the full breadth of what leadership looks like. One of the most defining things in my life is that I went to nine different schools during my K-12 experience. That tells you how much I moved around. Many children have that experience. I was fortunate to be able to translate it into something positive: I'm not afraid of change. I actually thrive in change. I know how to build authentic relationships and I know what it's like for people when they experience change. As a person who likes to be a purveyor of change, I have to keep that lived experience in mind, and it fuels the work I do.

I started off being a community organizer. I learned a very important principle, which is power is the ability to organize people and to organize money. As a community organizer, I was learning how to organize people and getting people to believe in a shared agenda, a shared faith, how to work collaboratively. I worked mostly in public health and community development, all of the issues that are connected to health disparities.

But I didn't know how to do the second half of that power equation—how do you organize money? So I was very intentional to go into philanthropy with this view of—how do you begin to organize money? Not just how you deliver or distribute the money inside of your own institution, but how do you use that money to attract other money and use that money in conjunction with organized people to get enough power to change the rules? That's how I define power—the ability to rewrite the rules.

If you have enough ambition to complain about something, you also should have the ambition to do something.

That is basically the driver behind my career. I've gone in between organizing people, organizing money, sometimes organizing both at the same time—working locally at community development organizations, creating the Detroit Parent Network, working on national initiatives at foundations like the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Mott Foundation. It was a collision of all of these experiences all in the pursuit of building up enough power to create change for people who need it.

Bowman. I would imagine that in your journey, there were many people who helped you evolve to allow you to do the work you do now. Could you talk about the role of mentoring in your career, and in turn, how you think about mentoring the next generation of leaders?

Allen. I have been mentored by lots of people. My first mentor was my grandmother, who was a block club organizer. Whenever I would say something like, “Grandma, you see that trash over there, someone should clean that up.” She would say, “You're right. But you know, you're somebody.” Her first lesson to me was that if you have enough ambition to complain about something, you also should have the ambition to do something.

But many people have been great mentors to me throughout my career, particularly at the Skillman Foundation. Carol Goss, my predecessor and a University of Michigan alum—taught me how to lead with grace. Before that I tried to lead with brute force, and that didn’t always work. Carol taught me how to be graceful in these moments and to be patient with people and give them some space—that even if you have high ambition, that ambition should never overtake how you show up in terms of thinking about people individually.

I also have had great mentors who have been leaders of corporations, who saw in me talents that were not associated with whether we were in the same industry. They thought I could be effective and would give me advice over lunch and things like that. In addition to mentorship, they also offered me sponsorship. Sometimes sponsorship is more important than mentorship. You are saying that you will put yourself out there—lending me your trust, lending me your reputation—when you sponsor me into a role or into a community or into some space. That has been a really important part of my journey.

Diversity is an advantage.

More recently, I've done some things in leadership positions and have noticed people saying “You're the first African American woman to do this.” My inclination is to respond, “I will not be the last one.” I know that Kamala Harris says this too. But I also say it. And if I'm the chair of something, I'm lining it up, so in the succession, or in the subsequent succession, you see people of color in these leadership positions so we can stop saying “the first,” “the only”—that we can demonstrate that there are opportunities for everybody. You have to just be intentional and creative.

Bowman. You said it’s important to bring your own experiences with you in your role, that you need honesty and sincerity to succeed in leadership. Could you say more about why that’s important, why a diversity of experiences in leadership is important?

Allen. If we believe that diverse leadership matters, then we actually need to show what diversity of leadership looks like. If I simply mimic the way I see white men lead, then I'm not actually bringing diversity to my leadership. I'm bringing physical diversity but not leadership diversity. I try to bring my whole self into that conversation and be comfortable—not necessarily with the “rules of leadership” but with what I think are the roles of people management. How do I understand people? How do I bring my experience in a way that is convincing to them, that this is something we should do?

Diversity is an advantage. We need diversity of thought. And diversity of thought is not about where you stand on politics. It is about differences in your professional training and whether you even have professional training. The differences in your lived experiences. The differences in how you view the world because of your race or the color of your skin. The ways you’ve had to navigate the world. You might see something differently than other people will, and you might value assets in ways other people don't.

We have spent very little time thinking about how children are faring in their homes.

We just saw an example of this in this election, where people of color were valued as people and contributors and not just for the value of a single thing they could do, which is to cast a vote. That is a big distinction. When you start to value people for who they are, you can understand that diversity of experiences and viewpoints actually enriches us as leaders, as institutions, as problem solvers. I'm a big believer in including diversity in our leadership and making space for it. I always say that diversity should be king.

Bowman. This has been an incredible year for all of us, and it has presented leadership challenges and opportunities. At the Skillman Foundation serving the children of Detroit, how have you continued to advocate for the underserved, and how has your work shifted this year during the pandemic?

Allen. At the Skillman Foundation, we often start conversations and meetings by asking, “How are the children?” This practice comes from the Maasai tribe, who when they greet each other ask, “How are the children?” This is basically an equity question. Our society is only as strong as the people who are in some way the least or the weakness or the most vulnerable. So whenever we were in a room together, we would ask this question, to remember that society should be defined by the strength of our children.

With the pandemic, we are asking a different question—“Where are the children?” Many of us don’t see this, but large numbers of children are not showing up. They and their families are opting out of systems, out of schools, out of services, out of picking up food they might need. We don't have the right systems in place to make sure families cannot fall through the cracks and no one knows it. We’re seeing that kids who tended to be absent from school—where you’d have a definition of chronically absent, missing 10 or more days from school—are now not showing up at all. Maybe they came to school one day, and now they're not signing in on multiple days, consecutive days.

Public health has been leading us in addressing this with disease control—keeping people safe from COVID-19. We have spent very little time thinking about how children are faring in their homes. With data from the State of Michigan we see that the number of sexual assaults with children and the number of child abuse cases have declined, mostly because children don’t have access to the usual mandatory reporters—teachers and other educators.

Whether and how children show up is really important. When we closed down schools, it was the COVID gap.

Many of these kids already run into a summer gap, where you lose learning. Now we’re in a full school year where we know education in general is uneven. As a society, we have to begin preparing ourselves now for the consequences of this. Many of our children will be about six months behind, even if they come from more affluent households, where things are maybe more stabilized. Children from communities where families don't make enough or may have significant challenges, we're talking about a potential two-year gap by the time you add in two summers.

It’s time for us to go beyond alleviating a bit of the pain.

We have a real issue in front of us—needing to repair the damage the pandemic has done to education. We cannot just push children through the system and expect them to catch up. We know many of these children who are most disadvantaged can’t catch up. This extra layer of burden on them could prevent their success from matching their level of talent and intelligence.

Bowman. Illuminating health inequities will undoubtedly be a legacy of the pandemic. You just painted a picture of some of the emerging inequities that we now face. What else needs to be done? How do we hold policymakers accountable? And what is the role for cross-sector partnerships in addressing these inequities?

Allen. As the pandemic unfolded, we saw how hard it hit Detroit and many other urban areas. It hit people of color hard regardless of where you lived. And I felt very strongly that we were ready to distribute accolades for people acknowledging that the pandemic was harming certain groups of people more than others. I wanted us to hold our accolades for those doing something about preventing the pandemic from harming groups of people. I'll give a quick example. Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, defines reparation very simply: to repair the harm.

I hope to see from government and other leaders ideas for how to repair the harm, how to go beyond what we believe will actually fix the problem. Too often we offer a little bit of what we think might alleviate some of the pain. It’s time for us to go beyond alleviating a bit of the pain. This pandemic has shown us that we must do that and that this country is equipped to do so.

When we look at the stimulus package that came through last year and the many other ways government showed up—from sending checks to families to suspending fees for health insurance—it raises a question for me. If we can do this for the pandemic, why can’t we do these things regularly to have a thriving society? This is why we need to be pushing hard now. It’s great that you did it, now tell me how are you going sustain it. And tell me how we can help you sustain it. Government and policy are a collective responsibility that we all should take part in.

Bowman. During the pandemic, many of us are looking for things that might be beneficial tools moving forward. What opportunities have you seen coming to light during this challenging time?

Allen. We have figured out that many of our systems, many of the ways we have done things do not work. Instead of trying to tinker around with these systems, how do we isolate those problems and think about entirely new way of doing business? I talked about power as the ability to rewrite the rules. Our systems are nothing but sets of rules. And most people who have the power to change those rules don’t actually know that they have that power.

Now is the time to remind everyone that we have the ability to rewrite the rules, to shift and change the policies that affect people in negative ways. In education and health care we've moved to more remote systems of delivery, which we know are also less expensive ways of delivering these services. Let’s look at exploiting the opportunities in these new systems.

In Detroit, for example, the Skillman Foundation supports a project called Connected Futures. The project’s initial goal was to get connected laptops into the homes of 60,000 kids in the Detroit area so they could continue school. That, on its own, was an expensive and limited project. But we started talking to people in workforce development and in government and to organizations that have the resources to reach entire families and to help us compile technologies. Now the project looks like it can help young people and their families not only get computers and internet connectivity but get trained on them. Now they can use those resources not only for schoolwork but for work and for personal needs like accessing and managing health care access, paying bills, and other essential services.

This one project is exploiting a single opportunity to address more than one problem. One solution—a connected computer for a family—solves multiple concerns. Many more opportunities like this exist. We have to push for them and demand that they are implemented. It’s tough right now, because all of us and our systems are stretched. But we have to push now. We figured out how to transition from pre-COVID into COVID. Now we have to transition from COVID to post-COVID so that post-COVID is better than pre-COVID.

Bowman. Many leadership issues seem to come forward with a relentless pace of challenging activity. For everyone, the pandemic has warped our sense of time. What have you learned about the importance of self-care in all of it?

Allen. I often say that sleep is a leadership trait.

If I don't sleep, I'm not my best self. I'm not a good leader. I don't show up listening to people, hearing people, supporting people in adequate ways. I lose my patience. I sometimes even lose my vocabulary, which can be hilarious but isn’t good. By saying that taking care of myself is a leadership trait, I take it more seriously than if I say it’s something I choose to do for myself. In fact, this is something I have to do for myself and for the people around me. You could think of it like wearing a mask. We might not always want to wear masks, but we do it to protect those around us, including the people we love and care about.

In this moment especially, we need to be thinking about those traits that make us stronger and better leaders, including how we take care of ourselves so we can take care of others. My mother often reminded me that “You can't take care of others before you take care of yourself.” Of course, when I was younger I completely ignored her and it took me forty years to figure out how much wisdom was in those words. But taking care of ourselves is definitely our responsibility as leaders.

Bowman. You lead a high functioning team where people step up to do amazing work. In a context where others depend on us to deliver, how do you help people understand that it is okay to take care of oneself? How do you spread this message of self-care throughout the organization?

Allen. We’ve done lots of different things at the Skillman Foundation. We give people time off, more time off than before. Maybe people aren’t going anywhere for vacation, but with fewer boundaries between work and home, it is more important for people to disconnect from work. We check in on everyone regularly. If people need time, we make sure they are able to take the time. Our staff and their health is the most important thing.

We’re literally living at work now, and we don’t want work stress to permeate our homes.

We've integrated all kinds of things into our workday. From before the pandemic, we continue to have Thursday events we call “Therapy Thursday.” We don’t conduct true therapy, as such, but we have fun together. We’ve integrated yoga and meditation into our workday. People can take an hour or a half hour to let go of some of the stress and trauma they might be experiencing so they can continue to be their best selves—not just for us but for their families. We’re literally living at work now, and we don’t want work stress to permeate our homes. That would not be good for us and the Foundation, and it wouldn’t keep our team together and high functioning.

Bowman. Your experiences highlight the importance of resilience as a leader. COVID-19 and the pandemic challenges of the last year have become part of the ongoing manifestations of persistent racism our society faces. The pandemic and racism are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are linked especially in some of the disparities that were revealed or shown even more obviously in the pandemic. During this period, what has been your most challenging decision or moment as a leader?

Allen. My biggest challenge was agreeing to serve as the chair of the Governor’s return to school commission. This was important work—how to return our children to school safely. As the leader of a children’s foundation, you could say there was nothing more important. Just after I made this commitment was the beginning of the uprisings across the country responding to the senseless murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor—the most recent killings.

At that moment, I was in a position where I had to give all my time to one of the most challenging and important topics for 1.5 million children in the State of Michigan. And my heart was saying I need to be spending my time and attention on how, as a city and a state, we can begin to wrestle with these issues of racial inequities to usher in more racial justice at this particular time. So I carry this weight from not having been able to split my time appropriately to do the two things that I felt were the most important things for me to do.

Eventually, I had to settle with doing one thing at a time and making sure I did each thing well and with excellence. First, I doubled down and dug in on getting kids back to school in a safe manner. Of course, that continued and is lingering on to this day. Now I've put my attention on building our community’s capacity to truly understand equity and ushering equity into our community in systematic ways that can undermine and undo these systemic barriers that harm Black people, people of color, and indigenous people in significant ways.

Bowman. You know this—there can’t be two of you. But your time was very well invested. I happen to have school-age children here in Michigan, so I thank you for your efforts. The opportunities, challenges, and struggles on that other front will continue, and your leadership will continue to be beneficial in many ways.

Allen. Thank you.

Bowman. Continuing on the topic of resilience, I want to ask about risk-taking. The biggest advances often require risk. Leaders often have to lead organizations into and through risk. How do you decide which risks are the right ones and, if you encounter adversity in those decisions, how do you remain resilient?

Allen. I’m a risk taker in general. My approach is to ask, “Is this good for everyone? Is it doable and achievable? And if we fail, what would be the worst thing that could happen?” Those are the scenarios I run through in my head and, importantly, talk through with other people. If you are taking risks by yourself, as a leader, then those usually are not the right risks. I want to hear what others think about the risks we are considering and inform not only my decision whether to take the risk but how we will go about doing it.

If you can take a risk and know that you can fail forward—meaning that you will learn from this and be in a better position to tackle this issue again—I don’t think there are downsides to those risks, other than maybe a bruised ego. So I say go for it. As long as it it’s not about you but about moving the work forward, that’s a bet I’ll take any day. And

Failing does not mean you are a failure. It means that you did not succeed in implementing this task this time.

Bowman. Was the disposition you just described fostered in your upbringing and early experiences or maybe from mentor?

Allen. It’s probably more me than from my mentors. But most of the risks I take are not about me, not oriented to my personal gain. I feel much braver in doing something for other people, more courageous in doing things I think will benefit a collective of people rather than just myself. When you see leaders passing on risks that seem like good risks, it’s often because they’re doing the calculus of whether it will make them look good, what people will say about them. As someone who went to nine schools as a child, I know people are going to say plenty of things about me. And how people view me is not what drives me. I’m driven by what I can accomplish and the impact of what I want to do.

Bowman. Aspects of our daily lives—including things of national significance—transcend the work that we do. An example is last week’s election. I read with interest a powerful statement you released this week titled “A House Divided Cannot Stand.” This message touches on biblical connections, it comes up in important times throughout history. Could you elaborate on your thoughts about the things that will be most critical for you and your organization and for us as a society as we prepare to move forward during this time?

Allen. I read an intriguing research article years ago that was evaluating the most effective communities. The most effective communities—the communities that get things done more of their people—were the communities driven not by national politics or partisanship but were places that decided to put the best interest of people first. Of course, leaders in those communities did their political thing, but they didn’t let it drive their behavior or their commitment to each other.

In all honesty, that’s the most American thing I can think of. In this country, we were founded by a group of imperfect men in pursuit of a more perfect union. Our inheritance as citizens of this country is to continually work to perfect it. When we look at how divisive and vitriolic these elections were, and you listen to the pundits, they're telling you very clearly that we are divided, that we don't have anything in common, that we are working against each other. And I just do not believe that. When we look at any data about how Americans show up, the first thing we say is that we want to be more unified. We want to have a strong agenda for our children. We want to have strong businesses in our communities. We want to have great jobs for everyone.

We might disagree on how we get to that. But we can’t be distracted by that. We cannot solve these problems if we’re not working together. It is time for us to call on each other to be looking for common ground, common agendas, because we have fated futures before us. It is our responsibility. The future isn't finished. We owe it to our ancestors, to our children, and to those yet to be born to figure this out.