Doing Good Better: Leadership Austin Fellows – Pat Niekamp + Hospice Austin

People do good for others every day in the community surrounding Austin. At RecognizeGood, our mission is to help strengthen that community by sharing those inspiring examples. In our Doing Good Better series, we take a docu-series look into innovative collaborations around the Austin area that make our community stronger. Leadership Austin launched a pilot Fellows Program to connect experienced retirees with sustainability-building projects that nonprofits often don’t have the resources to execute. Projects that require a different caliber of candidate.

Founder and Publisher of Texas CEO Magazine Pat Niekamp was paired with Hospice Austin to increase staff retention through a leadership development program for its more than 30 managers. We spoke with Pat, along with Hospice Austin’s executive director Marjorie Mulanax and human resources director Karen Norman.

“Connecting to the mission of your organization fills your heart. It makes you feel really good about what you’re doing and even probably more so than being in the commercial world.”


RecognizeGood: What was the project that you worked on through this Fellows opportunity and what was the result?

Marjorie Mulanax, Executive Director at Hospice Austin: It was a year-long project to bring advanced leadership skills to anyone who’s a supervisor at Hospice Austin. We have about 30 people that are managers, and some of them were even brand new to that role. This gave them a foundation that they probably would not have had any other way. I think it’s easy for top management to think that everyone is reading leadership articles all the time and studying this type of thing, but a lot of people are learning most of it on the job. We throw people in the deep end, and often don’t give them the training and support they need, so this program is exactly what our organization needed.

We were just coming off of a three-year leadership training program, but that had been grant-funded, and it was extremely expensive. We knew we wanted to keep something going, but we did not have the budget to do another three years on our nickel. We were looking for a way to expand the program and make it feel more our own. So our three-year leadership program was somewhat ‘canned’ and this became our chance to really make it more us, more Hospice Austin.

To do the difficult work of hospice care requires a front line staff – and they require a support system. The number one factor in that support system is their supervisor – if that supervisor knows how to be a good supervisor, and how to support someone, that person at the bedside is going to be able to do that work for maybe six years and not just six months. That’s what we want, the compassion and commitment that can be sustained. It takes skill, and it does not happen by accident. This leadership training program has really boosted the skills of our leaders to help them sustain our staff to do their very difficult work.


RG: For you Pat, what was the benefit for you – to give back in this way?

Pat Niekamp, Leadership Austin Fellow: In my case, working with people and bringing them through their careers has been something I’ve done my whole career. For me it was just extending what I already knew how to do. And it is, to me, a very natural transition.

I think in every role I’ve ever had, I have always been some form of an educator. I have always been training in one way or another at every level of a career, except maybe your entry-level job. I’m also married to an academic – my husband teaches and is on the faculty at Texas State University, so education is a never-ending topic in our house. My mother used to work in a library and then moved on into a junior college. Books, reading and education have always taken a very high perspective in my family. When Leadership Austin decided to do this project and Hospice Austin wanted help teaching their leaders I said, ‘I think this is the one for me, this hits home.’

Connecting to the mission of your organization fills your heart. It makes you feel really good about what you’re doing and even probably more so than being in the commercial world.


RG: From a birds-eye view, what is the value in having expert-level talent donated to a nonprofit? Should we, as a community, be doing more of this?

Pat: To me, I see value in the ability to fast-track some projects and add this level of talent that you probably couldn’t go out and write a check for. And to me, being able to do that would be a great benefit to moving everybody’s agenda forward and getting a lot more done.

Marjorie: I think the value was having someone come in and be very objective. It helped us to look at ourselves in the mirror and say here’s what we’re good at, here’s what we’re not so good at. That was very, very helpful. And also, Pat was so credible to our staff, because of her long tenure as a CEO herself. So she brought real life examples. It wasn’t just, you know, a textbook, it was, here’s the materials, and here’s the research, but then this is the real life world in which you apply it.

We would have accepted any consultant that they had assigned to us, but I would say that Pat was particularly good at ensuring that she was meeting our needs. She started off by getting to know us one on one and knew how to win us over and how to build credibility with our leaders. She also did something I thought was really brilliant, which I did not really appreciate at the time – she broke our leaders into two groups and had separate meetings with us. So there was the upper level folks that report to me and then there were all the other leaders that reported to my people. I did not appreciate how effective that would be until I saw it later. Pat created a much safer environment for people to really reveal what they were struggling with, without the boss or the boss’s boss in the room and that was very powerful. Pat was also a very skilled ambassador between the two groups. We could hear feedback from the managers about how they felt the leadership team was doing and she was able to relay those messages to us in a safe way so we could hear them and then do something about them.


RG: What did you learn along the way?

Pat: Nonprofits are different than for-profit organizations. And I am very thankful to Leadership Austin, for doing a really good job of preparing us back at the beginning. Debbie [Johnson, Fellows program director for Leadership Austin] did a lot of research, and told us what to watch for. She had spent time talking with another organization that had done a similar pilot project like this and did a great job to prepare us. She told us that nonprofits work on different timelines, and that nonprofit organizations tend to be a little more bureaucratic and less entrepreneurial. And as an entrepreneur, I’ve had to figure out what that meant in the organizations that I have worked with.

I also think you need to ask a lot of questions. I think that is what creates the successful partnership. In my case, the first thing that I did is go in and have one-on-one sessions with the leadership of the organization and ask them what they were looking for.


RG: And what was the end result – how did you see the project bear fruit?

Karen Norman, Director of Human Resources at Hospice Austin: Maybe conversations around something that was learned and being able to reflect back on that, or having common language in how to approach or handle a certain situation. We’ve seen changes in gratitude expressed, and there have been a couple of leaders internally that went on to apply for other leadership positions. When we asked why they were interested, one of the reasons that they gave was feeling really grateful that Hospice Austin invested in them and their leadership training. Last year when we had the coursework with Pat, and they wanted to give back to the organization by continuing and building their leadership path within Hospice Austin.

Even the relationships that the managers formed with each other in being part of those training classes learning together, going through a program together, that’s really hard to quantify. It’s something that you see in here play out every day, interacting daily and working to solve problems where maybe they didn’t do that before. We’ve also seen it with their teams and the increased confidence and the increased conversations that are happening.

Our resources primarily go into the patients and families that we serve. Without the fellowship program through Leadership Austin, I’m not sure we would have been able to provide the amount of training for our leaders that we were receive able to through this program. That feels really good to have been a benefactor in the program to get that very important foundation for our leaders because that is so critical to us being able to operate.

Marjorie: As a nonprofit, we have a great deal of empathetic, caring, compassionate people. Yet, we need balance. We have to operate within constraints of budget and time so bringing that business perspective is very helpful to balance us out. Bringing some of those concepts is one of the things that Pat taught us. How do you have those hard conversations with our staff, who want to give everything to everyone? How do you have those difficult conversations in a constructive way? She also taught us that conflict can be a good thing, and not something to be avoided or afraid of. And, in fact, I just saw an example of that yesterday at a leadership team meeting, where we were having a discussion and somebody got a little upset about something – in the past, I probably would have just left it and not pressed through it, but because of this training, I knew that was my role was to say, wait a minute, we can talk about that. And sort of redirect. We were able to get through it very well, constructively, and everything was fine. I think in the old days, we probably would have just walked away and sulked.

I think when you’re a brand new leader, you tend to think everything is your fault. You take everything personally and you struggle with things and don’t realize these are normal human problems that will happen in any organization to any supervisor. If you have the skill set, you won’t be afraid of dealing with them. You’ll gain confidence and it’ll be a good experience versus being traumatized by it or saying, I can’t do this.


RG: Why do YOU give?

Pat: My parents are both very religious people. My father was a deacon in the Catholic Church and giving was expected and so it’s just been that way my whole life. My whole life I have done something! I am a past president of the Austin Advertising Federation and spent two years in that role. I have worked in my role as publisher and founder of Texas CEO magazine. I lead an organization called ACG, the Central Texas chapter, an organization of dealmakers – trade organizations, trade associations, and then nonprofit-wise there’s always been work within my church. It just depends on what stage I’m in in my life, and how much time I have to give.

Marjorie: You know, I think it’s the way I grew up. And it’s probably just the way I’m wired, but I’ve had lots of different jobs. The ones that mean something to me are the ones where you’re making a difference. I’ve done the jobs where you do not feel like you’re making a difference. I can’t do them for very long. So it has to be something that I care about and that I know is helping someone, somewhere. I really can’t survive, to be honest, if I’m not doing that. I’ve had some jobs where, way back when, my mother said she just saw me sort of shrinking because it wasn’t meaningful work to me.


RG: What would you say to someone considering joining this Fellows Program?

Pat: I actually just recommended somebody to go into the program for the 2020 version so obviously, I feel pretty positively about it. I think the benefit here is this little thing that goes off in your head as you head toward retirement. You’re cooking along here with very active days and a lot to do and the next day, nothing. For me, I looked at this project and I said, it’s two days a week commitment across a period of time. I thought this is a nice way to coast down and I have loved it. It has been a great way to use everything you’ve learned over your whole career and continue to give while having a really nice work-life balance, as it were.



Have a great example of someone in the Austin area doing good better? Let us know!


RecognizeGood Full Logo
About RecognizeGood

RecognizeGood: THE Foundation (commonly known as simply RecognizeGood) is a local nonprofit that provides a means for individuals, businesses and other nonprofits to illuminate selfless volunteers, charitable acts and community service throughout the greater Austin area. There are several active RecognizeGood programs that work toward this mission from different angles, but the common theme is simple – the illumination of GOOD in our community.