Acknowledging what we don’t know, finding opportunities to learn from one another and placing a high value on leadership, training and mentorship are just three takeaways from Liz Palmieri’s interview with Women in Niagara’s Ruth Unrau at the organization’s recent WINspirational Women event.
Palmieri – currently the executive director of the Niagara Community Foundation – has held a number of leadership roles, from small business owner to executive director for an organization that awards millions of dollars in grants to worthy causes annually. She and Unrau took the stage at Ridley College to tell her story and provide some insights into how we can hone our leadership skills.
Palmieri was born in Vancouver and grew up in Burlington, where she attended school. As one of the first graduates of Mohawk College’s Computer Systems Technology program, she worked in the field until 1977 while living in Guelph with her husband. The couple then moved to St. Catharines, where they ran The Bookworks, a bookstore in the city’s downtown core, for five years. Although Palmieri owning the small business was a “wonderful, wonderful way” to become part of the community, rising interest rates and a growing family that included three children under five pushed them to sell the store in 1982. Eventually, she joined the YWCA as its executive director after it legally separated from the YMCA, transitioning from running a small business and supervising a few staff to managing entire departments.
Her professional philosophy has always been to consider opportunities as they arrive. “Everything has kind of just happened,” she said, adding that if an opportunity presented itself and it made sense intellectually and financially, she took it. She also served as interim vice-president of Toronto’s YWCA, and later moved on to the arts and culture sector, doing administrative work for the Niagara Artists Company and Carousel Players before landing at the Niagara College Foundation as a development officer in the late 1990s.
“What I really loved about the college was the diversity,” she said, but would later realize she wasn’t meant to work for such a large organization, where there were so many people to approach to accomplish what had to be done.
A retrospective on leadership and the importance of mentorship
In 2000, she joined the Niagara Community Foundation as executive director. With a group of dedicated volunteers and staff, the organization has granted more than $4.2 million and raised more than $20 million in endowment funds.
Targeted communication, exceptional general management skills and relationship building were key in those early days, along with leadership abilities. Asked how she defines leadership, Palmieri offered a well-rounded perspective – we can lead in a number of ways, including in our personal lives, in our communities and in our organizations.
“It’s having that vision, or that goal, or that dream and doing what needs to be done…”
“It’s having that vision, or that goal, or that dream and doing what needs to be done…” she said, adding that as leaders we should be prepared to acknowledge what we don’t know, park our egos at the door and ask for advice when required. She mentioned newly minted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as an exemplary leader – he’s acknowledged what he doesn’t know and surrounded himself with smart people to advise him. We should also be selective about our commitments, she cautioned. “A good leader knows how to say no as opposed to saying yes all the time.”
“Women should do what they want to get ahead. I think women are doing an amazing job quietly moving forward. Let’s find other ways to get things done.”
As for women in leadership, Palmieri has been fortunate to meet both quiet female leaders and those who had louder voices among their peers, but we often have one trait in common: “They don’t realize they’re leaders. They just keep moving and bring everybody with them.”
While we make progress, we need to keep in mind that running for political office isn’t the only way to affect change or lead. Volunteering and policy development are also important factors that influence the future of our communities.
“Women should do what they want to get ahead,” said Palmieri. “I think women are doing an amazing job quietly moving forward. Let’s find other ways to get things done.”
Joining boards of directors of community organizations and becoming a mentor to young professionals are two ways to make an impact. The importance of board development, training and mentorship opportunities is becoming more widely recognized than in the mid-1980s, when Palmieri served on the St. Catharines Public Library board. Although the experience provided a hands-on opportunity to learn about governance and network, Palmieri often found herself confused about what her role was, and what questions to ask. In a widespread business culture that implied that to ask questions or discuss challenges was to admit weakness, there was little opportunity for training or mentorship early in her career.
In a widespread business culture that implied that to ask questions or discuss challenges was to admit weakness, there was little opportunity for training or mentorship early in her career.
“I felt powerless. That’s not a good thing,” she said. Looking back, she offered sage advice to community board members: “Understand your role and always ask questions (such as) ‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘Does this make sense?’ It’s really important to ask those questions (respectfully),” she said, adding she would have also insisted on better training and mentorship for new board members.
“We didn’t have any sort of mentors back then. It was interesting times,” she said. “I had a lot of sleepless nights…in terms of personal support, you muddle through.”
It wasn’t until she came to the Niagara Community Foundation that she was able to take advantage of opportunities to learn from her peers’ years of experience. Today, she takes an even-handed approach to resolving challenges and problems, and advised us to consult trusted confidantes if required.
“If you can wait, try and sleep on it,” she said, adding sometimes the only thing we can do is “try not to react quickly unless we have to and hope to hell you’re doing it right.”
When it comes to solving our own problems, “find some folks that you can go to for advice. People love to give advice. Develop a network of people that can help you (go through your decision-making process).”
She considers herself an informal mentor, and noted mentorship can and should happen at an informal level.
An aptitude for leadership runs in the Palmieri family – Liz’s daughter Sara is programming & marketing manager at St. Catharines’ FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre and “had those leadership skills right from the get go,” she said, recalling that Sara’s first grade teacher would sometimes leave her in charge of the class when she stepped out of the room. She and her husband have two other children – a daughter, Kate (a buyer at Brock University’s campus bookstore), and a son, Mike (a set builder for the Shaw Festival).
What’s next for Liz?
As she prepares to retire, Palmieri is contemplating how she’ll spend her time. She spoke of a love of music and singing (she sits on Chorus Niagara’s board of directors), and knows she needs to stay intellectually and physically active. She can’t imagine not working.
“I need to fill my time with stuff,” she said, adding she’d like to do some consulting work regarding board governance.
She stressed the importance of work-life balance and finding time to replenish our energy. “It’s really important to find time for yourself and some time for work, and feed yourself as well.”