Recognizing a True Changemaker

Published On: May 9, 2024Categories: Blog, Impact Spotlight

Chief Strategy  & Innovation Officer Nichole Lopez-Riley (above, second from left) concluded her five-year tenure with the Greater Austin Y on May 1, having helped guide our organization through one of the most tumultuous periods in its history.

Nichole joined the Y as Chief People Officer in April 2019, and less than a year in, faced the once-in-a-lifetime challenge of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, followed in rapid succession with the tasks of right-sizing our Y to weather the business interruption while ALSO completing our Extend-A-Care merger, adapting to ever-changing COVID safety regulations, historic inflation, labor market shortages, a CEO transition, leadership restructuring, implementation of a new organization-wide OKR practice, AND development of our 2030 Vision strategic plan.

As Nichole moves into a new chapter of her career, we extend the utmost gratitude to her for the humanity, compassion and professionalism that she brought to her role in helping Power OUR Purpose. Before her departure, she shared a few insights on her time with the Y.

Can you talk about your role in our merger with Extend-A-Care, which now seems like ages ago?

When I first started, (former Y CEO) James (Finck) mentioned, “Hey, by the way, we’re gonna’ be merging with this organization, and you’re gonna’ quarterback it.” So I led the integration steering committee, which had a pretty aggressive timeline, something like six months. And then, three months after we merged (on January 1, 2020) the pandemic hit and we had to adapt to a completely new reality. So I’m proud of how we were able to manage that process.

What were the principles that guided your work during the pandemic?

I wanted to be really intentional in terms of creating calm in the midst of chaos. So one of the things that I tried to do is step back and say, “OK, what is within your locus of control?” You’re not going to have control of everything. Things do change a lot. There’s chaos in the world, but what is within your control, and focus on that.

When we were navigating the pandemic and having to make really difficult decisions, I had to zoom out and really think about – at the end of the day – our role here is to ensure that the Y Is around for the next 100 years to serve this community, and to evolve with whatever the reality is post-pandemic. While the decisions were very difficult, because it affected individuals, I had to zoom out and say, “At the end of the day, we’re doing this so that the Y can be here tomorrow.”  At every step, we tried to do this in a way that was the most considerate and humane way possible.

How did the process of implementing OKRs come about?

When I came to the organization, as far as I could tell, we had not actually gone through what I would consider an annual planning process where we defined what are our priorities for the year, what’s your role as a team and department, and how the role of each individual rolls up into that. I had not seen a very clear translation of the strategic plan into day-to-day work on an annual basis.

So we had actually started that process when James was here, and I think it provided some clarity, given how chaotic everything seemed in the pandemic. And then Kathy came in February of 2021, and she mentioned that she had used OKRs in Boston. So it was actually serendipitous how it all aligned. And I think that’s when we really gained momentum.

What was your role in guiding the Strategic Plan?

I led the Strategic Planning Task Force, helping lead and facilitate that process that involved staff, community members and boards. We focused on getting people excited about the potential of the Y to transform the Greater Austin community, especially at a time where we’re growing exponentially. If we don’t pay attention, we could have a lot of people that are left behind in our community. And so that’s where I think the Y really steps in. We’ve set some very ambitious goals, but I think the Y is equipped, perhaps like no one else in our community, to achieve them. What’s something you’re proud of that may not be obvious to most of us?

What’s something you’re proud of that may not be obvious to most of us?

From a technology and innovation standpoint, you know, when I first started, we weren’t on the cloud. And I think as an organization, we were behind from a technological standpoint. So I’m proud of leading that technological transformation, putting in place the basics for knowledge management. We have a lot of room for growth, but we now have places to put things and share things. To have a distributed workforce and be able to enable a hybrid workforce, we weren’t able to do that five years ago.

Now that you have an external perspective, what opportunities do you see ahead for the Y?

I think it’s an extremely exciting time. I really believe that the Y can be the go-to organization when it comes to elevating the quality of life in our community. Spirit, Mind, Body. And I think one of the biggest opportunities for the Y is youth development. I think a lot of people don’t realize the degree in which we play a role in youth development from early childhood education to teen leadership programs, which I think there’s a ton of potential with workforce development. You know more and more kids or young people are choosing or opting not to go to college. But what does that look like in terms of their career? Can we play a role in technical job opportunities or can we partner with tech companies or other companies in the area to create pathways to get an apprenticeship and a job. I think the Y has a huge opportunity in youth workforce development.

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