President and Executive Director, TreeHouse
March 10, 2015
Becky Walker entered the mortgage banking world young and rose fast. After taking 8 years out of the corporate world to raise her daughters, Becky was ready to get back in the game—but this time, where she was truly passionate. In June 2006, Becky became President and Executive Director of TreeHouse, a Twin Cities non-profit working to transform the lives of at-risk teens. In this conversation, Becky shares about the head and the heart behind her leadership—and why cheerleading is an undervalued skill.
How did it feel to leave your corporate career for the non-profit world?
Coming on board with TreeHouse was a big shift for me. I’d spent more than 25 years in the mortgage banking world, so when I decided to reenter the working world after 8 years at home, I was surprised to discover that I couldn’t bring myself to go back to what was familiar. I had an established network there, but I found I no longer had passion for it. So I started listening to the tugs on my heart and God’s calling. Raising my own children, I had often noticed teenagers being pushed aside if they didn’t fit the norm, but hadn’t known quite what to do about it. The opportunity became clear when I visited TreeHouse for the first time. The Board was looking for someone with a business background and a heart for hurting teens. I was lucky enough to be a good fit.
How do you think about your role in relationship to the rest of the staff?
I genuinely believe my main focus is to serve the people who are doing the truly amazing jobs, so I remind myself that really what I am is the head servant. Each team member at TreeHouse feels called to the work they do; they make extraordinary sacrifices and have so many deep, heavy conversations with the teens. I want to do all I can to build them up. I’m a natural cheerleader, and keeping people encouraged and inspired in what God has called them to do is fundamental to my job.
"I’m a natural cheerleader, and keeping people inspired in what God has called them to do is fundamental to my job.”
Did you have to modify how you lead in the new context?
I had a background in building and merging organizations, in getting people motivated and excited about change. But in the mortgage bankingH world, there’s more room to motivate people with money, titles, and perks. I had to take a step back and learn what motivates people at TreeHouse. Especially because I was hired to pursue a new vision of bringing TreeHouse to every community across the country. Nothing was in place to make this happen. It would have been a mistake to move too fast. I needed to walk carefully, listen closely, and go the extra mile to match the right people with roles they are passionate about.
How do you keep the people you lead focused on the mission?
Perhaps precisely because people have passions about so many things, it’s especially important to be clear on our focus. Our mission is “bringing hope to hurting youths and families, leading to life transformation.” We talk about this constantly—in management meetings, in our messaging, on our walls—so that it’s always in front of us. There’s so much need, and people have new ideas all the time, so the test is the same: does it help transform the lives of hurting teens? Ultimately, our vision is to reach every at risk teen, not just in the Twin Cities, but nationwide. That’s a huge vision, but it drives everything we do. Articulating our vision is what keeps us all walking in the same direction.
How do you do that?
I come from a background where marketing to our constituents was a constant. It’s in my blood, and if we had the budget for it, I would get the word out about TreeHouse worldwide. What resources we have, we invest into making sure people are crystal clear on what we do, how we do it, the impact it’s had, and how they can get involved. Because, ultimately, we don’t just want people’s sympathy—we want people to join this amazing work with us.
What strategies do you use to communicate the mission?
Stories are so important. The people who come to TreeHouse to work, invest, or volunteer all share a passion for hurting teens, but until they hear the stories and connect them to real faces, it’s hard to believe that a 7th grader could feel so lost or be dealing with things like drugs, self-harm, or abuse. Hearing the personal perspective of the teens themselves, not only about what they’ve been through but about how their lives have been transformed, is what makes it real to people. And it helps the teens so much to be able to tell their stories.
What are the practices that keep you encouraged as a leader?
I have to bring my leadership back to prayer constantly. This is a hard job—these teens are facing a lot of darkness, and it’s hard to realize I can’t personally fix them. With a mission this large, it also matters a lot that I have a team I trust and can lean on, and that I can lead with more vulnerability and emotion than I could in the mortgage banking world. I’m blessed to be in a position where I can merge objectivity with sincere passion, head with heart—and lead with both.
How do you stay sharp as a leader?
I’ve read books on leadership, certainly, but I’m a very relational person; what really keeps me sharpest in this role are my relationships with other leaders. I have a group of about seven other executive leaders who I touch base with regularly to hear what they’re doing, what they’ve tried, what’s worked, what hasn’t, what they would advise if I go down a certain path. Their wealth of experience and perspective is invaluable in learning to be a better leader. I also have the most amazing board. I think it’s important for every leader to surround themselves with a great board and seek to learn from them.
What words of wisdom would you pass on to younger leaders?
The best advice I ever received was that if you’re going to be a strong leader, assemble a great team, trust the team enough to delegate, and respect them enough to listen. People want to be heard. They want to collaborate. So I listen a lot and let that chorus of voices inform my decision-making. I truly believe healthy lines of communication are essential to a productive work environment. The other side of that is to communicate expectations clearly. People want to do well. When you’re honest about expectations—at the same time you’re making people feel valued—people can thrive.
"What really keeps me sharpest in this role are my relationships with other leaders.”
What drives you?
I’m driven to see other people develop and grow. That starts with hiring well and ensuring people are empowered in roles where their talents can shine. To see a young person suddenly discover their skills and find direction is exhilarating for me. Helping the people I lead to flourish is the big payoff for me. I believe a leader is only as good as the people they’re leading. The leader often gets the credit, but in my opinion, my team should. So I love nothing more than helping them step more fully into their gifts and passions. What drives me is serving them.
"The best advice I ever received was that if you’re going to be a strong leader, assemble a great team, trust the team enough to delegate, and respect them enough to listen.”
Learn more about TreeHouse’s mission to break the generational cycle of poverty one person, one family at a time.