Heather Fitzpatrick

by | Oct 9, 2019 | Podcast

Heather Fitzpatrick of Wellspring Family Services

Heather Fitzpatrick is the President & CEO of Wellspring Family Services, a nonprofit that prevents and resolves family homelessness in the greater Seattle area.
Prior to joining Wellspring, Heather led the management consulting firm MarketFitz, Inc., working with organizations such as San Francisco Performances, Virginia Mason Medical Center, and University Mechanical Contractors.
An active civic leader, Heather has served on a dozen boards of directors, including Northwest Center, Archbright, Leadership Tomorrow, The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and the Washington Society of CPAs. Heather received her MBA from the University of Washington, her BA from Colgate University, and was a Fulbright Scholar.
She began her career with Deloitte and is a licensed CPA and a CGMA.
Heather Fitzpatrick was recognized with the “Outstanding Leader Award” be the Girl Scouts of Western Washington and with the prestigious “40 Under 40 Award”, by the Puget Sound Business Journal.
A Seattle native, she now lives in Edmonds with her husband, two kids, and rambunctious dog.
Heather joined the Wellspring team as a contractor in 2017 and became the President and CEO in October 2018.

visit wellspringfs.org

Key Lessons

These are 3 that I gleaned about good leadership, from my conversation with CEO Heather Fitzpatrick.

  1. A leader’s job is to create solutions and bring people together, so that they can feel good about taking part in an activity larger than themselves. Heather explains how this has turned into a track record of success and accomplishments.
  2. “I kept finding problems or finding things that needed to be addressed and then trying to pull the people together to address them. We succeed because we’re a team.” –Heather Fitzpatrick

  3. Every human of having a lasting impact or what I call, a legacy. This is how Heather Fitzpatrick appreciates about her caretaker role with Wellspring Family Services.
  4. “What I’m doing for Wellspring is trying to bring a new direction, a new strategic vision to the organization that’s been around since 1892. 127 years is a long time. It’s an organization that means a great deal to a lot of volunteers, a lot of our donors, a lot of the people who work here.” –Heather Fitzpatrick

  5. Opportunities to practice and transform your ‘little L’ influencing into ‘Big L’ leading are everywhere.

“When I’m asked by younger people who want to be in leadership roles in organizations, you know, “How do I get leadership experience? I’m not at that point.” I tell them, “Volunteer. Nonprofit organizations love to have people who will step into leadership roles. But you have to take it just as seriously as you would a job responsibility, because you will only learn if you actually practice the skills that you would have if you were taking this on as a paid position.” –Heather Fitzpatrick


Ron:                 Let’s get to know more about a great leader, Heather Fitzpatrick. It is an honor to feature her on my show. Welcome to the High Road Leader podcast, Heather.

Heather:           Well, thank you, Ron. I’m delighted to be here.

Ron:                 Awesome. I’ve got some questions for you regarding your leadership in your organization. So, we’ll start with the first one.

Question 1

Ron:                 What are you doing now? What is your primary role at Wellspring Family Services?

Heather:           Well, so my title is CEO and President, although I also am an acting CFO and the COO, so I have quite a few hats. My function, I guess, what I’m doing for Wellspring is trying to bring a new direction, a new strategic vision to the organization that’s been around since 1892. We’re a very old organization that’s been focused on helping families navigate crises in their lives and maintain stability for that entire time but has done it in lots of different ways. So, I was hired as the CEO to bring a new strategic vision and then lead the organization as it shifts course and gains speed towards a new future that really builds on the past.

Ron:                 And that’s always been one of your strengths is strategies. You’ve did that with your consulting firm, and you’ve done that with organizations where you have served as volunteer. Is that correct?

Heather:           Yes. Actually, this is part of the fun thing about doing what I’m doing now is that I actually get to stick through it. I’ve done a lot of consulting where I’ve been able to help organizations develop the strategies, and then sometimes I’ll go back four or five years later, as a good strategy takes a while to implement, and I’ll find that they say, “Well, you know, we followed most of your advice,” and so they got most of the results. So, I’m excited to be able to work with a team here and build a plan, where I get to follow it through and do all of the things that we’re working on and hopefully get all of the benefits we’re anticipating.

Ron:                 That’s great.

Question 2 Dream Job

Ron:                 What did you want to be when you were a child? What was your dream?

Heather:           From about age seven until I was 17 … No … 18 or 19, I guess, I wanted to be a veterinarian.

Ron:                 Interesting. What do you think it was about the experience of a veterinarian that attracted you to that?

Heather:           Oh, I think I liked animals. You know, I hear that as a Girl Scout leader now, at my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. It’s amazing how many of them at one point or another wanted to either work with animals in a shelter or one thing or another, or they wanted to be a veterinarian. I think the closest I got, though, I started an organization called The Pet Club when I was, oh, I don’t know, about seven or eight years old. The requirement to join the pet club was that you either need needed to have a pet or you needed to like pets.

Heather:           So, it was a pretty broad club, included most of the kids in the neighborhood, and we had all kinds of fun things. We had a parade and we did a play and we had a fundraising event and raised money for multiple sclerosis and we had meetings where mostly we played, you know, dodge ball and things like that. So, that was The Pet Club. This as close as I ever got to being a veterinarian.

Ron:                 And of course, that’s probably where your commitment to giving back to the community started.

Heather:           Probably. That and a lot of Girl Scouts. Girl Scouting is a great leadership program for young women and girls, and I was involved in that. Well, I am still involved in that. I’ve been a Girl Scout for 43 years or 40 … 45. Oh my goodness. It’s creeping up on me. 45 years.

Ron:                 Who’s counting?

Heather:           Yes. Right? Who’s counting? You know, every time I hit another five mile or five-year mark, I get another pin. So, I am counting.

Question 3

Ron:                 That’s a good lead into the next question. What was your path to leadership? It seems like there is no straight line, and you’ve done many things. For instance, I know that you started in public accounting as I did and realized that there was more opportunities than just doing the number crunching and that was your launch. So, tell us about your path.

Heather:           Oh, wow. That’s a great question. I definitely don’t have a straight line path. So if you look at, if you think about leadership in terms of the skills that you develop over time to lead people and then you look at my career path, I kind of separate them, although they mirror each other a little bit. I think in terms of my path to leadership in some respects started when I was running The Pet Club and, you know, coming up with things that I thought we should do, and then trying to get everybody in the neighborhood to join me because these things rarely were things I could accomplish on my own. That’s sort of the definition of leadership in a lot of respects.

Heather:           So, my leadership experience started then. It continued through Girl Scouts. It continued into college. I got involved in volunteer leadership quite early. I kept involved in volunteer leadership all the way through college and graduate school and then into my first post-graduate degree job with Deloitte as a CPA. I kept finding problems or finding things that needed to be addressed and then trying to pull the people together to address them. So, that part of my leadership career has just sort of been there for a long time. I think, in some respects, the best thing about Girl Scouting, for me, was it was one of the key places in my life where nobody ever told me, “No, you, you can’t do that. It’s not possible. You’re too young. You’re too this, you’re too that. You’re too female.” It was always possible. So if I saw a problem and I wanted to tackle it, that organization gave me the opportunity to do it.

Heather:           And as I got older and into my career, that’s a lot of how my career started. I said yes to opportunities that came down the pike and then when I was there I looked for a way I could contribute. So, just as an example, since you referenced Deloitte, yes, I have an unusual background for a CPA. I don’t actually have a degree in accounting. I have an MBA with a focus in HR and marketing. And then before that, an undergraduate degree in French with a minor in economics. So, I’ve a pretty unusual background for a CPA, but I was given an opportunity and I said yes. I was offered a position as a staff tax accountant with Deloitte, and it sounded like a fascinating opportunity to learn something new. And so, I said yes. After a few years of doing that work, I became a senior, and then I realized that it wasn’t a good fit.

Heather:           So, I started looking around for an opportunity that was a good fit for me and proposed to them that they needed a marketing director and then outlined that position and became that person within the organization. And then after doing that for a while, realized that there were opportunities for organizations whose core competency wasn’t marketing to outsource marketing, and I started looking at how that might be structured and how that might improve efficiencies and again proposed that and sort of moved into that. So, over time, that’s where my kind of leadership and my career path dovetail is that it’s been around identifying issues or problems or things that could be done better and then trying to make some happen.

Ron:                 That’s also where your love of strategy as well as understanding marketing as a different animal than most organizations view it took place. Is that true?

Heather:           Yes, I would say yes. There’s certainly a tie in there.

Ron:                 You’re the outstanding leader award for the Girl Scouts. This is something that I didn’t know about you. You were a 40 Under 40 award by the Puget Sound Business Journal. So, obviously, many people recognized your leadership skills.

Heather:           Yes, those are true. I’ve been very honored to have been recognized a number of times for my leadership expertise and I’m very proud of that.

Question 4

Ron:                 I interviewed you many years ago for a leadership book I developed for the profession. And at that time, I asked you a question, if you defined yourself as a leader. You told me that you saw yourself a leader with a little L and not a big L. Now that you are the CEO of Wellspring and you’ve been in many more leadership roles since then, do you still feel that you define yourself as a little L or the big L?

Heather:           I don’t know. You know, you probably have a better definition of it than I do. I think the most powerful leaders are the ones who look to others within their organizations to lead. And so, I see myself almost more of as a facilitator. You know, I joined Wellspring not knowing anything about homelessness. And our organization, our current focus is on ending the cycle of family homelessness, so we’re all about preventing instability that turns into homelessness, addressing family needs just before they become homeless so we can prevent that homelessness, and then addressing them once they’ve become homeless. I didn’t know anything about that when I came on board.

Heather:           And yet, it was immediately apparent to me the organization needed a new strategic plan and a firm strategic direction. You know, to say that, yes, I led the process with a little l, but I was really tapping the expertise and the passions of an immensely talented and incredibly dedicated team here at Wellspring to make that happen. So, really more of a facilitator. And for that reason, I guess I still see myself as a little L leader, but I think a little L leader can do some amazing things.

Ron:                 And you have done. I’ll give you the big L label.

Heather:           Thanks, Ron.

Question 5

Ron:                 What does your organization do best? Wellspring has a deep history. Give us some examples of the differences that this organization makes.

Heather:           Sure, I’d be happy to. I would say if you had to say there’s one thing we do best, it’s really that we are really good at helping people navigate crises. And in particular, crises that could lead to homelessness. We are good at understanding what the cause of the crisis is and connecting the person or family or family members to resources that they can use to address those crises, and we do that in a number of different ways. So, for example, we have an employee assistance program that we sell. It’s actually a social enterprise. So, the objective of the program is to provide a service and to generate an income that helps fund our other operations. And this employee assistance program is a benefit that employers provide to their employees.

Heather:           When somebody calls in with a crisis, something that’s causing instability in their lives, we have a licensed clinician on the other end of the line who helps connects them with one of the more than 9,000 vendors around the United States, actually around the world, that we work with, that help connect people to stay sources of stability. For example, we had a call the other day from a parent of a child in the southeastern United States, who was worried that their child was potentially suicidal. We were able to diagnose that and then find somebody who could help that child regain stability and be less of a risk to themselves, get that family into counseling right away, and prevent the type of instability that can completely ruin a family over time and caused immense instability.

Heather:           So, we do that in their employee assistance program. We also have counseling services of our own that we offer here in the Pacific Northwest. But on the homelessness front, we do very much the same thing in trying to help people find housing and other resources. So, when a family contacts us, maybe it’s a mother and her child who are sleeping on a park bench in Seattle, and they’re there because the child is young and the mother can’t work while they have a child, and the father perhaps has a job at a low-income wage and they don’t have rent histories, so they can’t get enough money together to pay first and last month’s rent. They come into us and we might help them get connected, not only with an apartment that they can have, so they have shelter, but we have a baby boutique that provides clothing for them. We might connect them with a faith-based community in their neighborhood that can help provide emotional stability. We might connect them with a childcare resource for them or the local school, for when their child is ready to go into kindergarten.

Heather:           But we can help connect them to all of those things that it takes to really stabilize a family in the community and that’s what we do best, helping families navigate to become more stable.

Ron:                 That is an awesome responsibility. I know your organization has done some great things since it founded. Was it a little bit humbling, realizing that you are carrying the legacy of something that was started that long ago?

Heather:           Yes, it is. It’s very humbling. 127 years is a long time. It’s an organization that means a great deal to a lot of volunteers, a lot of our donors, a lot of the people who work here. As is often the case, most organizations don’t live to be 127 years old by most standards. This is a very unusual organization for that reason alone and knowing that when I came on board, it was seeking a new direction and not finding it and knowing that the implications of not finding it could be fatal to the organization, it was a huge responsibility to take on. To make sure that the organization regains stability itself and finds its sense of direction and then starts following that direction with purpose and with success is a tremendous responsibility.

Ron:                 Sounds great. Perfect place for you and for your skills.

Heather:           Thank you.

Question 6

Ron:                 How do you define good leadership? What does that mean to you?

Heather:           I think there are a lot of aspects of good leadership. I mean, I think ultimately, the ultimate definition of good leadership is that when you are done, you have achieved your goal or at least moved closer to it and that the goal was there for a good purpose. That’s the ethics end of it, and that the goal was something you couldn’t accomplish alone. It’s really not leadership if you’re accomplishing it on your own. It’s an accomplishment, but not necessarily leadership.

Heather:           So, I would say in terms of what leadership is, I think it’s a series of things. It’s the ability to craft and communicate a vision and inspire others to action. It’s the ability to act in an ethical way. It’s the ability to serve while leading. So, it’s that facilitator thing that I talked about earlier. Servant leadership, if you will, and it’s the fundamental belief that success is all about the team and that it can’t happen without a team.

Question 7

Ron:                 And because team has been your focus both here and in your previous organizations, how do you go about developing people into leaders? What has worked well for you?

Heather:           I think giving people opportunities to succeed, giving people opportunities to step into leadership roles, and sometimes taking a back seat, I think, is really incredibly important. Giving people credit for their contributions and for the success, sharing credit. A lot of people look to the big L leader and say, “Oh, this is because of you,” which is very gratifying, but it’s not true. We succeed because we’re a team. So, giving people that credit rather than taking it and giving people opportunities to shine and to get whatever form of recognition best for them, I have found those have been all very strong ways to ensure leadership or to help grow people.

Heather:           Here at Wellspring, one of the things we’ve been doing is reorganizing our leadership structure to promote, if you will. It’s not really a promotion but to put more people into leadership roles. So, we’ve restructured so that there are more people engaged in providing input and taking leadership, you know, taking on leadership roles in certain situations, in contributing to ideas and contributing to what’s happening but also in taking responsibility for success or failure. And I think that’s a good way to both to see what team members are capable of, where their strengths are and their weaknesses are, and also to give people an opportunity to develop themselves into leader positions.

Ron:                 Very nice.

Question 8

Ron:                 Is there a leadership book that you would recommend to the audience?

Heather:           Well, there’s this fabulous book called The Reluctant Leader by Ron Rael which I would of course highly recommend. A shameless plug for you, Ron.

Ron:                 Thank you.

Heather:           I think, in addition to that … I actually don’t read many leadership books. There are a number I have read over time, but I think I learned more by watching others than I do by reading. I have read a number of leadership books that are good, but none come to mind beyond yours as one that I would particularly recommend. Instead, I think I’ve learned more from watching others and then reflecting on my own experience, what worked, what didn’t work with that person as a leader and giving myself opportunities to lead in other environments.

Heather:           When I’m asked by younger people who want to be in leadership roles in organizations, you know, “How do I get leadership experience? I’m not at that point.” I tell them, “Volunteer.” Nonprofit organizations love to have people who will step into leadership roles. But you have to take it just as seriously as you would a job responsibility, because you will only learn if you actually practice the skills that you would have if you were taking this on as a paid position. So if somebody comes to me and says, “Hey, I want to chair a committee.” I don’t have time to micromanage somebody and make sure they get their work done. I expect them just as if they were an employee. I expect somebody who makes that commitment to carry through.

Heather:           And it is a great experience for somebody who maybe hasn’t had management level experience or hasn’t had big L leadership experience to take on a significant leadership role in a nonprofit and develop those skills. I think you can learn an immense amount through volunteer leadership opportunities.

Ron:                 I can see, from your track record, that’s also where you honed a lot of your leadership abilities as well.

Heather:           Yes. I’ve spent a lot of time as a volunteer leader, committees, task forces, special projects, events, all kinds of things, especially earlier. And then after that, board work, and I’ve chaired a couple of different boards of directors. And that’s actually been incredibly helpful, given that I now work for a nonprofit and have a board of my own.

Ron:                 That road to leadership.

Question 9

Ron:                 Heather, what does the term high road leader mean to you?

Heather:           Somebody who marries ethics and integrity with outcomes that benefit a broader population or a broader group or a broader purpose than self-interest.

Ron:                 Sounds like Wellspring’s mission statement.

Heather:           Well, I certainly hope that that ethic is something that everybody here at Wellspring feels.

Ron:                 Excellent.

Question 10

Ron:                 Where can people learn more about you?

Heather:           Well, I’m pretty confident there’s something on the Wellspring website about me. There’s also LinkedIn, of course. You can learn a little bit about me from a blog that I wrote in the past that I haven’t kept up with as much as I should, Ron. I know I should be doing [inaudible 00:22:37]. Been a little hard in the recent last year or so, but upturnstrategies.com, which is about leading nonprofits as a volunteer or as a consultant. And of course, if you live in the Pacific Northwest and you have an interest in how we are transforming the lives of families who are battling homelessness, I would be absolutely thrilled to give anyone a tour of our facilities and introduce people to what we do.

Ron:                 Great.

Question 11 The Ask

Ron:                 In gratitude for being on the show and sharing your thoughts, you can have an opportunity to tell us something that maybe Wellspring needs or an opportunity or possibly an ask. What would that be?

Heather:           Oh, wow. Just one? No, I …

Ron:                 First one that comes to mind.

Heather:           Well, we are doing some really innovative things. Our new strategic plan actually borrows what we’re doing with our employee assistance program and overlays it onto the homelessness arena. There are huge numbers of organizations that are addressing some aspect of homelessness. But unless you are a veteran homeless person, trying to navigate all of the services that are out there is incredibly overwhelming. And so what we’re trying to do is create a technology tool that can be used by case managers within Wellspring and outside of Wellspring that will accelerate the pace at which families can tap into resources that are already in the community, improving efficiency significantly in the system.

Heather:           Really excited about that project, and we’re looking for funding for it. It’s where technology meets nonprofits and we’re really excited, so we’d love to have funding for it. We’d love to have technology expertise from people who have an interest in it. And of course, we always love to have volunteers and donors who are willing to provide supplies that people who are experiencing homelessness with small children need. Everything from gas cards to clothing, gently used children’s clothing. There we go. I didn’t stick to just one. Sorry.

Ron:                 Not a problem. Again, that’s why I say that you’re a great leader, because you’re helping this organization to use technology to solve a lingering problem and doing it in ways that maybe others hadn’t thought of. I noticed on your board of advisors that you’ve got the who’s who of technology surgeons at Wellspring.

Heather:           We do have a lot of great technology experts on our board of directors. We’re also in the process of finding or putting together a board of advisors of technology professionals who can help our brand-new director of strategic innovation, who is essentially our chief information officer, help design and build out these systems. So, it’s exciting. I think it’s an area where we can really make a significant difference without much additional investment from donors other than the technology itself. I think it’s an exciting opportunity to improve the speed at which families get served and keep families out of homelessness.

Heather:           You know, it’s interesting, and I’ll just do this as my little aside. Family homelessness, if I were to ask you, for example. Ron, if you would close your eyes just for a moment. Envision somebody that’s homeless.

Ron:                 Okay.

Heather:           You’ve got an image in your mind. My guess, I’d be willing to bet that you imagined somebody who was male, probably in their 50s, probably looked a little disheveled, like they maybe needed a shower. Maybe somebody who looked a bit like they were battling a mental health issue or maybe battling an addiction and maybe living in a tent and on the streets of Seattle.

Ron:                 I see a lot of those exactly like that.

Heather:           Yup, and that is a common image of homelessness, the one that you see most often. Family homelessness does not look anything like that. Now, if you took a mirror and you looked in that, that’s a lot more of like what you’d see with the people who walk through our doors. By and large, families experiencing homelessness are hiding because they’re embarrassed. They don’t want people to know, because they’re afraid of losing their jobs. They are more likely to be employed, even though they are more likely to be less educated than the adults that you’ve envisioned, who’s more of the classic picture of homelessness. Their kids are probably couch surfing. They’re sleeping with friends or other family members while their parents sleep in a car. Or they’re together in a car, but they’re on a dark, deserted streets so they don’t get caught. They’re fearful of losing their children.

Heather:           It’s an overwhelming issue and it’s largely poverty-related. It has much less to do … There’s actually no statistically significant difference between mental health issues and addiction issues between low income families in general and low income families experiencing homelessness. That’s the biggest battle we face probably right now is that people don’t understand that, and they don’t see that this is … We’re talking about our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness. Friends, people that your kids are in school with or your grandkids are in school with. Those are the families who are experiencing homelessness. It’s a much bigger problem than most people realize, so there’s my little advertisement.

Ron:                 Thank you for sharing that insight with my audience.


Dream Job part 2

Ron:                 I asked you earlier about your dream job as a child. I believe that we usually end up living that dream. Maybe not the specific job. We’ll get to have that experience that our young brain wanted. It just couldn’t define it.

Ron:                 And I see a connection between that and what you’re doing now and also in your storied career. The veterinarian role was your mind’s interpretation of a connection between a human being and their pet. There’s a deep love that is experienced when someone has a cherished pet, and you wanted to capitalize on that. You wanted to let these friends, your neighbors show off their pet.

Ron:                 You had parades, you had different types of activities. You formalized something, because you also like structure. You think about a veterinarian. They have to have structure in order to do their job. And then as you’ve gone through your career, that folded into a compassion for people, a caring for mankind, so to speak, a stewardship. That translated into the type of clients that you served at MarketFitz. And now as the CEO of Wellspring, you’re able to do that. So, you didn’t become a veterinarian, but you became that person who brought people together with loving compassion because of that need to have that love. How does that fit for you?

Heather:           I think that’s a very good observation. I think you’re right. I think being a veterinarian was about being able to help someone or something that couldn’t access, couldn’t tap into what they needed at the time they needed it. That’s very much what I have been doing, helping people, helping organizations figure out how to address the things that weren’t working for them. I think you’re right. I hadn’t thought about that.

Close the Interview

Ron:                 Thank you very much, Heather, for making a difference. You are a person of influence, and the audience can now see that you are helping leaders to be more organized, effective, but more importantly realizing that it’s not about them, it’s about the team and getting results from the team. I’m grateful for the time that you spent with me and the insights into who you are and the valuable work that Wellspring Family Services is currently doing. I appreciate you.

Heather:           Thank you very much, Ron. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I enjoyed being on the show, and I look forward to hearing other leaders that you interview as you interview them as well.

Ron:                 It was my pleasure.

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