A Good Idea That was born out of an ALF Wilderness Experience
Kimberly Johnston Class XXXV
VP Tax, CenterPoint Energy
Kimberly says the program “took life” because of her ALF class who gave her the courage to do so.
1. What is Good Works Houston? How/why did it emerge?
Good Works Houston emerged through my ALF experience. I was in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, with my class on our weeklong wilderness experience, having deep conversations about our city and the problems we’re facing. Professionally, I’m a problem solver, solving problems for major fortune 500 companies, so I began to think about Houston’s problems and how to solve them. Through conversations with my classmates, we began discussing ways to try to tackle Houston’s issues. Through that investigation and conversation in Colorado, I started talking about social entrepreneurship.
I have 3 children of my own, all millennials, who are concerned about the future, and worried that today’s problems will outpace traditional solutions. The catalysts to drive my thinking about these issues were my ALF family and my own family at home. I began researching social innovation institutes, and started to feel that we need to initiate something like this in Houston. Through my research, I found the Unreasonable Institute. They are a premium global social innovation institute and offer 5-Day Labs. They offer this 5 day institute in 15 select cities around the world once a year. Through a very selective application process, I was able to bring this institute here. My success was highly dependent on ALF and showing local community support through the vast ALF network. It was a very rigorous application that required a demonstrated ecosystem in the local community that will make it successful in solving the social and environmental challenges. Through ALF, I was able to demonstrate that we do have the will and capability to solve these problems through innovation, here in Houston. I clearly demonstrated to the Unreasonable Institute that the huge ALF community of dedicated Houstonians would be supporting me in this great endeavor.
2. How can Senior Fellows support you in this initiative?
ALF leaders will serve as anchors in creating this impact ecosystem, focused on solving massive problems here in Houston like upward mobility, wellness, medical and environmental issues.
Through collaboration with existing organizations that are aligned to solve problems through strong trusting relationships, we will make our city sustainable in addressing these issues.
We are looking for mentors for these impact ventures; strategic partners who are experts in our core subject areas. For instance, we’re looking for experts in self-sufficiency for the refugee community, experts in support-services like back office accounting, marketing, and technology. If there are Senior Fellows that engage younger professionals, we’d love to recruit volunteers for these ventures. Right now we have 15 impact ventures focused on 3 core areas: upward mobility, wellness and the environment.
3. What has been ALF’s impact on you? On the people that you interact with? On the community?
The ALF experience broadened my perspective and increased my awareness of the issues facing our city. ALF also revealed to me how many more of Houston’s leaders are compassionate and committed to addressing these problems than I ever previously thought. Now that I look back before ALF, I had a limited view of our city. I was active and served on several boards, but I had a narrow lens of the city and didn’t recognize it. ALF opened my perspective tremendously.
Now I live and breathe by the ALF mantra of joining, strengthening, and serving. I carry this out in all of my interactions both professional and personal. This is now how I operate. What is so valuable about ALF is it brings together a diverse group of Houston’s leaders and allows them to form a common personal thread. We develop empathy for individuals and groups and look to see to how can we serve our community to have greater impact. I have used this to focus on growing the network of Good Works Houston. I apply the ALF fundamentals of listening, engaging, empathy and building strong trusting relationships. When I meet new people, I immediately engage them in conversation around what they are passionate about, where they see problems and where they see their talents to address these issues. Then, I engage them in conversation to think about how we can serve or make a meaningful connection.
Many of us unintentionally operate in a silos. We adopt a “my” mentality instead of a “we” perspective. It is amazing what we can create when we have a community of alliances and leverage our talents, expertise and resources and not feel competitive about it.
4. Can you describe an experience/conversation where people from different backgrounds/perspectives learned something from one another in your class?
Through conversations with my classmates I am confident that we can create a new market in Houston that converges marketability and generosity, doing good but also making money at the same time. This hybrid of for profit and nonprofit, is called impact ventures or social entrepreneurship. There is a lot of interpretation about whether that is possible and what that looks like. Some individuals rely on pure economics where they are rooted in maximizing profitability at any cost. Others operate in maximizing good. My perspective is that we can create businesses with triple bottom line, people, planets, and profit. We don’t have to wait for the government to raise minimum wage. Companies like H-E-B can attract more customers because they have a conscious capitalism approach. Through interesting conversations with my classmates I believe we can create a venture for solving a social or environmental problem that generates profits as well.
5. Why is it exciting for you to be part of the ALF network?
I actually see the “ALF network” as an “ALF family”. I see ALF Senior Fellows as an extension of my family because of the rich experiences we’ve shared. We can immediately go into deep intellectual conversations without a lot of relationship building because of that common ground. I can envision deep, meaningful relationships with anyone who has gone through ALF’s yearlong experience. Through my ALF relationships, I have developed deeper connections than other professional networks.
6. What sticks out in your memory about your class?
My ALF experience has been anchored by my class and then it expands to the broader ALF family. My classmates and I frequently engage and help one another. I’ve certainly accessed the broader ALF family through ongoing events and opportunities to connect, like Second Friday breakfasts and the Chez ALF dinner series. I always receive a warm welcome when I walk into an ALF event.
7. Are there any ALF lessons/techniques that you apply in your daily life/professional/community life?
The 7 minute story is a very powerful tool and I have tried to adapt the idea into a 2 minute version, really listening to people that I meet. I immediately engage people in conversation when I first meet them, asking them to share their story instead of asking them “what you do?” Before ALF I operated on sharing what I do professionally. This leads to assumptions and often incorrect assumptions. Now I operate on sharing what I am passionate about. Instead of meeting someone and saying, “I’m the VP of Tax for CenterPoint, what do you do?” now I say something like, “I am a mother of three, grew up in Salt Lake City, and I’m passionate about social entrepreneurship. What are your passions?” This has drastically changed my level of communication when I first meet someone. I come about that totally differently now. I try to understand someone at a deeper level.
Second, I engage in deep listening to reach empathy. Even if I am speaking with someone that I has different ideologies from mine, I approach the conversation in a more open and understanding way, not make those assumptions that we typically can jump to. That is another lesson I gained from ALF.
Third, ALF really looks at your personal journey in alignment with heart, mind and intuition. Those can be very disjointed where your heart is doing one thing and your head is doing another. This can lead to internal conflict. I think the ALF experiences of silence, reflection and retreat offer opportunities to think about yourself and your values and what your actions are. ALF provides time and opportunities for Senior Fellows to be very disciplined and self-aligned. I now use this technique as a coaching and mentoring tool, and help others explore and search for their purpose and meaning.
8. What do you think Houston’s leaders need to stop/start?
I believe that Houston’s leaders need to stop operating from a place of competition. I observe that there is a great deal of fear among leaders of big organizations. The ALF experience teaches you to operate from a core of empathy and listening, from a perspectives that the collection of us is greater than anyone of us individually. “Stop” is a strong word for me now. I am focused on the need to have conversations, and stop having anger, living with fear and in silos. I am focused on opening my eyes, being open and empathetic, even if I reach a disagreement. Sometimes in society we can immediately shut down and feel that we can only relate with our inner group. What is so beautiful about ALF is that it expands our inner group to a much broader base. You develop relationships and find common ground with different kinds of people. Through ALF we are taught to find a common thread where we can doing extraordinary work together. At the core of each of us we have our gifts and if we can understand our own gifts and come together and appreciate each other, then amazing things happen, and that’s really incredible!
9. How do you describe ALF to someone who has never heard of the organization before?
ALF unites a diverse group of Houston’s leaders in a yearlong journey filled with personal exploration and lessons on how to build collaborative relationships. Upon conclusion of this Fellowship, they develop a strong family supporting one another, on personal and community related issues. My ALF “buddy” is Kristi Rangel, a former principal of Kashmere Gardens Elementary School. When I first met her I thought there is no way we can have a conversation since we saw our worlds in completely different ways. I wondered, “How did we get put together?” She is bleeding heart public servant and I come from a corporate background. Through conversation with her, I began to ask, “how do you blend these two worlds together?” Now I see that the “buddy” system is brilliant. Our conversations that catalyzed Good Works Houston started at the core of this buddy relationship. And to this day, we continue to discuss these topics and more. That relationship was instrumental in forming Good Works Houston. By having “nothing in common” we gave each other a “picture of our own porch”. My buddy is someone who I can really trust and we’ll always be there for each other.