As the oldest of five children, Linda Finney may have been destined for leadership. But even born leaders sometimes need a nudge.
“When I was growing up in Sandpoint, guys went to work in the woods and girls were expected to get married at 18, have children and call their husband ‘mister.’
“But in ninth grade, when I started signing up for home ec and secretarial-type classes, a teacher said, ‘Uh-uh. You are going to college. You need to learn math and science.’ And I said, ‘Oh … OK.’ ”
Within a few years, Finney was in Seattle editing articles at the Journal of Financial and Quantitative Analysis.
Later she switched to public-relations work at Columbia Lutheran Home and Seattle Lutheran High School.
In 1999, she moved to Spokane and was hired as executive director of Leadership Spokane, a nonprofit program that cultivates team building and goal setting among service-oriented adults and adolescents.
After 15 years, Finney is about to hand over the organization’s reins to a new, as-of-yet unnamed executive director. During a recent interview, she discussed how Leadership Spokane has evolved, new challenges she’d like it to embrace, and what’s ahead for her.
S-R: What are your memories of growing up in North Idaho?
Finney: I loved reading classic children’s literature – “Heidi” and “Little Women” and “The Three Musketeers.” I also loved drama. I played Helen Keller’s mother in “The Miracle Worker” and a dancing rat in “The Pied Piper.”
S-R: When did you start seeing yourself as a leader?
Finney: Probably as a kid. My grandmothers were good role models – very strong women. By the time I was 7, I did a lot of work around the house. And when teachers asked for a volunteer, I’d always step forward.
S-R: After pursuing a career in Seattle, why did you move to Spokane?
Finney: My husband had spent 10 years in South Africa, a dry country, and Seattle’s dampness and fog were getting to him. Also, we were concerned with how fast Seattle was growing. So we looked around the West, and Spokane seemed like the right-sized city – not too crowded, but big enough to have a symphony and a baseball team.
S-R: Was the Leadership Spokane job a natural fit for you?
Finney: It was scary, because I’d never been an executive director. But the program’s emphasis on “servant leadership” – putting the needs of others first – really appealed to me. And Gonzaga’s program for nonprofit directors helped me make the transition.
S-R: What skills from your previous jobs transferred to this one?
Finney: I do a lot of writing, so my English degree and experience in publishing were very helpful.
S-R: What was the catalyst for Leadership Spokane’s creation in 1982?
Finney: I think it was a child of Expo ’74. The World’s Fair transformed Spokane’s psyche. Locals started seeing the potential to play on a regional or national stage. By then, the people behind the fair were tired and hoped new leadership would spring up. Instead, there was a recession and no one was stepping forward. A bunch of people from the Chamber, the banks, Washington Water Power and Sacred Heart got together and said, “How do we solve this problem?” Leadership programs were popping up around the country, so they started one here.
S-R: What skills do you hope participants take away?
Finney: Our culture pushes leaders to become experts in their own little world. For instance, if you’re in the medical field or technology, you may not know much about what’s going on in government or the arts. We show participants how to connect with the broader community.
S-R: Who’s your target audience?
Finney: People who want to get involved and serve, and are willing to commit 11 days over a 10-month period. Plus we’re asking for a commitment on the other end – that they get involved in a policy-level civic activity. Not just painting a park bench, but serving on a state board or running for office.
S-R: How has participation changed over the years?
Finney: The first class was mostly a bunch of white guys who worked in the tall buildings downtown. Today’s classes are much more representative of all segments of society. The typical age range is 35 to 45, because businesses invest in employees they know are going to be around. About half are women, and we’re a little more diverse than the general population, because we heavily recruit minorities. About 60 percent of our participants come from regular businesses, but we also have people from universities, the medical field and a few nonprofits. It’s hard to attract small businesses, because they can’t always get out of the office for 11 days.
S-R: What about the program surprises participants?
Finney: They often say things like, “I’ve lived here 15 years, and I didn’t realize the level of poverty in our community,” or “I didn’t know McKinstry (Innovation Center) was out there.” “I had no idea about Kendall Yards.” “I’d never been in the Davenport.” People are so focused on their own industry that they’re amazed by things they don’t know about their own community.
S-R: Any other surprises?
Finney: We have bit of a reputation for matchmaking – people have found jobs through Leadership Spokane, even though that’s not our role. And we’ve had a couple of participants get married.
S-R: Who teaches the classes?
Finney: Community leaders mostly. Joe Albert (director of Gonzaga University’s Renaissance Center for Leadership) has done a number of presentations. (Constitutional law expert) Julia Stronks of Whitworth has talked about how our government was put together.
S-R: How does the program benefit Spokane?
Finney: Good leaders are crucial to the success of any community. We help people develop leadership skills and connect. In order to make good policy decisions, you have to understand what’s going on in the jail, or that in some of our schools 90 percent of the kids are on the free or reduced lunch program.
S-R: What distinguishes Leadership Spokane from similar programs around the country?
Finney: We’re nationally regarded among cities our size. A lot of organizations operate on $50,000 and a volunteer or part-time staff. Our budget is around $190,000 a year.
S-R: Is there anything you wish you could offer but don’t?
Finney: I’d like to see a mini-Leadership Spokane program for retired folks who want to get involved. I’d also like to see our alumni association partner with other groups and become a player in a major project, like improving the local graduation rate.
S-R: What advice would you offer your successor?
Finney: Take time to listen and learn. Have a vision for growing the organization, but keep it mission central. Someone once told me the executive director’s first job is to stay out of jail. Next, bring in the money. Then you get to save the puppies. You can’t do your mission if you’re not compliant with rules or you’re in the red.
S-R: What’s ahead for you?
Finney: I’m going to take some time and think about what I want to do.
S-R: What’s your perfect job?
Finney: I think I want to be the catcher in the rye. Forty percent of our kids aren’t ready for kindergarten, and by third grade you can tell who’s going to jail by their reading scores. That’s a problem I hope to work on.