Linda Carela spent much of her career in non-profit organizations working at UNICEF in New York City. She started out as a self-described “data geek” behind the scenes at the help desk supporting the IT needs of the organization. Her managerial and other organizational talents allowed her to rise through the ranks to the position of Managing Director. Surrounded by rewarding work, a successful career in New York and the respect of colleagues, Carela appeared to have paved the way for the rest of her career. “It would have been the easiest thing in the world for me to stay there,” she reflected. Citing personal reasons and the desire to move away from city life, Carela decided it was time for a change and began searching for her next opportunity.
As a lover of cold weather hiking and mountains, she had a natural affinity for the North Country. When she came across the position posting for a new Executive Director of Literacy Volunteers of Clinton County, she immediately saw an opportunity to make the move she was looking for. Leading a nonprofit agency in Plattsburgh turned out to be an excellent fit for both her and the agency, personally and professionally.
Carela and her husband Ramon moved to the area when she assumed her current role in January of 2018. In just under a year she has made a positive impact on the agency and enjoyed both successes and challenges. “I can honestly say that I have not regretted my decision to come here for one moment,” she proudly shared during a recent interview with Strictly Business.
Following are excerpts from our interview with Linda Carela.
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, LITERACY VOLUNTEERS CLINTON COUNTY
EDUCATION: B.A., ENGLISH, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY, M.F.A. FROM THE WRITER’S STUDIO IN NEW YORK CITY
HOMETOWN: SOUTH BRONX, NEW YORK CITY
FAMILY: HUSBAND RAMON
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
LC: Twenty years ago, IT was a male-dominated field. My male co-workers didn’t think I deserved a place at the table. I had to learn to keep my emotions in check, and I really had to be a tough girl all the time. I remember accidentally cutting my hand while installing network cards when I was working with two male colleagues who I knew did not care for me — a woman— being there. I had to tough it out, not show any weakness, and just keep going. That is not a lesson I hope to pass on today, but it is one that I had to learn back then.
SB: What is your approach to management and leadership?
LC: I like to lead by example, hard work, compassion for individuals, and taking responsibility for not only what goes right in an organization but more importantly what goes wrong. I am very comfortable with people not liking me. In fact, I think it is difficult to be friends with your employees. I don’t think that is the best thing. However, I want people to trust me and I need to build that trust. I invite discussion and disagreement. I am always willing to be wrong. If I say something and people tell me I am wrong, I will back up and think about that. I need people to trust that I will listen to them, but I need them to trust that some of the time I need to do things differently since I am the one taking responsibility for the outcome.
SB: In your current role you are leading volunteers. How does that differ from leading employees?
LC: Leading volunteers is new for me. I had to understand what motivated them to be here and understand what they cared about. Employees are often depending on their work to help them pay their rent and put food on the table. With volunteers their motivation is a bit different. It is a challenge, but I think that the way you lead them is the same. Be willing to have discussions.
Everybody says they value honesty. What often does not get talked about is how difficult honesty really is. When you sit down and have a discussion and you are willing to listen to everyone’s point of view, that is great. Collaborating and accommodating others is great, but at a certain point, as the leader of this organization and the one who is ultimately responsible for its success or failure, it is my responsibility to have my values guide the decisions that drive its direction. That is difficult when those decisions aren’t quite in agreement with the way people have always done things.
SB: Why is it important to have an agency promoting literacy in Clinton County?
LC: A lot of people think about Literacy Volunteers as a way to help people read. We certainly do that, but we also teach people the skills they need so they can make a decent living and restore their dignity. Most employers in this region will say that there are jobs but there are not enough skilled people to do those jobs. We have to help people read, but also to write and do math, and all of the things they need in this age where email and technology are the regular ways of communicating.
We are also inclusive. We serve folks with intellectual disabilities who may not be eligible to work, and we serve those who are highly educated in a native language, but don’t speak English. Everybody deserves to be able to tell their story, and everybody needs to listen to those stories. That is the warm feeling that everyone gets from being at Literacy Volunteers. We’re giving people a voice who may not have had the courage or the ability to be heard. This is an important service to our community, and to any community.
SB: What do you look for when you hire?
LC: I look for intelligence that is demonstrated by something other than academic achievement. Academic achievement is great, but I pay attention to the way people engage with you, and the way they speak. I look for people who have struggled with something which made them strong. They understand their worth.
SB: What have you struggled with?
LC: I come from an impoverished background. I don’t come from a family who had careers – they were laborers. I never thought I deserved a career, I just thought I was supposed to work. As a result, I connect well with people who come in here who are struggling with intergenerational poverty. I understand that. I lived in urban poverty, and now I understand that although rural poverty and urban poverty may look different, they feel very similar. This is not something I bring up with people who come in here, but I hope that my absolute admiration for their bravery in coming to a place like this comes through to them.
SB: What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
LC: This piece of advice has been really helpful, and is also relevant to my current job. Don’t keep prioritizing what is urgent over what is important. Emails have to get answered and reports have to get done, but you need time to read about what others are doing in your field, to think and strategize, and you need time to step back and develop a vision for your organization. That is what is important. What is urgent sometimes has to take a back seat.
SB: What qualities do you think are necessary for success?
LC: Hard work for sure. Being able to think on your feet. One quality that is necessary for a leader is to be able to allow ambiguity to exist. You have to be able to get beyond black or white. Sometimes you have to be OK with not knowing the answer right away. People want definite decisions, but that can be a big challenge when your organization is in a growing stage, like we are right now. I have a vision, but I don’t have all the answers for what we will be doing a year from now.
SB: What inspires you?
LC: People. I never tire of hearing people’s stories. Someone said that if you know a person’s story, you can never hate them. That is so true.
SB: What do you do in your free time?
LC: I write. Writing was my first passion when I went to school. I am a fiction writer. I love the mountains, and I particularly love hiking the Adirondack mountains in the winter. I have a capacity for solitude and I can be perfectly happy out in the woods for four days on my own, communing with nature and whatever happens to come across my path. That nourishes me.
SB: If you could start your career over again, what would you do differently?
LC: I would believe in myself more from the very beginning.
SB: What advice do you have for up and coming business leaders?
LC: You have to keep putting yourself out there until someone recognizes your value and invites you to have a seat at the table. Keep showing up. For some people, getting recognition takes far too long, while others get a seat at the table almost immediately. It is not fair, but you still have to keep showing up.
SB: What should the North Country community do today to ensure a prosperous future?
LC: Transportation is such an issue here. The people who need us the most are living in rural areas and are so impoverished they can’t get to us. When I look at the WIC program, their model is to go out into the communities they serve. They meet people where they are. They don’t force people to come to them. I think there needs to be more of that here. We need to go out to people more.