OCCUPATION: Executive Director, North Country Workforce Development Board HOMETOWN: Montreal born, Sherbrooke, Quebec raised
FAMILY: Husband, Kurt Munson, children Gisèle and Ian
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degrees in English Writing from St. Edwards University (Texas), and in Communication Studies from Concordia University (Montreal). Graduate degree in Journalism from Concordia University
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Board president, United Way of the Adirondack Region; Member of the Advisory Council for CV Tech; Clinton Community College’s Institute of Advanced Manufacturing (IAM) and Business program. Former volunteer ski patrol member
A Passion for People
As Sylvie Nelson celebrates her fifth year leading the efforts of the North Country Workforce Development Board, she shows no signs of slowing down. We recently caught up with her via video chat during a whirlwind business trip to Germany, where she learned how they are using apprenticeship programs to meet workforce development needs.
Nelson’s passion for improving the lives of the residents of Clinton, Essex, Franklin, and Hamilton counties was evident from the very beginning of our conversation and reinforced throughout. Her career began in south Texas, where her family moved when she was a teenager. Her first job, as a journalist in a small community, allowed her to explore how a Chamber of Commerce can impact a community. The work ignited her passion for community and economic development.
Her career path winds through New Mexico, Michigan and ultimately the North Country. Nelson now lives in Saranac Lake, and enjoys a thoughtful daily commute to the Plattsburgh office of the North Country Workforce Development Board. In her current role she also oversees the work of three other regional offices in Malone, Elizabethtown and Indian Lake.
Following are excerpts from SB’s interview with Sylvie Nelson.
SB: What important lessons did you learn early in your career?
SN: When I first started out, I was painfully shy and self-conscious. As a journalism student I remember how hard it was to do my first interview. It took me two months to make a phone call to set it up. I finally realized that all I had to do was ask. At the end of the year I had to make a presentation and I was still having a hard time talking in front of people. I went into the room and I saw that it was a small audience and many of them were friendly faces. I realized that all I needed to do was to talk about my story to people I knew, and that unblocked me. I had to learn to tell myself it was not that bad. People want you to succeed, and you have something important to tell them. It was a life changing experience.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
SN: My former boss Charlie Walker at the
Roswell Chamber of Commerce in New Mexico. For many years I asked him for help. When I was researching new positions, he was always very forthcoming with advice and things that he had gone through.
SB: What is your favorite quote and how does it speak to you in your life?
SN: A quote I live by is, “Why settle for less, when I deserve the best” I know this is true. I don’t need to lower my standards. So many people think that we have to accept less, when we really do not.
SB: What does success look like to you?
SN: To me success is happiness. Being happy as you do your daily work in your job, in your family situation and in whatever activities you do. A lot of people measure success by the amount of money they make. That is not for me. To me, success is more of a feeling on the inside about the things I invest myself in and the things that I accomplish.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
SN: Twenty years ago, I had the pleasure of working with a woman in the Welfare to Work program who was hired in our office. We gave her training, skills and a job opportunity and she made the most of it. Ever since then she has moved up with her career. She got off welfare and her life was changed by an opportunity. Today she is a role model for her family. This is what is most important about my work, and this is what I am most proud of.
SB: Tell us about your approach to management and leadership.
SN: Leadership is not about making people happy. It is about making the decisions that will do the most good in whatever situation you find yourself.
SB: What do you look for when you hire?
SN: When I hire people to work in our office, it is first about the team approach. New employees have to fit within our team environment. Skills can be taught. Once they get hired, my management style is very hands off. I assume they were hired because they can do what they need to do in that position. I am there to help but I am not going to tell people how to do their jobs. They have goals and deadlines but how they do it on a daily basis, that is up to them.
SB: If you could start your professional career over again, what would you do differently?
SN: I wish I would have done some work abroad, both for the experience and the culture. If I could do it again, I would try to get international experience.
SB: If you could have dinner and spend an evening with any well-known person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
SN: I have an ancestor named Wolfred Nelson. He was a wealthy doctor and businessman who gave it all up to get involved in the rebellion in Quebec in the 1830’s. He was exiled and eventually came to settle in Plattsburgh. He advanced public health policies and was also the first elected Mayor of Montreal. I would love to sit down and chat with him about where he got his vision and what made him decide to give up a successful career and lifestyle to get involved in the rebellion.
SB: What inspires you?
SN: I think it all goes back to the community and the bigger picture. The things I do at work are never about me. It is more about the people we serve. That is what I go to bat for every day. If I can make it easier for a few people out there, then that is what keeps me moving. If I can do something to help in one way or another, then I think that is what I should be doing.
SB: How would you like to be remembered?
SN: As someone who thought about the common good. Someone who took leadership steps to try to change things and stood up for what was right. It isn’t really about me, but about the bigger picture. That is what we try to do in our office. It is about making sure the people who come through our doors are served right, that they get the opportunities and training they need.
SB: What is something no one would guess about you?
SN: I can eat twelve corn on the cob in one sitting. I can also speak English and write French at the same time.
SB: What do you believe the North Country community should do today to ensure a prosperous future?
SN: We need to do whatever it takes to get people to be productive and engaged and also to be able to work and contribute. In order for someone to be successful in the workplace, they have to have their basic needs met — things like housing, transportation and daycare. Social issues like substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence — all these things need to be taken care of before they can get training and get hired. If they don’t have the basics addressed, they will not be successful. As a society we have to take care of people’s basic needs so that when they are ready, they will be successful.