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SCG's Chris Essel Featured in Women in Leadership Blog Series

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

UCLA's Dr. Nancy Wayne recently interviewed SCG President and CEO Chris Essel for her "Women in Leadership" Blog Series. 

This is the fifth in a series of interviews with women leaders that aim to inspire, motivate, and provide useful tips for advancing your career towards becoming a leader in your field. 

NW: Tell us about the work of Southern California Grantmakers and how they’re making a difference in this region. 

CE: SCG is a membership association, much like a Chamber of Commerce. The difference is that our members provide resources to non-profits for good work in the community. Our job as the membership association is to bring our members together so they can learn from each other, connect with each other, but also help them move into action on the issue where they’re trying to make a difference. That can take many shapes and forms. We do a lot of professional development programming helping new entrants to the field, and with people in the mid-level who want to keep improving their work or moving up within their own organizations. We also bring in cutting-edge speakers on the topics of the day, in the areas where our members fund. And we have been moving in a new direction towards being more of a leadership hub for the sector. We bring our members together to actually help them move the needle on the issues they’re working on. Beyond being just a service provider and a ‘pick-and-choose the program you want to come to’, it’s come and be part of thiscollaboration or this movement. We’ll provide the backbone services to help you get there.

NW: What did you hope to achieve when you first took the lead executive position in 2013 at Southern California Grantmakers (SCG)? Over the past four years, what have been the top priorities and some of the most notable accomplishments of your organization?

CE: Having come from outside of philanthropy, I could see a lot of opportunities out there that hadn’t really been explored. Initially when I arrived and talked to a lot of current members, former members, and potential members, it struck me after a fairly short period of time that there were three shifts in the organization that would be of value to the sector. It had been a fairly staff-driven organization without a lot of advisory committees or input from the members on what we should provide to them. In part because I didn’t come from philanthropy and didn’t have a whole base of knowledge to work from, the more I could learn from my members and give them what they wanted the more likelihood I felt they would want to stay engaged with us and perhaps bring others to the party. There needed to be more of a service and engagement orientation. The second thing was to view ourselves not just as a passive program provider – that we would get active in the actual issues. We’ve been looking for those ways. Every time there is a meeting we listen for what could we do to move the learnings forward that came from that day’s session, where do we hear some action that we could take to help make a difference. The third prong of our three-legged stool was to view ourselves as a leadership hub – where had we not been providing a service, where had we not been connected and reaching out. There were, for instance, any number of funder groups that met on topic areas separate and apart from SCG, and we wanted to be connected with them. Gradually, we picked up a number of these peer groups that said, “Great! If you’re willing to help us, we would love to work with you.” And that expanded our leadership role. We also filled the void in certain topic areas where there was not a funder group, like the veteran’s funders are coming together, foster care funders are coming together, funders around environmental issues are coming together under the SCG banner. Viewing ourselves as the place where you can get to any aspect of the philanthropic landscape by affiliating with us has been a big part of our mission.

One of the accomplishments that I’m particularly excited about is having launched a significant public policy arm of the organization. There had been attempts in the past, but it had never become very robust. Now we have a position called Director of Public Policy and Government Relations. We have a whole team that works on these issues. We’re helping members and the field move toward seeing their role in public policy and helping them effect change when it comes to how the government is dealing with the same issues that we’re dealing with. A piece very related to that, where we’re particularly delighted to have been at the forefront, is to have co-created the Center for Strategic Public-Private Partnerships at the County of Los Angeles. We now have 15 funders supporting the staff located at the county – it’s half funded by philanthropy, half funded by the county – so there’s joint ownership of this department. They’re working closely, specifically on child protection issues, including the foster care work that got started by the foster care peer group we created. It’s a model, we hope, that will become successful and be replicated and expanded, both at the county and in other regions.

NW: You were at Paramount Pictures for 30 years, eventually becoming Senior Vice President. What was your starting position there and what was your path to a senior executive position?

CE: I started as a financial analyst at Paramount Pictures. I had been a music major and worked in the music business as a song writer overseas for a number of years. I decided that wasn’t going to be my lifelong career path. I thought I would make a very good accountant. Music and numbers – especially if you had been trained as a classical musician – numbers work well in your brain. I started as an accounting clerk and bounced around to a couple of small entertainment companies, and Paramount hired me in early 1978 as a financial analyst. It was a wonderful point in time to enter the entertainment industry. Especially since Paramount was really clicking then. They had been struggling for most of the ‘70s, but under new leadership the TV hits started rolling in. The movies were getting much better. The industry was growing altogether by leaps and bounds. You’ve got to pick your time! Shortly after I started as a financial analyst, they had an opening they asked me to fill to be the Manager of Facilities Accounting. It was a terrific role in terms of understanding how ‘the lot’ worked by preparing the overhead budgets for the various studio divisions. I was also the ongoing budget maven for the studio group as a whole. I was particularly responsible for their financials and did monthly reports on that. The gentleman at the time who was running that division, who I had a dotted line reporting to, called me up and asked me if I wanted to run the Planning and Development Department. I said, “Are you sure? I’m not real agile at design or construction.” And he said, “I don’t care. You can learn it.” So, I jumped at the opportunity to not be in the world of accounting my whole life! I really liked the concept of working in teams and not so much solo. That’s partly why I left the music business – it was a very solo operation –  you’re in your own little world. I took the job and ran the Planning and Development Department from 1981-2004. As we got busier, we had to rebuild the lot, we had to expand and build new buildings. It became evident that it would be useful for me to have a civic presence – to have my own connections at City Hall to understand how the process worked, to be viewed more as a civic leader. I progressed along those lines and got on some boards and offered to a councilman that I would be willing to serve on an advisory board that he was starting up. I realized how much I was enjoying that engagement and making a difference in my community. I realized that my voice mattered, and that I could bring my creative thinking and my bigger-picture ideas to a table where they could be shared and perhaps even implemented. I got this sense of being empowered by being involved in any number of civically focused groups. It really became a theme for me. It was very rewarding beyond just having my “nose to the grindstone” job at the studio. Paramount recognized that, and after a few years of my doing that community work on the outside, they asked me to take over the role of Government and Community Affairs. It was great to combine the two efforts. I really sunk my teeth into the government relations role, and how we could ramp up our support for our local community. I held the two roles up until about 2004. After my boss and mentor left in 2004, I asked to take my Government and Community Affairs role corporate, out of the division. I spent four more years doing that.

NW: When I talk to women who are in middle management roles, especially in academia, one of the complaints that I hear and it’s certainly been my experience, is that women are not allowed in the money room. And so, it doesn’t give them the opportunity to move up because they don’t have significant budgetary responsibilities. You were let into the money room from the get-go. Do you think that was key in allowing you to move along the path to the top?

CE: I never looked at it quite that way. Having started in accounting, and understanding how the whole organization was budgeted and how the numbers work, was always an advantage for me because numbers never scared me. And I got how to use them, I got how to manipulate them, I got how to talk about them – it provided a real great position to support any work I did after that. It was simply quite helpful having this agility and being facile with numbers. But, it’s an interesting point that you make. I hadn’t thought of that before. It probably did give me a certain amount of credibility, that generally I think women are cast in a way that, well, “they’re not savvy about the way that the business really works.”

NW: What were some of the most difficult challenges along the way at Paramount, and how did you deal with them?

CE: There were a couple of times in my career when I was actually told that I couldn’t have that job or that title that I rightly deserved, because other women would be jealous about it. I just confronted them – you know that doesn’t seem like a rational argument. I almost turned down a couple of positions because I wasn’t given the title, and then they came around. There were times when I really had to draw the line. I was generally known as somebody who is very collaborative and was a team player, and could be in any room and be comfortable even if it were all men. But, I felt that I was getting that treatment because they thought I wasn’t going to push back. I remember a couple of very tough conversations that got me where I wanted to go.

NW: I think that a lot of women feel that if they don’t have exactly the credentials for the next step or for a job, they won’t push themselves. What is it about you that allowed you to overcome some trepidation in moving forward?

CE: I didn’t turn anything down even when I was completely unprepared! When I was 12 years old, I decided I could start teaching piano lessons because my mother was doing it – well, I could do that I thought. I had been practicing and working hard at the piano since I was three. There have been these times in my life when I decided to take a leap, and whatever would come of it that might be a problem, I would just work through it. One was leaving the States to go be a song writer in Europe. Or coming back and deciding I was going to be an accountant. Or accepting the offer to run Planning and Development when I didn’t know a hammer from a nail. I said, “I can do that.” It was a level of self-confidence I’ve given myself, I think, by starting really young to say, “I’ll take that on!”

NW: In 2009, you announced your candidacy for Los Angeles City Council member. You were endorsed by the LA Times. A quote from the LA Times endorsement includes, “We believe she is the most likely of the two candidates to press successfully for the interests of her constituents in the political rough-and-tumble that is Los Angeles politics.” By many accounts, this was a tough election battle that included a run-off. Ultimately, you were not elected. What led you to throw your hat into the ring in local politics? How did you deal with defeat in order to move forward and ultimately find your place in a meaningful leadership position?

CE: Over the course of my time at Paramount, I did get involved politically beyond the civic and non-profit work I was doing. What particularly motivated me, outside of the Paramount function I had, was to see women get elected to office. Over time, I had some fundraisers and supported women personally to the extent I could. I was encouraged to run for that [Council member] seat after I left Paramount. I never personally thought about running for office. It took a while to try it on and think about it. I had looked at a couple of other positions for six months after Paramount that really didn’t feel like a good fit for me. I’d been trying for all these years to help women get elected. As part of my effort to see more women in leadership roles, why would I not take advantage of this opportunity? I felt that I had the capacity to be a successful candidate. I had a great Rolodex. I had just enough experience to have it not to be completely out of reach. So, I went for it. I had to move to the [San Fernando] Valley to do it, and make a lot of big life decisions to do it. I had lived in the district prior, and moved back to a place nearby where I had lived before. I knew it would be challenging, but sometimes it takes a little naiveté to jump into those roles that are a little outside of your reach and take you to another level if you do it. The door is open; you’re being given a shot at it. It felt like just the right thing to do at that moment in time.

In a special election like this, it was beyond full time. There was not a moment’s rest May through December that year [2009]. You get all excited about an LA Times endorsement, when labor unions endorse you, and the business community endorsed me – it felt so reaffirming. But, there was a lot of negativity, and you build up a thicker skin. You learn to be real agile on your feet in public settings, and speak off the top of your head. I had to figure out what I stood for. It was the perfect shift for me in so many ways. After 30 years at one company, I could create my own identity – not only for the outside world, but for myself. It was very reaffirming in that way. There was so much positive that came out of it that when I lost, yes I was very disappointed, but as with most things in my life – yeah I tried that, I gave it my all. It turned out the way that it did, now what could I do with what I built with this effort together with my past experience.

NW: Do you have a personal philosophy of what it takes to be an inspiring and transformational leader?

CE: I get excited when I know there’s a big picture that I’m working towards. I try to share that with my staff. Together, we are all enrolled in the vision of Southern California Grantmakers. It’s exciting for me to have the staff really own this and help me shape what that vision could look like. My view of working with teams, and I’ve been a team leader for a long time now in different settings, has been to empower my staff: “What do you see, what can you bring to this, where are the possibilities from your perspective?” It’s a little bit more of a horizontal style of management that I get a lot of ‘juice’ from, myself. If you’re hierarchical, then you’re pretty much listening to yourself or calling the shots from your oversized chair, as opposed to the potential of what can be conceived of when great minds come together to advance the organization.

I never understood the fear factor of having people who are more talented working for you. I love that! Everyone here has a portfolio. It’s not a top-down approach to our programs or a top-down approach to the way in which we engage our members. It’s a very supportive culture for that reason.

NW: Do you have any additional advice for women who are considering leadership positions in their fields?

CE: I can talk about what has helped me, and that is to have created circles of relationships, networks, friends, in different arenas. Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve been able to tap into a deep list of contacts of people I respect and who respect me, who have helped me move forward. I’m a member of a women’s leadership organization called The Trusteeship. It was the members of that organization that were my references for my current position. It was my network of connections that helped me run for office. It was the network of connections and relationships I had built at Paramount that helped me be a formidable candidate. I did my best to be helpful to people wherever I could, even if I couldn’t give them Paramount dollars, I would find ways to be a coach, offer my advice or be supportive in other ways. Being helpful to others and keeping your ties and connections to your circles of relationships – that has helped me, without question, be a success.

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