Helen Archontou of YWCA Northern New Jersey On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Support talent. Investing in your team is necessary. As someone who understands nonprofits and their work model of long hours with low compensation, I was fully committed to changing that narrative. I encouraged the board to conduct a full staff equity review to better understand that our team was being competitively compensated for their time and talent. We were also committed to evolving our staff and creating opportunities and pathways for their professional growth.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Helen Archontou, CEO of YWCA Northern New Jersey.
As Chief Executive Officer since 2011, Helen Archontou has guided YWCA Northern New Jersey to fully live its intersectional mission to eliminate racism and empower women by advocating against the oppression that many groups and individuals endure. Helen has overseen the development of a continuum of programs to support women and families in every stage of life as well as to raise awareness and take action to end racial and social injustice, advance gender equity, and promote the rights of all women. Helen served as a state appointed member of the NJ State Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault and is a Co-Chairperson of the NJ Coalition Against Human Trafficking’s Legislative Committee, and a member of the Non-profit Steering Committee of Commerce and Industry Association of NJ. In 2019, Helen received the Crime Victim’s Rights Award from the NJ Office of the Attorney General and the Excellence Award of Victim’s Justice. She was also named among The Powerful Women of NJ in Senator Loretta Weinberg’s Women Power List from 2019–2023. In 2020, Helen received the Top 50 Women in Business from NJ Biz and the Top 25 Women in NJ Award from Leading Women Entrepreneurs. In 2021, Helen was recognized by the Commerce & Industry Association of NJ (CIANJ) as a Women Leader on the Rise. In 2022 she was a finalist for the ATHENA Award through the Monmouth County Regional Chamber of Commerce. Helen is an adjunct professor at Montclair State University since 2005 in the School of Social Work. Her love for her work in social justice is only topped by her love for her husband and twins Julia and Steven.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My journey began on the school playground in kindergarten. I remember the memory clearly of witnessing someone being bullied. The only thing I thought to do at the moment was offer my support, marking the first of many instances where I would stand up for others. This experience evolved during my high school and college years, where I would be involved in organizing protests and advocating for change.
My career path has consistently led me to confront equity issues, help survivors, and create a better future. After college, I worked in politics and social work, ultimately finding myself at YWCA Northern New Jersey (YWCANNJ). This July, I celebrated 12 years as the CEO while simultaneously being an adjunct professor at Montclair State University, teaching at the School of Social Work with a specialization in child advocacy and addressing child abuse.
As I continue to do meaningful work at the YWCANNJ and share my expertise as an adjunct professor, I hope to spark hope and inspire the next generation of leaders and ensure a brighter future for all.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started my career, I accepted a stretch job as the executive director of a small nonprofit organization. Little did I know that this leadership position would throw me headfirst into the world of finance.
During a board meeting, I was tasked with writing notes on the whiteboard when suddenly the conversation shifted to financial accruals. As a social worker, I had never heard the word before, let alone knew how to spell it. I was left frozen and wondering how not to misspell the word in front of everyone. Somehow, I managed to evade the situation. The experience left me aware that I had a knowledge gap and determined to fill it, so I enrolled myself in nonprofit finance classes.
Looking back, I’m grateful that I took that stretch job as it opened me to the opportunity to learn and strengthen the tools in my professional toolkit.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I like to believe that I am a mosaic of the people who have crossed my path. Everyone, from good to bad bosses, have left marks on my journey, and I’m genuinely grateful for the multitude of individuals who have invested in me.
However, there has been a mentor that holds a special place in my heart. Their influence has been pivotal in guiding me. They instilled the wisdom of when to keep fighting and when to stop. As an activist, it is important to know the difference.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
For over 160 years, YWCA USA has been at the forefront of national and local social movements. Our local association in Northern New Jersey has been serving the community for over a century. Despite the changing world around us, we have remained dedicated to our mission of promoting gender equality, supporting women and girls, combating racism, providing support through Bergen County’s only sexual violence resource center healingSPACE, and prioritizing wellness. Our organization is built upon three core pillars:
Gender Equity & Empowerment: We provide skill-based learning opportunities to inspire women and girls by promoting empowerment, economic independence, advocacy, leadership development, and personal authenticity.
Racial Justice & Equality: We actively confront hate and work towards creating a culture of change. By bridging divides, educating, partnering, and advocating, we strive for an equitable and inclusive environment.
Safety, Support & Wellness: We create safe spaces for growth, change, and learning. Our efforts include supporting sexual violence survivors, assisting children and families, and providing wellness programs for seniors.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Leading an organization during tough times means having the willingness to face uncertainty head-on. It involves making difficult decisions and taking decisive action to navigate through challenging circumstances. I have learned valuable lessons from two major instances where I had to lead significant changes.
A few years ago, we expanded our presence from Bergen County to all of Northern New Jersey, including Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Morris, and Passaic counties, allowing us to deepen our work and reach more communities. However, this came with its own challenges. The expansion meant the need to dissolve lease agreements and shut down historic programs that were no longer effective. It was not an easy task, and it did not include having easy conversations. I had to be proactive and make tough choices to ensure the organization’s stability and growth.
The mission was to consolidate our operations into one central headquarters where we could streamline our processes and achieve greater efficiency. However, just as we were stabilized, the unexpected happened — the pandemic struck. Nevertheless, I quickly understood that adaptation was the key to success in this new reality. The pandemic forced us to further focus our vision of our work and, surprisingly, we ended up adding a number of business lines that strengthened our mission.
Around this time, we saw the need nationally to address long-standing issues that became more visible, from childcare to pay inequality and racism. I made it a point to take a new approach to combat these deep-rooted problems, and it started with looking inward at our organization. We implemented an equity assessment to evaluate our practices to ensure our accountability. We also adjusted salaries, so they were more in line with market standards.
The results included recognizing the importance of ongoing learning and providing more opportunities for training and development. We moved into a hybrid work model to create a better quality of life for our employees. For some of our team that eased childcare challenges.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Having bad days is a natural part of life, but it’s crucial to approach them with a different mindset. When you start to feel overwhelmed, I think it is important to take a breath and embrace what you are feeling as an opportunity for you to refocus. In all honesty, giving up isn’t something that I consider. When I begin to feel overwhelmed, I tend to step away, allow myself time to check in with myself and decide my next step to move forward. It’s important to know what fills your cup to help you through these days. I have a folder on my computer filled with kind emails I have received during my tenure. The emails encourage and remind me of why I am committed to my work when the day is hard.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
Although there are a multitude of books around social change that I reference, a book that is meaningful to me for leading is about personal mindset: “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff. This philosophical book emphasizes simplicity and offers a unique perspective on life. Sometimes we become too caught up in academia and forget to focus on our individual paths and purposes. “The Tao of Pooh” urges readers to embrace their true selves. It encourages readers to make decisions for their future based on what they learn about themselves and reminds us that each individual brings something valuable to the table. I personally find this book so influential that I teach its principles to my students during the first few weeks of school. It helps them learn about the importance of self-advocacy and listening to their inner voice.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is being a “keeper of the faith.” It is hard for people to see the light through the darkness, so it falls upon the leader to effectively communicate, offer a well-defined plan, and demonstrate a willingness to take action. Your team and those in your vicinity will closely observe your actions, words, reactions, and decisions, emphasizing the significance of your role. This is why embracing resilience becomes the utmost responsibility of a leader as a path forward.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
As leaders, we always need to “read the room” to get a sense of what our team needs and create the path forward to inspire them — that’s good leadership and helps ensure the team gets what they need to be successful. Strong leaders are good role models for their employees and are especially effective when they lead authentically. When you bring your whole self to your roles, you are better equipped to integrate your personal values and sense of purpose into everyday actions and support those you lead to do the same.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Sharing difficult information requires a clear and concise message, emphasizing the importance of facts. Despite whatever bleak information you are sharing, being able to move forward with humanity is essential. When we shared news of layoffs or when we let go of historic programs, we ensured that every transitioning employee received job placement assistance. As a result, everyone either found new employment or received personalized support based on their preference.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think adaptive leadership and planning is the only way to operate in this environment. You need to be able to create a plan for where you think you’re headed while simultaneously assessing what’s happening around you so you can adjust while in motion. This thinking has kept us strong through the pandemic and continues to keep us relevant and mission driven.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Communication with empathy.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- When the going gets tough, they freeze and do nothing
- They are reactive instead of strategic
- They try to build an empire and not collaborate
- They don’t invest in their people
It is important to keep in mind that these responses will lead you on a road to failure.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- They work with others and embrace partnerships. As a nonprofit organization, we sometimes have limitations with resources, but still want to make an impact. Aligning with mission linked organizations strengthens what we can offer our community. For example, partnering with our local domestic violence center to support women in need of that type of service makes more sense than developing it in house. Our clients benefit from their specialized services and their safety net strengthens our community overall.
- They communicate effectively. Communication is critical. Anytime we have had a big change, we had a robust communications plan. When we transitioned from YWCA Bergen County to YWCA Northern New Jersey, we developed a multi-phase communications plan that included a town hall for our team, smaller department meetings and conversations with community leaders to make sure we were transparent in our process, and everyone knew why the organization was evolving.
- They are empathetic and invest in their people. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we noted the stress our team was experiencing as we planned to return to the office. We took time to reflect on our internal processes and internal goals. We used it as a moment to pivot into a hybrid workforce to give our staff the flexibility they needed to have a better work-life balance.
- They embrace change and growth. Adaptation is the key to success, both in your leadership skills and in your organization’s goals. It is important to have a well-thought-out plan while still being able to actively learn and act if changes occur. Although we had a plan on how to move forward when we expanded our service territory, it did not make sense to roll it out as expected once the pandemic hit. We had to pause on some activity and unexpectedly move forward on new opportunities. We jumped into providing support for groups of women focused on reentry during this time. Today we have a strong partnership with the Department of Corrections, and we are supporting a much larger group with expanded services.
- Support talent. Investing in your team is necessary. As someone who understands nonprofits and their work model of long hours with low compensation, I was fully committed to changing that narrative. I encouraged the board to conduct a full staff equity review to better understand that our team was being competitively compensated for their time and talent. We were also committed to evolving our staff and creating opportunities and pathways for their professional growth.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I really like the quote, “Leap and the net will appear.” To me it means you have to be brave and trust that you created a circle who will rally around you.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Helen Archontou of YWCA Northern New Jersey On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.