Rebecca Hage Thomley, our organization’s Chief Executive Officer, was featured in the March 2010 edition of MinnesotaBusiness magazine, discussing her “servant leadership” approach to life and how it led to her founding and leading Headwaters Relief Organization in its ongoing work in New Orleans.

The article can be found at:
MinnesotaBusiness magazine – March 2010

The text of the article is as follows:

Service Station
Orion Associates’ Rebecca Thomley takes a servant leadership approach in every aspect of her life.
By Elizabeth Millard
As Rebecca Thomley waits for her beignet at New Orleans’ famous Café du Monde, at first glance she might look like one of the other tourists who’ve clustered here for and after dinner sugar fix. But then there are the faint streaks of blue paint in her hair, the patches of grime on her jeans, and when she begins talking about gutting a hurricane-swept church, it’s obvious she’s not your everyday CEO.

Thomley, a small group of employees, construction workers and community members from Minnesota are in the Big Easy just before Thanksgiving to pitch in for Headwaters Relief, an organization that’s been rebuilding the city since Katrina. This isn’t a one-off, feel-good volunteerism day, though; Headwaters sprung from a disaster relief project helmed by Thomley, and some Headwaters’ volunteers have traveled to Louisiana more than a dozen times. They clear out houses and also work on fixing up community buildings including one that’s not used as a mental health center.
It’s all part of Thomley’s unique leadership blend of empowerment, respect and construction supplies. “There are so many layers and complexity with what we’re doing in New Orleans,” she says. “It’s a great chance to show leadership, but also to bring out the leadership qualities in others. It’s about service.”

Indeed, if there’s one theme threading through Thomley’s life, it’s service. Her mother started Meridian, a social service agency that is now part of the Orion companies. Then Thomley’s father retired-he’d run rehabilitation programs in central Minnesota for the State of Minnesota-he joined her, and when he passed away in 2000, it fell to Thomley to become CEO.

Although she hadn’t planned on running the company, she was well-suited for the task. Not only did she have extensive experience working with human services companies, but she brought a love of learning to the role. That’s almost an understatement; she holds degrees in psychology with a rehabilitation emphasis, criminal justice, clinical psychology, organizational management and psychopharmacology. So, when it came time to boost leadership skills among Orion’s upper tiers, she went back to school and took three company officers along.

“We all went to grad school together,” she says. “I was a psychologist, not a financial person, so I needed to know how to run the company. And having everyone go through the same program puts us all on the same page.”

During the team’s education at Concordia, they developed a style of leadership that included a focus on serving the community. Thomley also brought in outside consultants, and has the company’s operations audited every quarter, to make sure the company stays on track. In the meantime, she devotes a huge amount of energy to Headwaters Relief and also to the American Red Cross, where she’s a member of the organizations stress team.

As she picks up the check for a few plates of beignets, Thomley displays her characteristic humility – even after a day of hauling dirty equipment out of the mental health center’s storage space, then checking on a church that hadn’t been touched since Katrina hit, she just shrugs, as if it’s part of a CEO’s job. “We just do what needs to be done,” she says. “As long as people need us, we’ll be here.”

Focus on Employees
People underestimate how far the quality of leadership can take you. It’s more than just being a good employer; it’s about enhancing the life circumstances of the employees. For example, we have a daycare for employees, because I didn’t leave my babies to go to work, and I don’t expect anyone else to. You have to look toward enhancement, rather than just management.

Team Approach
When the officers of the company went through grad school together, it gave us a unified platform for operating the company. We now have the same leadership style and sense of focus. We became a mission-driven organization.

Do the Right Thing
I grew up in a family that valued volunteerism, community and commitment, and I’m very passionate about bringing those qualities to my family and the company. I think that extends to how we do business. We don’t make decisions based on a profit model alone, we ask, “What’s the right thing to do for the staff and for the community?” I think that model of leadership has brought us the best in the field, people who recognize the value of that perspective.