Kate Grathwol, CEO of Vision Loss Resources, balances the needs of a business and a social enterprise by staying true to their missions
Let me begin by stating the obvious: Kate Grathwol has a lot to manage. She serves as CEO of Vision Loss Resources (VLR), a nonprofit organization that is the state’s largest provider of services, skills and support for people who are experiencing vision loss. VLR is primarily funded by Contract Production Services (CPS), a quick-turn, multifaceted, outsource packaging, assembly and light manufacturing company. Kate runs both businesses and expresses her values of service and community each day through her work and leadership.
Managing the competing needs of a business and a social service agency can be difficult, but Kate balances the two by staying true to the mission and reminding both businesses they serve each other. “We all do better when we all do better,” explains Kate. “The most important thing is that our clients are being served and they are happy. It is a juggling act, but the overarching theme is service before self.” This service continues to provide inspiration after eight years of serving as CEO. “Many of our clients come through the door terrified because they have lost their vision and feel they have lost their independence,” shares Kate. “After we teach them skills and share our resources, they come back to life. They realize there is a way to go on living and completely embrace it.”
Kate excels as a leader by following shared values, clear purpose and empowerment, which she provides to her staff. “I don’t tell my staff ‘you should do it this way,’” says Kate. “The greatest joy is for them to figure it out and do it, learning on their own. I ask if they want feedback on things, or if I think they’re going off a cliff I’ll try to lead them down a different path. I’ll make suggestions, but I would never tell them what to do.”
In addition to leaving room for her staff to create their own solutions, Kate explains there are only a few traits she looks for when hiring new employees: “Empathy, hospitality and the ability to create a safe place for the people we serve. Those are the things we look for. You can teach just about everything else.” That’s not to say she doesn’t expect a lot from her team. “You’ve got to have the right people doing the right things. You need to have clear accountabilities and metrics and be honest with them. If you train people well, they are empowered.”
Much of Kate’s leadership philosophy comes from lessons she’s learned in life. “We all want the same thing,” Kate explains. “We want food, shelter and community for ourselves and loved ones. We’re at work because we want those things, but we also want to be part of the greater community and to help each other. We’re all on the same journey, and we’re all here to help each other on that journey.” This belief fits perfectly with the relationship between VLR and CPS — 100% of CPS’s profits go to the social service organization. When things are difficult, Kate strives to “Do good anyway. Be honest anyway.” Additionally, Kate works to “try things, and be kind whenever possible (it’s always possible), and do the next right thing.”
As mentioned previously, running two businesses can be wearing, especially when leading as an introvert in an extroverted world. A woman who enjoys the quiet of the outdoors and a book with her Earl Gray tea, Kate has built her extrovert skills in order to succeed as a CEO. The other part of her success, however, is also building skills to recharge. “You have to know what fills your well,” says Kate. “I fill mine by doing something quiet. I’ll duck into a book, I’ll walk, I’ll garden in the summer, I’ll go sailing. I’ll do something where I can just be.”
Kate Grathwol is a self-described “very happy person,” and before our interview she told me she knew we would laugh a lot. She was right. It’s clear that living her values through service, doing the next right thing, and her “belief in the possible” have steered her to success and happiness in both her personal and professional life. Her advice to others: “Life is short, just do it. If you can see it in your mind’s eye, there’s a way to make it happen.”
Sue Hawkes, CEO of YESS!, is a Certified EOS Implementer, Certified Business Coach, WPO Chapter Chair, bestselling author and award-winning entrepreneur. She has been helping entrepreneurs and leadership teams succeed for the past 20+ years.