Leader to Leader: Kym Hardy Watson
A conversation with Graham Windam’s new president and CEO.
Graham Windham is one of the oldest social service agencies in New York City, dating back to its founding in 1806 by a group of women that included Eliza Hamilton, the widow of Alexander Hamilton. The agency made history again just a few weeks ago when it announced that Kym Hardy Watson would be its new president and CEO. Kym is the first woman of color to lead Graham Windham in the agency’s 215-year history.
In her new role, Kym will be assuming responsibility for a staff of several hundred people providing services to children and families at multiple locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. She brings several decades of experience to the task, beginning as a case worker in the 1980s and including her recent service as Graham’s chief operating officer.
I recently talked to Kym about her new job, the challenges of being an internal hire, and some of the life experiences that distinguish her from previous leaders at Graham Windham. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Berman: I don't know how much basketball you watch on TV, but after a star player makes a basket to win the game, they are often asked, "How does it feel?" It’s a dumb question, but I can’t resist. So, you just got this big new job: How does it feel?
Watson: I'm usually not at a loss for words, but I am struggling to find the right way to describe how I feel. I keep saying the same thing: I’m honored and privileged to be serving the families and the youth and the communities that Graham has been working with. In my wildest imagination, (becoming CEO) was never one of those things that I ever thought about. I know today's leaders are very purposeful in thinking about how to ascend the corporate ladder, but I wasn't groomed in that way. I was raised by my parents to just give whatever I was doing all of my attention and be excellent. My experience growing up was a lot like the families and the kids that we serve. Now I have the responsibility of standing alongside them, and then also going out in front and leading causes related to them and their well-being. That is so important.
Berman: Talk to me a little bit about the search process and how you got selected.
Watson: Many years back, Graham began to take on the issue of disproportionality of children of color in the child welfare system. That conversation became a broader conversation about disproportionality in general, including disproportionality in terms of leadership at the agency. There were far more white leaders at Graham than there were those of color. So Graham began to ask why. We recognized a few things. One is that Graham had a tendency of looking outside of the organization when leadership positions became available. That was one thing that we knew we had to address. We needed to be looking internally first. For those who were at Graham and who had not had previous experience at the senior managerial level, we had to ask: What did it require? What did they need in order to be ready? In other words, we needed to strengthen our bench.
So we created all kinds of opportunities to make sure that the folks inside could be prepared for leadership roles. We created a leadership academy. We began to tap into external leadership development programs. In a nutshell, we really looked for all the ways that we could prepare folks, so that when leadership opportunities presented themselves, our position would be that we look first inside the agency.
About five years ago, Jess (Dannhauser, who preceded Kym as Graham’s President and CEO) and I began talking about my professional development and succession planning. After he moved on, I was being prepared to be able to move up into his position.
Berman: Internal hires for CEO jobs have some advantages: You know the agency backwards and forwards. But you have some disadvantages too. Everyone at the agency knows you already, and they know you in a different role, not as the CEO. Have you thought at all about this dynamic? How do you get the best of being an internal hire and minimize the disadvantages?
Watson: Going forward, we have convened a panel that consists of various members of the Graham community who will be meeting with me every other week. Those things that are my strengths and my core skills, obviously I will want to continue those. But as I'm going along, this will also be a forum to raise up concerns about my leadership and my approach. This is all part and parcel of the inclusive community that we've been building in the last eight or nine years. We’ve been developing this ability to have straight talk with one another. And it works well for us. Whether it's my coming on as a new leader or it's the introduction of new practice models, anything that's being introduced to the Graham community that has the potential to impact a number of people in deep ways is subject to a very inclusive process. Folks are invited to the table, and really do have the opportunity to weigh in and make clear what their concerns are. They have the ability to complain if there is a complaint, but the goal is to problem solve together. And I have to say, I'm grateful for that process because it is going to help me make sure that nothing is falling through the gaps, that nothing is being taken for granted, and that my focus is on what matters.
Berman: I have read that Jess is staying on for a period of time. How is the transition going to work between you two?
Watson: This was actually something that began when Jess took over. The president who was in place then named Jess as his successor, and said that he and Jess would co-lead for a year so that Jess had an opportunity to learn his role. Jess wanted to extend the same opportunity to me. He will depart at the end of the year.
Berman: That's an interesting model. It obviously depends heavily on the quality of your relationship.
Watson: I can spend a whole other hour talking about the relationship that Jess and I have developed. He's been my longest standing boss ever. He and I have worked together for eight years. There's been a lot of living in those eight years. So I have come to know him very closely for the excellent leader that he is, but also for his humanity. He has an ability to see things for what they are, to see the injustices, to be able to call them out, and then respond. He is compassionate. He is also smart as hell. His moving on, we are all going to feel it at Graham. That is the bittersweet aspect of all this.
Berman: I had the pleasure of rising from deputy to executive director at my old job. What surprised me was that even though I had been part of the leadership team for years, I found that it was a big psychological leap.
Watson: Greg, you hit the nail on the head. So, March 1, which was my first day in my new role, we had a staff meeting. We've been doing these all-staff meetings on Zoom since the start of the pandemic. Jess and I, we do it together. We have a little banter between the two of us. On that Monday the 1, my mouth was dry, my hands were clammy. I kept fumbling over my words. It was crazy. I finally had to say, "I am just feeling very nervous." Everyone laughed and I moved on. But you're absolutely right, it was the psychological shift. That Monday, it hit me like a sledgehammer: You are responsible for all of these folks. I find myself feeling nervous at some points, but I also feel a little more fierce. I would never describe myself as a ferocious person, but I feel more protective of the agency, I guess is the best way to say it.
Berman: I wanted to circle back to identity issues a little bit, because you are the first person of color to lead Graham Windham. What does that mean to you, to the agency, and to the people you serve?
Watson: I think a lot about Graham's origins, and the legacy that our founding mothers left for Graham. I think about how this organization got started and who those women were. They were white women. They were young widows, in the case of Isabella Graham and Eliza Hamilton. It would seem like there's very little that we have in common, and yet, I find we have a lot in common, in terms of understanding what children need and what families need.
Those women wanted to make sure that orphans and half-orphans had all that they needed to be successful. And they wanted to do it in a way that was nonsectarian, without regard for which denomination the kids belonged to. It wasn't until later that there was attention paid to Native American children. We're still looking through early documents that are archived to determine when the organization began to serve black and brown children. We do know that the earlier organizations that essentially would become Windham were among the first organizations in the city to take children of color, especially after the riots in the mid-1800s when the Colored Orphan Asylum was burned down.
I say all that to say that I feel a real sense of connection to the same goal that our founders connected to, which is trying to give children and families what they need so that their futures can be better. We know that when folks are in survival mode that dreaming is a luxury. But that's exactly what Graham is all about. It's about helping families to reconnect to those dreams, and then putting them into action. We want to bring all of the resources Graham has to bear so that kids are supported in education, so that families are supported in being able to provide for their children's needs, so that our communities are stronger.
Berman: I wanted to ask you about another part of your identity. You are a grandmother six times over. I’ve heard it said that nonprofit leadership is a young person's game, and yet here you are ascending to CEO at a point when others are thinking about retirement.
Watson: (Laughing) I got a few years before retirement. I got lots of energy. My life experience, including having young grandkids, makes me right for this time. I’ve been around the block a couple of times. I think that the wisdom I've amassed is necessary right now – and this is taking nothing away from a younger generation of leaders. There's space for freshness and new eyes, and there's space for wisdom. For example, I'm older than Jess and I've been in this work longer than he has, yet there have been times that he helped me to look at a dilemma or an issue in a new way. And then there have been times that I've been able to say to him, "You know? This happened once before, and this is what we did then, it worked. Let's try that." So I think there's space for both perspectives.
Berman: I know you got your start as a case worker in the '80s. I’m not a child welfare person, but I remember the sense of crisis in the field back in those days. What’s your sense of how the field has changed over the past few decades?
Watson: I came into this field on the upswing of the crack epidemic. Babies were being left in the hospital after mothers gave birth because of crack addictions. It was the era of welfare hotels and shelters and that kind of thing. What I watched happen during that time was a system go out of control quickly. At that point, I wasn’t someone in leadership. I was just a worker, watching the system begin to become more restrictive, like a fist beginning to close. It excluded families, and it excluded people like me, who were working closely with families and could have really been informative. But there was no openness, no creativity. Obviously families and the children were affected, but I also watched workers who were overtaxed and overburdened. Everything became robotic. I watched the system really become very mechanical. I think that’s the best way to say it.
I can say, from that time until now, I have watched the New York City child welfare system progress toward being more innovative and solution-oriented. I've watched the fist open up again. People are really trying to get families and communities to come to the table. Is there still room for improvement? Absolutely. It is not completely where we need to be, but I really believe it's far better than what I saw back in those days.
Berman: When you talk about the unclenching of the fist, and the willingness to innovate, who or what do you credit for that?
Watson: I think it’s a number of things. I think conversations around racial equity helped. I think there’s a greater emphasis on really trying to engage families and to be helpful to families now. But it's like anything else, there has to be sustainability of anything we build. And that, I think, has been one of the biggest hurdles for the child welfare system in New York: the lack of consistency and the lack of the money that it takes to make sure that these things, once we start them, that we continue them. That often is not what happens. When there are transitions and changes in administration, lots of good stuff gets lost, or there's divestment. It ends up doing a great disservice to families and to kids, and to the workforce who take a lot of time in learning new practices.
Berman: You mentioned that Eliza Hamilton was one of the founders of Graham Windham. What impact has the success of the Hamilton musical had on the agency?
Watson: Luis and Lin-Manuel Miranda are great supporters. Anything that they can do to help Graham, they do. We've had gala events and they've assisted us in doing video endorsements and that kind of thing. So they've become a part of our Graham community.
Berman: As you look to the future, what's one thing that makes you excited?
Watson: I'm really excited about our deeper work in communities. I really believe with all of my soul that that is the way forward for our families and our kids. I've just begun to tell my own story as someone who was very, very briefly in the foster care system back in the '70s. It was during a very difficult time for my family. We had relatives who had gone off to Vietnam. Some went missing. And some came back in horrible condition. We were living in Brownsville. There were a lot of stressors in the community, and my parents' way of coping, alcohol, was not helpful. It was someone in the community who helped my family. Believe it or not, it was the lunchroom lady. The woman in the cafeteria had taken a shine to my mother. My mother confided she was having some difficulties. And the woman literally gave my mother the number to a local organization and told her, "Go here, these people will help you." So she did. She took us and it resulted in us being in care. Today, we would probably call it respite. It was just some months. We ended up being placed with a wonderful foster mother. We needed help and someone in the community gave us a referral to a community-based program that took care of us and helped us. I stayed in my community. Everything I needed was there. That's what Graham wants to provide for our children and our families. That excites me. That is what I think is really what we should be investing in our future should be going toward.
My children never knew the poverty I knew growing up. They didn't know the things that I saw. My grandchildren will not know those things either. I want that for Graham's kids. I want that for the kids of the city of New York. It takes money to be able to do that. I think putting the money in the right places so that the impact is sustainable is the thing that is necessary.