Goodwill Industries CEO
Nichols epitome of leadership
by Sarah Fay Campbell
Jane Nichols has been president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of the Southern Rivers since 1999.
In that time, the organization has grown from $3.8 million in gross revenue and placing 19 people into employment to over $27.1 million in gross revenue and placing 3,507 people in employment in 2012.
Nichols spoke about her leadership journey at Monday night's meeting of the Newnan-Coweta Chamber of Commerce's Coweta Business Women's Network.
"She is an absolutely phenomenal leader," said chamber employee Carole Ann Fields. Fields is a former Goodwill employee who was the manager of the Newnan Career Center.
Nichols is someone who "actually leads by example," Fields said.
"Leadership is what I am really passionate about," Nichols said. "I firmly believe that is what God made me to do and it's been a great, wonderful journey."
Nichols got a communications degree at Georgia Southern University and started her career at Lockheed as a speech writer. She was in a "very much male dominated" industry, but she worked for a wonderful boss.
"His passion was empowering other people. That was my first introduction to leadership."
There was a room at Lockheed full of plaques and awards. When someone came to visit, one of Nichols' jobs was making sure that plaque or award they had given to Lockheed was in a prominent place.
"That was a big 'ah ha' moment. Sometimes what you think things are they are not really that," she said. Instead they are "there for you to look good and feel good."
Nichols held many jobs over the years, working for Georgia State University, Newnan Savings Bank, Callaway Gardens and Southtrust Bank.
At Georgia State, she was put in charge of fundraising and learned another lesson. "Fat, dumb and happy may be a good thing. Ignorance is truly bliss sometimes."
She was working in banking and development when she was asked to join an advisory board for Goodwill.
In her banking and development job, a major thing she learned "was don't be afraid — don't be afraid to ask questions, to read, to seek knowledge. And you really can do anything you decide you want to do if you put aside that fear."
Nichols served on Goodwill's board of directors for nine years. The leader of the organization resigned and Nichols started getting phone calls from people who said she should apply for the job. "I was like — no. I'm on this fast track."
One day she got another call and her husband asked her why she didn't apply — she had turned down every other non-profit but always found time for Goodwill, so she might as well get paid for it.
"It still took me three more years to apply," Nichols said. "That is where my life changed forever." Nichols said everything she had ever learned, "I was using every single day in that job."
Nichols said much of Goodwill's growth was the result of her team — not her. "I just got to sit and listen and dream — and make them the most important person in the room."
Several years ago, her board asked her to "disengage" for a month to six weeks, every three years.
"What I've learned is it is great for Jane and I really do get to turn it off and the creative juices come back. But it is even better for that organization," she said. "When I disengage, they have to do what I have been doing."
"It's been the most awesome leadership journey for my direct reports — it's prepared them," she said.
After the most recent sabbatical, she sat down with the leadership team and asked them "what didn't work and what do you need from me."
"The way they answered that question… there was nothing that didn't work, because they had to stay at the table and figure it out," she said. And that was "very eye-opening for them."
At her organization, "we are big on balance — and having responsibilities outside of work and doing what is right for families," she said.
"I love what I do, I love the people," Nichols said. "If you are leaving every day from a place that matters it's fun and it's not work. And I encourage all of you to lead from that place, to find your sweet spot."
As a leader, Nichols said, the role is to "be the chief story teller and questioner."