Editor’s note: This piece is one of an occasional series on nonprofit leaders in Milwaukee. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Keith Stanley has been executive director of Near West Side Partners since 2013. The nonprofit organization is responsible for revamping seven communities, including Avenues West, Concordia, Miller Valley and Martin Drive. It is supported by five anchor institutions: Aurora Health Care, Harley-Davidson, Marquette University, MillerCoors, and Potawatomi Business Development Corp. Stanley, who lives in his native Sherman Park, also leads the Avenues West Association, a neighborhood improvement group.
Q: Who has had a major impact on your life?
A: I worked for Alderman Willie Hines while in college. He was president of the Common Council for three years. He is an amazing person with amazing leadership qualities. He exemplified leadership on a level I have never seen before in dealing with the tumultuous issues of our city.
Q: Please share a defining moment that explains why you do what you do?
A: This moment wasn’t so much inspiring, but it helped challenge me to stay focused. One day I had the opportunity to visit a multi-unit rental property. On that day, a lady and her kids were being kicked out. It wasn’t a good scene to see a young African-American woman begging her landlord to allow her and her family to stay. That moment stayed with me because that could have been someone in my family. I realized that we have to do a better job in this community.
Q: What do you believe is the strongest aspect of your organization?
A: Collaboration. Near West Side Partners has redefined what collaboration means in the city of Milwaukee. That could be a high-minded thought, but there are other institutions in Milwaukee that rarely connect with the community.
Q: How do you encourage creative thinking in your organization?
A: The first thing is that we do not say no. When we have meetings and try to figure out what we want to do, we embrace everyone’s thoughts. We encourage creative thinking by having people not be afraid to share ideas. We also encourage attending conferences and getting more education. If there are career development courses and training, let’s go for it.
Q: What is one characteristic every leader should possess?
A: Listening. I know its basic, but I think it’s the most important. It’s something that all leaders must have in order to be successful. If you are in a leadership role and lack listening skills, you can really hurt yourself. I would also say you need to be a little more flexible as a leader than anyone else within the organization. If you are willing to spend the extra time, people will respect you.
Q: What are you doing to continue developing as a leader?
A: One thing that I have gotten into is downloading audiobooks. Whenever I am at my desk or driving around, I let audiobooks play, particularly those by other successful leaders. These books usually give me meaningful leadership advice that I can use in my own life. They have become very important in my growth and development as a leader.
Q: What advice would you give someone entering a leadership position for the first time?
A: Connect with everyone they can to build their network. This can be difficult because many people are hesitant to spend time with people they don’t know. People should get over these hindrances. Another thing that seems meaningless, but I think is important, is raising your hand. Good leaders continuously learn new skills by raising their hands. I learned how to make a website, write a blog and shoot video, all from raising my hand. This constant development of my skill set has put me in a better leadership position.