Live United: Sometimes it’s helpful to point out the elephant in the room

Published 8:45 pm Friday, November 19, 2021

Live United by Erin Haag

I’ll admit, this article might come across as a humble brag but bear with me. I want to explain my thought process and perspective and need to lay down the foundation. Yesterday in a meeting, I got the, “I’ve heard you were…” comment. It’s the latest in several people who have made this comment, so I guess I’ve developed a reputation for this characteristic trait — one that I never set out to get, and never thought much about having. Whenever I start a conversation with someone new, and it’s just the two of us, I often tell them that I’m more of a plain speaker. I’ve got the fancy words, the education and experience to back it up, but in my opinion, sometimes you just have to call out the elephant in the room.

Erin Haag

Conversations centered around human service and programming can be hard. Many of us live and breathe the organizations we work for, and to hear any type of feedback perceived as criticism can be difficult, pushing us out of our comfort zone. After all, it’s our very heart and soul that we put into our work. However, when it comes to creating organizational changes to improve capacity, to improve services, to create lasting chance — well, there tend to be a lot of elephants.

Often the comments about my style is centered around being blunt, being down to earth and being a straight shooter. I’ve never gotten the impression that it was a bad or good thing, a just neutral thing, so I just nod and go on — after doing a quick gut check to make sure it’s not perceived badly.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a couple of hard conversation and had to report back to a team regarding a project. I worried that I was reporting a little too thoroughly, but as my concern was a pretty significant barrier to the project, I took a chance. The response I got from the executive director shifted how I think about this style of mine.

“Erin — I really, really appreciate your willingness to have tough conversations and say things that need to be said even when it’s awkward.”

I know, it’s a humble brag, that I’m sharing the compliments given. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the kudos, but I’ve found myself thinking about this quite a bit in the last couple of weeks, and I want to share how this has changed things.

You see, I always perceived this as a strength when working with clients — our community members in need. I’ve always heard that I’m relatable — more than once I’ve had a client be shocked that I’m the executive director, in my jeans and hair up in a messy bun and sneakers on my feet. I connect to others through our mutual experiences.

When it comes to working at the executive level, I sometimes feel like I’m not professional enough for lack of a better word. I’m not the corporate board room type, although I’m comfortable speaking in front of groups. I’m not dressed up in a smart business suit and high heels with sleek polished hair, and I’m not elegant at fundraisers. You won’t find me at the golf course or any of those stereotypical images of a high-powered executive making deals. Make no mistake — I don’t view this as a bad thing in myself. I just never particularly thought of it as a specific strength in the corporate arena. It’s easy to forget that nonprofits that need to develop resources need to be competitive in the corporate arena, because that’s how we bring in the funding.

I can do awkward really well, and that might be a powerful force for good. Sometimes the elephants in the room overshadow everything else but they don’t change what needs to be done. 

I’m grateful for this executive director for her appreciation — and for helping me frame my characteristic in a different way.

It wouldn’t be a United Way article without the call to action, right? I’ve got two for you. Included in today’s edition of the Tribune, you’ll find our annual campaign pledge card. Consider this your personal invitation to fill it out and mail it to us, for the grant cycle that will be opening in January. Secondly, our Winter Gear Drive is going strong, and the need is great. I’ve been so encouraged by the donations we’ve received, helping keep our kids warm. This week, someone shared that she was so impacted by my story last week, she brought a coat in specifically for that mama. The UWFC team is working to clear the list. Our list is updated online, and we’ll be posting more specific needs. Currently at the top of the list is size 3 youth boots for both boys and girls. That’s straight from a school social worker by the way. Snow is coming, and soon it will cover the world, soft and white. Let’s help make sure that morning comes with peace and joy in the fresh white blanket, not fear and dismay over how to keep a child’s feet warm and dry as they go to school. Questions? Call our office at 507-373-8670. As always, thank you for your responses — dropping off the coat for a mama, calling to ask a question, volunteering to spend your time. We thank you for living united every single day.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.