Leadership Series: LaTida Smith, Moses Taylor Foundation

Category: News

About the Leadership Series

Good leadership is easy to spot, but hard to define. Popular idioms point to leadership as influence, or hope, or the ability to translate vision to reality. Some leaders are characterized by charisma, others by quiet acts of service. And debate continues over the origin of leaders: are they born, made, or something in between?

Benefactor Group is proud to counsel effective leaders of all styles and backgrounds. Through this interview series, we have asked a number of our partners, past and present, to share their personal leadership philosophies and career journeys. We found each conversation illuminating—and have shared their varied accomplishments, trials, and lessons learned below.

About LaTida Smith

LaTida Smith is the President and CEO of Moses Taylor Foundation, a role she has served in since 2015. Prior to joining Moses Taylor Foundation, LaTida was the Vice President of the Saint Luke’s Foundation of Cleveland, directed the City of Cleveland’s HIV/AIDS unit, and served as a community educator for Planned Parenthood of Greater Cleveland. Throughout her nearly two decades in philanthropy, LaTida has consistently united stakeholders and forged deep relationships in order to address local community health needs.

Guided by her strengths—her ability to analyze a situation, listen, communicate, and connect—she has brought the Moses Taylor Foundation to new heights. Under her leadership, the Foundation has focused its priorities, invested $4 million in community organizations in the last year alone, and nimbly pivoted to attend to the region’s increased health needs in the face of a pandemic.

About Moses Taylor Foundation

Moses Taylor Hospital opened in 1892 to treat injured miners and railroaders who were unable to access healthcare at other hospitals. In the following years, the hospital continued to expand its reach to the broader community. Moses Taylor Foundation, established in 2012 from the sale of Moses Taylor Health Care System, is molded in this image of championing the evolving health needs of our community, prioritizing the most vulnerable. The Foundation seeks to provide opportunities for people in Northeast Pennsylvania to lead healthy lives. To achieve this mission, the Foundation invests resources in expanding school-based health, reducing social isolation in older adults, providing responsive grants to address community health needs, and building the capacity of the region’s nonprofits.

My very presence in a room changes the community’s understanding about what leadership looks like, and how they experience it.

Our Conversation with LaTida Smith, Moses Taylor Foundation

LaTida, tell me a little bit about your background and your history. What led you to where you are today? Who are some of the leaders who have shaped your career?

This is my 18th year in philanthropy, which amazes me—because I don’t think there’s anything else I’ve done for this long! I did not begin my career knowing I wanted to work in philanthropy. I wanted to be a college professor. Luckily, I had the opportunity to teach early in graduate school and quickly learned it was not for me. I cared deeply about storytelling and understanding people’s lived experiences. But I yearned for a more practical application.

After graduate school, I spent time in Cleveland working for Planned Parenthood, then the Cleveland Health Department. I ultimately found my way to philanthropy. Working in philanthropy, I found opportunities every day to leverage my training and passions for understanding people, understanding communities, and understanding stories.

When I think about leaders who have inspired me, I’ve been blessed to work with a number of amazing women who have taken time and energy to help cultivate me as a professional. From afar, I also deeply admire public figures like Michelle Obama and Stacey Abrams. They embody grit and grace, a commitment to excellence, and skill in navigating spaces that were not designed with them in mind.

Was there a point in your journey where you thought, “You know what? I’m a leader.”?

When I arrived in Scranton [at the Moses Taylor Foundation]. So, I have you to thank for that, Ron! Prior to being a CEO, I held positions of responsibility, but to some degree I was still implementing someone else’s vision. Coming to Scranton to lead a brand-new foundation, I was handed a blank slate. I immediately felt the weight of that responsibility.

They say it’s lonely at the top, right? Did realizing that you were responsible for setting the vision change how you acted? Did it change your approach?

I’ve always felt that working in philanthropy is a privilege. So no, it didn’t change how I approach things. However, it was very humbling to realize I was responsible for bringing a vision to fruition. My board was relying on me to set the course and articulate what success should look like. It can be lonely, particularly in a smaller organization. I became intentional about developing a peer network of colleagues I could trust to tell me the truth. Honest feedback is critical.

When you think of leadership—what does that mean to you? What makes a great leader?

I have learned there are many different ways to lead. Early on, I didn’t consider myself a leader—even though I held leadership positions. I didn’t see myself in the actions and attitudes of many other leaders in our community. To me, they embodied a model of leadership that was extroverted, command and control, isolated. None of that interested me. It took some time for me to appreciate that leadership gets defined by what the leader brings to the role.

My approach to leadership extends from my own natural strengths: listening deeply and bringing others along to realize a shared vision. It’s the most effective way I know to inspire others and achieve outcomes.

I don’t follow a mantra, but I do have a clear sense of who I am and what I bring. I also know what type of culture I want to create.

Is there a leadership philosophy you adhere to?

I don’t follow a mantra, but I do have a clear sense of who I am and what I bring. I also know what type of culture I want to create. Those guideposts consistently inform my work. That would be the closest thing I have to a philosophy.

As a CEO, you need to set the vision. Is that something you purposely set out to do? Or do you see that more as instinctive?

At Moses Taylor Foundation, I had a clear sense of how we would create our vision. It was important to me that we listened deeply to our community. That we clearly understood the roles of our colleagues in the field. That we understood our region’s demographics, and the health concerns of those who live here. It was really important to me that the community told us what it needed from us. And that we clearly identified how we could best deliver on that mandate.

What do you think your team would say about your leadership?

It took me a while to build our team, to get the right pieces and parts in place. But after some trial and error, we’re now thriving. The phenomenal turning point was getting the team to a place where they were comfortable speaking up and pushing back as real thought partners in our work. My team would say I truly value our collective decision making. They would also say I am committed to their development as individuals. Throughout my career, I have benefited from leaders who gave me resources to grow, helped me develop networks, and encouraged me to carve out my own experience in philanthropy. I am intentional about doing the same for my team. I want them to bring new information and experiences to our work. It makes our whole team stronger.

What do you find most rewarding about leading a team?

It’s exciting to see the team do things far beyond my imagination. For example, we crafted a strategy around providing support to school nurses, who are a linchpin for our region’s public health. We’ve been identifying opportunities for investment around that goal—and it has amazed me to see the things our staff has come up with. We were able to provide PPE to school nurses across our 11-county footprint, reaching 98% of the nurses with personalized resources. I had nothing to do with that! My team made it happen. When you create the right environment, and give your team space to fly, it is amazing to see what they do.

What do you think is the hardest part of leading a team?

It is particularly difficult to lead a team with constrained resources. In the past year, many of the nonprofits we support were challenged to shift to remote work—lacking sufficient resources or equipment, flexibility to meet demands at home, or forced layoffs due to shrinking financial resources. It is incredibly difficult to lead when you are challenged to provide the supports your. team needs to thrive. As a funder, we work hard to provide grants that are flexible and help build the capacity of our nonprofit partners.

Is there a difference between nonprofit and for-profit leadership? Between your sector and other nonprofit sectors?

There’s a big difference between leading a charitable foundation and a nonprofit, with two major factors being funding and influence. So I wouldn’t want to suggest my experience leading Moses Taylor Foundation is typical of nonprofit leaders in general. Our resources grant us access and influence that most nonprofit leaders do not have or have to work hard to earn.

Entering Scranton as President of Moses Taylor Foundation I was automatically offered seats at a variety of tables. I never take that access lightly and work hard to bring the perspectives of our nonprofit partners and the people they serve into any room where I sit.

As far as if for-profit and nonprofit leadership are different…yes and no. Increasingly, businesses are recognizing that profit isn’t the only driver, that they have a responsibility to their community. But that’s not their first driver. For nonprofits, our first and primary driver is our community.

You also can’t get away from the “money” part of the equation. Businesses have money to pour into research, development and infrastructure. Nonprofits rarely have that kind of wherewithal. And so, our sector frequently struggles to innovate on a shoestring budget.

Is leadership built? Instinctive? Somewhere in between?

I don’t think it is instinctive. Traditional leadership qualities—extroverted, aggressive, isolated—may be instinctive for some. But that’s only one style of leadership. Effective leadership in its many different facets is cultivated over time through learning and practice.

What have you learned from other leaders?

From both good and bad leaders, I’ve learned about the kind of organization I want to build. For example, generous maternity leave policies are important to me, because I’ve worked in places where that wasn’t so. Or, I recognize how important it is that my team has access to as much information as they need to do their jobs well. We’re a small organization. There’s no reason why I should be the only one on my staff attending an investment committee meeting. I want each member of my team to understand how we make money at the foundation.

What do you think makes for effective leadership training and development?

I’ve participated in varied leadership development programs throughout my career. I think it’s important to go into those programs with a clear idea of what you want to achieve. At different points in your career, there are different skills you may want to lean into or develop: at this moment, do you want to learn how to build energy around a vision? How to manage people? How to communicate with external stakeholders? Whatever it is, be clear: “this is the concrete skill I want to focus on for a finite amount of time.” Then, tend to it.

I also think it is important to begin with a concrete understanding of who you are, what you do well, and what your shortcomings are. I’ve always loved to do diagnostics, like 360s or Myers Briggs tests. They help you think: “how do I build upon what I do well? How do I stay cognizant of my weaknesses?”

Beyond professional training and development, what are some of the habits you’ve built into your daily routine to strengthen your leadership?

That’s a funny question because I don’t have a daily routine—at least not for the past 11 months. With my kids at home, and working at home, my routine primarily consists of doing whatever needs to be done in the moment. But in “normal” life, reading rejuvenates me. The more new information I bring to my work, the sharper I feel, and the more energized I stay around the work. That’s why even though this is my 18th year in philanthropy, it doesn’t feel like it.

I like to begin my day reading. My team and I frequently read together. It builds our collective knowledge and increases our capacity to work effectively as a team.

If you could go back in time, what would you encourage your younger self to do differently?

There’s no choice I would make differently! Throughout my career, I’ve had the courage to make difficult choices. When I was in graduate school and realized I didn’t want to be a professor, I pivoted to take a different path. At another time, I worked for over a decade for an organization I loved. When it no longer fit, I acknowledged I needed to move on to something new. Those decisions were really tough. I struggled and worried and had a lot of sleepless nights. So today, I would tell my younger self: “Have a good night’s sleep! It will work out better than you can imagine. You have always been your best advocate. You can never fail betting on yourself.”

Leadership goes beyond managing people. But for leaders who do manage people…how do you get the most out of your team?

I’ve been fortunate. I’ve managed relatively small teams, so I’ve always known my staff well. That has enabled me to understand what drives each individual and calibrate my approach based on what motivates them and what they need to succeed. Early on, I treated people the way I like to be treated: give them direction and leave them alone! But I’ve learned that some people prefer the routine of regularly checking in. I build check-ins into my schedule because I know I won’t stop to do it naturally, but it’s important to support my colleagues’ success.

What’s your approach if someone’s not performing to the level you would hope?

I try to set clear, concrete expectations, so we both know where the goalpost is, and if it was reached or not. I do my best to give people the resources they need, and encourage them to discuss obstacles as they arise. I have also learned to have the courage to recognize if something is not working. I’ve always found the quicker you can do that, the better.

These are unprecedented times: to be a leader during a global pandemic. Do you remember when you first heard about COVID-19? How did you deal with it? Now that we’re months down the road? What are your thoughts on leading through a crisis?

When COVID first hit, my immediate thoughts were keeping my team safe and keeping my own family safe. I am cognizant that each member of my team plays a different role in their family. Everyone has people they are caring for while also doing their job here. We immediately closed our office. We hoped our remote processes were strong enough. We were pleased to realize that we could truly all be at home, and the trains would still run on time.

As a foundation, we were also challenged to quickly ramp up our giving. We immediately asked, “How do we get money out the door quickly and efficiently to meet the range of needs our nonprofits and community members were facing? How do we cut through the red tape and streamline our processes?” I’m amazed at the amount of work my team did to reevaluate our whole process and figure out a new way of doing things to meet demand during this pandemic.

Now, 12 months into COVID, I think a lot about how we sustain our culture when we’re not bumping into each other in the hallways. But we’ve found other ways to sustain connections. Our monthly staff meetings are now weekly; they are a great time to check in with each other, and also talk about the work. We’ll also just occasionally give one another a phone call. It’s not the same, but I feel we’ve done a pretty good job of staying whole through all of this.

… I think a lot about how we sustain our culture when we’re not bumping into each other in the hallways.

Do you feel working remotely has changed your leadership style? Your ability to lead?

Supervision also looks different when you don’t see each other most of the time. I’ve always believed in the principle that we’re held accountable to outcomes, not hours. But now we’re living it! It’s challenged me to be clearer and more focused in my communications and expectations.

I know you said your routine is never the same day-to-day, but just generally, what does it look like in this COVID-19 world?

My kids start school at 7:45am. We made the decision that we would just keep our kids at home. My husband is at home, so he does the bulk of the work, but I still support them. We make sure the kids are set up, get them oriented. And then, I go to my workspace to work and take meetings, checking in with them throughout the day. It feels like it’s an extended day.

Before, I had a time when I left to go to the office, a time when I left to go home. Now, it really converges. It’s a lot, but in some ways it actually feels more natural. I am 100% the CEO of Moses Taylor, and 100% a mom and a wife. All those things are part of my day.

Are there questions about leadership you would have liked to see me ask that I didn’t?

The biggest thing you didn’t ask me was about being a woman of color. Being a woman of color shapes every single question you’ve asked me. It shapes how I think about leadership. What I see as opportunities and challenges along my leadership journey. In Cleveland, I was always among people who look like me. There was a comfort in that. Here in Scranton, I always stand out. Not only because it’s a smaller community, but also because it’s racially homogenous.

There just aren’t many African American women in leadership here. I feel hyper visible, which took some getting used to. But when you take “fitting in” off of the table—it can free you to be yourself. My very presence in a room changes the community’s understanding about what leadership looks like, and how they experience it.

You mentioned being a CEO in Scranton and a woman of color in a community that doesn’t have a lot of leaders who look like you. You may have a unique perspective, then, on the fact that we have a Vice President of the United States who is a woman of color. What did that mean to you as a leader?

It is amazing to see. Not even as a leader—but as a mom of a seven-year-old Black girl. It was amazing for me to watch the inauguration with her. And remind her that she can do absolutely anything she wants to do.

Right. You can say it, and she can see it, right?

Yes. And I know that as much as representations and symbols matter, they have limits. In the past four years in particular, I’ve been very cognizant of the power and limitations of those symbols.

I agree. It’s not the end of the journey by any stretch of the imagination, right? What does that journey look like for you? What do you see for yourself in five years or 10 years?

I truly love working in philanthropy. I find it infinitely challenging and rewarding. It’s such an awesome responsibility to direct philanthropic resources to areas of greatest community need. I hope to continue to have opportunities to grow and learn how to do this work better.