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Leadership Series: Steve Jennings, Rady Children’s Hospital

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 the 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 leadership philosophies and career journeys. We found each conversation illuminating—and have shared their varied accomplishments, trials, and lessons learned below.

About Steve Jennings

Steve Jennings is the Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the Rady Children’s Hospital FoundationRady Children’s is the largest pediatric hospital in California and the only hospital in San Diego that is dedicated exclusively to pediatric care. At Rady Children’s, the emphasis is on treating the whole child, improving physical, emotional, and mental health for more than 214,000 children each year—91 percent of the region’s children.  

Rady Children’s Hospital provides care in more than 25 specialties and is consistently ranked among the nation’s top hospitals by U.S. News and World ReportThe Hospital is also a major pediatric research center, with more than 600 clinical trials and other research studies underway. Rady Children’s has become known throughout the country and the world for its vision and pioneering achievements in clinical care, technology, and groundbreaking discovery. 

Benefactor Group has been honored to be retained by Rady Children’s in various capacities since 2017. 

In addition to more than doubling the Foundation’s annual revenue, Steve has led a cultural shift. He has guided the Foundation in a strategic pivot: from fundraising for needs to partnering with donors to fulfill big visions. He subscribes to fundraising campaigns as causes, not conquests. And he believes that philanthropy should be transformational, not just transactional.

Our Conversation with Steve Jennings, Rady Children’s Hospital

When Steve joined the Rady Children’s Hospital Foundation in 2013, it was raising $15 million per year. Today, the Foundation raises nearly $40 million, employs more than 60 staff, and recently received its largest gift to date—a transformational $200 million commitment from benefactors Ernest and Evelyn Rady.

What led you to where you are today?

I was a philosophy majorI thought Id get my Ph.D. and become a professor. But after spending three weeks analyzing one sentence in one treatise by René DescartesI realized it was not my line of work. I was drawn to the nonprofit world, though I’m not 100% certain why. My father was involved in humanitarian work—that was surely part of it. I cold-called leaders of nonprofits, which led to a job offer at United Way, where I learned by doing. Then, a job offer came from UCLAand was suddenly swimming in the deep end. I had a large division and a directive: go raise the money.” To succeed, I had to learn to set priorities and build relationships. I soon realized that I’d found my home. And in the process, I learned that donors give to two things: people and inspiring ideas.  

received the call from Rady Children’s seven years ago. I saw an organization ready to take off. 

To succeed, I had to learn to set priorities and build relationships. And in the process, I learned that donors give to two things: people and inspiring ideas.

When did you realize you were a “leader?” 

It took me a long time. I would look at others and think, “She’s a leader. He’s a leader.” But I didn’t internalize it. Then I had this conversation with a mentor. I was grumbling about the meetings I had to attend, and the responsibilities keeping me from my job. She told meyou are a leader. It is your job to take those meetings, to guide others, to set a vision.” I’d technically been a leader for years, but it was that moment that led me to the realization.  

I like building things. I think that is a quality of leadership. Rady Children’s Hospital Foundation is a different place now than when I arrived. That is gratifying. 

Do you do anything proactively to improve your leadership skills?

I read the books and watch the TED Talks. But my approach is to find leaders I like and capture things they do. Like: the ability to respond to everything in a thoughtful way. To take the time to answer emails from junior staff. Donald Kearns [the former CEO of Rady Children’s Hospital] was an amazing storyteller—that is another skill I try to cultivate. I also try to identify traits in leaders that I don’t find positive. 

Like what?

Nothing that would surprise you. Leaders who don’t keep their cool, or who treat others disrespectfully. Those who push their people to the edgegetting great performance in the short term but alienating people in the long term. Leaders who take credit for everything. Watch out for the pronouns leaders use. Is it “I did this”? Or “we did this?

Watch out for the pronouns leaders use. Is it “I did this”? Or “we did this”?

Are leaders born or made?

I was a behindthescenes guy at UCLAbut at Rady Children’s, the leader of the Foundation is a spokesperson for the organization. It took me a while to get my head around that. So I don’t know if leaders are born—I imagine some people never want to lead and probably shouldn’t—but I think most people have the ability to be a leader. Even if it is harder for some than others. 

What is the role of setting a vision as a leader?

I am always thinking: “what do we want to look like in five years?”It begins by setting metricsBenefactor Group was very helpful in this. Thenif we’ve set a bold fundraising goalwhich we shouldwhat does that mean? To me, it means becoming a charity of choice. It means people are confident to invest in us. It means we have big and bold ideas, and we want to connect those ideas with donors. I often test our ideas with other leaders, inside and outside the nonprofit world. 

When I first came to Rady Children’s, I learned about the difference between transaction fundraisings, and transformational. 

Who sets the vision? The hospital or the foundation?

That is a really good questionand not easy to answer. When it comes to fundraising, the development team often drives big ideas, because those are what inspire big gifts. It was this way even at UCLA. The head of the Foundation was pivotal in taking a list of needs and turning it into a larger vision. At Rady Children’s, we have created Institutes that are embedded in the Hospital. This structure came from a board retreatwhere the Foundation pitched the idea. Of course, it’s all part of the strategic plan; it aligns with what the Hospital needs to do. 

There is an opportunity for people in our seats to drive pretty cool stuff in an organization. The biggest mistake we can make is to not be part of the conversation. If we are not at the table, we are just ATM’s for the organization, and that is not the best way to represent our donors. 

There is an opportunity for people in our seats to drive pretty cool stuff in an organization. The biggest mistake we can make is to not be part of the conversation.

So, fundraisers are visionaries. How do you turn the vision into something tangible that the fundraisers can use?

You need people who can operationalize the vision. I was lucky enough to have people around to help do that. We’ve partnered closely with the Hospital to turn ideas into action. We’ve had a lot of people helpingcan now even step back some and watch the process continue.  

Leaders don’t have to be skilled in both visioning and operationalization. But it helps to be great at one of those functions. 

How does a leader function as a manager? How do you make sure you get the most out of your team?

I presume everyone is in the right job and wants to be successful. My job is to provide the team with what they need to succeed. When your team is small, it’s easier; you can meet with everyone fairly frequently. As you grow, you need to count on managers and acknowledge they may have different styles. I am open to different styles. also believe in mutual respect and trust. I need to ensure all are in alignment with our mutual north star. That eliminates most issues. It’s when the north star becomes fuzzy that the organization may unravel. 

2020 has certainly tested leadership in a crisis. What has been your experience?

The first few weeks of remote work were really tough on my team. People were nervous. The technology wasn’t perfect. It was frenetic. I tried to reach out to every individual and set three video meetings per week. It was good for us. We’ve tried to spend a lot of time listening, and have lightened up on being taskmasterslike getting on people for not filing contact reportsI’ve learned that leading in crisis is just being human, being vulnerable. And that work and personal life are not as distinct as I once thought. 

Did you ever think, “I am not ready for this?”

Oh, yes! But I did my best. It’s weird being in that situationYou’re unsure, yet you have 120 eyes staring at youwaiting for directionYou’re not sure what to say. I remember sharing some personal challenges my family was experiencing—I got a lot of notes after that meeting, from people sharing how much they appreciated thatThey said they have those same feelings and felt better about expressing them in the workplace. It was not deliberate thing I did. It was just reacting in the moment, being human. 

Do leaders have to want to be the one with the 120 eyeballs on them?

Every leader probably has to have some level of ego. You go into these things fairly naively, not realizing how difficult it is going to beI did theater and debate in college; those were two things that helped me stand in front of a crowd and articulate a position. It’s what I spend most of my time doing! And studying philosophy has helped me better understand the human condition.

So, the right recipe for good leadership is a combination of theater, debate, and philosophy?

Ha! Totally by accident, but yeah!

Steve’s expertise lies in system selections, project leadership, strategic business intelligence, and ensuring that stakeholders are served by technology. He is also a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and a frequent presenter at conferences. Steve enjoys helping nonprofits bridge the gap between technology and people. He approaches his work with two primary drivers: do excellent work and care about the clients.

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