Wonder Women: Jan Lilien, Chief Executive Officer, YWCA Union County

Wonder Women: Jan Lilien, Chief Executive Officer, YWCA Union County

By Jill Vitiello

Jan Lilien
Jan Lilien, Chief Executive Officer, YWCA Union County

At Vitiello Communications Group, we believe everyone’s story is worth telling. Wonder Women is a blog series that lets me introduce you to amazing businesswomen doing remarkable work. In this series, we amplify the success stories of women who live and work in New Jersey. Their contributions to the Garden State include professional, civic and personal endeavors that enrich our community. Meet Jan Lilien, Chief Executive Officer, YWCA Union County. Be sure to catch our new lightning round at the end of the Q&A.

Q: What’s one leadership lesson that’s helped shape your career?

A: You can learn anything if you’re not afraid to try new things. I’ve done several different jobs in my career and every time I started from the ground up and wondered how I would do it. The leadership lesson is to be brave, read, listen, learn from others, and be confident that you can learn anything.

Q: What advice would you give to a woman who aspires to achieve the level of success you’ve achieved?

A: Take chances and follow your passion. I’ve always worked in non-profit and I’ve focused on different areas, such as mental health, drug addiction, developmental disability, youth services, and now domestic violence. Each required learning and growth. When I needed to learn, I asked for help. My advice for young women coming up is don’t be afraid to try something new, and don’t be afraid to follow your passion. Don’t feel as if you must go into a career that someone else wants you to do.

Q: What made you choose a career in non-profit?

A: I identify myself as a child of the ‘60s. I grew up in an era where people were protesting and striving for change, and for whatever reason that was always me. I was always the rebel, I always wanted to do things differently, save people, and literally change the world. When I left college, I went into a volunteer program and that worked its way into a job, and I’ve never looked back, even if it meant making more money or working regular hours. As I’ve moved from one field to the next, I apply what I’ve learned, meet a lot of amazing people, and feel a great sense of gratification that I’m doing my part to change things that I feel need to be changed.

Q: What are the three traits that you think are vital to be a Wonder Woman in your industry?

A: Resilience is the first. You never know what’s coming down the pike and in the non-profit industry, there are constant changes in demographics, funding, issues, politics. Second, a sense of humor is critical. Much of the non-profit industry deals with terrible things: hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, violence in general, youth issues, suicide. You need to keep perspective. Third, always be open to options. Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “this is how we do things.” Our organization is constantly transforming itself. Most non-profits need to transform in response to all the changes going on in the world. My favorite question is: “How might we do this in a different way?”

Q: You brought up resiliency. What’s caused the shift in the brand of YWCA?

A: It’s a national shift that happened many years ago. Most YWCAs started with building communities, having a safe place for women to gather. As times have changed, we have responded. Today, YWCA is the largest provider of support services for women affected by domestic violence, and we are the largest non-profit provider of childcare services. Many YWCAs still have swimming and after-school programs and camps because those programs are important for women to be able to work. Over 40 years ago, our YWCA saw domestic violence as a social justice issue, so we started building shelters for battered women. Since then we’ve expanded to do more racial justice programming and community building. YWCA is helping change women’s lives for the better and helping chip away at structural racism. It’s a big agenda, but there are a lot of brave women and men to do this work.

Q: How do you use communication to lead and to grow your career and business?

A: I’ve always been a believer in transparency, and the answer is to keep letting people know what’s happening, listen to them, and communicate. In our agency, we have a monthly staff meeting. Recently, I returned form a national meeting and shared the strategic planning for YWCA and asked the staff to offer ideas and recommendations on how to apply the strategy in our community. This gives the team opportunities to grow and enriches the programs we provide.

Q: When did you use communication to turn a challenging situation into a success?

A: About six years ago we lost critical funding and had to make significant changes. The entire team met to find a way to address the crisis, rebuild and bounce back with a plan that everyone contributed to and agreed with. In about six months, we rebuilt. Keeping communication open was essential to getting there.

Q: What personal quality fuels your most significant accomplishments?

A: I’m very persistent. I don’t give up easily. I describe myself as a pit bull. I like to work with people to figure out how things get done and then do it!

Q: What woman inspires you and why?

A: My mother was very inspiring, but in a general sense it’s the women I work alongside every day in the YWCA and the community. To me, these are our “sheros.” Humble, dedicated, and committed to the issues. They’re not doing it for political or financial gain.

New Jersey Lightning Round

From one Jersey girl to another, answer these questions:

Q: Taylor Ham or Pork Roll?

A: Taylor Ham.

Q: Wildwood or Seaside Heights?

A: I’m not a shore girl — I wish I were. If I had my choice — whichever is quieter.

Q: Yankees or Mets?

A: Yankees.

Q: Giants or Jets?

A: I’m not a football fan, but my son is a Giants fan.

Q: Does Central Jersey really exist?

A: No.

Do you have a question for Jan or me about changing the world? Ask it here in our comments or reach us on LinkedIn at Jan Lilien or Jill Vitiello.

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