A Conversation with Ruth Henrichs

Winter 2014

President and CEO, Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska

Third in a series of interviews with Omaha’s top female executives.

 

BY ELLIE ARCHER

Ruth Henrichs directs one of the largest social services agencies in the state. Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska (LFS) has 27 office locations in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. Under her leadership, the agency’s annual budget has grown from $800,000 to $16 million, offering programs that include behavioral health, adoption and immigrant/refugee assistance to 35,000 clients each year. Henrichs was the first woman to chair the board of Lutheran Services in America. She is chair of the board of the Children and Family Coalition of Nebraska and serves on the board of Immanuel, Inc. Ruth and her husband, Richard, have two adult sons and seven grandchildren.

TOW: Have you had mentors during your career, and if so, who had the most impact on you?

An English teacher I had in high school believed and demonstrated that women could be smart, independent and fun. She taught me to write and think creatively. She encouraged me to “soar with the eagles and dream a big dream!”

My first social work supervisor was a woman who role modeled passionate commitment and patient focus. On many occasions she would put her hand on my shoulder and say, “Ruth, the problems of the world weren’t created in one day. You won’t solve them in one either! Be bold and courageous and trust yourself. When you mess up get up and try again.” I loved her.

TOW: How can women most effectively mentor other women?

Mentoring can be formal or informal. It can occur in a group or one-on-one. For mentoring to be the most effective, I believe a sense of trust and respect for one another needs to develop.

TOW: What attributes make a great mentor?

Quiet confidence. Great mentors listen twice as much as they speak. They have personal courage to speak the truth. Great mentors have room in their life for someone besides themselves. They are comfortable in their own skin. Great mentors enjoy success, make mistakes, and learn from both.

TOW: How can young women best position themselves for success in the corporate world? In other words, how does one traverse the path from worker bee to decision maker and get the money, title and respect?

Dress professionally for the position you want, not the one you have. Volunteer for the strategic extra assignment. Accept compliments with a thank you, not a list of five reasons why you don’t deserve the credit. Watch and learn from the men … but be your own woman. Be assertive, not aggressive. Do everything with integrity. Ask for what you want.

TOW: What is the most important trait a woman needs to be successful in a senior leadership position?

Successful women leaders need personal and moral courage, self–confidence and integrity. Seriously … women leaders have to have a sense of humor! Successful leaders command space and have presence even when they are quiet. They have a sense of calm in the midst of noise and chaos. They know when to speak and when to listen.

TOW: What was the biggest mistake you made in your career, and what did you learn from it?

When I first became CEO, I accepted a salary less than my predecessor was making at the time he was asked to resign. I spent the next 25 years “catching up” to the salaries of men in similar not-for-profit positions.

The regulation and complexity of large not-for-profits require an infrastructure capable to meet growing demands. I ignored this fact too long, resulting in organizational stress on programs, people and systems. I learned a leader must commit voice and resources before others are ready to acknowledge the need. Leaders lead from the front!

TOW: How do you balance work and personal/family responsibilities?

I’ve never done the balancing act very well. My two sons used to say that I had three children … Joe, Dave and LFS. The joke was that “if I was working so much because I was so far behind at work, why didn’t they just put me in a slower class?”

For 16 years I have vacationed one week a year with four girlfriends from across the country. It is one of two or three weeks each year that I look forward to most. Time with girlfriends feeds my soul. Walking “feeds” my mind and body. I have much to learn from the younger generations about work/life balance.

TOW: What is the best way for women to network in Omaha?

Join professional groups and affinity groups. Introduce yourself to women you want to meet. Attend events such as the Women’s Fund Luncheon. Volunteer to serve on committees and groups with women you aspire to be like.

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