Oct 3, 2011

Leadership at it's Best: Donna Jones Baker


Donna Jones Baker was enjoying one of her first jobs out of college when she learned a tough lesson: Life isn't always fair.

Baker, who was born and raised in Paducah, Ky., graduated from Murray State University with a degree in social work and was promoted to a management role at a social services agency while in her 20s. She was helping people improve their lives and feeling "on top of the world."

Then her immediate supervisor who had promoted her left. Baker didn't expect to get her supervisor's job, but she also didn't expect to be fired during the ensuing management change.

"I was crushed," she says. The experience taught Baker another lesson that changed her life, and which she now shares with others: Leaders look for challenges and make things happen.

In Baker's case, she went back to school for a master's degree in business administration. Today, she's the president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati. Baker is still helping others improve their lives. But she's also managing a multimillion-dollar organization and a staff of 75 full- and part-time employees working to help African-Americans and others at risk by promoting economic self-sufficiency and entrepreneurship.

Her ability to work with other leaders locally, combined with her national stature, helped secure the National Urban League's annual convention for Cincinnati in 2014. Baker was part of a team led by Mayor Mark Mallory and including retired federal appeals judge Nathaniel Jones; Bishop E. Lynn Brown, the regional bishop for the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; and Thomas Knott, director of diversity strategies at Macy's.

"She's a unique ambassador who is respected on the national level, and accessible on the local level," says Richard Dyer, president and general manager of WLWT 5. Dyer is on the Cincinnati Urban League's board of trustees and will be chairperson in 2012. "She leveraged her reputation on the city's behalf."

The success, Baker says, stems from being fired as a young woman. "What I learned during that period was I wanted to be in a decision-making position," she says. "I wanted to make things happen, not be somebody things happened to."

Baker, who is 55 and married to Gregory Baker, spent four years taking night classes at the University of Baltimore, where she earned her MBA. Simultaneously, she was raising a family and working. Baker has one grown daughter who has three children; her husband has two daughters and three grandchildren. "I had the benefit of youth," she says when asked how she managed family, work and school.

Today, she has the benefit of hindsight. "While what happened to me probably was not fair, it was the best thing that ever happened to me," she says.

The MBA education was "life-changing," Baker says. The immersion into subjects including accounting and finance gave her the confidence to supervise others who specialize in those areas.

"You learn enough about all of these positions that you can supervise the people who have those functions and ask the right questions. It was a great foundation for me."

As a result, Baker has made the necessary tough financial decisions while maintaining the nonprofit's core mission, Dyer says.

"She's a polished, passionate professional," he says. "She has a real command of what the League's mission is and how to implement it."

Baker joined the local affiliate of the Urban League in November 2003. Previously, she was the executive director of Associated Black Charities, a Baltimore nonprofit that was started to strengthen the community through African-American philanthropy.

During Baker's 14 years there, she grew ABC from a $500,000 organization with three funded positions to a $26 million organization with about 60 staff members, multiple locations and a $1 million endowment.

Baker says she was happy in Baltimore and initially resisted overtures from a headhunter to come here. But after a few visits, Baker realized she wanted the job.

"There was no reason for me to (leave Baltimore), but on the other hand, I had gotten more comfortable than I was used to," Baker says. "In hindsight, I was more comfortable than I was comfortable with being."

In Cincinnati, Baker filled big shoes. She replaced Sheila Adams, who, according to the Enquirer in 2003, built the Urban League from a quiet social service agency into an important community player during her 13 years as its leader.

"You couldn't say Urban League without saying Sheila Adams," says Daniel Groneck, the current chairperson for the Urban League's board of trustees, and the Northern Kentucky president for US Bank.

But Groneck says the first board meeting with Baker "was like magic."

"I thought, 'Well, the board embraced her, is the community going to embrace her?' And they did," he says.

Baker, he says, went out of her way to show her appreciation and respect for Adams but did not try to emulate her predecessor.

And Baker, Groneck says, made sure she understood the local organization before making any changes.

It wasn't long before she faced hard decisions. In January 2004, she cut six mid- to upper-level positions because of a drop in individual and corporate contributions that impacted many nonprofits as the economy weakened following the 9/11 attacks.

"She had tough financial decisions to make, and she did it," Groneck says.

That ability, combined with her formidable people skills, has earned Baker the respect of her employees and her board.

"It's all done by empowerment. She runs it like a business," Groneck says. "She's financially kept the company strong and stayed in tune with her investors. She can also leave the board room, see somebody in (one of the league's programs), and lift them up."

Dyer says he's proud of the employee growth at the Urban League. Baker gives employees who start in support roles the chance to move up and take on additional responsibilities. And, Dyer and Groneck were impressed by her recent decision to gather a group of past chairpersons and invite them to be part of an auxiliary board, which was formed in 2011. David Dillon, Kroger's chairman and chief executive officer, is chairman of the auxiliary board.

They said the former chairpersons were expecting to be handed a pledge card. Instead, Baker told them: "This is about utilizing your wisdom. We just want to keep you closer to the family."

The idea is to leverage their connections and expertise on behalf of the League. But it also reflects Baker's belief in keeping people connected and always working to improve the organization.

That vision doesn't stop at the Urban League. Baker is proud of her new hometown and sees its relationship with the Urban League as a two-way street. When she told her board about the national 2014 convention, she wasn't just happy for the Urban League, Dyer says.

"When she announced it to the board, she said, 'This is good for the Urban League, yes, but will be great for Greater Cincinnati,' " he says.

"That's how she thinks."