Categories: Thrive

Lessons in leadership from Big Brothers Big Sisters CEO Pam Iorio

Take risks. Be vulnerable. Believe in yourself.

That was some of the advice Pam Iorio, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and former mayor of Tampa, offered during a talk with Moez Limayem, dean of the USF Muma College of Business.

Many of those life lessons came into play as Iorio took on the leadership of Big Brothers Big Sisters, a national nonprofit that has connected millions of children with adult mentors.

Iorio, a two-term Tampa mayor from 2003 to 2011, got a call in February 2014 asking her to come to Dallas, where BBBSA was based at the time. The organization had financial difficulties and grant compliance issues, she said, describing the situation as “bleak.” Staff members told her BBBSA had lost relevance in the mentoring world and needed new technology and rebranding.

“Like with everything you analyze the problems and you figure out what you’re going to attack first,” Iorio said. “Whenever you have a mess on your hands it’s one thing at a time. You figure out this is the most important, this is the second most important … then you figure out what partners can you find to help you through it.”

Iorio first turned to a friend, David Weinstein, a shareholder at law firm Greenberg Traurig, for help with legal issues.

“Greenberg Traurig took on our problems and $1 million worth of pro bono work later they got us out of it,” Iorio said.

After six months, the BBBSA board asked Iorio to stay on longer and she agreed to do so, provided the national office moved to Tampa. That prompted Iorio to call another friend, Colleen Chappell, president and CEO of ChappellRoberts, a Tampa advertising, marketing and public relations agency.

“I said, ‘Colleen, we are moving from Dallas to Tampa, we’re starting over as a national office. I don’t have any staff. I have zero marketing staff. I need help. She said, I’ll start tomorrow,’” Iorio said. “I always get a little uncomfortable when people say, you did this. It’s a team effort.”

During the hourlong “Conversation with a CEO” program Thursday, Iorio recalled how family debates over dinner fostered an early love of politics. Former USF President, Florida Senator and Hillsborough County Commissioner Betty Castor was Iorio’s first role model as a woman in elected politics.

In 1985, when Iorio was 26, she became the youngest person ever elected to the Hillsborough County Commission, despite criticism that she didn’t have enough experience.

“If you want to be in public life, engage in the community in an authentic way and don’t be afraid to run,” Iorio said. “The thing is about anything in life, whether it’s running for office or starting a business or changing careers, you’ve got to step forward and make yourself vulnerable and take chances. If you never take the risk, if you never run, you can’t win. If you never start your business you can’t have a thriving business. If you’re not willing to take that next job, you’ll never know whether or not you could grow and succeed. You have to be willing to take risks.”

After the county commission, she served as Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, a job that allowed her to be at home with her young children. She was in that role during the 2000 presidential election, “when the chads hit the fan,” Iorio said.

She said that was a perfect example of failing to keep up technologically with a function that’s fundamental. “We had technology from the 1960s and we were using it in elections and we should not have been,” Iorio said.

After overseeing a technology update, Iorio was asked to run for mayor of Tampa. In November 2002, there already were three strong candidates for the March 2003 election, and Iorio was reluctant to get in the race, until a political “friend” called to advise her not to run, saying the election had already been decided. She hung up the and immediately told her husband she was running for mayor.

“Don’t you hate being told you can’t do something when you know you can do it,” Iorio said. “But that call splashed cold water on me … I realized  the reason I had not been open to entering the mayor’s race was that I had quit believing in myself. I had stopped believing in my capacity to try and do different things and to stretch myself … All I really had to do was take a leap of faith and start believe in myself.”

Iorio was asked what she looks for when she’s hiring people.

“I hire two things: attitude and aptitude. The rest is gravy. Because people can learn. If someone is smart, they can figure it out. You can hire the smartest person in the world, but if they have a bad attitude, forget about it. I can like people who come with a great can-do attitude, they’re smart and they can figure it out,” she said.

To inspire creative thinking, it’s important for a CEO not to talk only to their executive team, but to workers at all different levels.

“I’ve really learned to appreciate the millennials,” Iorio said. “They have different views than I have and my generation has. It’s easy to be critical of new generations … Instead of being critical of new generations, I think it’s really important to look at younger people and say, ‘You are bringing something different to the table and you do think differently than I think and boy, am I glad you are here.’

“When you run an organization like Big Brothers Big Sisters and you have to be thinking strategically about how you are going to attract that next generation of volunteers, you better be asking young people where that next generation of volunteers is coming from.”

Moez Limayem, dean of USF Muma College of Business, presented a USF Bulls statue to Pam Iorio, CEO, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and former mayor of Tampa

Margie Manning

Margie started her journalism career as a radio news reporter in St. Louis, before putting down her microphone and picking up a pen to work at the St. Louis Business Journal. Unable to resist the call of warm weather and beaches, Margie took an entrepreneurial detour to run an ice cream shop in Treasure Island with her husband. Before joining the Catalyst, Margie spent 14 years at the Tampa Bay Business Journal where she wrote about business successes, failures and the exciting world of innovation and start-ups. Her writing coaches are Bonnie the Dog and Coffee the Cat, joined recently by a new edition, Jack the Cat. Margie can be contacted at margie@stpetecatalyst.com

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