Leading from a place of empathy and determination to see her teams succeed
This interview marks the ninth installment in the Making an Impact series, a collection of profiles and articles introducing some of our best and brightest leaders – individuals who are making tremendous impacts in the government sectors we serve.
Meshia Henderson, Vice President, Workforce Services
Meshia oversees project teams that support state and local governments’ workforce and Unemployment Insurance programs in Indiana, Nevada, and Rhode Island. With over 17 years of experience, she knows what it takes to build high-performing teams that drive performance.
On a recent Skype call with Meshia from her Indianapolis office, we asked her to share her special formula for team building, the attributes and elements that empowered her career growth, and what motivates her to help others overcome barriers and achieve their goals.
You joined Maximus over a decade ago as the operations manager for a workforce program in Nashville and now you’re a vice president. Tell us about that journey.
Has it been that long? Yes, it has! I started with Maximus in 2007 as the operations manager for the Tennessee Families First program in Nashville. I was a supervisor at a local career center in my previous role, so taking that position was actually a promotion for me. Joining Maximus was a big change, and at first I was terrified – but I was also determined to succeed. I worked on that program for 10 years and was promoted several times, including to my current title as vice president. I accepted the leadership position for the state of Indiana’s IMPACT program, which included overseeing a statewide program and relocating to Indianapolis. Since then, I’ve added to my portfolio an Indiana childcare program and two Unemployment Insurance programs. Helping states improve their operations has become a critical need given the surge in applications in the wake of COVID-19 this year.
What inspired you to dedicate your life to improving public services?
My background and life experiences have directly inspired me to help others. You see, I was a teen mom. Though I was a good student and athlete in high school, getting pregnant as a teen changed everything in my life. In high school, I was placed in a dropout prevention program to help students stay focused and motivated to finish high school. Although I had no intent on quitting school, the program and support helped me think about my future and the type of life I wanted to provide for my daughter. Fortunately, the program included mentorship and a job training component. My mentor encouraged and inspired me every day – I not only graduated from high school, but I pursued college immediately after. Ultimately, I was not ready for college at that time and decided to stop going and focus on working. I reached out to my mentor for support and he helped me get a job at the local career center. It was a great match and turning point in my life. I connected well with clients because I’d been there, and I was able to motivate them to strive and achieve their goals. In fact, I did so well at the career center, I was promoted several times with the organization before my departure.
What do you love most about your work?
In this line of work, we get to touch and change people’s lives every day. It’s so important to have a connection to the families – to understand where they are and to both sympathize and empathize with them. I try to connect on a personal level, because I want to see families succeed. I know personally how an increase in work skills, support, and opportunity can improve your life. Reading success stories from the families we serve is so rewarding and reminds me this is not just a job. Someone, some family, needs the services we provide and on some level, may be depending on us to survive.
Take advantage of every opportunity and step up to the plate for challenges in the workplace without expecting to be immediately rewarded for doing it. Work hard… remember: business is business. Don’t take things personally.
What about challenges?
When I first started with Maximus, I’ll admit I was frightened. But I was also determined to do well. I’ve faced many challenges in time with the organization. I was a young manager and I had a lot to learn. Some of my early challenges included learning how to effectively manage my team and how to create a performance-driven culture on the project. Most of the contracts I’ve managed have been contingency based. Managing performance-based contracts forced me to get in the weeds and make certain there is a solid process in place for monitoring, tracking, and reporting outcome data.
What advice do you have for individuals who want to follow in your footsteps?
Take advantage of every opportunity and step up to the plate for challenges in the workplace without expecting to be immediately rewarded for doing so. Work hard. Try not to take things personally. In terms of growth and development, always take time to process the feedback you receive, think about what you can learn from the feedback, and consider your role in finding a solution. As a manager, be your authentic self and build trust with your team though providing support that will lead to their professional growth. Oh – and this goes without saying – but finish college and continue your education. I returned to college during my early years with Maximus and finished my degree. In fact, the Maximus tuition reimbursement program paid for my last year of college. My path to vice president is probably very different from many individuals in the company, but nothing about my life has been simple.
Finally, remember: business is business. Don’t take things personally.
What is your approach to leadership and mentoring?
I am committed to providing my team with the tools, resources, and training they need and then I hold everyone accountable for their performance. I make sure my teams know their performance expectations, and I establish structure and protocol. I help in providing structure and making sure they know what is needed to meet performance goals.
Mentoring is also key. I make an effort to have good relationships with as many staff on the project I as I can. I let my team know that I am approachable no matter what their role is on the project. It’s critical to talk with your team and get to know them. As a leader, I must give constructive feedback, praise them when they are doing well, send personal thank you notes… always model what you want in a manager. I let my teams know everybody is important — from front desk staff to the managers I work with day to day.
I make sure to respond to any and all questions I receive from my staff and I am engaged and involved because my team’s professional growth is important to me. I often tell my staff: don’t look at Maximus through the lens of Indiana or your local area; Maximus is a global company. You can work and go anywhere in the world where we have work. By the time I left the project in Nashville, I had promoted 10 or more employees, moving several of my staff into management roles. In my current role overseeing the Indiana IMPACT program, I helped one of my trainers get a job on the Maximus SOA (Standardized Operations and Analytics) team. I make it a point to stay in touch with the people I mentor. I love to see them succeed and grow.