How John Hoey and the Y in Central Maryland are helping Baltimore through its rough patch

John Hoey

John Hoey

By Tina Irgang

Almost a decade ago, John Hoey was working a private-sector job that made him happy and challenged him intellectually. That’s why, when the Y in Central Maryland asked him to come on board as CEO, he initially said no. But they kept calling. Today, Hoey is one of the leaders in the effort to provide hope to disenfranchised youth in West Baltimore following last April’s riots. He also has some advice for other business leaders: To become a more effective leader, drop the business book and read up on your history instead.

What does working for the Y in Central Maryland mean to you?

Hoey: I kind of consider myself an accidental tourist here. This is not necessarily a job I aspired to do until I was recruited to do it nine years ago, but I’ve come to really love it, and I believe I have the best job in town. What it means to me is that it allows me to do something really important in the community and run a really interesting business. My prior life was in the private sector, but I did a lot of community work as a volunteer, so I sort of get to have my cake and eat it too.

How has the need for the Y’s youth programs developed during your tenure? Do you see more of a need now than you did a few years ago?

Hoey: When I first got here, I was really just trying to understand a few things. One, what the community needed, but also what we could do if we were really operating at full steam. So I do think the community needs more of us, [for example] in terms of health. We really serve health seekers. Unlike a private health club, we’re not focused on the already fit or the bodybuilder or the triathlete, although we have some of those. We really focus on people who need a lot of help in getting healthier, who want their family to participate in that process, who want to engage their kids in healthy activities. So it’s a more holistic approach, and you don’t have to have read every article in the newspaper to know that we have a major problem in our country with people suffering from diabetes, chronic diseases, all kinds of things that are preventable. We’ve got obesity issues and all of that. Changing people’s lifestyles to help them get and stay healthier is really important. So that need is not going away. … In terms of helping our young people, which is another core part of who we are, both in early childhood education and in the school years, [we are] supporting kids’ development, helping to provide enrichment and education and other physical activity programming for kids. … All kids need that, regardless of income level, but particularly kids who are living in poverty or in challenged communities. Our work has really grown tremendously. … I think the last thing would be what we call social responsibility, which is really helping to create a better community. That’s kind of the secret sauce of the Y. We see ourselves as kind of the glue of the community. We’re helping people get more engaged in the community, and involved in volunteerism.

Baltimore is going through a rough time at the moment. What’s the Y’s role in helping people get through it?

Hoey: We play a big role. We’ve been in Baltimore for 160-plus years. We have a tremendous footprint in Baltimore City already, and after the Freddie Gray situation and the riots in the spring, we were probably the organization that many turned to first to try to provide summer programming, particularly with the school system actually providing less summer school. We planned on having six summer enrichment sites across the city, but after that situation, with about 30 days’ notice, that number went from six to 21. So we ran 21 summer enrichment sites across the city, most concentrated in West Baltimore. … Really no other organization was in a position to do that. We also operate 18 Head Start sites, many of them concentrated in and around [Freddie Gray’s neighborhood of] Sandtown-Winchester. We were kind of on the front lines with many of those families already, and we play a very important role in trying to stabilize the community. … We think there’s a lot of community organizations that are great at that, so we don’t see ourselves as exclusionary. It’s going to take a lot of us to create more hope and change the dynamic for kids in the city. There’s a lot of structural issues that need to change, but in terms of our work, we can provide positive things for kids to do and show them that there is a better life by staying in school and finding constructive things to fill their time.

Any leadership role entails stress and the need for balance. What do you do to achieve balance and recharge your energy?

Hoey: One of the benefits of running the Y is that I use the Y. I believe that exercise, staying active and healthy, is critical. … Then I think the other thing for me [is], I have a great family and, if I’m feeling down or I’m under stress, I just have to look in my kids’ eyes and realize that I have a great gift as a parent and a responsibility, so that helps me a lot. The other thing I would mention is, I’m a guy who really loves to read, and so I don’t read management books, leadership books. I majored in English and minored in history in college, so I read fiction, and I read a lot of history and biographies, because I think it’s important to expand your mind. I actually find myself more effective at work by understanding how other people have led their lives, and understanding other cultures, trying to get into the head of someone or something else that is totally unlike who or where I am. I’ve probably read one or two management books, but I find reading and understanding our history and great literature, or trying to, has hopefully made me a better and more effective leader.

What do you consider the best decision you’ve ever made, either personally or professionally?

Hoey: I’ve never done the expected thing in my career. So on many occasions, I’ve pursued opportunities that really made no sense. … When I accepted this move [to the Y], I candidly had no interest in the job. I didn’t understand why they wanted to talk to me. I really loved what I was doing, I was running an interesting business in an interesting sector that was intellectually and personally challenging. But the Y kept calling me, and it was a big decision in your mid-40s to walk away from a business career. My son, who was 10 at the time, I told him I’m thinking about changing jobs. He looked at me [and said], “Why would you do that? Don’t you love your job?” “Yeah, but I’m thinking of going to run the Y.” And he said, “I think that seems really cool. I think you should do it.” I think it was a good decision, but it was not the first time I decided to do something that wasn’t necessarily the right thing on paper. … I’m really very happy doing what I’m doing. I feel like I walk out the door and do something I really enjoy. If you’re fortunate enough to do that, that’s a pretty great thing.

About The Human Element:

The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email ahurst@smartceo.com.