Whether it’s volunteering time or donating gifts and goods, the holiday season always seems to bring out the best in people. We as a society band together and shift focus from our own busy lives to the lives of others. It’s great to see and fulfilling to get involved. Then as the new year starts, things typically settle back to our own day-to-day responsibilities which rightfully consume the bulk of our attention. But what about those organizations that provided us with holiday volunteer opportunities? What happens within those groups that hosted a toy drive or an event serving food to those in need? There are many hardworking individuals who maintain those efforts all year, and the value of their contribution to society cannot be overstated. This month we’re honored to shine our Thought Leader Spotlight on one such individual who has made a career out of positively impacting the lives of countless others who will likely never know her name. It takes a special person to commit every hour of every day to helping others, which is why we’re so excited to introduce our Thought Leader for November 2019; the Chief Executive Officer of Human Options, Inc., Maricela Rios.
Since 1994, you’ve worked for several different community-focused organizations here in Orange County. Did you always know you wanted a career in this space, or was it a path that revealed itself along the way?
Looking back I think I’ve always been a social worker at heart. I grew up with a large extended family. They were my first exposure to what it meant to be in community and the importance of helping others.
Growing up I was intrinsically curious and spent a lot of my time reading books. It was easy to get caught up in the character’s stories and I especially enjoyed trying to figure out how conflicts and issues were resolved. When a high school teacher exposed me to books about human behavior and psychology I was hooked. What better way to understand a community than by learning about the individuals that comprise it. I pursued a bachelors in psychology at California State University Fullerton and the world of human services opened up when I enrolled in my first internship.
As my career progressed, I was drawn toward program development and systems change. Both resonated with my brains natural way of sorting and integrating information. I found that being in leadership roles in community-focused organizations created an opportunity to blend both my passion for improving the lives of individuals and families with my commitment to changing the environment.
What life experience(s) do you feel best prepared you for the leadership position you are in today?
Everyday offers a lesson in leadership if we take the time to reflect on it. A couple of experiences stand out as ones that have helped shape who I am today.
– During my senior year in high school my civics teacher assigned each of us a topic to debate for our final project. Passing the class depended on our project grade. The twist was that we had to argue both sides of the issue evenly and would only receive a pass if our teacher couldn’t tell which side of the argument we were on. As I dug into the assignment I focused on common ground and the importance of understanding all sides of the issue. Being in leadership requires being able to see issues from a 360 lens.
– Shortly after completing my undergraduate degree I got a job working as a Gang Prevention Specialist. Part of my work in the community included representing my organization at community meetings. As I walked into my first meeting I felt the weight of what it meant to be a “specialist”. The community liaison leaned in and gave me the best advice “it’s okay to sit back and listen for an opportunity to educate the group, not every comment deserves a response”. As an organizational leader listening is often more important than having all the answers.
Who has had the biggest impact on you throughout your career – in regards to professional development?
I’ve been fortunate to have various mentors and coaches throughout my career, all of which have inspired and supported my personal and professional growth. Two key learnings from these mentors and coaches have had the biggest impact and come to mind
Focus on your strengths: Seven years ago, Marissa Tirona and Michelle Gislason facilitated a retreat focused on strength based leadership. We all have unique strengths, understanding what one’s are enables us to align our talents with the right opportunity. The resulting synergy boosts our leadership capabilities.
Live with purpose: My coach and mentor Vance Caesar often says that the key to happiness is to do what you love, with people you love, purposefully. It’s a great reminder to center what’s important.
From economic volatility to technological advancements, there have been significant societal shifts over the past 20 years. How has your leadership style changed or remained the same throughout that time?
I’ve “grown up” in the nonprofit sector and have seen the impact of societal shifts on various communities. Early in my career I was focused on what I could do for individuals to address their needs. Over the past 20 years my focus has shifted to creating systems change to help families and communities thrive. Although my leadership style has evolved over time based on experience and a higher degree of technical knowledge it continues to be grounded in a desire to learn and grow as an individual.
There have been articles published highlighting the need for an integrated system that can organize resources and unify community efforts on the ground level. More specifically, there’s been discussion regarding a centralized database where family or individual information can be housed and made accessible to a variety of community support organizations. How might this type of database access help strengthen our local community support organizations?
This is a pretty big question. As a county I’m not quite sure we have the data needed to fully understand the most pervasive issues we face, the numbers impacted, what resources are available and access to these resources or gaps in service. Framing the right questions to gather data that is meaningful and informs a shared understanding of the need is an essential first step to unifying community efforts and developing a shared agenda. Issues of privacy, security and ethical use of the data become key points of discussion throughout the process.
Named CEO in 2016, your resume lists almost 13 years of experience with Human Options. What is it about this organization that has motivated you to remain on the team? What are you most proud of having accomplished throughout that time?
I often get asked if it’s difficult to work with victims and survivors of relationship violence. The truth is there are stories of abuse that are heartbreaking. Being at Human Options, I get to see the transformation that individuals and families experience when they feel safe. There are so many stories I can share about the lives that are now on a path to healing as a result of our team. My motivation comes from knowing that I’m part of a community that is breaking the intergenerational cycle of abuse.
One of our most significant achievements is the development of our theory of change (TOC). Staff throughout Human Options engaged a variety of stakeholders in the process of developing our TOC, which promoted leadership skills across the organization and reinforced our commitment to learning from one another and our partners as we strive to serve our clients better. By providing us with a clearer strategic direction, our TOC illuminated pathways for us to impact many more people through strategic partnerships than we currently serve in our residential settings. These partnership has enabled us to successfully transition 20% more families than we were able to do before the partnership was established, from 74% in 2015 to 94% in 2018.
You’ve achieved an impressive and inspiring climb from Assistant Program Director to Chief Executive Officer. Do you have any advice for a growth-minded professional who is just getting starting in their career?
Thank you, I feel fortunate that I was well prepared when the opportunities presented themselves. The following advice was shared with me as a young professional:
– Seek out mentors and coaches that are willing to challenge you.
– Be open to new opportunities for learning and growth.
– Don’t be afraid to fail. Learn from it and move on.
– Live with purpose.
– Do your job well and learn the job of the person above you.
What is your favorite quote?
It’s really hard to pick a favorite, the following quote is currently on the white board of my office reminding me that change starts with me.
“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us” – Emerson