By Bridgett Harris
As a leader invested in community-centered work, Keith Willschau has always been devoted to supporting the Pikes Peak region. His résumé reads like a who’s who of the region’s favorite nonprofits. He’s worked with the Trails and Open Space Coalition and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute — and so many campaigns and projects that he has to refer to his résumé to remember them all.
In addition to his community involvement, Willschau has taken on education-centered roles throughout his career. But this wasn’t the path he’d envisioned for himself.
“I wanted to be a marketing and advertising executive or a public relations person,” he said. “That didn’t happen directly, which I feel grateful for.”
Willschau is program director for Leadership Pikes Peak’s Signature Program, which supports managers and executives as they seek new ways to serve their communities.
He’s proud of his organization and the work it does, and revels in his role as its ambassador.
Alongside his community service and LPP work, Willschau teaches yoga and yoga philosophy classes as an adjunct professor at UCCS. He has also managed a yoga studio and served as a Lululemon Ambassador through a partnership program that sees inspirational community leaders bringing feedback to the activewear brand.
Willschau spoke with the Business Journal about his work in the community and his experience as a leader and an educator in Colorado Springs.
Where did your passion for community work begin?
During my undergrad, I was heavily involved in every club or organization that I had any sort of interest in or that needed a skill that I had. That was where I learned to appreciate and understand giving back to my community.
It also gave back to me through so many opportunities in education, learning and networking. Even 15 years later, I still appreciate the value of networking and those experiences.
How did you transition to serving your community after college?
When I first got to Colorado Springs, I didn’t know a lot of people here. I had a few acquaintances and friends from college and I really wanted to get involved. So I looked up the Colorado Springs Rising Professionals and from there it just bloomed. I was given the opportunity to work on a campaign involving Memorial Hospital and that was a really unique experience. The biggest shift for me with really connecting with the community came during the Waldo Canyon fire. I lived in Mountain Shadows and the generosity, kindness and support created this sense of belonging.
Why did you decide to work at Leadership Pikes Peak?
I transitioned to Leadership Pikes Peak in 2016 because it married the best of both worlds. It combined my personal mission, my passion and all of my past experience with my desire to educate and empower individuals on a communitywide basis.
I started with a teenage program called Leading Edge. It’s a program for rising high school sophomores and juniors to teach them about community leadership. That was my first time working with teenagers and I really enjoyed it. It really restored my faith in the generation beneath me; there are some really incredible human beings on this planet.
Tell us about your work as the program manager for Leadership Pikes Peak’s Signature Program.
Most community leaders in Colorado Springs have, at some point, had some sort of direct or indirect connection to Leadership Pikes Peak because we have been around since 1976. People don’t realize how vast the network of Leadership Pikes Peak is.
The Signature Program is for established professionals. It usually consists of managers and executives who have a passion for their community, who want to learn about their community and who want to gain a greater passion for their community while gaining a greater understanding about themselves.
Our focus areas are leadership of the self, leadership of the city and leadership of the community. In order to be an effective leader within your organization and in the organization that you choose to support, you need to understand what your strengths are, who you are as a person and what your passions are.
How do you help Leadership Pikes Peak participants accomplish that?
We introduce them to leaders in the top industries within the Pikes Peak region — tourism, Department of Defense, public service, education, health and others. From there we broaden the scope even further while helping them narrow down what their focus is within the community. How can they fit in now that they know more about the city and more about themselves? How can they lead their community?
We also introduce them to nonprofits throughout the program because participants work on group projects.
What do these group projects entail?
Nonprofit organizations submit proposals to Leadership Pikes Peak to request help in accomplishing a project or goal. Anyone can submit a proposal as long as they are a 501(c)(3) or a governmental organization. The class breaks down into four to five groups and then these private proposals are voted on by the class. Once selected, the participants apply what they’re learning in the curriculum about themselves and the community to these projects.
What’s the payoff?
It’s a huge win for Leadership Pikes Peak in that we get to expand our impact through our participants, but it also benefits the participating organization. They get incredibly produced work that most nonprofits just don’t have the budget for. They also usually get board members, volunteers and brand awareness and exposure from the participants in the program that are working on the project. They get champions as well as more community support.
What have you learned from working with these groups?
Every year I’ve been surprised by the proposals that don’t get selected. As staff, we’re removed from the process and we just verify that an organization meets the criteria that we require. It’s always fun for me to geek out and see how each proposal is presented to the class and then find out who the class chooses. Each class culture is so different and the proposals that I think will be picked oftentimes are not what the class selects. That’s always a pleasant surprise.
As a leadership teacher and a community leader, how would you define your own approach to leading others?
I’m an adaptable servant leader. I focus best and I lead best when I can lead from people’s strengths and effectively manage the personalities within the team so that we can successfully support the mission, the goal, the intention and the objective.
Sometimes that means being the assertive leader that takes charge. Other times it means being a team participant that is a doer and not necessarily a direct leader. I’m adaptable in the sense that I can manage a project or take over a project, but I can also step back and be that doer and that follower that leadership needs and provide my insight and guidance when I see that it’s necessary or when I feel it’s important.
Why is it important to be flexible?
For every leader, you’ve got to have followers. I think the ability to bounce between is important and I believe that vision and mission unity is super important.
What is some of the best advice you have received?
A mentor of mine, David Irvine, taught me the practical way to think locally and act globally. If you really want to make an impact, you have to do it locally. I now fully understand that I can serve this community and expand my impact in a really specific and precise way by finding what my passion is and what my skills are and then finding an organization that needs both of those. When you support your local community, neighbors and organizations, you’re creating that change.
How is the pandemic impacting your work and the work of LPP?
We are an event-based community leadership organization and that means we’ve had to postpone our program days and shift to a distance learning model. So far, the response has been flexible with everyone still showing a willingness to still be involved.
For example, our criminal justice event for the Signature Program that was scheduled for April 24 and included the chief judge of the 4th Judicial District, the district attorney and people from the sheriff’s department had over 40 people and included a tour of the jail. It will now all be done online. The presenters have been extremely accommodating and flexible.
Just as the whole world has adapted quickly, so have we. We’ve reworked our remote working capabilities and we have the support and flexibility from our board and from the executive director. It has been a smooth transition despite the circumstances. We’re resilient. We’ve been around for a while and we are not going anywhere.
What have you learned about leadership in the midst of this crisis?
COVID-19 has impacted everyone and no one is sure what is going to happen next. This time has created a need to think strategically about how to keep and maintain the community connection while continuing to practice responsible social distancing. People still want to be engaged, which is very reassuring.
Our Leadership Pikes Peak participants, for example, have been very adaptable, flexible and clear about the fact that they still want to meet and they want to continue their commitment to their community. It is important to link these people who have the time and the means to help the organizations that need support.