Homegrown Leader — How Clark David Baker develops talent at the YMCA of Greater Houston

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Clark David Baker, president and CEO of the YMCA Of Greater Houston, doesn’t have to dig deep to find an example of how the YMCA assists future business leaders in the region.
Benton Love, former president of Texas Commerce Bank, and Gerald Hines, founder and chairman of Hines, one of the world’s largest real estate companies, both share something in common besides success in their respective fields: Both at one point lived in housing provided through a Houston YMCA residential program.
“We’re a people organization,” Baker says. “Therefore, we don’t make widgets; we build people.”
The 37 YMCAs that comprise the organization that has been a part of Houston for 127 years serve 100,000 people weekly through its programs, which are lead by 6,000 full-time staff and 13,000 volunteers. Houston, however, is not the same city it was more than a century ago — in order to cater to this generation of residents, you have to understand them.
“Back in the day when I was coming along, we threw a couple of basketballs out in the gym and everybody just came and played. Everybody got along, everybody looked the same, everybody was lower-middle income,” Baker says. “You come to Houston, Texas, (today) and we’re the most diverse city in the country. We speak 23 languages here at our YMCA.”
While the community the YMCA serves has changed, the organization’s mission hasn’t.
“Our core values are the same. Our core programs are the same,” Baker says. “But in Houston you’ve got to be sitting on the edge of your chair because of this multicultural community — one size doesn’t fit all.”
Here’s a look at how the YMCA has evolved with the times, placing an emphasis on getting a diverse, qualified staff to serve a diverse population.
Building the leaders of tomorrow
The key to serving that diverse community is finding the right people for the job.
“One of the wisest men I know told me there are only two things that can get you in trouble: You’ll run out of money, or you’ll run out of talent,” Baker says. “Spend your time on the talent, and you’ll never run out of money. So we hire passionate young people who want to make a difference in the community.”
According to Baker, the YMCA’s professional-level jobs offer competitive pay, resulting in 20 to 40 applicants for each opening.
“We’re a great place to work,” he says. “We’re a great service to our community and people want to work for us. So we do not have a staffing shortage or a crisis in getting talent.”
Volunteers primarily come from the families of the children served by the YMCA. He says 73,000 kids played youth sports last year, all coached by volunteers.
While filling positions seems to come easily, developing the organization’s future leaders gets special attention.
“One of my jobs is to recruit, train and retain the best and the brightest people available. We have a serious commitment to training,” says Baker.
To that end, the YMCA makes a significant investment in preparing its staff to advance, as evidenced by the $3 million it earmarks for training out of its $115 million annual budget. It also has a 35,000-square-foot training center located in the center of its service area, which will train about 2,000 people this year, according to Baker.
The two-story YMCA Center for Leadership Development has conference and training rooms and a computer lab through which webinars and other online training programs are hosted for those who can’t be there in person. It also houses Springfield College, which assists the YMCA with leadership development.
“We grow our own leadership,” Baker says.
The YMCA also uses career mapping coupled with a personal development plan for all full-time staff that plots where the employee wants to get in the organization and helps him or her understand how to get there. Testing is conducted to see where employees excel, and gap analysis is used to see what skills the employee lacks. Each employee’s career development plan is reviewed every two to three years to track progress.
The YMCA also utilizes external quality measures to rate performance, such as the Net Promoter Score, which is used to gauge customer satisfaction. The staffers who run YMCA programs get measured regularly through the NPS, and from that each staffer’s gap analysis data is gathered.
Baker adds that the Houston YMCA has 10,000 donors who give annually to keep the organization’s work going. Satisfaction, then, can be measured by how many of those donors return to give the next year.
“And, thank heavens, we have about 90 percent of the people who give to us give annually for years and years and years,” Baker says.
But does all this training work?
“I would suggest that we have very low staff turnover. Our jobs are coveted. If we open a director’s job at one of our Ys, we have three or four of our staff who are qualified for that, and we’ll get them in front of a local board, which has a lot to do with who we hire,” Baker says.
Additionally, Baker says during his 57-year tenure he’s helped develop 23 staffers whom are now CEOs leading YMCAs around the country.
“You want to be known as a good person to work for. And I like to think I’m a good person to work for. I want them to come in and have a joyful experience; they’re all going to work hard. But I think your measure of success is who did you train and how well are they doing,” Baker says.
However, before a CEO can be placed, he or she has to be discovered.
“The simple answer is you want to find passionate people who believe in your mission,” Baker says.
He looks for people who “have a head for the business and a heart for the mission. There’s no mission without money, so you’ve got to be a good manager, you’ve got to know how to do a budget, you’ve got to know how to stay in a budget.”
Find value in a homegrown product
Baker himself is no stranger to the YMCA’s method of growing its own leaders. He’s been with the organization since he was 12 years old and was recognized by the director at the time as having a potential future with the YMCA.
“The joke is I went to the Y one day and just never went home,” Baker says. To keep the YMCA membership he received as a gift from a neighbor when he was 10 for a third year, he needed to work for it, so he started mowing the YMCA’s yard.
“At 12 years old, I could mow the grass with the best of them. I was a good edger with the old hand clippers. I used to pride myself on squaring the corners when I mowed. I got recognized by the (YMCA) director who told me if I took as much care with my job as I did with that yard, I had a future working there.
“So he gave me my first job. I was a gym attendant — I put the balls out and kept score at the games and kept order in the gym,” he says. “That’s how I started. So I literally started at the bottom and worked my way up.”
Baker stayed with the YMCA, working during his two years at Vincennes University.
He went on to Covenant College in Georgia, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in recreational management, before spending three years in the Army as a personnel specialist.
He says the Army gave him the chance to work with many different people from many different places.
“The Y and the Army are very similar in that regard. We’re a melting pot. We work with everyone. The end of our mission statement has two words, ‘For all.’ In Houston, Texas, that means the haves and have nots, both sides of our community.”
Baker was back in the U.S. in 1970 and was offered a job at the YMCA as youth director.
“And that was my first real job — you have a lot of jobs, but when they give you benefits and put your name on the letterhead you’re a real staff member then,” he says.
The job paid $5,500 a year with $100 a month to buy health insurance.
“The YMCA and the United States Army are the only places I’ve ever worked. I love the Y, and I love the job. You never made a lot of money but you always felt good about the money you made,” Baker says.
Telling the story
Before electricity, bug spray, air conditioning and the telephone appeared in Houston, there was a YMCA, according to Baker. And with its wide reach through all levels of class and culture and its aim of inclusion, the YMCA touches many Houston residents.
“Our business model is to charge those who can pay, and let those who can’t come in free. That’s a terrible business model, but it’s a wonderful human service model. We still deny no one service due to their inability to pay,” Baker says.
The Houston YMCA is a 4-Star Charity, according to Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits based on financial health and their accountability and transparency. According to the site, among the more than 6,000 charities evaluated by Charity Navigator 30 percent obtained a four-star rating.
It seems many people recognize, utilize and appreciate what the YMCA brings to the Houston community. But making sure the story gets told and the brand’s strength is maintained takes work.
“Back in the day Santa Claus, Coca Cola and the YMCA were the three most recognized names in the world. Everyone you talk to loves the YMCA, but they don’t all know why,” Baker says. “My job and our marketing people’s job is to tell people why they need to love us.
“We’ve got the audience; we just have to tell the story. The best way to tell the story is to let them tell the story. So we believe in T-shirts, we believe in bumper stickers.”
The organization also has “mission moments,” which are stories told about what the YMCA means to somebody, what happened in someone’s life because of YMCA classes and programs.
The Houston YMCA has been telling its story since 1886 when the city had 12,000 people, and has managed to stay successful, much like its leader.
“It’s been a great career, a great opportunity,” Baker says. “It’s not a job. It’s a real ministry. You get up every day and you help people. It’s been good to me, and I hope I’ve been good to it.”
How to reach: YMCA of Greater Houston, (713) 659-5566 or www.ymcahouston.org
Foster homegrown leaders.
Utilize leadership development programs.
Measure progress to support personal growth.
The Clark Baker File
Education: Bachelor’s degree in organizational management from Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga.
Born: Washington, Ind.
Hobbies: Baker is a pipe organist, which he says can be a difficult hobby to keep. In order to have access to the instrument he says, “You’ve got to become friends with pastors.”
Being friends with pastors also helps Baker with another hobby of his, attending estate sales and collecting antiques, particularly of the religious type. His best pick is two prie-dieux items from a church that closed in his hometown.
Baker is also a boater, owning a Carver 33 Mariner. “It’s old but it’s faithful, like me,” he says. “Boating is family and friends — you can always find somebody to go out with you.”
What’s one thing you’d love to talk about but never seem to get the chance? Probably my military service. People never ask what I did in the military. I was able to travel to 15 countries in Europe and abroad. For a little boy from Southern Indiana, those are big stories.
What’s your advice for burgeoning young leaders? Distinguish yourself in some way. Be known for something. There are too many people in the crowd; how are they going to know it’s you?
Who contributes most to your worldview? Malcolm Gladwell. He’s really an anthropologist helping us understand how we live today, why we do things we do today. I find since I work with people and since people are what I believe in I need to read books about people and their thoughts and their ways.