Glen Gunderson: Leveraging Wisdom and Power for Good

Most Empowering Business-Leaders Leading Through The Change

Glen Gunderson, President and CEO of the YMCA of the North (headquartered in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and serving across Minnesota and Western Wisconsin), is an honest and deeply ethical leader. Success, for him, is never about personal gains. He sees it as the “art of moving others forward.” Over the years, he has played a key role in empowering several emerging leaders. Glen served them in every way possible so that they could envision for themselves a larger purpose.

A mentor and inspiration to many, Glen feels immense joy and satisfaction when he finds out that the individuals he mentored have grown to become remarkable leaders or started their own companies. He also loves to uncover the hidden potential and talent in individuals and teams so that they can craft exemplary careers and outcomes for themselves. I have matured as a leader, I’m most rewarded when those I serve, find fulfillment and success,” he says.

And, as someone who chooses “optimistic” to describe himself in one word, Glen is extremely clear about what really matters to him. His priorities of faith, family, and vocation, in that order, have allowed him to keep perspective on what really matters and where his own desires fit.

In the future, too, Glen wants to continue leveraging his wisdom and power for good. This includes investing time with other corporate and civic leaders to tackle the most existential challenges, such as health, environment, racial justice, and the fight for opportunity for all human beings.

Reason for Accepting CEO Role at YMCA 

In June of 2012, Glen joined the YMCA of the North. A “steward” of the organization, Glen’s responsibilities include serving 4,000 team members who are committed to strengthening the community. He also serves the YMCA’s board of directors.

Glen is focused and works hard, intending to leave the organization – which he originally had no plans of joining – in a better place when it is time to hand over its reins to new leadership. Almost a decade ago, when he first heard about the job opening for the CEO position at YMCA of the North, the second-largest YMCA Association in the U.S. and the fourth largest in the world, he refused to be part of the candidate search process.

“I was serving at an early-stage healthcare technology company, enjoying the learnings and personal and professional growth,” Glen recalls. “I was approached by the search firm to be considered for the Y CEO role, and I turned it down.”

At the time, he did not have a clear sense of the YMCA’s mission, and hence, he had no appreciation for the power it holds. After he refused to explore the opportunity, one of his mentors reached out to him. He challenged Glen to take a deeper look, seeing that the YMCA opportunity was a strong fit for his accrued leadership experience and values. Following the advice from the mentor, he entered the search process, and to be a worthy candidate, he devoted his time to understanding the Y more fully. Glen surveyed, interviewed, and discussed the Y with more than 170 people. He noted that those who had a deep engagement with the Y mission had literally changed or were even saved by it, while significant misperceptions were evident among those who had not.

Glen’s daughter was eight years old when he was offered the CEO job at Y. And she served as the tipping point in his final decision. “Trying to use the decision as a teachable moment, I explained my current job and the Y CEO role in terms I thought a young person could understand,” Glen says. In the end, he asked her “what do you think I should do?” In an “out of the mouth of babes” response, she said, “I think you should go to the Y. You will serve more people there.”

“And she was right!”

YMCA of the North – Vision, Programs and Services  

YMCA of the North, a large, complex non-profit, operates in hundreds of sites, be it YMCA centers, program sites, school age care locations, camps, parks, public lands, and more. The organization serves the community through a broad array of programs in youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. Under these three areas of its focus, the Y nurtures the potential of every child and teen, improves the nation’s health and well-being, and gives back and provides support to its neighbors. And, in the state of Minnesota, the Y is the largest nonprofit provider of child care, the largest camp operator, the largest nonprofit employer, and one of the largest providers of health and well-being services.

Today’s youth are the brightest generation in history and the most digitally savvy, Glen points out. They also have empathy, and their collective caring spirit is more evolved than that of earlier generations. “They bring me hope,” Glen says. “Our Y is relentless in this area, seeking new ways to serve and connect with our children, teens, and young adults.”

As a perceptive leader, Glen believes that in the post-Covid-19 world, they need to deal with the most pressing issues of the present time. The pandemic proved the frailty of individual and community well-being, and a divided nation has laid bare the need for less political and more humanitarian approaches to bringing all people along in society. Glen also points out that stresses brought on by social media are crippling young people, impacting their ability to thrive. He, however, has “great hope” in the Y and everyone’s “better judgment” as a nation.

The Y now intends to move beyond fitness to advance whole person well-being – spirit, mind, body, and build a more resilient community. “The Y will serve as a beacon of hope for all people, advancing cultural competence in leaders from all corners of our community,” Glen says. “The Y will reintroduce the next generations to the healing power of nature through curated outdoor and adventure programming.”

And, the Y also plans to do everything in its power to strengthen the foundations of the community so that all can thrive.

Challenges and Roadblocks

Glen is not the least bit alarmed by challenges. He believes they make an individual or leader more resilient. “They are the crucible through which your leadership capacity is developed,” he says.

In the early part of his career, Glen worked for a very strong-willed founder. While serving him, he learned how he might want to develop as a leader, and even more so, what aspects of the founder’s style were inconsistent with his values and personal mission.

Glen says such leaders often pigeon-hole subordinates, capping their development opportunities through an inability to empower or give up control, and this attitude often becomes a roadblock for healthy progression as a leader. However, in his own experience, this gave Glen time to study in place, preparing for the next opportunity.

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the months following that, too, were a challenging time for Glen, as it was for a majority of the world population. During this difficult and defining period, there were layoffs, furloughs, complete disruption of the YMCA’s mission and business, and significant financial losses.

“The health and economic impact in our communities and the racial and social justice reckoning whose epicenter was in our hometown following the murder of George Floyd served as extraordinary stressors,” Glen says. “There were days in the last two years where it seemed we were at an impasse, a breaking point.”  At such a time, Glen’s calling card was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote, “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.

“The short-term disappointments were very real, but the capacity to navigate both as an individual leader and as part of a team reminded me of the greatness and perseverance of the human spirit,” he adds.

Inspiration and Journey as a Leader  

A ‘40 Under 40’ honoree and the ‘Most Admired CEO’ winner, Glen’s leadership journey began as a son, and it continued as a brother, husband, and father. “I have loved each role – they humble me and bring learning and joy,” he says, adding that his family has been a guiding light and inspiration.

The values handed down to him from his grandparents and parents can be summed up as, “whatever you do, pursue purpose, serve and give back,” Glen says. “Whether there were overt lessons or role modeled, I was fortunate to have multiple generations of mentors – leaders for good – within my family.”

After completing his undergraduate degree, Glen took a year off to determine his next step – work or graduate school. During his one-year introspection period, he accepted a broadcast internship at a local NBC affiliate. He also worked part-time at a health club. “I soon fell in love with helping guide people to a healthier life,” Glen says. “What I thought was a year of introspection became a launching pad for a life’s work in health and well-being.”

Over the years, Glen has served as a youth coach and mentor, a sales manager, a marketing and business development executive, a volunteer, a board member, and a CEO. He continues to be passionate about building high-performing teams, developing leaders, and tackling complex problems around societal well-being.

For Glen, leadership is about inverting power structures, giving emerging leaders a chance to try, fail, learn and grow. And he calls empowerment a form of trust that gives the “empowered” a sense of ownership. When a leader feels empowered and trusted, they can leverage their own judgment to tackle a challenge or capitalize on an opportunity.

Glen has achieved a lot and won several accolades for his work, but he is not yet completely satisfied. “I’ve received several ‘Dad of the Year’ and ‘Best Dad Ever’ awards from my two kids, he shares tongue in cheek, but I’m still awaiting the ‘Top Husband’ designation, so still plenty of work to do.”

Regular Day of a CEO and President 

Every day at work is distinct for Glen. He says that the pandemic brought a new rhythm of in-person and digital interactions with the team, community, and civic leaders, volunteers, partners, and donors. His regular day at work may include time for strategic discussions about their future vision as a Y, a lunch with a board member and/or strategic advisor, time presenting to key donors, and visits to Y program sites.

As CEO of the organization, Glen also has to keep his team motivated. In moving through the pandemic, it has become a challenge to do that as they have adopted a hybrid work model. He and his team gain motivation by remaining focused on the Y’s reason for being, its purpose.

“We also need to be intentional about reflecting on  successes along the way,” Glen says. “In our case, successes are incremental yet so meaningful.” For example, housing the homeless, helping our seniors stave off isolation, giving our teenagers the tools to steer clear of human trafficking, closing education gaps, and raising the health quotient in our community.

Glen has a busy work schedule, but he has never allowed that to interfere with his responsibilities to his family. “I have been resolute in ordering my priorities with faith and family preceding work,” Glen says. “This is always an imperfect effort, but if your values are clear, you have a better chance at balance.”

Message to Aspiring Business Minds  

“Do not lose sight of a hopeful horizon” is Glen’s message to aspiring business minds. “All challenges can be solved over time, and things are never as bad as our finite hearts and minds might assume. We are capable of so much more than we tend to believe.”