By Preeti Gill, A Few Good Women: https://diversitydrivendata.wordpress.com/
Her poise and sophistication aligns closely with the backdrop of our meeting place on a crisp, sunny Sunday morning in the City of Big Shoulders. She is Christina Pulawski, a prospect research leader, who has kindly offered to tour me through the Art Institute of Chicago’s latest exhibit of Indian art, Gates of the Lord: The Tradition of Krishna Paintings.
How did we get here? Well, I’ve admired Christina’s career from afar for a while now. Read her impressive biography here as I can’t do her varied accomplishments justice in this restrictive space. She led the prospect research team at Northwestern University – when they earned a “top research shop” distinction – and went on to lead Loyola University-Chicago’s Advancement Services before embarking on a successful consulting career that she continues to juggle, alongside developing a multi-team-led prospect development strategy at the AIC.
A trained lawyer and highly-rated speaker, Christina is also known for her volunteer leadership of both APRA-Illinois and big APRA. She served as chapter president for two years and earned APRA’s distinguished service award in 2005. She is also a co-founder of AASP.
Born and raised in Chicago, Christina told me about her early memories visiting the AIC. Her mother would show her a few paintings she liked and share what she knew about them, interspersed with other, more unusual, holdings of the museum, such as its miniature rooms or arms and armor. Their visits were short, yet rich learning experiences, much like the time she and I spent walking through Krishna paintings and textiles, and gawking at the ornate Renaissance pendant jewels of the Alsdorf Collection. (I did most of the gawking, really).
Later, we climbed an airy staircase over to Modern Art and sat down for a thoughtful discussion about hiring high-performers; learning to lead; and why prospect research continues to fascinate and captivate her. I sent her a few questions in advance so she had a chance to think them through and noticed that she had written down many of her thoughts before meeting me that morning. She took issue (tactfully) with some of my questions.
What Makes Researchers Great and Great Researchers?
Christina has hired and developed research teams for a number of organizations, both in-house and in a consulting capacity, so I asked her what traits or characteristics she hires for:
“It depends on where you are [kind of organization], she said. “At Northwestern, we deliberately hired for no previous experience to help train them for our specific needs. Someone who is curious; who writes well; and is well-spoken. “
She stressed curiosity, tenacity and “an interest in a lot of different things.”
“At AIC, we just hired an analyst a few weeks ago who has experience since we cannot spend as much time training and overseeing. When hiring experienced researchers, we look at how they prioritize their work.”
Since many researchers don’t operate solo shops, I asked her about a winning formula for a dynamic and high-performing team:
“In my opinion, when everyone knows what the group's goal is and understands her or his role within it. We have shared professional values like accuracy, thoroughness, timeliness, empathy towards others who use our work.”
Christina plans annual retreats for her staff where often they start with: “What are our values? What's the manifestation of those values? Values conflict sometimes like urgent requests. We work it out through scenarios before having to actually deal with issues.”
“We all need to know where we're going.”
Learning to Lead
We talked extensively about leading and mentoring and how we need mentors throughout the courses of our respective careers.
“I had a couple of bosses – not in research – who modelled excellent behavior. They were cool, calm, collected - perfectly unflappable. They were empathetic.”
Christina spoke eloquently about being an effective leader.
“In times of change, over-communicate and over-prepare. Stick with what you said." She's honest with people on her team. She micro-manages new staff initially until they’re fine on their own.
"Help grow people in their career. Where do they want to go? Find opportunities for them to grow and publicly given them credit for succeeding at those opportunities. Encourage staff to mentor people at other organizations. Present at conferences. Connect them with other people. Nurture people who want to grow. And then do the same for yourself."
"It’s my duty to help them [staff] get to where they want to be."
Christina says that leadership and management require a slew of different skills and abilities, separate and apart from research – i.e. technical – proficiencies. She says, “Intentionally develop both.”
Not being the same as leadership skills, technical skills manifest differently in every profession. “For example, most of us have seen brilliant fundraisers who do not transition to being as brilliant in managing other fundraisers.”
“We love to research 'cuz it's cool!” she said with a large grin. “But sometimes leading means doing less of what you love to do.”
So, how to develop soft skills, I recall asking her?
“Reading a lot, coaching, in-house management training that offers good common-sense advice like how to run a meeting and working with other people,” she listed.
Research is Cool. Consulting? Even Cooler
“With research, you get to be an expert in a little bit of everything. I know what it feels like to be a venture capitalist because I've researched 17,000 of them,” she said with a smile.
“Consulting is awesome. Taking fundamental principles and applying them in different permutations in different places to get the same result, meeting financial goals.
“Consulting is more about structure and resourcing. Should you hire a full-time researcher? [As a consultant], your focus is on different types of giving and fundraising. What's your goal? Staff experience and size, campaign focus and timing, all need to be taken into account and affect research.
“It’s not about re-creating what you've already done,” stressed Christina.
To wrap up, I also asked her a few cheeky questions for which she had smart responses:
Every prospect researcher should bookmark this site: ______
She took this question literally and calls her answer “snarky.”
“Dreaming of sending the link in answer to some questions researchers get, check out lmgtfy.com.
It's a stress release! And kitten/puppy video sources.”
Given her native Chicagoan status, I also asked Christina: If I have just one day in this great city, what is an absolute must-see that they don’t share in tourism guides?
“The guide books are pretty great for general info. For things that everybody might like. I'd have to know what someone's into to guide them to things that the guide books don't.”
(Classic researcher response = evaluating the information tool!)
“Get into the neighbourhoods. Use a Divvy bike [to get around]. It's the best $10 you'll spend in 24 hours” she said.Do you want to learn more about what Christina Pulawski had to say about women leaders and the way data analytics is changing the way we view donors? Check out the second part of my interview with this prospect research leader at A Few Great Women here