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Executive draws on lessons from corporate, nonprofit world in new role

Sue Wetzel has held top leadership roles in corporate America and with national nonprofits. One constant theme: Hyper-focus on the mission.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. November 23, 2018
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Lori Sax. Sue Wetzel is the Sarasota area president of United Way Suncoast.
Lori Sax. Sue Wetzel is the Sarasota area president of United Way Suncoast.
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She’s gone from the corporate world to the nonprofit world, then the corporate world and back again.

All the while, there's been one constant for Sue Wetzel: United Way.

For more than 30 years, Sue Wetzel has been affiliated with the prominent charitable organization, either as a volunteer or paid leader. Her latest and current gig with United Way is a career pinnacle in a career full of highlights: Sarasota area president of the United Way Suncoast, an organization with $19.5 million in revenue. Of that revenue, Sarasota and DeSoto counties — Wetzel's territory — contributes $2.6 million. Wetzel was named to the lead role in August, replacing area workforce issues executive Mireya Eavey.

Wetzel's career has also been punctuated with leadership roles at AT&T and Johnson & Johnson. Both companies, she says, supported United Way. In fact, it was a colleague at AT&T who suggested she could serve as a funds allocation volunteer for the organization while she built her career. That’s what prompted her to get more involved with United Way, and over the years, she’s served as a committee member, board member and board chair.

As Wetzel moved back and forth between the nonprofit and corporate worlds, she’s learned that while there are differences, there are also some striking similarities. For one? Always stick to the mission at hand.

Wetzel has also honed her leadership skills at each role, emphasizing the importance of inclusivity, respect and the power of a team to accomplish goals.

Same Skills

At AT&T for 12 years, Wetzel had several different assignments in operations, consumer marketing and customer care. When she worked in customer care, she was responsible for operator service centers across the country with nine to 10 centers nationwide, and about 50 operators at each. 

She also helped introduce high-performing work teams, what she terms a team empowered to make decisions related to their work to achieve shared outcomes. The changes, she says, allowed employees to think for themselves. When she was 26 years old, she says, an older woman working for her said, “‘It’s so nice not to have to check my brain at the door.’ That affected my leadership style from then until now,” Wetzel says.

In the mid-1990s, Wetzel first went to work for United Way, after what she calls a “cold hard stare in the mirror.” She had been working for AT&T as a managing client consultant, traveling all over the world. She was in the process of adopting children with her husband and sought a job that involved less traveling.

At AT&T, her work involved change management and process changes, including changes around new technology the company was introducing. That was similar to what was happening at United Way, too, so shifting to the nonprofit would give her the chance to apply those same skills.

She took on the role of president at United Way of Somerset County, New Jersey. Wetzel was so successful in the position she got the attention of Alexandria, Va.-based United Way of America. Soon she was recruited to serve as vice president for United Way of America. In that job, she traveled all over the U.S. and met many corporate and community leaders.

Later, as a volunteer with United Way, she co-led a merger design team with United Way official John Franklin that helped six United Way organizations combine to form United Way of Northern New Jersey. Franklin is now the CEO of that entity — and remains a fan of Wetzel. 

Wetzel’s involvement, he says, included helping a young man who was a student a local community college. She and other United Way women identified him as a candidate for an internship at Johnson & Johnson. Now he works full time for the company. “She was instrumental in expanding his opportunities and seeing that he had a good future in front of him,” Franklin says.

Franklin and Wetzel also worked together when she was board chair of United Way of Northern New Jersey. She introduced a strategic tool Franklin calls a “four-boxer” that allows people to identify goals and objectives and risks and resources needed to complete a job or initiative. The tool is still used at the organization today. “The board had the ability to track our progress,” he says. “That was something that we all gained from Sue.”

Mission Driven

When Wetzel decided to switch back to corporate America, this time she joined Johnson & Johnson. For nearly two decades, Wetzel worked at the company in a variety of positions while balancing volunteer work with United Way.

“I often start a conversation with a question — What does success look like? — then walk it back. Figure out where you need to make improvements.” — Sue Wetzel, Sarasota area president, United Way Suncoast

At Johnson & Johnson, she worked in revenue management, customer service support, sales and logistics. She later served as vice president of U.S. customer services for Johnson & Johnson Health Care Systems. With an operating budget of $25 million and 512 associates across the country, she supported $32 billion in sales.

Building teams was one of her strengths, says Mike Bulone, who was on Wetzel’s team for several years at Johnson & Johnson. “I think she gave you the picture of what we could be and set it out there and said, ‘Here’s what you all have the potential to do, and if you do it individually it’s not going to be as great as if you do it together,’” Bulone says. 

Bulone adds Wetzel held her team accountable to high standards, but the accountability ran the other way, too. “She really felt like she served her people — they didn’t serve her,” Bulone says. “It’s that sort of humble leadership style that’s so effective.”

During the course of her career — at Johnson & Johnson, AT&T and United Way — Wetzel says she’s continued to think it’s interesting that she’s had the same conversations with teammates in different settings. “The themes across my career are pretty consistent,” she says.

The similarities between nonprofit and corporate organizations are clear to Wetzel. Both try to focus on their mission. They work to articulate and demonstrate their value. They also implement products and services in a quantifiable way.

But for all of the similarities, she’s noticed some differences, too. Nonprofits have more boots on the ground and less hierarchy, she says. At corporate organizations, Wetzel says, the larger scales allow companies to have more people around the table who offer diverse perspectives and personalities.

One important value she’s learned through her experience? She says it’s to empower employees to make the best decisions for their roles.

Danielle Jenkins, a colleague of Wetzel’s at Johnson & Johnson who considers Wetzel a mentor, saw the empowerment in person. "She's always been a really good sounding board," says Jenkins, who also says she values Wetzel's ability to provide an objective perspective and push her to question decisions and make sure they're aligned with her long-term goals. “When you sit down with her, you feel very comfortable and at ease. You don’t feel there’s a back agenda. She’s transparent in her feelings and what she’s passionate about. She understands then how you can build a solution together.”

Today, Wetzel describes her own leadership style as inclusive and respectful. And as she takes on another leading role, she’s still dedicated to keeping the people she leads focused on the mission at hand.

Way Forward

At United Way Suncoast, that mission is breaking the generational cycle of poverty. As Sarasota area president, Wetzel is leading the charge to do that in two counties — Sarasota and DeSoto.

In Sarasota County, the focus is on financial stability. That translates to programs that help people accurately file their taxes and efforts to educate people about banking options. In DeSoto County, the focus is on reading and education levels. There, United Way supports grade-level reading initiatives and is working to get more books into children’s homes.

“Data drives what we know,” Wetzel says. Numerical information helps United Way Suncoast focus its fundraising and efforts in the community. It also provides a way for staff to articulate the need to donors.

Those donors are, in a way, treated like corporate investors. United Way Suncoast communicates specifics to them about how it has managed their contributions. “This isn’t our money, and I’m very sensitive to the fact that we’re dealing with their gift,” Wetzel says. 

Her biggest challenges as a leader are challenges that don’t discriminate between nonprofits and corporations. No. 1? “To be able to change fast enough to meet changing customer or market conditions,” Wetzel says. That can be hard, she says, both in large organizations that are like turning a battleship and in small organizations with limited resources.

Another key challenge? Just like at a business, keeping everyone aligned around the mission and vision is crucial, Wetzel says. “It’s easy to get distracted.”

Jenkins has found that what makes Wetzel successful is just that: an ability to communicate the end goal and the strategy to get there. Wetzel will figure out how to move past any roadblocks thrown at her, Jenkins says. “She will also bring you along.” 


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