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New CEO of Goodwill Industries International brings experience from government, private sector leadership to role

The challenge for Steven Preston? Further the Goodwill mission while making both donors and shoppers happy.

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  • | 6:10 a.m. July 5, 2019
  • Leadership
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A new president and CEO of Goodwill Industries International started in January.

Steven Preston took the helm of the nonprofit that helps people train for and find jobs using funding from the sales of items donated to its thrift shops. Goodwill Industries International is a network of 160 independent Goodwills in the U.S. and Canada.

Previously, Preston served in a variety of roles in the private sector and in government. He was secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under President George W. Bush and administrator of the Small Business Administration. He also held executive roles at Waste Management, ServiceMaster and First Data.

“What I've learned from prior situations is to be very methodical, to listen very, very hard and to make decisions and communicate them very well so everybody knows where you're heading and why you're heading there.” — Steven Preston, president and CEO, Goodwill Industries International

In June, Preston visited the area and met with officials from Goodwill Manasota, the Goodwill organization operating in Sarasota, Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto counties. “Sarasota is actually a particularly strong Goodwill in our network,” Preston says. “They've got a terrific reputation both in terms of their store operations and in terms of the impact on the people they serve.”

During his visit, Preston spoke with the Business Observer about what he does when he starts at a new organization and the importance of creating an environment where employees can flourish. 

  • Long-term solution: The motivation to lead an organization like Goodwill came several years ago for Preston. “At HUD I had an opportunity to work with adults that have life challenges,” he says. “It was really coming out of that experience that increased my own personal commitment to want to serve people who are … on the outside looking in, and they don't know how to get in. The thing I love about what we do is we don't give people a Band-Aid. We give people a longer-term solution.”
  • Opportunity knocks: During Preston’s career, he has honed his approach to entering an organization. “Whenever I come into a new organization, I work very, very hard to understand where the opportunities are,” he says. He examines data, spends time with employees and looks at employee surveys. “Then I pull all that together with my team to synthesize where are the opportunities, where are the needs, what do we have the competency to do?” The next step is to turn the information into a clear strategy and align the organization around it. Preston says, “What I've learned from prior situations is to be very methodical, to listen very, very hard and to make decisions and communicate them very well so everybody knows where you're heading and why you're heading there.”
  • Reasons to give: Thrift stores have seen an increase in donations recently, which sometimes attributed to Marie Kondo, author of the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Preston thinks that might be at play with Goodwill, but there are other factors, too. “It's hard to know why, but we have seen a nice increase in donations in the last year,” he says. “We're also in the middle of a very robust economy. Also, I think we've got a generation that's sort of moving into and through adulthood that's much more interested in sustainability, and they're much more focused on doing good.” All of the factors, he says, add up to good news for Goodwill.
  • Mission control: One key to Goodwill’s future is helping shoppers and donors understand the organization’s mission. Preston wants people to know that every time they buy or donate something, the item’s value helps someone move from a difficult circumstance to a better life. “In addition, when they donate, we want to make it easy for them,” he says. “And when you come into one of our stores, we want that shopping experience to be good.” That means focusing on having stores that are arranged well and encouraging employees to be friendly. “Hopefully, if you find some great treasures while you're there, and you have a good experience that way, that will drive sales,” Preston says.
  • Coaching counts: Goodwill, Preston says, demonstrates how employers can think more broadly about employees. Your next great employee may be somebody who has had struggles in life, but with the right kind of coaching and support, they may be highly competent, very loyal and really committed,” he says. “I was talking to the team here, and they were telling me that the Goodwill stores that have more people with what many of us would call ‘special needs’ are often the stores that have the highest morale because the rest of the team loves working with people that have certain life challenges and coming around them in owning the mission.”
  • Community opportunity: Preston put forth a challenge for local leaders: “I would call upon every employer in this area to work with Goodwill to find their next great employee. Because we need employers just to sort of open up the aperture as they look at the landscape for employees. They can work with us to help train those employees and prepare them and make sure that they're successful.”


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