As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tina Marie Covington, Chief Operating Officer of Anderson Center for Autism.
Tina Marie Covington, a passionate leader who’s served with heart through the global pandemic, became Anderson Center for Autism’s first Chief Program Officer in November 2017 before landing the role as the agency’s Chief Operating Officer in January 2018. First introduced to Autism Spectrum Disorder during an undergraduate fieldwork course at the University of Kentucky, she developed a passion for working with individuals with autism and has never looked back. She works tirelessly each day to carry out Anderson’s mission of optimizing the quality of life for people with autism.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Like so many others, as an undergraduate student at the University of Kentucky, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I changed my major 3 times, but when I got an opportunity to do an internship in the autism field, it changed everything.
I was assigned to support the care of a 3-year-old boy with autism; professors and students from UCLA came out to train a group of us to work with him in his home. I loved it. Originally, I was supposed to work with him for just one semester — but ended up staying on for a total of 3 years, as a volunteer for most of that time, until the family received funding from the State to support his in-home programming. But it wasn’t about the money; I just loved that boy and his family. Eventually, I went to my professor to share with her my passion for the work. She gave me a book on graduate programs in Applied Behavior Analysis and suggested I pursue the field. I went to Columbia University where I obtained both my Master’s and PhD degrees. With every position I landed after that, I found myself loving the field more and more and getting promoted again and again. And with every step in my career, from teacher’s assistant to teacher to IEP coordinator and now as Chief Operating Officer at Anderson Center for Autism, I’ve been able to expand my impact. It’s been an incredibly rewarding career path.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
As a leader, I’m always looking at the big picture, which makes every day interesting. I get to see an organization that’s moving and growing just by making small changes and putting things in place to improve our work in enriching life for people with autism. So there’s not one specific thing — it’s all exciting. At Anderson, I’ve watched (and been a part of) wonderful overarching programmatic improvements taking shape over the past four years since I started. These programmatic changes allow for more learning to happen, which is at the heart of our work. The staff are better trained to get better outcomes for children and adults on the autism spectrum — marrying a trauma-informed lens with Applied Behavior Analysis. As a leader, I get to see all the success of everyone I work with — and how just by putting people in the right place, global changes to the organization can happen. We have such talented staff — so letting them move the program where it needs to go based on research and data that we follow and doing it with our shared focus on quality of life is just incredibly interesting and rewarding always. We’re expanding our service model, we’re expanding into early childhood so we can provide services from birth through the lifespan, and we’re expanding geographically, looking at new programs to serve more families in other regions. It’s a big-picture story of organizational evolution that I’m excited to be a part of.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was the CEO for another organization, I remember when a teacher was struggling to get a young man on the school bus. I knew this student liked SpongeBob and as a mom myself, I knew the character as well, so in an effort to help the teacher get him on the bus I replayed a scene he loved and engaged him in playing out that scene along with me. It worked! I thought I was so successful in incentivizing the boy with this one scene, and initially felt great! But the school bus driver looked at me and said “Tina, you’re gonna regret doing this” — and that driver was right. The scene was about arresting people and so this young boy became focused on replaying it every day with peers thereafter! So consequently, we had to work on trying to shift him away from that storyline which was no small task; I ended up creating a new challenge. It was a humbling experience and a lesson that many of our actions can have unintentional consequences!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I worked for Hawthorne Foundation for 16 years; during the last 10, I served as Executive Director. The Founder was very involved and wanted to be sure I had everything I needed to succeed; she knew that if I did well, the school would likewise continue to thrive. I consider myself a teacher, but I had to learn a whole new skill set beyond the program side of things. The Founder was always encouraging, pushing, and teaching me. My biggest challenge was trying to feel confident when I’d go into meetings, especially since the leadership/board level of the field at that time was so male-dominated. She said: “put the steel rod up your back and hold your head up high. Go into those meetings with confidence that everything you’re doing is for the kids and staff!” She told me I was smart and I needed to put myself “out on the point” and keep moving forward to get things done — not to be afraid, but rather to be mission-focused. She’d been with the school for over 50 years so I had deep respect for her leadership skills; she believed in me and that helped me move forward. I’ll never forget that.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I listen to audio books to relax, or I go for a walk, or I step out and get fresh air. I like to — and have to — give my brain an opportunity to shut off and not think about anything. I’ll listen to music or a talk show on the radio — something where I can completely turn off my thought process. That gets me in a relaxed mindset.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
We all need the perspective of people from all walks of life and from all backgrounds. If our executive team is not diverse, then how can we effectively support our constituents, our families, and our students? I can tell you about my perspective growing up in Kentucky on a farm, but that’s not everyone’s experience. To be successful, we need to understand where people are coming from. Our leaders must represent the various people we support so that they can inform, guide, and direct the agency — especially as we expand and look at new services, geographic areas, and curriculum options. Diversity is key; it promotes understanding and helps us be truly inclusive.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Companies seem to be recognizing that racism is still an issue, ableism is an issue, sexism is an issue. Progress begins by having conversations and acknowledging what’s happening in your community and within your company. It’s critical to foster a culture that promotes open dialogue with staff and communities. Once we have the conversations, we can acknowledge where improvements need to be made. At Anderson Center for Autism, we’re working to explore these areas in an ongoing way — making sure our boards and executive teams and staffing models represent what our communities look like and that all people have a voice within our agency. As we have conversations, we can figure out what action steps need to be taken to improve our culture.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Executives must have a clear vision for the organization — they help set the tone for everyone on the team. Once that vision and tone are set, then it’s about identifying talent and grooming that talent so that everyone has a role in bringing the vision to life. An executive doesn’t micromanage — the executive relies on the expertise of the people with whom they’re working so that the organization can move forward. In my previous role, we always said “hire smarter than you.” And I think that’s so true. You need to be able to rely on your team and trust them implicitly. At Anderson Center for Autism, for example, our mission is to optimize the quality of life for people with autism. We work to assemble and cultivate a team who is totally aligned with that mission; the executive leadership are the vision setters and inspire the team to help make it all happen.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
For me, I worry about the myth that executives don’t understand what the staff actually does. I remember saying to one individual: “What are you talking about? I’m here with you every day! I know exactly what you do, and I did what you do before I landed in this role!” It’s important to dispel the myth that execs don’t understand what staff are doing because, especially in the human services field, a lot of us started in those positions and decided to continue pursuing advancement opportunities. We actually do know what the support teams need as a result of having worked those jobs, so I think we can actually be more effective as leaders because of our track. I want the people who are now in those support roles to see and understand that we have their best interests in mind.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The executive leadership level, across the board, still seems to be mostly dominated by men — and I think it’s because they tend to be more confident and thus very comfortable pursuing leadership roles. But women need to ensure that they’re also at the table with the men, and that their voices are heard. I’ll confess that I was once one of these people who was intimidated and I’d be quiet at the table while more experienced men would lead the meetings. We need to find our voices and be comfortable speaking up — we have so much to contribute — so many good ideas and insights — and when we’re comfortable and confident, we can help make important improvements.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I’d tell other women leaders what my mentor told me: put that steel rod up their back, keep your head high, be confident in your skills, and find and share your voice.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
As an executive with a large and influential nonprofit like Anderson Center for Autism, it’s important that I am one of the faces of the organization, which I didn’t really expect! I’ve had to engage with the outside community and help develop relationships more than I ever imagined doing. The executive roles tend to be very public-facing which can surprise many who are new to these types of roles.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
To be a successful executive, you have to be willing to listen and be good at working with different types of people. It’s also important to be ready to do things that might be out of your comfort zone — for me, that was public speaking. I’m not comfortable with it, but I’ve learned and practiced the skills required and I put myself out there because I know it’s one of my responsibilities. If you’re more of a hands-on person or you know that you want a specific set of tasks that you can expect each day, and that’s where you thrive, maybe an executive leadership role isn’t where you want to be. It’s not for everyone — you just have to be true to yourself. I think everyone has the potential to serve in a leadership capacity, but your personal and professional goals need to align with the set of responsibilities you’ll be given, and most of all, you need to be someone who wants to listen and learn in an ongoing way in order to see the big picture more clearly.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Working as part of Anderson Center for Autism’s team allows us to make the world better every day. I’m so passionate about carrying out our mission of optimizing the quality of life for people with autism; it means the world when someone on staff tells me I’ve inspired them too. And when former employees reach out to share that they were inspired to pursue a career in autism because of the mentorship they received, that feels like the ultimate contribution. We need more people who are passionate about this field because all people with autism spectrum disorder deserve quality of life.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Take a budget/finance/accounting course in college, because you will need to understand finances! I had to learn this on the job; it would have been great to have this knowledge beforehand!
- I wish someone had told me not to be so hard on myself when I make mistakes or bad decisions. Everyone makes them, and you always learn from them.
- Make sure you take time for yourself. I was well into my career as an executive before a very smart individual told me to turn off the email notifications so that I could decompress and enjoy meals with my family.
- Get comfortable with public appearances. You WILL need to be out there developing community partnerships if you’re in a leadership role.
- I wish someone had told me that so much of what you think you can’t accomplish, you will.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d love to inspire an entire movement centered on the idea of leading with compassion and kindness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Hire people smarter than yourself.” As mentioned earlier, I believe that you absolutely can’t be effective if you don’t have great, innovative, smart people around you.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
I wish I could have had lunch with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I admired her immensely because she was a trailblazer — an amazing woman who went into a field that was composed mostly of men, moved up the ranks, made sweeping changes, and promoted women’s rights in a way that effectively helped us gain more equality in society. She sat on courts working with so many male counterparts who may have had different political views, but she always led with grace and objectivity — and you could tell that she listened deeply. She embodies everything I seek to be as a leader.