Alumni Leading Our Community

  • Billi Jo Zielinski

    President and CEO, Make-A-Wish® North Dakota
    Political Science, 1995

    “As a leader, the most important thing I do every day is continuously build and foster meaningful relationships.”

    What experience or what person at MSUM had the greatest influence in impacting your career path?

    Dr. Andrew Conteh, the distinguished and omnipresent political science professor, had the greatest influence in impacting my career path. He exposed me to Russian culture, was so deliberate with his words, showed compassion to his students, expected academic excellence, and made me a better listener through his storytelling.

    What professional experience has had the greatest influence in shaping you as a leader?

    My current role as President and CEO of Make-A-Wish® North Dakota has had the greatest influence in shaping me as a leader. The organization invests in their leaders and I have been afforded many opportunities for professional growth from the Center for Creative Leadership to Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management through Harvard Business School Executive Education.

    What are the most important characteristics of a great leader?

    In my opinion, the most important characteristics of a great leader are positivity, integrity, curiosity, respectfulness, passion for a purpose, communication, a growth mindset and the ability to inspire.

    There’s a lot of talking about leaders being vulnerable and/or transparent. Do you think it’s important? How do you show vulnerability as a leader?

    I do believe vulnerability is important and I show vulnerability as a leader by carefully admitting my faults and sharing my shortcomings during appropriate times. I expose my emotions to those I trust and share candid info with those who have earned the right to know in order to encourage collaboration and illustrate that we are all still becoming.

    What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

    I feel the biggest challenge facing leaders today is the ability to recruit and retain top performers. Information overload is a close second.

    What’s one mistake you see leaders making frequently?

    The one mistake I see leaders making frequently is being reactive rather than proactive.

    What do you enjoy most about being a leader in our community?

    The Fargo-Moorhead community has supported me as a leader since I was an emerging leader in my 20s. I enjoy being a leader because I believe strongly in making a difference and thus, I am glad I get to make a difference in this wonderful community my family and I call home.

    As a leader, what is the most important thing you do every day?

    As a leader, the most important thing I do every day is continuously build and foster meaningful relationships. In my medicine cabinet, I have a quote I see and read each day: “Leadership is using the greatness in you to achieve and sustain extraordinary outcomes by engaging the greatness in others.” ~ Susan L. Colantuono

    What advice would you give someone striving to advance to a leadership role within their organization?

    Here is my advice to someone striving to advance to a leadership role within their organization:

    • Know yourself. Be self-aware and understand your strengths, blind spots, core values, and your “why.”
    • Know your organization. Understand the mission, vision and values and how they align with yours. Follow your organization leaders and industry thought leaders.
    • Grow and courageously diversify your network.
    • Find a mentor.
    • Send hand-written notes.
    • Grow your knowledge in finance, talent management, process improvement, strategic planning, and storytelling.
    • Show gratitude to those who helped you get to where you are thus far.
    • Show up as your authentic self, every day!
    • Tell people you are interested. Conduct information interviews.
    • And as my sign on my desk reads: “Go the extra mile, it is never crowded.”