I’m Tracy Lester, Executive Director of the National Dance Institute, and This Is How I Work.

The National Dance Institute annually engages thousands of children in classes, performances, school partnerships, teacher professional development and dance programs for children with disabilities. We spoke with CEO Tracy Lester about the oversight of this important inclusive nonprofit organization.

Location: New York, NY Current location: Executive Director of the National Dance Institute Current computer: Dell Optiplex 790 with keyboard (Windows PC) Current mobile device: iPhone XR One word that best describes how you work : effective

First of all, tell us a little about your past and how you got where you are now.

I have over 28 years of experience in the non-profit sector. I have worked with nonprofits both here on the East Coast and in California. I started my career straight out of college as a journalist and reporter in San Jose, California. Soon after, I moved into the non-profit sector and never looked back.

I have worked in charity for some of the nation’s major charities, education and social services, and now I work with a wonderful arts education organization.

I have always focused on supporting the needs of children and their families.

What are your job responsibilities?

I am the Executive Director and Administrative Director of the National Dance Institute, a leading arts education organization. With over $ 23 million in assets, an 18,000 square foot facility in Central Harlem and 71 staff members, I oversee the National Dance Institute’s award-winning programs weekly for 6,500 public school children and nearly 60,000 children worldwide ( although our partnership is with the staff of the National Dance Institute and our international partners in China, Lebanon and beyond). I liaise with our Board of Directors, fundraise, oversee our major marketing efforts, and define the strategic vision for the National Dance Institute.

Tell us about a recent work day.

I wake up at 6 in the morning, always check the news first, and then I get my daughter out of bed. I try to eat something before I go out the door, which is difficult when you have kids. Protein is key, such as yogurt, almonds, and fruits.

As soon as we leave the house and when she gets to school, you will often find myself heading straight for a morning meeting with staff, partner organizations, sponsors, or a board member. For meetings, I prefer the morning over the grounding of the day.

Sometimes I first go to the National Dance Institute’s partner school to see our program in action. I have weekly standing team meetings that happen on different days throughout the week. My working day usually ends from 6 pm to 7 pm, if I do not have evening activities or after work.

What apps, gadgets or tools can’t you live without?

I can’t live without Bose wireless headphones. I can talk on the phone, doing multiple tasks at the same time, walking or running to meetings (or even exercising).

Although I also use Google Docs, I am moving to Asana as my data management program.

How is your workplace arranged?

We work in an open office environment where there is a lot of mutual cooperation and information exchange.

I can’t handle a lot of clutter, so I usually push things forward pretty quickly after I go through them so that I have some free space for the next big project. I only travel with my laptop outside the office, so it almost never sits on my desk.

What’s your favorite shortcut or hack?

My favorite shortcut is that I start the morning off by creating a daily to-do list that I want to get done, and I check it even as other items appear throughout the day. There is nothing more enjoyable than checking off items on my list.

When I’m on the road during the day, I dictate my thoughts and check them in the evening to make sure that I have completed everything on my list.

Tell us about an interesting, unusual, or challenging process you have at work.

At the National Dance Institute we have many people involved in many projects and we all work very quickly – we are a mobile organization and do a lot during the working day. When we have to make decisions, I make sure everyone concerned is in the room. A 15 minute meeting saves server time when we need everyone to be on the same page.

Who are the people who help you achieve results, and how do you rely on them?

No CEO is successful without the people around him. I collaborate daily between teams and departments. At the National Dance Institute we make administrative and artistic decisions, so the synergy between the administrative and artistic side is tantamount to successful programming.

What’s the biggest mistake you made at work and how did you deal with it?

One of my communication management strategies is email. When I have a particularly difficult or delicate email, I always send it to myself first. This came from a lesson learned when I accidentally sent an email to an external donor (who mailed it to me)! Fortunately, there was nothing terrible about it, but it was a lesson in how to be careful with email messaging.

How do you keep track of what you need to do?

I use Google Calendars and Google Docs, and a small, old-style notebook. Sometimes it is simply impossible to find something quickly when it is written in a small notebook.

How to recharge or relax?

Running is my way to recharge. I have run 15 marathons and over 30 half marathons. I have been running for countless hours. You would be surprised to know how many of life’s most serious problems can be solved by walking kilometers. This is not only for my health and well-being, it is both a meditative and a social experience.

What’s your favorite side project?

My favorite side project is helping my daughter become the best person she can be.

What are you reading now or what do you recommend?

I belong to an amazing women book group and we are reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Dancer on the Water .

Can you share the music playlist you’ve created for work or somewhere else?

My father recently passed away and he was a jazz saxophonist. These days I listen to his music and his performances; music of 60-70s – straight ahead jazz and soul jazz.

I also really enjoy listening to Lizzo (Melissa Vivian Jefferson ) lately. I appreciate her commitment to flute and live music. I played the flute in high school and in the orchestra, and when she talks about her passion for music, it’s good and good to hear.

Who else would you like to see to answer these questions?

I would like to receive answers from Brian Stevenson , founder and CEO of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization based in Montgomery, Alabama. He is a true warrior for social justice and I really respect his work.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I’ve ever received is don’t be humble. I think it came from my high school counselor encouraging me to take a step forward and not apologize for any of my actions.

What problem are you still trying to solve?

One problem I’m trying to solve is how to get enough sleep. I’ve set my phone to silent from 10pm to 6am so I hope this helps (although I need to stop prying at night)!


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