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Episode 73: Shift Your Spotlight - Nancy Whitworth

We interviewed Nancy Whitworth, the Chief People Officer at McCownGordon Construction. We met with her on location at her office in downtown Kansas City, MO.

In this episode, Nancy explains how shifting her mindset completely changed her leadership game and the three words that inspired her epiphany. Learn about the enormous impact Nancy has on her community and Voice First World® itself, and how she’s gained a reputation as an outstanding leader. 

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Hey, it’s Jen Vellenga. This is Episode 73: Shift Your Spotlight on the Speak with Presence podcast. We interviewed Nancy Whitworth. She’s the chief people officer at McCownGordon Construction. We met with her on location at her office in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. And in this episode, Nancy explains how shifting her mindset completely changed her leadership game and how three little words inspired her epiphany.

Learn about the enormous impact Nancy has on her community in Kansas City and how she has impacted Voice First World. She has truly gained a reputation as an outstanding leader. Here’s Nancy. Being in a people-oriented profession, they need to understand that I care and that I’m considering their feelings, their emotions, their careers in decisions that we make as a company.

I need to be tuned into them. I need to be connected to them. So, I really try to not be distracted when I’m interacting with other people.

Welcome or welcome back to the Speak with Presence podcast. This is where perfection is overrated, leaders listen, and we all speak up to influence change. I’m Jen Vellenga.  I’m here with my co-host, Jennifer Rettele-Thomas. We’re the co-founders of Voice First World, a communication coaching company. While you’re listening and checking out the show notes for today’s guest, take a moment to rate and review the Speak with Presence podcast. It really helps people just like you find us.

We are here to share stories of powerful leaders who have used their voices to inspire change. This season, we’re speaking to leaders in Kansas City. So, we’re asking you, KC listeners, what will it take for you to use your voice? Jen, our guest today has been on our podcast before. Nancy Whitworth was in Episode 24: Assume Positive Intent.  Alright, Nancy, we’re going to talk about you for just a few minutes. Are you good with that? Yes. We promise to be on our best behavior.  We are on location at McCown Gordon Construction in downtown KCMO where Nancy is the chief people officer.  Nancy is making a big difference in their culture.

We’ve become fast friends. At least I think we have. Absolutely. Okay, good answer, good answer. She’s been a client of ours and we are continuing to learn all the ways Nancy uses her voice to influence change in the Kansas City metro area.  I didn’t even know how many ways she used her voice until we got to know her better.

Yeah, I mean, I think, Nancy that’s the one thing that we love about you and the impact that you make through philanthropy in Kansas City.  Nancy is one of the co-chairs of the Starlight Gala. And we’re going on Saturday. We will be there as guests. This weekend is going to be a blast.  Now when this is releasing is going to be after the fact. But that’s okay. Listen in and go next year. Look for some of the pictures that you see from that. Starlight is an historic landmark nestled right in the middle of the city where you can see concerts and performances under the stars, and they have big plans for the future.

Now we’re going to interview the CEO and President of Starlight in the coming weeks. Nancy’s a huge supporter of the arts in KC. All over the arts. But she uses her voice for change in many other ways. Nancy’s also a board member for In the Name of GRACE, which is a nonprofit, that is raising funds and advocating for the Oxford House, a home for recovering addicts.

And there are so many more ways Nancy creates change, but we’re going to let her tell those stories. So, Nancy, we’ll let you actually talk now. Welcome to the Speak with Presence podcast. Thank you. I’m honored to be here. We’re so glad to know you. The last time we interviewed you was June of 2022. It was on Zoom, and since then we’ve become friends, as I’ve said.

It’s interesting that we started our … oh, I don’t know how much we want to reveal the story, but we’re going to. Okay, I’m embarrassed, but we said we started our first cohort of clients for Voice First World in 2021, and you asked us if we offered leadership training. What’d you say, Jen V? I said no. Well, that’s great. That’s a good way to get business drummed up. So later, of course, we realized that communication training is leadership training and leadership training is communication training. It’s all interlinked. And at that time when we kind of came to our senses, you became a client. So, we want to know how communication/leadership training, specifically of course from Voice First World, has changed how you speak as a leader.

Well, I absolutely agree that communication and leadership are inextricably linked.  Call it intuition but when I asked that question, I knew you had it in you. And I knew that I wanted to learn from you. And so, I’m glad you’ve gone down that path and linked those two together.

And by working with you on my communication skills, I have absolutely become a better leader. There’s no doubt. When I first started working with you, I was preoccupied with a speaking engagement that I had coming up in a couple months, and I was freaked out a little bit and you agreed to work with me. 

So, over the course of those two or three months, I learned so much about what to do and what not to do when preparing for a speaking engagement. But what I didn’t realize is how much that would impact me also just in my day-to-day life and in my interactions in my profession, in my career. I’m eternally grateful.

What always comes to mind when I think about the most impactful thing that I learned. It was to shift my mindset when I’m thinking about either a formal speaking engagement or just a meeting or just an interaction with someone else. I’ve grown up being very career oriented and have always kind of thought that I had to prove myself.

And so, I found myself, even though maybe it was subconsciously, I was always trying to impress. And I remember in a conversation with Jen.  She said as we were talking about the speaking engagement, and I was concerned about not coming across as an expert. I was concerned about the impression that I would make and that I would be worthy of the speaking engagement.  I remember you said, but Nancy, it’s not about you. Sorry, but it’s true. A light bulb went on and she said you have to shift your thinking away from yourself. And you have to think about your audience, and you have to think about helping your audience. That little mind shift right there helped me so much.

And I think of it almost as shifting the spotlight. Instead of thinking of the spotlight being on me, I’m shifting it around, and I’m putting the spotlight out on the audience. I’m thinking about they’re here for a reason. I’m here for a reason. How can I help? And so, I’m serving them instead of trying to impress them.

And that totally shifted and took the pressure off. Yeah, and I would say that is the thing that actors struggle with the most because you do have to. There’s so much about you. It is, of course, about you. You’re the one speaking. You’re the one on stage. But that’s not the purpose. I’m so glad you took that lesson away because it’s a big one.

Divine intervention, whatever that may be. You believed in us when we had no idea that we did leadership training. And you gave us a gift that really has defined what we do, how we do it, and to now see how quickly our clients’ lives are changed because of that paradigm. Well, when you invited us, you suggested that we were speakers at the SHRM conference in Kansas City in January of 2023. That was when I was putting slides together, thinking how do I talk about all the ways that performance, training, relates to leadership and speaking. And what is Nancy getting from this? And what is Fernanda getting from this? And what is all the different clients that we’ve worked with. And what, as I started to put that together, really from training over the years, for training actors, that became the presence paradigm. And she’s right. Working with you was right in the middle of coming up with that. And now, we know that’s the signature training is the presence paradigm. Which is about who you are, who your audience is, and what you believe. That’s wonderful. I’m glad I could help, but I think you did it on your own.

How do you define presence? And how has that served you well in your career? To me, it means slowing down enough to notice what is happening in this very moment. Whether you’re alone walking through the woods noticing the nature and the birds, or whether you’re with one other person and giving them your full attention, or in a crowd and noticing what’s going on and enjoying the people watching.

To me, being in a people-oriented profession, it has been critical for me to develop that skill. I find that in my interactions with people and in meetings, they need to understand that I care and that I’m considering their feelings, their emotions, their careers in decisions that we make as a company. I need to be tuned in to them. I need to be connected to them. And so, I really try to not be distracted when interacting with other people.  I’m not perfect. I am human and get distracted with ruminating thoughts or daydreaming or a phone call.  I really try, most of the time, to be tuned into that person. That has served me well over the years in that I do feel like I have those good connections with the people in this company and also in the community. 

We are in a society where we’ve gone to pretty much 24-hour connectedness through cell phones and devices and laptops and it’s tough to turn that off. But I think we have to intentionally do that. I know my team probably gets frustrated with me. But in our quarterly meetings when we’re all together as a team, I ask them not to bring a laptop or telephone. And I asked them to bring an old-fashioned tablet with a pen. And the whole idea is that this is value time for us together as a team. I want us to have eye contact. I want us all to listen to one another and really maximize that time together. And it’s not easy.

You’ve been a longtime chief people officer in the HR role. And anytime your name is mentioned anywhere, people respect you and admire you and lift you up as someone who is an ideal leader. I know that’s not something that you’ve always felt about yourself, but you can’t dismiss evidence and what other people say about you and your reputation and how you’re respected.  I first want to make sure you hear us say that. Thank you for those kind words. From that lens of someone who’s been in a chief position for a while, what mistakes, I’ll call them mistakes because we think you only grow from your quote/unquote failures.  What mistakes do you see less experienced professionals making in theirs? Specifically in their communications, but any advice that maybe you have for younger professionals?

I used to do it a lot. We’d talk in tentatives.  I would say, in my opinion. Or, just a thought.  Or, this may not be right.  It just takes away from whatever the message was that I was trying to convey. And so, I learned to eliminate those phrases and words from my vocabulary. And if I catch myself putting those words in an email, I delete them.

And I speak with confidence. And yes, I may be wrong and yes, it is my opinion, but that’s a given. And so, I don’t need to say it. And by using those tentative phrases and words, we take away from our own credibility. And even if you’re not an expert about the particular opinion that you’re voicing, no one knows everything. And so, voicing that opinion is not only your right, but it’s your responsibility as a leader in the company.  

I really think about the reason why we chose this year to really focus on Kansas City. Through you and through some of your connections, we have learned about so many different organizations here in the Kansas City area. 

And I would like you to talk a little bit more because I think it’s important. Our job is to share the voices of Kansas City and the ways different people can make change. So would you talk a little bit more about a couple of the organizations you’re involved with and share a little bit about maybe your passion and your involvement and why others should get involved.

I would love to. One of the organizations for which I am extremely passionate is called In the Name of GRACE. I’m one of the co-founders along with four other individuals. And I have to give the credit for the vision to Rob and Anissa Elsey.  Through some personal experiences of their own, saw the need for more recovery housing in Kansas City and it was severely lacking. We had, through some personal experiences, concern about the lack of resources for individuals who are bravely recovering from addiction, drugs or alcohol. And didn’t have the resources to stay clean and sober.

They became familiar with an organization called Oxford House, which is a national organization and it’s 40 plus years old, that is a model.  It’s a model of recovering housing that is based on peer recovery. And so, the residents in these houses are clean and sober and they want to stay that way. And they need peer recovery resources. They need support. And so, they live in an environment that is clean and safe and sober. They have house rules. They govern themselves. But we have an outreach worker that also oversees and helps us expand with more houses. And just the recovery outcomes that we’ve seen is just amazing. And the statistic that I love, is if a resident stays in house for about 15 months, there’s an 87% chance of long-term sobriety. And that statistic, in the recovery world, is just incredible.

That’s amazing. You don’t hear that statistic, 87% recovery in 15 months. Yes, and it’s really just giving them the tools to acclimate back into society. They’re all working. Many of them had lost their children, had lost custody of their children, and now they’re regaining their family. They’re working. They’re feeling productive and happy. They have friends, and it’s just heartwarming. We love it and they’re so grateful. They’re so grateful to have another chance at life.

What’s the pipeline that brings them into the home? Several different pipelines. It could be the prison system, rehab centers. Anybody can go on the website and look up vacancies on the Oxford House website. A lot of networking and referrals. Our first goal was to have 20 houses by 2020. We succeeded in that goal. Then the Oxford House organization asked us to take over for the State of Missouri, so we’ve now expanded throughout the State of Missouri and taken on some of the houses that were already in place and opened up others. Now I believe we have 47 houses with 400ish beds. I would say over the course of a year, we serve around 400 recovering individuals. you can go find out more about the Oxford House and what they’re doing with In The Name of GRACE there.

Do you have another passion project? Oh, I love the arts. Starlight to me represents everything that is magical about Kansas City. It’s the art. It’s beauty. It’s talent. It’s community. Most people don’t realize they’re a nonprofit. They don’t realize how much Starlight does for the community.  They give away 364 tickets per Broadway series show for individuals who may not normally have access. They have scholarships. They have programs that they take out to hospitals and to young children. And I just love everything about the way they’re making the arts accessible to everyone in Kansas City.

It sounds like they’ll be continuing to do that in new and different ways as they have a new CEO. The arts are healing and they create change in their community. So, if you’re in a place where you can give even a small amount to the arts, we support that and hope you will too. Every little bit helps.

The fun part of this interview is really talking to people about what are those what on earth moments? So, can you think of a time that you were completely shocked or surprised at how the world works? Or something you witnessed, and it just made you go, what on earth? Oh, yes. Okay, here’s a good one. My husband and I had the opportunity to travel to the Middle East last year. We were finishing up a meal and I took out some cash to leave a tip. And so, I tried to hand the tip to the food server and he gave me a really funny look. And he said, we really expect that tip to come from the male.

Oh my God. What on Earth? No, that did not happen? Yes. And I’m sure my mouth dropped wide open.  And I’m sure my husband was just waiting for what was to come next. Did you give the tip? I did. Oh, you’re a good human. You didn’t hand it to your husband and have him do it? No, I gave it to him and he did take it. Yes, he did take it. And, you know, I knew we have to recognize the traditions of other cultures, but it made me really glad to come back here to the United States.

Well, that’s a good one on earth. It’s reality. And we learn from them for sure. Nancy, we are respectful of your time. We are just so grateful to be here in your beautiful, bright office in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you wanted to share with us?

I am just grateful that you brought Voice First World and Speak with Presence to Kansas City. We need it here. And I’m so excited about what the future holds for you. Thank you for being a big supporter and we are just thrilled to be here. So, thank you for your time today. And we will of course, stay connected. Of course. Thank you. You’re welcome. Thanks, Nancy.


Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at

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Jen has been magical in helping me to identify my voice and my VOICE! The ways that she has holistically addressed my strengths and my areas of improvement have all made me feel so much more confident.

-Cate R.
Politician, Chicago, IL