Q&A with Heather Watts, digital executive
Few Kansas City residents will have the opportunity to learn about metropolitan area initiatives in the way Heather Watts has learned about them. Watts, senior vice president and general manager of digital products at H&R Block, got a look at a variety of initiatives driving the city’s development as a member of the 38th class of The Civic Council of Kansas City’s Kansas City Tomorrow program. The highly selective program offers “behind-the-scenes programs on Kansas City organizations and institutions, access to educational programs with the area’s leaders, networking opportunities and information about community leadership needs.”
This Q&A with Watts tells the story of how Kansas City Tomorrow helped her better understand some critical Kansas City and regional issues, and stirred a greater interest in her to take on some new volunteer opportunities.
What was your favorite thing about the program?
Watts: One of my favorite things was connecting with all the people in my class who all have a passion for Kansas City. There were about 24 of us in my class and they were all highly successful and awesome people. I knew none of them going in and now I think I could call any of them about anything. For me, that is a great outcome of the program.
What was the program like? How long was it and what did you do?
Watts: The Civic Council reaches out to local companies for candidates and H&R Block has had participants in the program in the past. It kicked off in August of 2016 and it ended in May. It was a nine-month program and we met once a month for an all-day session focused on different topics. While each session was different, there was consistency around the topics we discussed, which focused on strengthening the regional economy and how we could get involved from a civic perspective.
Was this the specific focus for your class or is this the theme every year?
Watts: Kansas City Rising is a new Civic Council initiative focused on building three economic drivers – quality jobs, gross metropolitan products and median household income – and they’ve structured the Kansas City Tomorrow program curriculum around these economic drivers. In addition to the Civic Council, the Kansas City Area Development Council and the Mid-America Regional Council are focusing on these issues.
What are the top three things you learned as a Kansas City Tomorrow participant?
Watts: First and foremost, I had no idea of the amount of work that’s going on to make Kansas City competitive – there are a lot of initiatives underway in the city and it’s really impressive. When we came out of the recession several years ago, it was found that we weren’t recovering as fast as our peer cities, and that’s what spawned Kansas City Rising. My class was exposed to the research from the Brookings Institution that compared Kansas City to 10 peer cities the Civic Council and Kansas City Rising monitor and measure us against. How we rank in the areas of education, employment, median income, etc. against those cities is really what drove the birth of KC Rising.
The second thing was how important it is to be involved in leadership roles in the community. Everybody in the program was a senior-level executive and some people were very involved in the community and others were not. There was a lot of emphasis placed on making a difference in the community and looking for opportunities to lead, even if the contribution of what you can commit to is smaller in some years than in others. I learned to get comfortable with the fact that your level of involvement can vary depending on what is going on in your personal life, but it’s important to commit to some level of involvement every year. We were also educated on various opportunities of where we could get involved to start making a bigger difference.
The third area I learned a lot about was our airport and how desperately it needs updating. There’s been a lot of talk around redoing our airport and there has been a lot of opposition to it. Several of us in the class were pretty skeptical about whether it was really needed. We took a tour of the airport and spoke to airport executives, and now I have a much greater understanding of why we need to do it. I’m a huge supporter now – before I just didn’t have the facts.
Going forward, what will you do to stay involved in the community?
Watts: I have already started volunteering with KC Scholars, which is run by the Kauffman Foundation. The program awards scholarships and other college funding to 9th graders, 11th graders, and adult learners who want to go back to school. As a volunteer, I review scholarship applications and work with the awardees on some of their volunteer activities.
I will also be H&R Block’s 2017 executive sponsor of the United Way Giving campaign. I think being involved in Kansas City Tomorrow motivated me to want to raise my hand to lead that – previously I’m not sure I would have.
There’s a variety of other things I’m looking at, and I’m working on determining what I’m most passionate about. We were exposed to a lot of different areas and education is one area that I feel strongly about. There are things I can do that are really simple like volunteering at a variety of schools as a mentor, expanding my involvement with the Kauffman Foundation or even trying to help H&R Block build even stronger local community ties. I’m looking forward to how I can make a bigger difference going forward.
Watts is a lifelong resident of the metropolitan area and she attended college in Kirksville at Truman State University. She has worked at H&R Block for 20 years, starting as a marketing associate in the DIY business. She is happily married with two daughters and enjoys playing golf, traveling and watching her daughters play soccer. Her favorite Kansas City team is Sporting Kansas City.
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