Okpara Rice joined Tanager Place of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as executive director in July 2013, and assumed the role of Chief Executive Officer July 2015. Okpara is the first African American to hold executive office at Tanager Place in its more than 140 year history. He brings leadership experience to Tanager from his work at the Jewish Child Care Association in Pleasantville, New York, the Mercy Home for Boys and Girls in Chicago, the Youth Campus in Park Ridge, Ill and Starr Columbus in Columbus, Ohio.
Okpara is active in the field and his community and currently serves on a wide number of boards and advisory committees locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. The issues that fuel his passion and involvement include juvenile justice, access to services, health equity, education and leadership development. Most recently he was appointed to Governor Kim Reynolds’ Children’s System State Board, formed to innovatively create solutions for youth in Iowa. Okpara also led the more than 60-year old Association of Children’s Residential Centers as its first African American Board President.
Okpara has presented internationally in Europe and Canada on issues that affect children. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Social Work from Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, and a Master of Social Work from Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, where he was named a Distinguished Alumnus of the Brown School in 2018. He also holds an Executive Management certification from Georgetown University, Washington DC, and an Executive Scholar Certificate from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
Okpara lives in Marion, Iowa with his wife Julie and sons Malcolm and Dylan
Number of years in management: 22 years
Tell us about your path to management:
I have been blessed along every step of my career that there has been a team of personal friends and professional colleagues invested in helping me reach my full potential. I earned both my undergraduate and graduate degrees while also an active member of the employment sector. When I completed graduate school, I was hired as a supervisor for a small residential program in Chicago. I found the job to be incredibly rewarding and it was my catalyst into the Social Work field, where I had the honor of working with a wide array of amazing people who helped me succeed as a manager and as a leader. The work was inspiring and drove my passion for helping youth. These professional growth experiences led my career path to Tanager Place where I assumed the CEO role in 2017.
What leadership qualities do you find to be the most effective in reaching your organizational or career goals?
In my experience, the definition of effective leadership has evolved over time. The ability to hear requires actively listening with the intent of building real understanding, offering empathy and developing collaborative action plans. I have learned that one can offer the best ideas in the world, but, without effective communication, they will not be realized. It is also crucial that a successful leader maintains and projects a positive attitude. Each day requires agility, optimism, and solution-focused initiatives in order to make well-informed decisions.
How do you motivate your team members?
We spend a lot of time talking about our mission and our “why” in order to stay motivated. Our team philosophy is to strive for excellence and to work to challenge the status quo. We build competency in our field through shared reading, review of best-practice strategy and engaged discussions surrounding current events. We have built a culture of mutual respect with both professional and personal acceptance. All too often, young leaders believe they need to be cold and stoic, when really it’s the human connection to each other that makes life meaningful. Our team works to honor our human connections and laugh at the silliness each day can bring.
Is there a leader or mentor who has inspired or assisted you along your professional journey?
Honestly, there are too many inspirational mentors in my career development to name. I have been fortunate to have people who invested their time and shared knowledge to help me grow. One extraordinary experience has been the opportunity to serve on national and international boards which provided a global network of respected colleagues who are intelligent, passionate and creative problem-solvers. The many mentors along my career path have shown me the value of being an engaged mentor, and I am committed to honor their legacy with my efforts to do the same.
How has networking impacted your career?
Networking has impacted my career by opening doors, imparting knowledge, and challenging my thinking. I have gained life-long friends around the world. My network truly broadened my world view on how to make the lives of children better. This broad network has helped mold me into the leader I am today.
What are you reading and/or following now (book, blog, social media groups, etc)?
I am one of those news junkies who constantly read. I read the local newspaper and trusted news sources daily. I read the Harvard Business Review and the Stanford Social Innovation Review. I am currently reading “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria” by Beverly Tatum, although I tend to jump between fiction and non-fiction when I choose recreational reading.
What advice do you have for those beginning their professional journey or who are already in leadership positions?
My advice to new professionals includes the following:
• Create an attitude of openness
• Don’t be too quick to think you have all the answers
• Slow down and consider the facts
• Use the collective wisdom of those around you
Do you have an initiative or project you would like to tell our readers about?
One of the things I am excited about is our internal Leadership Academy. We explored the need to foster leadership within our organization and created programming that allowed team members to realize their full potential. We launched our first cohort of fifteen in 2018. It has been successful and filled a real need. I encourage other organizations to consider doing something similar. We can’t just talk about needing leaders for tomorrow; we need to act on developing and educating those leaders.
What do you wish you had known before you started your career?
In my current role, I am deeply involved in policy and advocacy work. I regret not polishing these skills prior to my role as CEO. I would encourage those early in their career to take the time to investigate and research advocacy and policy creation.
Share a mistake or failure that provided the most growth in your career.
I recall a difficult time while working in New York where I was striving to advocate for system change. I enjoyed the team and the work with my clients, but the uphill battle convinced me to work toward executive leadership. I discovered my passion and interest in leadership and realized I wanted to be in a position where I could impact system change. As I reflect on this, it occurred to me that from a challenging experience came something positive, a new career goal.