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Thank you to the 1,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 questions!

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Jonno White

7 Questions with Bret Heinrich
7 Questions with Bret Heinrich

Name: Bret Heinrich

Current title: President and CEO

Current organisation: Wings of Hope

Bret Heinrich is President and CEO of Wings of Hope, a 501 (c)(3) organization founded in 1962 that changes and saves lives through the power of aviation. Wings of Hope operates the Medical Relief & Air Transport (MAT) public benefit flight program in the United States, and works with partners to deliver humanitarian service on a global basis. Wings of Hope is a two-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize and maintains top ratings on GuideStar and CharityNavigator. Prior to joining Wings of Hope, Bret served as Chief Development Officer of St. Andrew’s Charitable Foundation, an organization dedicated to a mission of empowering elders and their caregivers through choices and options that foster a vital life. Bret’s experience also included roles with the OASIS Institute and The Laurasian Institution. Bret is a Past-President of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), St. Louis Regional Chapter and also a member of the Association’s International Board of Directors. He served on the Kirkwood School District R-7 Board of Education where he achieved advanced board member certification, and is also a Past-President of the Kirkwood School District Foundation Board of Directors. He serves as a member of the Kirkwood Arts Foundation Board of Directors. Nationally, Bret serves as Vice Chair on the Albuquerque Oasis Board of Directors and has served in leadership roles on other nonprofit boards. Bret is an Adjunct Instructor in the Washington University and the Webster University Nonprofit Management Programs and has made presentations throughout the United States and internationally. Bret has a bachelor’s degree in English from Eureka College, in Eureka, Illinois, and an MFA from Western Illinois University, in Macomb Illinois. In 2005, Bret earned his Certified Fundraising Executive credential. He is an ordained minister through the General Council of Christian Churches.

7 Questions with Bret Heinrich

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader of a small or medium enterprise?

Building awareness of our brand and services is our biggest challenge. Wings of Hope has received two Nobel Peace Prize nominations for providing humanitarian assistance around the globe, however, we do not yet enjoy broad public recognition.

2. How did you become a leader of an SME? Can you please briefly tell the story?

I have enjoyed a career working with nonprofit organizations doing mission-critical work. Most of my career was spent in fund development, which was excellent training on building meaningful relationships, connecting the values and beliefs of donors and volunteers with organizational mission. When I was asked to join Wings of Hope as its next leader, it was clear that the organization's culture was a real strength and one that I was proud to be able to develop further.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

As the leader, my work and personal life are one. I enjoy what I do very much, so it is not important or even desirable for me to set my work apart from the rest of my life. My day typically starts at 4:15 am when I wake up to join my men's workout group at a nearby park at 5:30 am. When I return home, it's feed the dogs, get ready and out the door for work by 7:15 am. With COVID waning, most of my days are spent at Wings of Hope headquarters, and one of the activities I enjoy most there is providing tours to new contacts. Around 5 pm I head home to spend time with my family. In bed by 9:30 pm!

4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

I believe strongly in servant leadership. If you think of a traditional pyramid with the CEO and board at the top, and the frontline workers at the very bottom, servant leadership inverts that pyramid, so as CEO I spend most of my time focused on supporting the work of my team.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

In addition to Wings of Hope, I enjoy teaching as an adjunct instructor at three universities. For the class I offer on Effective Leadership in the Nonprofit Sector I ask my students to read, "HBR's 10 Must Reads on Leadership" published by the Harvard Business Review. It offers a collection of essays that are highly readable and contain invaluable life lessons. It is always a student favorite.

6. How do you build leadership capacity in an SME?

I believe in encouraging ownership and decision making at all levels. If your employees have the ability to make decisions on their own work, they will naturally develop leadership qualities. I also ask each department to budget annually for professional development. I want the organization to continue to use best practices and data when making decisions. This requires an investment in your people.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader of an SME so far?

Part of our work involves providing humanitarian assistance in some of the most remote locations in the world. I have flown into remote Northern Tanzania to provide health services to Maasai tribes in 27 villages. One of my tasks involved weighing the babies to ensure that they were gaining enough weight. When each mother handed over her baby to me to weigh, I realized what a gift that was, and privilege to bridge cultures, languages and traditions to work together for what we all want, healthy babies.