The Art of Taking Risks
Linda Parsons is a leading force behind the Moore County Chamber
By Jonathan Scott
When Linda Parsons was in middle school, her family drove her 140 miles from their home in Toledo, Ohio, to the state capital of Columbus to attend a reception with the governor. Even then, Parsons had no stars in her eyes as she shook hands with the most important political figure in the state. She had been around influential people her entire young life and knew how to comport herself with both respect and self-confidence.
Her mother was an elementary school teacher and her father the Executive Director of the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Government. Their intense dedication to civic service left an indelible mark not only on the greater Toledo area, but on their daughter.
“I was a little bit of an overachiever,” she admits. The young Parsons attended ballet lessons four to five times a week, studied piano, the violin, and voice. She was also an active member of the Toledo Museum of Art, a showpiece institution that she considered as familiar as her own backyard.
When she attended Ohio Wesleyan University, she carried a prodigious course load with a triple major in sociology, anthropology and history. Despite all the difficult work, Parsons looks back on that time with fondness. “I wouldn't trade my undergraduate years for anything. It was a great experience.” She smiles and adds, “It was also there that I met my husband.”
Parsons goal was to go into politics and government and, by the time she graduated, she was consummately qualified. She ran her first political campaign and wound up working for both Ohio Governors Voinovich and Taft. When her duties took her to the Governor's Mansion, Parsons was familiar with the layout from her visit as a pre-teen. “Because I had grown up in a civic-minded family and used to, for example, having dinner at the Mayor's house, it was an honor to sit down across the desk from the Governor, but it wasn't intimidating.”
Dating a man who had his own career to pursue was difficult for both Parsons and her college sweetheart, John Reagan. After years of maintaining a long-distance relationship, Reagan took a job near Columbus where Parsons was working in state government. The two were married in 2000.
That same year, Parsons left the Governor's Office and went to work for the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, using her experience in state government to help its members have access to their elected officials. “The highlight of my work there, was that we really elevated their annual meeting by bringing in President George H.W. Bush as our keynote speaker. “I had about 20 minutes of private time with him,” she says, and then laughs. “But I have no idea what I said.”
“I put my heart and soul into that event. Fortunately, it was a success. But I took a risk. That's something I've always done in my career. So long as you're taking a risk thoughtfully with a critical reason behind it, and a good basis for your reasoning, it almost always has a good outcome.”
A greater, more personal risk was about to present itself. Her husband's career is working in municipal government, and in 2004 he was offered a job nearly 500 miles away from Columbus as the town manager of Southern Pines. Making that kind of change was a leap of faith for the young couple.
The two moved into a temporary apartment the day after Thanksgiving. “I was ready to do something different,” says Parsons. “But I had stopped working to help with the move and soon began losing my mind. I was bored.”
“I went out and started meeting community leaders, and that included the president of the Moore County Chamber of Commerce. In January of 2005, I was hired by the Chamber as Vice President of Advocacy and Events.”
It was a position for which Parsons' background made her a perfect fit. Back then the Chamber's schedule was packed with events—a Beer Festival, a Golf Tournament, a Spring Fling, an Annual Meeting, and a series of periodic training events. She piloted all that successfully, but she says that these days the focus of the Chamber is different.
“Chambers have had to progress significantly,” Parsons explains. “We had to reevaluate. Did we want to just be hosting one social event after another, or was our goal to support the local businesses and foster a vibrant business community? That's really what our job is, and we do that by championing our businesses, being a catalyst for them and convening individuals together.”
When Parsons took over as President and CEO of the Chamber in 2014, she had the twenty-one members of the Chamber Board of Directors read a book called The Race to Relevance: Five Radical Changes for Associations. Taking on the task of evaluating, promoting, and implementing radical changes involves risk, but as Parsons emphasizes, risks are things she isn't afraid to take.
One of the five changes the authors of the book propound is enhancing staff expertise. Parsons is proud of the qualifications of the people who work for her and leads by example. “This is an accredited chamber and all our staff is accredited. I attended the University of Georgia four summers and achieved my IOM—the Institute of Organizational Management. Now we have a staff person who is in the process of getting her IOM as well.” Parsons is also a Certified Chamber Executive for the Carolinas.
Another risk that Parsons was faced with as she took the helm, was the sale of the Chamber's 10,000-square foot office building on Highway 15-501. It stayed on the market for five years but finally sold in the fall of 2017. Today the Chamber is housed in temporary offices on Old US 1 in Southern Pines. They are evaluating their options for the future. “We want to be mindful of our members' dollars,” she says. “And to be mindful of what this organization will be in ten years.”
Last year the Chamber launched a Strategic Plan. “That's what's going to be leading us forward for the next couple of years. Our location is going to be one of those components, but obviously we're more than a building. We want to be an epicenter for the business community, one that creates a sense of vibrancy and excitement and can provide comprehensive training.
“I get to get up every day, drive around, and identify businesses and see their growth and prosperity. And to me that's excitement.”
President and CEO of Moore County Chamber of Commerce
Husband John Reagan, Southern Pines Town Manager
Triple major at Ohio Wesleyan University
Enjoys all the performing and visual arts