Leadership Profile: Michael Gritton, Kentuckiana Works

November 2014

In the summer of 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded IEL a grant to provide training and employment services to formerly incarcerated juveniles. Later that year, IEL announced the selection of five sites to implement the Right Turn Career-Focused Transition Initiative (Right Turn), representing a range of community-based, nonprofit organizations across the country with experience serving juvenile justice populations. Among the five sites, KentuckianaWorks—an agency of Louisville, Kentucky’s Metro Government—stands out as the only workforce investment board (WIB) selected by IEL for the Right Turn Initiative.

KentuckianaWorks also stands out because of its leader, Michael Gritton. Twelve years ago, Michael began his tenure as executive director of KentuckianaWorks. Notably, KentuckianaWorks was the nation’s first WIB to run a college access center. Its vision: promoting Louisville as the country’s next “economic hotspot,” home to a skilled and educated workforce. To date, KentuckianaWorks has helped 12,000 Kentuckians find jobs with over 46,000 receiving financial aid and career counseling.
Speaking of IEL, Gritton explains, “You are our thought-leaders on this work, so the beautiful thing for us in partnering… is that IEL has been in this vineyard for a long time and has learned a lot and created methodologies that you know work.” Behind his success as a leader is a story of confronting and successfully overcoming a variety of work challenges. In a recent interview with Michael he shared his experiences successfully working across boundaries with various stakeholders. 

Cross-Boundary Leadership

“First of all, we should acknowledge that it’s hard. It’s much easier to stay in my silo and think of myself as the WIA board director, administer[ing]… a funding stream that comes to us each year. But the business leaders on my board and Mayor Greg Fischer challenge us to be the workforce intermediary in this region. And to do that you have to get help from people to identify the big challenges they see… and then attack them. And the only way to attack them is [to work] across boundaries. There is no big robust federal state or local funding stream to tackle workforce challenges so it means you’ve got to partner with other people that can bring expertise and resources to bear.”

“Mayor Fischer likes to use an example from his days as a CEO of a manufacturing company. He describes the work that people do in three categories: 1) daily work, 2) continuous improvement, and 3) breakthrough work. If you’re new in a job, your first goal is just to get the daily work done right and then to think about continuous improvement. I think that from the beginning, you’ve got to push yourself to get outside of your comfort zone, to attend meetings and listen to presentations about what’s happening in your region that may spark thoughts that you’re not going to have if you’re staying in your office and only meeting with your staff or your board.”


“The most difficult thing that you have to do as a boss is to lay people off or let people go. In the time span between 2002 and 2007, our funding [decreased…] by about 50% because we had big federal grants that were cut.  You end up having to close down programs or scale them down and you have to let staff go. Luckily I’ve only had to do that once, and we tried very hard to keep the size of the staff small relative to the amount of funding coming in so that we don’t have to deal with that in the future.”

Additionally, there are “more populations that need help than governments have the capacity to fund. So, I walk around feeling guilty that we’re not doing enough to help [people involved in the criminal justice system] transition to the free-market economy. I feel guilty that we’re not doing enough to help people with disabilities. And I can name other populations that we’re probably not doing enough for. Back in the early 1970s the federal government was investing about 20 billion dollars in workforce development and now that number is down to 4 billion. Hopefully the passage of WIOA may create an opportunity for the federal government to invest more, but in general, the investments have been going down. And so, that’s the tricky part – where you feel you are…always robbing one effort to fund another, even if the first effort was producing good results.”

Lessons Learned

“First, based on Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, it’s very important to get the ‘right people on the bus.’ I have fantastic people on staff that know how to start programs from scratch. If you don’t already have the right people around you, all your time will be spent trying to figure out how to get the right people around you.

Second, doing something is better than doing nothing. While I feel guilty about the people we’re not serving well enough, that doesn’t paralyze me into doing nothing. We continue looking for other opportunities to broaden our funding base and the number of customers [we serve] and ultimately produce outcomes that get [people] on the ladder or moving up the ladder of opportunity. You can’t be afraid of failing or stumbling out of the gate. This ‘Right Turn’ work is not easy. A lot of people fear working with kids in the juvenile justice system because of the potential to have a bad headline come out of that work. You have to be motivated by the number of opportunities you can create for people. If that’s what motivates you, then you will always have a bias towards action and trying something.” 

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