Karin’s Leadership Articles

Today’s post is from Bill Holston, Executive Director at Human Rights Initiative of Northern Texas. Bill is a regular comm-enter in our LGL community. As I’ve gotten to know Bill, I’ve been inspired by his amazing career transition. The work his team is doing changes and saves lives. I invited him to share his story. He offers insights about moving toward your calling, transitioning to an executive role, and leading in a mostly volunteer environment.

The Transition from Attorney to NGO Leader

For more than 30 years I practiced business law. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge. But over time, I realized my passions lay elsewhere, inspired by the volunteer work I had done over the years.

The journey began 25 years ago when I said yes to a pro bono political asylum case representing Martha, a young mother. Her husband was a truckers’ union leader in Guatemala, killed by a death squad. When Marta received death threats, she fled her country. I helped her win asylum and was totally hooked. Since that first case, I’ve represented people from twenty different countries. I took the cases as a volunteer with the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, a local non-profit. Two years ago, the position of executive director opened. My wife and I talked it over and I decided to apply. I was 55 and ready for new challenges.

The beauty of the organization I lead is the pro bono model. We recruit and train volunteers to do the work. This permitted us last year to do almost four million dollars of free legal work, with a staff of only ten. The cases are extremely time-consuming. Many of our volunteers are from big law firms, and all have very busy practices. We clearly communicate the level of commitment. They do the work, because it is extremely rewarding. They get to do for once, what they imagined doing as a lawyer, changing, even saving lives. Another key to our success is recruiting a talented staff, who make sure that we are accepting cases worthy of our volunteers time and providing first class training and supervision of the casework. We do not hand over a file and wish them good luck.

The transition from lawyer to executive has been difficult. Of course I had passion for the mission, but there are many tasks I had to learn. As a small shop, I pay the bills, do the HR, and do development work. My primary role, however is to provide leadership to our team. It’s my responsibility to guide our extremely dedicated staff to do emotionally difficult work, with limited resources, with a commitment to excellence.

The most difficult part of the transition has been learning how to set priorities. It’s challenging to determine exactly what the best use of my time is. Thankfully, I’ve found the thing I enjoy the most is the best use, that is relationship building with our staff, volunteers, Board, and media.

Considering a Transition?

Maybe some of you are considering a transition. First, let’s talk money. I was able to pursue this passion at this stage of life primarily because of my lifestyle choices. My wife and I have avoided debt and live in the same modest house we purchased in 1986. Because our values coincide, we can afford to live on a non-profit paycheck. Next, you should be working as a volunteer in order to know first of all what mission interests you and second learning the work from the ground up. Pay attention to building good relationships in your community. These will prove invaluable.

Meaningful Work

So, what has our team accomplished? Among many others, we helped a young aid worker from Zimbabwe, tortured for whom he chose to deliver food to. We helped a young woman avoid the brutal practice of female genital mutilation.

We assisted a young man from El Salvador, who refused to join a violent street gang. They took him, slit his throat and left him for dead. These are sobering stories, but because of our volunteers, all these people are obtaining legal status and live free and safe lives in America. I’ve never looked back.

Hear Bill share his story in his Ignite speech.

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Jon Mertz

    Bill, Your story is an inspirational one, and it is one to really consider as we navigate life. You have led by example, putting a foundation in place and then showing how to use it in meaningful ways. Thanks for what you have shown, for your leadership, and for your good works. Jon

    • letsgrowleaders

      Jon, Thanks. I was really touched to hear all Bill has done.

    • bill holston

      thanks Jon, so glad we met. You have so much tremendous insight into our world.

  2. Steve Borek

    Career transition is difficult for most.

    I did it when I moved from sales executive to business coach. Though for me, it was easy.

    I take clients through a 12 week program called Now What, 90 Days To a New Life Direction. It’s powerful.

    It’s not what you get to do, it’s who you get to become while doing it.

    It’s clear Bill has found a professional life that pays the light bills and lights him up.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Steve, love that “it’s not what you get to do, it’s who you get to become while doing it.” That applies to any role It’s so important that we pay attention in our becoming.

  3. David Tumbarello

    Moments ago, I saw a Time Magazine cover with a college graduate wearing cap and gown and on the top of the cap it said, “Just Hired”. My advice for these new graduates is this: not only should they expect to have several jobs – they should expect to have multiple careers. Your job transition was successful because it sounds like you consistently pursued work that interested you. I would give similar advice to new graduates. What interests you in 2014 might not interest you in 2019. In every career pursuit, grow your skillset and grow as a person, and in most cases those transitions will happen seamlessly.

    • letsgrowleaders

      David, Such important advice …. stay open to the possibilities. Thank you

  4. Bill Benoist

    I am at the same age now you were when you made the change. I have yet to make my transition, but I certainly understand the pull, along with and the fear and anxiety you must have faced jumping from the profit to non-profit sector.

    I commend you, Bill. You’re story is an inspiration for many of us.

    • bill holston

      Thanks Bill. I told people it was equal parts terrifying and exciting!

  5. Sharon Gilmour-Glover

    Bill and Karin, thanks for sharing such an inspirational story. We in North America are so fortunate compared to so many other places in the world. The stories you shared Bill are a strong reminder to be grateful for the peace, stability and prosperity we have.

    I also really appreciated your personal story. One of the most difficult parts of transition is that internal, emotional piece. I’m really glad you touched on how difficult the transition from lawyer to executive, from larger firm to small shop was. If we’re not prepared for that it can stop us cold.

    Continued success to you and your team Bill.

    • bill holston

      Thanks Sharon. I think it’s important not to skip over the difficulty of it all.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Sharon, so vital, the quest for internal, emotional peace. For me that’s never quite handled, but an important journey. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  6. LaRae Quy

    This is a very inspirational post…the most difficult thing for me when making my most recent career change was “going from knowing everything” and being the “go-to” person, to “knowing nothing” and starting over as a beginner. It was truly humbling and one of the biggest lessons for me was ego…

    • Shawn


      I can relate to this! I just recently made a career move, where I will be moving into unknown territory… getting over that initial hump of fear was a big move for me just to apply. Now that I have accepted the position, and there is a start date out there it has become real. Moving into the daily learning and adjusting to the new environment will be a challenge but one that I feel will be rewarding.

      I have always wanted to do more volunteering, and I do try to give back as much as I can. Bill your story is amazing, and I aspire to one day be able to give more of myself to a cause. Thanks for sharing!

      • letsgrowleaders

        Shawn, I’m so excited for you in your new role. Please do join back and let us know how it’s going. This community is full of great thinkers with experience and ideas.

    • bill holston

      Right LaRae, I think I found out plenty of reasons to be humble!

    • letsgrowleaders

      LaRae, I’ve made a career out of not knowing what I’m doing;-) Transitions breed great humility… a good reason for leaders to do what scares them. Thanks as always for your comments.

  7. Shayne Farrell

    Great story and I thank you for sharing. What a difference it makes when you wake up each morning and go to work doing soemthing you love so much. The non-financial rewards are priceless. I think how much better off a lot of people I know would be if they too would be courageous enough to make the jump and start doing what they love, versus always talking about the grind. How bad they feel at work. Life is too short to not be happy and passionate about what you do. Truly inspirational!!

    • bill holston

      You know Shayne, when I left my practice I wrote my clients I was leaving the practice to pursue what I really felt was a calling. I almost quoted you, “Life is too short not to pursue your worthy goals.”

      I’d like to add this. I appreciate the fact the story is inspiring. It’s why I tell it. I also tell people to be patient. It took me thirty years to make this transition. And I was making decisions all along the way that have now proved providential., such as not burning bridges, having opposing counsel from lawsuits, now as donors to my agency.

      My over arching emotion though is gratitude, of being blessed to do what i love to do.
      I spent all morning with a room full of Central American children fleeing gang violence. I’m so thankful I got to do that today.

      Thanks again Karin, it was so great collaborating.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Shayne, Thanks so much. That was my reaction to Bill’s story too. He’s a guy skipping to work and making a difference.

  8. brad kizzia

    Bill is a true inspiration. I tell him half jokingly that he does “God’s work”, but it is literally true.
    Just being around him makes me want to do “good” by my fellow man, and the ability to do THAT is a special gift.

  9. letsgrowleaders

    Brad, Great to have you in our community. I do hope you will join us again. I agree. Bill is a great example of how people can be God’s hands and feet. Namaste.

  10. Terri Klass

    I think this post totally captures the excitement and the anxiety connected with making a transition.
    I think it is so important to follow your passions but do it in a way that one can survive. It is always about choices. Going into a transition with eyes wide open is critical as is telling yourself that this first step may not look like the final landing.
    Great inspirational article!

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