Make the most of opportunities
If you do, more opportunities are sure to come your way, says Heather Novak, 18:83 speaker and nonprofit executive in Grand Forks
By Melanie Schindler
When Heather Novak was invited to speak as part of UND’s 18:83 Speaker Series, her first thought was, “What do I know about leadership and professional development?”
As listeners learned on Oct. 25, the answer is: a lot.
The executive director of United Way of Grand Forks, Novak grew up in a military family, where her parents instilled in her responsibility and respect. She recalls being frustrated when her friends could get together after school, but she had homework and chores to do first.
Looking back, she sees her parents as her first mentors. “If it wasn’t for them instilling that responsibility, I don’t know if I’d be where I am,” she said.
Early in her career, Novak refused to do presentations, often referring to herself as a “behind-the-scenes girl.” Yet today, she gives business presentations weekly, runs a large nonprofit in the community and leads her staff with confidence.
One reason for her success is that she always has jumped at the chance to learn. During college at Mayville State University, she worked at a gas station, and her boss asked if she’d like to do bookkeeping for him. She thought, “OK, I like numbers.” He taught her some things, and halfway through her sophomore year, she thought, “OK, I really like numbers. I don’t know if elementary education is what I want to do anymore.”
That’s when she added business administration with a specialization in accounting as a second major. She graduated with both degrees from Mayville State in 2010.
Her first job out of college was as executive director of the Devils Lake Healthcare Center. She thought, “I went to school for four years; I know what I’m doing,” but quickly realized, “I have no idea what I’m doing.”
Novak oversaw staff in this position, noting that that is not an easy thing to do at any age, let alone at 22.
After two years, she applied for jobs in Grand Forks and found one as the business manager at Northlands Rescue Mission. She didn’t know much about either nonprofit direct service or homeless shelters, so the job at first seemed over her head. But within the first 90 days, she knew she’d stepped into a career she loved.
Her supervisor, Dave Sena, quickly became a mentor. She jumped in and began overseeing the kitchen staff, teaching first-aid certification classes and taking courses in HR, learning whatever skills Sena suggested. She reflected, “He made a change in my life back in 2012 that I feel has changed me forever at this point.”
Sena modeled a boots-on-the-ground type of leadership with an open-door policy, allowing staff to come in to chat or ask questions as needed. Novak adopted the same approach.
After leaving Northlands to work at United Day Nursery for a year and a half, Novak was asked to return to Northlands in 2015 as director of operations. She also started a side contract with United Day Nursery doing their accounting and HR, and she joined the Third Street Clinic board to learn more about nonprofits and how every department was linked.
Choosing the person you’re going to be
Then in 2018, Sena was offered the executive position at United Way, and Novak came on as a contractor. Not long after, she was hired full time as director of operations for United Way.
In 2021, Novak stepped up when Sena was out with COVID for eight weeks. The organization had an event for 150 people, and Novak was forced to face her fear of presenting in public.
“I was so nervous,” she recalled. “I was sweating bullets the whole time. … But I made it through and realized, ‘Hey, that’s one more thing that I can do.’”
That same year, Sena and his family decided to move to the Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul), so the board asked Novak to step in as interim. She happily said “yes,” but also worried, “What if I fail? I don’t know anything about marketing. I don’t like fundraising.”
After talking with mentors and loved ones, Novak accepted the position as executive director of United Way, where she’s been ever since.
She maintains her open-door policy and tries to ensure that her employees advance professionally and personally and find what they love to do.
“You choose the person you’re going to be, the lives you’re going to change and the leader that you’re going to become,” she said, looking back on her career since graduating from college only 13 years ago.
A lot of things make a leader, but caring about the needs of the public and being willing to learn, grow, adapt, and encourage others are at the top of her list, Novak said.
The 18:83 Speaker Series is designed to help listeners learn about leadership from campus and community leaders in a “TED Talk” format. The speakers time their weekly presentations to last about 18 minutes and 83 seconds, a number that coincides with UND’s founding year.
About the author:
Melanie Schindler is a 2020 graduate of the University of North Dakota, where she earned degrees in Communication, International Studies and Spanish. She currently serves within the Division of Academic Affairs as academic advisor in the University of North Dakota School of Law.