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Growth is a key part of Heather McMann’s life, both personally and professionally, and sometimes growth requires pushing yourself a bit outside your comfort zone. 

On the professional side, that growth has been especially rewarding.

When she took over as executive director of Groundwork Lawrence in 2009, the community development nonprofit organization had a budget of less than $500,000 a year. Since then, its budget has grown to more than $3 million, allowing it to devote even more resources to its work on the environment, fresh food programs, youth education, employment initiatives, and community engagement.

“Groundwork’s growth is really what I’m most proud of,” she says. “The organization is really a key part of the community.”

She also pushes herself toward personal growth. Despite living with arthritis and having never hiked more than eight miles at a time, McMann joined a group of local community leaders on a four-day kayaking and camping journey along the entire 117-mile Merrimack River. 

The group, which dubbed itself the Merrimack Valley River Voyagers, sought to bring attention to this crucially important waterway’s recreational uses, economic development opportunities, and challenges, like pollution. Completing the trip was incredibly important to McMann, who’s lived and worked along the Merrimack her entire life since graduating from college. “The huge personal challenge for me was to kayak over four days,” she says. “I might not be able to do some things, but I can do this.”

She’s continuing to push herself now: She just started teaching financial management at Brandeis University’s Heller School, in the same Social Impact MBA program that she completed in 2012.

“The MBA program is really focused on social justice and nonprofits,” she says. “So to know that I’m really helping to support the nonprofit sector, and build that capacity, and share what I know as an executive director with others is really exciting.”

But for McMann, “community” is the most important concept when talking about that growth. She believes that a key part of leadership is learning what skills she’s the best at bringing to the organization, being clear-eyed about where she needs help from others, and developing partners to keep the work going and growing. 

“Where else can you—within a week—work with amazing youth, grow food, plant trees, see a new park get built, and do it in such an amazing place as Lawrence where partnerships really make it possible for so many of us to do so much more than we could on our own,” she says.