Yvonne Cheek Talks Strategic Organizational Change

Yvonne Cheek Smilling
Yvonne Cheek, president and founder, Millennium Consulting Group

At six years old, child music prodigy Yvonne Cheek, Ph.D., knew she wanted to be a teacher. She did not become a teacher in the strictest sense, but her work involves informing, training, and guiding companies in effectively implementing organizational change. Cheek is president and founder of Minnesota-based Millennium Consulting Group, which specializes in strategic change. She is a member of the Greater Twin Cities United Way Board and the Women’s Leadership Council, and serves on the board of directors for the Minnesota Orchestra, Vocal Essence, WomenVenture, and KFAI Radio.

In a recent interview with The Network Journal, Cheek spoke about her work, and the influences of her rural upbringing and education.

TNJ: Where were you born and raised?

Cheek: I was born in Philadelphia. When I was five my parents decided to move back to North Carolina where both of them grew up because they did not want us to grow up in the city. We moved to a little village named Kittrell, about 45 miles north of Raleigh, about 50 miles south of the Virginia border. It was just a sweet little village that had about four or five stores and a school and Kittrell College at that time, it was really an ideal place to grow up.

TNJ: What lessons from your rural upbringing helped you to get to where you are today?

Cheek: One was not accepting other people’s rules or barriers based on their limited thinking. As a teenager, I was a member of 4-H, a national organization teaching life skills. Their motto was ‘make the best better.’ You can always improve on what you’re doing. You need to test yourself and stretch yourself to do it and bring your best self to the situation.

TNJ: Tell us about your studies and career plans.

Cheek: My undergraduate degree and master’s degree are from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and I majored in music education. I decided when I was in the first grade I wanted to be a teacher and I decided in high school I wanted to be a music teacher. Right after I got my master’s degree I got a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. I was one of ten people sent to Budapest, Hungary to study at the Liszt Academy.

TNJ: What instruments did you play?

Cheek: I was a piano principal in undergrad and a voice principal in grad. In high school I played saxophone clarinet and flute. I also played the organ.When I was in high school I played for four different churches because in rural North Carolina. A lot of rural churches meet one Sunday a month so I had four different churches, one for each Sunday.

TNJ: You changed your mind about teaching, though.

Cheek: I went to the University of Michigan and I got a full fellowship there. I was there for four years. When I was writing my dissertation, a little bird jumped on my shoulder and said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this for the next thirty years?’ It was devastating to me, I had to go into therapy. My therapist said, ‘Take your first job at a college as a music professor and then launch your career from the next place.’ I did that and was able to move forward.

TNJ: What does Millenium Consulting Group do?

Cheek: We work with organizations across the sectors. I have business clients, nonprofits, and higher education, as well as foundations. We help them through change and take them to their next level of impact. We help to get employee buy-in and strategize about how to engage the community. We really do a variety of things, which include strategic planning, board development teams, team building, and diversity and inclusive initiatives.

TNJ: Is the work done purely on site? Do you personally conduct these trainings?

Cheek: Sometimes –depending on the project, if it ends up being extended, or they ask me to do something else – I will bring in other consultants. And yes, it is on site, except for informational interviews which I will sometimes do on the phone.

TNJ: With respect to diversity and inclusion, have you seen a change in attitudes since you began that aspect of your work?

Cheek: One thing is, we totally co-design the initiative with the client. [We have] to know when to approach the work on the diagonal, and when to do a full deep dive. More and more people are seeing that it’s not as hard as they thought it would be to launch diversity initiatives, although there’s always resistance because some people are thinking, ‘Well, this is working for me just fine.

What’s the problem? I don’t see what the issue is.’ But more openness and creativity is being used in these initiatives and more preparation is used for people to learn the new skills. Once people understand that you were there to fortify them – not to embarrass them, but to walk shoulder to shoulder with them – they are more apt to get on board.

TNJ: What differences have you observed between companies that are more resistant to change and those that are more open to change?

Cheek: Those that are resistant to change have the fewest number of people who are different from the majority. Then there are people who have never been exposed to people who are different from them, not just at work, but in general, such as through the arts where very few have gone to, let’s say, a play that is African-American centered or a play that is Latino-centered, or museums that have cultures other than their own. They are fearful of what they may have to do differently if they open that door.

TNJ: How do you enable organizations to perceive value in undervalued employees?

Cheek: I see this a lot. When I am invited to do something in this realm I actually start with the employee who is undervalued. Very often, that employee is undervaluing himself or herself and needs to be aware of what their strengths are and how they can utilize those. Once they are aware of that, then you can guide them on how to show some of their strengths, whether they’re in meetings or one on one situations.

TNJ: What is the most important lesson you have learned from running your own firm?

Cheek: Start with who you are and start with where you are. What are your values? What are your skills that are transferable to any situation? Use those as a springboard to wherever you want to go. You’re only limited by how you imagine yourself. It’s also important to be a good listener.