Kiersten Iwai

Who are you, and what do you do?

Kiersten Iwai, Executive Director at Forward Montana.

I lead a badass organization that’s transforming Montana’s politics by engaging and organizing young Montanans.

What is one habit of yours that helps you be productive?

I live by my calendars. I have one calendar for work and one calendar for personal engagements and fun activities. While I don’t carve out or record every single thing that I do, intentionally setting aside time to be active and do the things I love goes a long ways toward ensuring I’m productive while working.

I’ve often found that during the times I’m most stressed or overwhelmed, I’m not very productive. It’s more effective for me to take a break and sneak in a quick run or something similar.

What is your morning routine and how does it help you get the most out of your day?

My morning routine has changed a bit since the pandemic. But generally, 2-3 times a week I try to get up early and go for a run or to the climbing gym. It helps if there’s a friend who’s willing to get up early with me. I find that working out first thing in the morning is a great way to start the day because it’s often the thing that gets pushed aside during the day or in the evening.

I’m also a very consistent breakfast eater. This routine keeps me grounded for the day ahead.

What has been one insight or lesson that has been most helpful in your career?

“When in doubt, point it out.” Picture you’re at the top of a mountain on skis and the only way out is down. Now you can stay paralyzed with fear on the top of the mountain, or you can trust yourself and “point it out.” That is, point your skis down and go.

Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to keep debating options. At some point you just have to choose one and go for it. Stay committed and trust yourself.

(Full disclosure, this is the same response to an interview I did earlier this year)

What has been your favorite mistake? A mistake that in retrospect led to a great lesson and progress.

Oh gosh! I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Here’s a silly but valuable one: I made the mistake of not backing up computer files and the computer crashed! Fortunately, we were able to recover the data but it definitely emphasized need to back up all files!

Project forward ten years. How will your industry or field be fundamentally different then? What opportunities do you see?

I think non-profits right now are at the crux of a paradigm shift. There’s an opportunity and necessity for non-profits to take bold and ambitious stances.

Over the course of the year we saw an increasing number of non-profits (and companies) lean into their values and publicly support Black Lives Matter and promote positive voting materials. While you could argue many of these actions are performative, I think it’s an incredible step towards non-profits realizing their power. Non-profits play a critical role community change and action; for too long many have sat on the sidelines, too afraid of alienating funders or other stakeholders. They’ve been worried about being deemed as “too political.” But when fundamental rights and the lives of community members are on the line, I think that non-profits have a responsibility and unique position to radically transform their communities. And on the funding side, funders (including foundations) have a responsibility to encourage and support non-profits in their long-term sustainability.

All of this is to say that in ten years I hope that non-profits are bold and innovative in their approach and ideas. It’s the world needs!

What are some bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

This might be a bit controversial, but “Fake it ’til you make it.”

I 1000000% agree with the sentiment that no one knows what they’re doing. But I don’t like how self-doubt becomes conflated with “faking” actions. It’s not faking it until you’ve made it. It’s about trusting yourself because you HAVE made it.

When I stepped into my role last year, I didn’t know what an Executive Director’s day-to-day looked like. I was nervous and filled with self-doubt. And when the pandemic upended our lives, I certainly didn’t know a thing about how to lead an organization during the most important year of our lives, in the middle of a global pandemic. But I trusted my gut and trusted my team. We made things up as we went along and went with what stuck, but we never faked it.

In the last two years, what have you become better at saying no to?

Over the past couple years I said “no” to meaningful volunteer and work opportunities that meant a lot to me. I realized that I couldn’t perform at my best and give the care that those opportunities deserved.

It was hard and I really cared about those positions and people I was serving. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t doing anyone any good (including myself) if I was spread too thin.

In the last few years, what lifestyle, habit or behavior change has had the biggest positive impact on your life?

I’ll admit, I rarely adhere to this behavior change, but when I do, it’s a game changer. At the bare minimum, I like to turn off my phone as I’m getting ready for bed. I give my bonus points to myself if I leave my phone outside of my bedroom.

I’m definitely guilty of obsessively checking slack or email and so by creating that space away from my phone my brain can start to quiet down. Doing so greatly improves my sleep.

When you feel unfocused, what do you do?

When I feel unfocused I take a break! (See above). It depends on the season, but taking the time to focus on a fun but challenging activity calms me and re-works my brain. I come back to the task at hand feeling a lot more refreshed and grounded.

What is one piece of software or a web service that you get immense value out of? How do you use it?

I’m not the best person to answer this question! I get immense value out of my Google Calendar (I think I discuss this in the other set of questions). I stay away from lifestyle-tracking apps.

I’ve used a variety of project management tools like Asana or Trello and have also found those useful, but they’re really only helpful if everyone on your team agrees to use it in the same way and keep it updated.

What is the one book you recommend most often and why?

Since this is part of the personal questions, I’ll give my “for fun” answer. I love dystopian novels. I highly recommend Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake,” the first book in the MaddAddam trilogy. It speculates a future world where climate change has destroyed the planet, corporations have taken over and privatized the police and security forces, genetic modification has gone wrong… heightens moral and ethical questions the world is dealing with right now.