I'm Traci Lester, Executive Director Of The U.S. National Dance Institute, And This Is How I Work

Lester and NDI dancers (Photo: National Dance Institute)

The National Dance Institute involves thousands of children each year in classes, performances, school partnerships, professional development for educators, and dance programs for children with disabilities. We talked to executive director Traci Lester about overseeing this important, inclusive non-profit.


Location: New York, NY Current gig: Executive Director, National Dance Institute Current computer: Dell Optiplex 790 with keyboard (Windows based PC Machine) Current mobile device: iPhone XR One word that best describes how you work: Efficiently

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I have over 28 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. I’ve worked with nonprofit organisations both here on the East Coast and in California. I started my career fresh out of college as a journalist and reporter in San Jose, California. Not long thereafter I entered the nonprofit sector and I’ve never looked back.

I have worked in philanthropy for some of the country’s major philanthropic institutions, in education and in human services, and now I’m working with an amazing arts education organisation.

My focus has always been supporting the needs of children and their families.

What are your job responsibilities?

I am the executive director and administrative leader at National Dance Institute, a premier arts education organisation. With over $US23 ($34) million in assets, a 18,000 square foot facility located in Central Harlem, and 71 staffers, I oversee the delivery of National Dance Institute’s award-winning programming to 6,500 public school children weekly and close to 60,000 children globally (though our partnership with the Associates of National Dance Institute and our international partners in China, Lebanon and beyond). I liaise with our Board of Directors, fundraise, oversee our major marketing efforts, and guide the strategic vision of National Dance Institute.

Take us through a recent workday.

I wake at 6 a.m., always check the news first, and then rouse my daughter out of bed. I try to eat something before I head out the door, which is hard when you have children. Protein is key—such as yogurt, almonds and fruit.

Once we leave the house, and after she makes it to school, you’ll often find me heading straight to a morning meeting with either staff, partner organisations, funders or a board member. I prefer the morning for meetings to ground the day.

Sometimes I head first to a National Dance Institute partner school to view our program in action. I have standing weekly team meetings that happen on various days throughout the week. My work day usually ends between 6-7 p.m. unless I have evening events or after work affairs.

What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?

I can’t live without my wireless Bose earphones. I can speak on the phone while multitasking, walking or running to meetings (or even exercising).

While I also use Google Docs, I am moving toward Asana as a data management program.

What’s your workspace setup like?

We work in an open office environment and there is a lot of cross collaboration and information sharing.

I can’t work with a lot of clutter, so I usually move things along rather quickly after I review them so my space is clear for the next big project. I only travel with my laptop outside of the office, so it’s almost never on my desk.

What’s your favourite shortcut or hack?

My favourite shortcut involves starting my morning by creating a daily “to do” list of key items I want to accomplish and checking back with it even as other items emerge throughout the day. There’s nothing more satisfying than checking off items on my list.

When I’m on the move throughout the day, I dictate my thoughts and then in the evening I check them to make sure I’ve completed everything on my list.

Lester at the NDI Annual Gala (Photo: Eduardo Patino)

Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.

At National Dance Institute we have many people involved in a multitude of projects, and we all move very quickly—we are a nimble organisation and get a lot done during the workday. I make sure when we have to make decisions on things that everyone who is impacted is in the room. A 15-minute meeting saves time on the back end when we need everyone on the same page.

Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?

No executive director is successful without the people around them. I collaborate across teams and departments daily. At National Dance Institute, we have administrative decisions and artistic decisions, so the synergy between the administrative side and the artistic side is tantamount to successful programming.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made at work, and how did you deal with it?

One strategy I have for managing my communications is emailing myself. When I have a particularly complex or sensitive email, I will always email it to myself first. This came from a lesson learned where once I accidentally sent an email to an outside donor (who mailed it back to me via the post office)! Fortunately, it wasn’t anything terrible, but it was a lesson learned about being thoughtful and mindful about email messaging.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

I use Google Calendars, and Google Docs, as well as an old style small notebook. Sometimes you just can’t beat finding something quickly when it’s written down in a small notebook.

How do you recharge or take a break?

Running is my way of recharging. I’ve run 15 marathons and over 30 half marathons. I spend countless hours running. You would be surprised to learn how many of life’s biggest challenges can be checked off by the miles you cover. Not only is it for my health and well-being, it’s both a meditative experience and a social one.

What’s your favourite side project?

My favourite side project is helping my daughter to become the best person she can be.

Lester at Jacques Art Nest Series (Photo: Eduardo Patino)

What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?

I belong to a book group of amazing women and we are reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer.

Can you share a music playlist you’ve made, whether for working or elsewhere?

My father passed away recently and he was a jazz saxophonist. These days I’ve been listening to his music and his performances; music from the 60s and 70s—straight ahead jazz and soul-jazz.

I’ve also been really enjoying listening to Lizzo (Melissa Viviane Jefferson) lately. I appreciate her commitment to the flute and live music. I played the flute in high school and in marching band and when she talks about her passion for music it’s refreshing and wonderful to hear.

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

I would like to see answers from Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organisation in Montgomery, Alabama. He’s a true social justice warrior and I have so much respect for his work.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

The best advice I’ve ever received is don’t be humble. I think this came from my high school guidance counselor, who encouraged me to step forward and not be apologetic for any of my actions.

What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?

One problem that I’m trying to solve is how to get enough sleep. I set my phone on silent from 10 p.m.-6 a.m., so I’m hoping that will help (although I need to stop peeking at it during the night)!


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