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DRiWaterstone Client Stories: Kansas Department of Commerce

Kansas Department of Commerce

As an executive search firm specializing in the nonprofit and social impact space, we get the opportunity to help a diverse roster of purpose and mission-driven clients fill roles that are integral to delivering on their purpose and their strategic goals.

One such client is the Kansas Department of Commerce. We recently sat down with their Chief of Staff, Abby Works, to talk about the incredible work being done at that organization, her experience working with DRiWaterstone on three executive search projects, her advice to other leaders looking to fill a unique role, and more.

DRiWaterstone (DRiW): Talk about the Kansas Department of Commerce and your role there.

Abby Works (AW): The Kansas Department of Commerce is the state’s lead economic development agency, and we have four different areas that we work in: economic development, quality of life, tourism and workforce services (connecting job seekers with employers).

I serve as the Chief of Staff, and I report directly to the Secretary of Commerce. My role is to manage the operations of the agency, but also to work on the high-level goals that the Secretary has and make sure that those come to fruition. I also have touch points with all the different divisions and working groups within the agency.

DRiW: Can you share some recent projects or success stories that you’re particularly proud of?

AW: There are several that come to mind.  In 2021, we released the Kansas Framework for Growth, which is the state’s strategic plan for economic development. It’s the first planthe state has had in over 30 years, so it was a huge undertaking. It lays out the path for the areas we want to focus on in terms of economic development, and also the areas that people might not necessarily think about as they relate to economic development – housing, childcare, broadband, water, etc.

That’s been the guiding star for us for the last several years, and has helped us with some big wins. The most notable success we’ve had is that Kansas successfully recruited Panasonic to open their new EV battery production facility in the state. That’s going to bring $4 billion of investment and 4,000 new jobs to Kansas. It’s a huge win and it plants our flag in the world of the EV industry. It says that Kansas is open for business when you land an international corporation like that.

We’ve also worked to educate people on quality of life, how that impacts economic development, and how the two need to go hand in hand. You need vibrant communities and places that people want to live because if they are interested in living there, they’ll want to work there. It’s all interrelated.

DRiW: You’ve now done three searches with DRiWaterstone. Can you share a bit about the roles you were looking to fill?

AW: The first one we did was for the Director of the Kansas Creative Arts and Industries Commission. When we talk about quality of life initiatives, one of the areas that has been buried in Kansas over the past decade was the arts and the role that arts plays in community and economic development. So, when we set out to hire a new director we felt like we needed to look outside of Kansas and to see who was doing great work in other states. We were really looking for a number two at another state arts agency who was looking to take the next career step. It’s a pretty niche market and we needed help figuring out where to even look in some of the other states. DRiWaterstone was really great in helping us scout that talent, and we brought in Curtis Young from Florida, who is now serving as our Director, and who has done phenomenal work.

Our second search was for our Deputy Secretary of Business Development. This is one of the top positions within the agency, and they’re tasked with the economic development function of the agency, which is our main bread and butter. Kansas has had record-setting economic development for three years in a row, and Kansas has been recognized as being the top state for economic development on a per capita basis. To continue that momentum, we wanted to bring in somebody who had done great work, who understood what it means to work on economic development projects, and who could come in and lead a team spread throughout the United States but also spread throughout Kansas as well. We hired DRiWaterstone to help us identify talent and we were able to recruit somebody from Arizona whose spouse had ties to the Midwest.

The one that is currently underway is our Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer. This person is tasked with taking the Framework for Growth and implementing it. They are tasked with looking at the emerging fields, like innovation, bioscience, and others that we need to make sure we’re monitoring and taking advantage of. So again, this is a very niche position where we had trouble knowing where to look. We had some general ideas, but really needed help identifying the types of peer institutions or private sector groups doing this kind of work. And identifying who would be interested in moving from private sector to public sector – or who wants to come back to the public sector.

DRiW: Why did you choose to work with an executive search firm like DRiWaterstone?

AW: As a public entity, we don’t typically engage search firms unless it’s a critical position. With these three roles, the reason we engaged DRiWaterstone is because we felt that the roles were crucial enough that we needed to get the right person in, and we couldn’t do that by ourselves. We really needed people who do this type of work day in and day out to help us filter through all of the different candidates as well as to identify them.

Why we selected DRiWaterstone was the work that you have done with nonprofits and some of those other different areas. It felt like you would understand the public sector and what it’s like to work in the public sector and that you could help sell that to certain individuals as well.

DRiW: What was your overall experience working with DRiWaterstone?

AW: It’s been phenomenal. There’s a reason we’ve utilized them for three searches. It’s just been a really great experience. You’ve listened to what I wanted, the vision, and then worked backwards from that to figure out the types of candidates that can meet that vision.

I would say that the communication level is great. DRiWaterstone lets us set what we want the communication frequency to look like and how we want to communicate and that’s been great.

And the portal you guys have makes it easy. So, while you are scouting talent, I can also be looking at the type of candidates and giving feedback, and I feel like it’s more of a collaboration between the firm and me as the person looking to hire. Sometimes it can be transactional, but with DRiWaterstone I feel like it’s much more collaborative.

DRiW: What advice do you have for other organizations looking to hire for senior roles in today’s market?

AW: I would say having a search firm is helpful, especially if you have a senior level position or a difficult to fill position. They have the time, ability and experience to really dig into candidate pools and figure out who makes the best fit for your organization. And they’re doing the outreach for you rather than having to rely on LinkedIn postings and then whatever applications come through the website. It’s nice to have a search firm engaged on some of these higher level positions because they can help do the selling.

And I think it sometimes helps to have a third party be the intermediary, or at least have that initial conversation, to allow an honest conversation and to help solve some of the questions or concerns that come up.

DRiW: What’s next for the Kansas Department of Commerce?

AW: It’s diving in on that quality of life and quality places piece. Educating our communities on how you present yourself to new visitors, to new companies, to new residents, and what it is they need. We’re having those conversations about how we can help strengthen the communities that exist here, because they all have their unique selling points.

We have the economic development wheel turning, but we want to make sure that we have strong vibrant communities throughout the state and that they know how to market themselves and put their best foot forward to help recruit new talent to their communities as well. It’s focusing on arts and housing and childcare and broadband and all those pieces that play into creating strong communities, which leads to strong economic development.

At DRiWaterstonewe have the pleasure to work with some of the best purpose and mission-driven clients and candidates in the nonprofit and social impact space. To learn more about how we can help you build your high-performance teams and drive growth, email us – we’d love to talk! 

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DRiWaterstone Human Capital has successfully placed Jonathan Board as the inaugural Executive Director at the West Virginia First Foundation. In this role, Board will play a pivotal role in establishing the Foundation, developing its operational structure, overseeing its programs and initiatives, and spearheading partnership efforts.

Jonathan Board is a seasoned executive with a background in external and governmental affairs, programmatic management, and substance use disorder (SUD) policy. With expertise in financial oversight, fundraising, legislative acumen, and leadership, he has successfully navigated large-scale projects, secured substantial funding through various channels, and implemented impactful SUD mitigation and recovery initiatives in Appalachia. He has a law degree and experience with healthcare systems, rural health challenges, and strategic development which further contribute to his ability to translate complex policy matters into actionable strategies. Jonathan will be joining the West Virginia First Foundation from Mon Health System where he was Vice President, External Affairs.

The West Virginia First Foundation strives to combat the drug addiction crisis in West Virginia. With the support of expected funding between $600-$700 million in settlements, and an opportunity to raise much more through the private sector, its primary goal is to attack the drug problem holistically, through education, prevention, treatment, and enhanced enforcement to help individuals, families and communities affected by this devastating drug epidemic.

This search was led by DRiWaterstone's Managing Director, Julio Suárez, with the support of the DRiWaterstone team.

Learn more.


At DRiWaterstonewe have the pleasure to work with some of the best purpose and mission-driven organizations and candidates in the nonprofit and social impact space. To learn more about how we can help you build your high-performance teams and drive growth, email us – we’d love to talk! 

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