AZ Leadership: Kathy Tilque

Kathy Tilque was born into a military family, and as a result she has lived a lot of places. But one small Arizona farming town stood out to her.

Tilque started her career in Copperas Cove, Texas, moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, and finally transferred to Gilbert, where she joined the staff at the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce. During a stint organizing events at the Tempe Chamber of Commerce, Tilque began attending the Institute for Organizational Management, a training program with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. There, she made a discovery.

“I realized I wanted to be CEO,” Tilque said. “But more importantly, I wanted to be CEO at the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce, because I just love this community. And it just so happened that the position came open, and the board knew me from my past experience with them, and they recruited me to come back, and I’ve been here ever since.”

The way chambers of commerce operate and the expectations placed on them have evolved considerably over the past 30 years, Tilque said.

“If I were going to whittle that down to one word, it would be relevancy,” Tilque said. “How do you continue to be relevant to not only your business members but to the community as a whole as the environment continues to change?”

Beginning in 2006, Tilque and her colleagues noticed a vital shortfall in the social services provided to Arizona women in need who want to earn a degree and find gainful work. In addition, Chandler-Gilbert Community College lost funding that had previously been used to assist disadvantaged women with tuition.

The solution: Positive Paths, a nonprofit organization serving educational needs in the East Valley. Positive Paths was founded in 2014, and Tilque’s organizational management strengths made her the perfect person to do the “heavy lifting” behind the scenes.

Now, Positive Paths is honoring Tilque as its East Valley Woman of the Year for 2019.

“It was so surprising but so humbling, and I’m just so grateful that they wanted to honor the work that I have done with them,” Tilque said. “So honored, but more importantly, I’m just so excited about the progress they’re making.”

Tilque said she draws her inspiration from her grandmother, Helen O’Connor. O’Connor is no longer living, but she raised a family on a farm in Minnesota and had “very deep roots” there, Tilque said.

“What I admire about her is her willingness to show kindness to everybody, and she had this uncanny ability to make every one of us feel like we were the most important person… whenever we were there,” Tilque said. “It stayed with me, and I realized that every day you can do something simple to show kindness to somebody else, because you don’t know what they’re going through.”

Tilque said she doesn’t think she will ever reach her grandmother’s quintessence, but she hopes she makes people feel important every day.

Over the years, Tilque has worked closely with the Arizona Chamber Executives as well as regional and national chamber associations to review legislative issues and ensure Gilbert and Arizona remain business-friendly.

“I like to say I learned from the best,” she said. “One of my mentors in the business was Jack Camper from the Tucson Chamber.”

Camper, now retired, always instilled a sense of responsibility in young chamber executives, Tilque said.

Tilque said her most significant accomplishment was the part she played in saving the iconic water tower in downtown Gilbert, which she said was a decidedly collaborative effort. The water tower was in desperate need of repairs and was at risk of being dismantled, triggered by the town’s desire to rid the structure of its original (and dangerous) lead-based paint.

“We were votes from it being torn down,” Tilque said. “Understanding the history of the water tower and what it meant to this farming community — we’re over 250,000 people today — was a labor of love.”

The town council ultimately voted to restore the tower and also sought grant money to build a small park next to it. Tilque said she still can’t believe how close Gilbert came to tearing down its most recognizable landmark.

“It has become not only a centerpiece for what’s happening in downtown Gilbert, but it’s our icon,” she said. “Everybody knows the water tower.”

Tilque said her favorite book, from a business perspective, is The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management. The “Abilene paradox” describes a situation in which a group of people are trying to come to a decision, but each member mistakenly believes their choice contradicts the rest of the group. As a result, the group makes a decision that the majority of its members oppose in the interest of not “rocking the boat,” so to speak.

“The bottom line of it is, if you’re in a meeting or you’re part of a project, you have to speak up if you agree or don’t agree, or you end up going to Abilene, where nobody wanted to go,” Tilque said. “I think that if people were to say what are… my strengths, it’s speaking up in meetings and making sure we’re going on the right path and being okay with it if we decide to go a different way, but at least we’ve had that conversation.”

Graham Bosch

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