Meet Director of Operations Todd Hill-Jones
“A leader has to start with trust among stakeholders. That way, even though you may have different perspectives, if you trust in working together, you’ll get to the end result together. “
Prior to joining Noodle in 2019, Director of Operations Todd Hill-Jones served for three years as Policy and Research Program Manager at the Urban Institute’s Housing Finance Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he directed all aspects of the center’s high-profile research initiatives. Additionally, Hill-Jones served six years as Senior Director of Government Affairs with the Housing Policy Council at the Financial Services Roundtable, where he advocated on key mortgage and housing finance marketplace interests in legislative, regulatory, and judicial forums in our nation’s capital. For his distinguished work in government in Washington, Hill- Jones was named an honorary admiral of the Texas Navy as well as an honorary colonel from the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In 2010, Todd graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, and in that same year was competitively selected to serve as a Bill Archer Fellow where he lived, learned, and served an internship for a full academic semester in Washington, D.C. In 2020, Todd graduated from the sixth cohort of the Executive Master in Public Leadership program, earning a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs with the University of Texas at Austin.
What does it mean for you to identify as LGBTQ+?
I am very comfortable with it. It took me 19 of my 41 years of life to come to terms with my sexuality, but when I did, I decided to get active within my community, specifically with the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, the third largest chapter of Stonewall Democrats in the U.S. I currently serve as president of our chapter. I consider it a great honor to help lead my community at this most important time. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously.
Why did you choose to work in education? How have your educational experiences shaped your career?
For me the issue of education, and access to education, is very near and dear to my heart. I am the first one in my family to attend college. I earned my Associate degree at age 26, my Bachelor’s degree at 30, and my Master’s degree at age 40. I put myself through school, working the whole time, so I believe in all efforts to make higher education more affordable. I’m also a board member for the Bill Archer Center, which is the D.C. based campus of the University of Texas. I’m very close to higher education.
What elements or traits does a great leader exhibit?
There are several traits that a leader needs in order to succeed. These include: vulnerability, empathy, honesty, integrity and trustworthiness. I also believe that the best leaders grow over time by surrounding themselves with people who challenge them in order to help them grow. And the best leaders are unafraid of those kinds of challenges.
Are there any LGBTQ+ leaders in history you admire or look up to? Why?
Three leaders immediately come to mind whom I believe each represent a different aspect of my soul. The legendary tennis champion Billie Jean King is the first. I was a young athlete when she first came out as gay, and my goal at that time was to eventually become an NFL football coach. I found her courage very inspiring. Over time, in many ways, an interest in politics replaced my early interest in coaching, and so many of the elements of each are the same: the planning, the strategy, the competition. The civil rights icon Bayard Rustin, who helped organize during the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King, is the second leader I have always greatly admired. His commitment to civil rights and to organizing, and his bravery of leading at the time that he did I have always found incredibly inspiring. The third leader who comes to mind is Harvey Milk, the first openly gay official to be elected in California. He gave me the hope that I could have an impact and perhaps even get elected to office someday in Texas.
Are there any present-day LGBTQ+ leaders you admire or look up to? Why?
Yes. Very recently, members of the LGBTQ+ caucus in the Texas state legislature were successful in fighting back some of the strongest anti-trans legislation in the state’s history. They include: Jessica Gonzalez and Julie Johnson, among others. Additionally, two good friends of mine, Omar Narvaez is a current member of the Dallas City Council, and Joel Burns, a former Fort Worth City Councilman. Both are very inspiring to me. Right now, I do believe there’s reason for optimism even during these challenging times and despite what’s happening in state legislatures around the south. Nationwide in 2020, about 500 LGBTQ+ people were elected to serve as councilmembers, mayors, congressional representatives, governors, and even chosen as federal cabinet members.
What is it about your background or career experiences that successfully positioned you for your role at Noodle?
I’m a political animal and spent 9 years in D.C. lobbying, where politics is a daily occurrence. That experience and mindset help our team manage the politics of higher education and our university partnership more effectively. I have a project manager’s perspective, and bring it to bear in my role, as well. All those elements that run through a political campaign, also run through any large organization.
When former Texas Congressman Bill Archer retired from Congress in 2001, he developed the Bill Archer Fellowship, based at the University of Texas. The fellowship enables selected recipients to live in D.C. and serve an apprenticeship, and it’s what got me started in my career. I so appreciated that experience that I wanted to give back, so I ended up serving for 2 years as head of fundraising for the Bill Archer Center, then was elected president of the alumni organization for 3 annual terms – from 2014 through 2017. Now I continue to serve as a board member. The Center has even developed a Todd Hill Alumni Scholarship and an Endowment with the University of Texas.
How do you build momentum as a leader among diverse stakeholders at Noodle?
You have to start by establishing trust among the stakeholders. Even though you may have different perspectives, if there’s trust in working together, you’ll find you get to the end result together. You also have to measure expectations, as well as have patience. Timely and effective communication are also critically important.
Describe how your career has been enhanced by exposure to diverse people, places or experiences. Please provide a specific example.
I have had considerable exposure to diversity since attending Trinity High School in Euless, which is recognized as the most diverse high school in Texas. I’ve purposely done a lot of reading and listening to many diverse people, and it’s been a great learning experience. While in D.C., I was a co-captain of a Stonewall Kickball team. Our team, the “Ballbusters,” was the most diverse team in the league. It turned out to be one of the best leadership and growth experiences of my life.
What are some of the most effective tools in your leadership arsenal?
The ability to actively listen before commenting, then summarizing what I have heard to make sure that I fully understand. The question for any leader is “Did you hear it?”
I also never ask someone to do something that I’m not willing to do myself. I call it “getting in the foxhole.” Finally, a phrase I often use is “less talk and more action.” I’m an action-oriented person, so I don’t feel I need to convince anyone of what I’ve done. The result shows you what I’ve done.
Please provide an example of how you introduced an innovative idea or practice at Noodle.
I would frame this as more of a practice. Every Monday we begin the week with a Strategy and Planning (S&P) meeting. Through the pandemic and working remotely it added an additional challenge, so I have come to start each meeting with an “icebreaker.” I have found the practice of sharing and listening to each other to be helpful in building a team feeling. Icebreakers can range from asking what you did this weekend to asking what advice you would give to your 5-year-old self. I also end each meeting with an inspired reading or a video; the theme, often taken from current news stories or academic articles, is usually about something inspirational that somebody somewhere did or a leadership analysis.
Please tell us something about yourself that people would be surprised to learn.
One thing I think many would be surprised to learn is that at one point in my life, I weighed 325 lbs. After I came to terms with my sexuality at the age of nineteen, I decided that losing 175 lbs. would be my most important goal. I believed that if I could do that, I could do anything, and I did. Another thing that I think most would be surprised to learn about me is that I was appointed an honorary admiral of the Texas Navy and an Honorary Colonel of the Commonwealth of Kentucky as recognition for the policy work that I did in Washington, largely for my work in developing foreclosure prevention measures benefiting active-duty members and veterans of the U.S. military.