The first time Rich Levy, director of Inprint, moved to Houston it was to teach high school. But he quit after two weeks. Teaching wasn’t his calling, he realized. A year later his wife wanted to go to law school, so they moved back to Iowa. After receiving her degree, she was recruited by a law firm in Houston, so back they came to Texas. “Which, was kind of by design,” Levy says. “We liked Houston. We thought it was weird, sort of ugly, but really diverse, great restaurants, interesting culture.” It was more than just the bad roads and breakfast tacos driving Levy back to Houston, though. “It felt like things were happening here. And it was accessible,” he says. On this second go-around moving to Houston, Levy got a job working at the University of Houston as an editor at the Office of Publications. “I ended up writing propaganda for the university president, magazines and recruiting brochures,” he says. Three years later, Levy and his wife had adopted two children and decided they wanted to be closer to their families in the Midwest, so Levy took a job as Director of Communications at a small college outside Iowa City. Here he had his first true managerial position, overseeing a staff of half a dozen employees. He says he loved the job but his wife had difficulty finding work as a lawyer in Iowa, so they moved back to Houston in 1995. One night, not long after their third move to Houston, Levy found himself unemployed at a reading at Brazo’s Bookstore when he ran into Bob Phillips, director of the UH Creative Writing Program. The two knew each other from Levy’s time at UH, so when he told Phillips he didn’t have a job, Phillips said, “Inprint needs some help.” Levy said, “What’s Inprint?” And 20 years later he’s still with the organization.
Inprint started as a nonprofit in 1983, but it was all volunteer-run until 1991. According to Levy, the first 8 years the board members just met at each other’s houses. “It was pretty much a group effort that grew out of Brazo’s Bookstore,” Levy says. Some of the main founders of Inprint were the owner of Brazo’s, a local psychiatrist, and a photographer who were all big readers. The group decided to form the organization in order to support the UH Creative Writing Program when their good friends Donald Barthelme and Cynthia McDonald, former directors of the UH Writing Program said, according to Levy, “Gee, our students could really use some support.”
In 1991 an alum of the University of Houston, who had started a successful computer company was donating large sums of money to the university and a member of Inprint’s board took this as an opportunity ask for some support. The donor offered to start a $1 million endowment for Inprint, which would pay for student fellowships into the future. The Inprint board was savvy though, and went back to the donor and asked for $50,000 more for three years to establish a staff. Inprint hired Rich Levy as their first director not long after. At the time Inprint’s budget was $180,000. Today it is $1.2 million, with five full-time staff members and one half-time employee.
Why I Chose to Interview Rich Levy:
Rich Levy is an eminent member of Houston’s literary arts scene and in fact, I feel that you wouldn’t be wrong to call him its center. When considering which Houston arts leader to interview for this project, I was drawn to Levy because of the easy-going aura he projects, his organization’s undeniable success and my own interest in literary nonprofit organizations.
I see this easy-going aura manifested in the empathy of his leadership style, which relies on team building and empowerment rather than systems of control. I believe his approach to leadership has been invaluable to sustaining Inprint’s success and stability, minimizing staff turnover and disruptions. Interviewing Levy helped affirm many of my own feelings and beliefs about the attributes of a good leader and how I might cultivate these qualities.
What were some early influences?
I got into the whole writing thing pretty young. I’m convinced that we do these things for various reasons and as a kid I did it because I was really bad at sports. Totally uncoordinated. But I could hold an audience. I could play baseball but I’d have to play a position where I could just say rude things to people. Or make people laugh and drop the ball. As a part time clown, I started writing because I wasn’t going to get the girls in my exploits as an athlete, but if I could give them a poem then maybe…
And then my parents moved when I was a senior in high school and I was grumpy and you know when you feel persecuted you feel you have a cause. Then I decided, “Well I’m going to go write some poems.”
The poets who really got me writing in college were Frank O’Hara and William Stafford. Then I went to college in Iowa, partly because we lived in Iowa when I was in high school and partly because I thought I wanted to be a writer and I knew about this famous writer’s workshop they had. So I brought my poems up there when I was a freshman and said, “How do I apply for the writer’s workshop?” and the woman who worked there laughed and said, “Oh sweetie, you’ve got to finish your B.A. first and then you can come back and apply.” But it turned out that was a good thing because as I went there as an undergrad I could take workshops with different writers, like fiction workshop with T.C. Boyle when I was a freshman, I didn’t know a damned thing about it, he was a grad student at the time. I started taking poetry classes and decided that was what I wanted to do. I was clearly not very good as a fiction writer, but at least with poetry I could hit a good line every now and then. I started taking a class with Chase Twichell, Tony Hoagland and Kimiko Hahn.
I graduated and I felt I needed to stay away from Iowa City, so I applied to grad schools elsewhere. I got into Columbia and dropped out after the second week because it was so expensive. So I went to grad school at Iowa. Luckily, I got in. I didn’t know how lucky I was.
How do you think your parents have influenced your leadership style?
My parents were very diligent and extremely responsible people. They never took many risks and lived fairly conservative in lives. I was kind of an annoyance to them because I was unconventional. I liked to take risks. It’s hard to say what effect they had on my leadership style because when I was young I had no aspirations to lead. However, one thing I learned from parents, which serves me today is how to treat people. By seeing my parents treat people fairly and affectionately I always felt there was a great stability in my home. I feel, in some ways, I try to bring this to Inprint.
My parents were 2nd generation immigrants from Russia and Poland, so when we moved into our own house in the suburbs it was a big deal. My mom worked part time as bookkeeper accountant for small firms. My dad was a mechanical engineer at Zenith radio. He was a perfectionist. I inherited vague OCD habits from him, which is not good when you’re in charge of people. In reaction to that I’ve developed a hands-off leadership style. To their credit, my parents never hovered over me and so I don’t hover. In fact, I try to leave my team alone as much as possible.
Were you in leadership roles when you were younger?
I was president of my temple youth group, basically because nobody else wanted to do it. At my elementary school in Chicago we had officers of our grades in 7th and 8th grade. We had a mayor and vice mayor, and then different commissioners. I was the commissioner of beautification. I won that office handily. I coordinated the creation of anti-littering posters and put them up around the school.
Early management lessons you learned?
I had worked in places I really hated. I worked at the accounting firm Arthur Anderson for a few years, where I was an editor/proofreader and I clearly knew that I hated that world, and I hated that environment. They were clock watchers who told me I shouldn’t loosen my tie, they told me my handwriting was too big, too many New Yorker cartoons taped on my desk. They wanted me to be an accountant. When I got into a management position, I knew I wanted to give people autonomy. You hire people who are responsible and have a sense of ownership. Then you empower them and good things happen. You don’t hover over them, and watch the clock, or admonish them about their clothes and decorating skills.
I’m very collaborative. I’d rather work with people than work above them. I’m not so interested in directing them as I am establishing a team where everybody has a role and we are all instrumental to the success of the team. To me, at least for what we do, that’s much more effective.
There are certain decisions where someone just has to do it, and I will perform those. And there are hiring and firing decisions, where we make decisions collectively, but in the end I make the final decision. I’m hired by and report to the board, whereas everyone else at Inprint reports to me. But I think the less authoritarian you are the more productive and happy your employees can be.
How do you get the best out of your staff?
We give each other feedback and things improve because of that. For example, when we’re writing something, say applying for a grant, asking for money, or writing a brochure, we pass it around. It makes it better. Everyone has different inputs and comes at it from a slightly different perspective. Some people on the staff are really good proof-readers. Some of us are not. You just have to know your strengths. I really feel things get better when people can truly collaborate.
We’re really fortunate because the majority of our staff has been here over 14 years. We haven’t had a lot of turnover and I think generally people are happy. Every now and then, like lately, it can be a little overwhelming because there’s just a lot to attend to and take care of.
How do you find time to balance your work life and creative life?
For years when I was younger I would be depressed about not having enough time to write. Then we had kids, which meant that your write in the middle of the night. I realized that one of the reasons I became a poet is I don’t want to sit by myself for hours and hours at a time working on a book. It sounds dreary. You know, I can work on a poem for a while, but then I need to go out and have some interaction with people. I actually find that for me the creative mix of poetry and work life is not bad. I’m not as productive as some poets and I probably won’t ever be as productive, and who knows what that means. But here I am. And that seems okay. That probably isn’t a terribly inspiring answer. I think some writers need to separate themselves from the world in order to do their work. But I like to be in the world. I draw energy and inspiration from my interactions with people and just being in the world. I don’t want to be separated from it, I want to be in it. And then I want to sit down somewhere for a little while and scribble.
What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?
I don’t really have any. Not really. I mean, I can only speak from my own experience and I just got into this because I thought, “Well, it’s about creative writing, I’m a writer and for a change, instead of just being a paper pusher somewhere, I’m going to look in the field I would really like to work in.” I took a cut in pay, but I had a lot of freedom to do what I wanted. It was very entrepreneurial; we started a lot of programs. Some programs went on for a short while and other are still going. You get to know people in the community, and I just took people out to lunch and proposed programs and found financial backing for them. I think Houston is a nice community in that regard. I’ve heard in NY it’s not that way, it’s much more competitive and cutthroat. I’ve heard in other cities there isn’t the same friendly environment for collaboration. Houston has a more entrepreneurial, frontier, wildcat personality.
After 20 years at Inprint do you have a succession plan in place?
No not really. I never thought I would stay here this long, but as long as it feels good I won’t be thinking about what’s next. Along the way I’ve applied for two other things. One was after the first year because I wasn’t terribly happy, but the board convinced me to stay. A few years ago, I applied for something that would have taken me out of Houston. I was a finalist, but I didn’t get it, which is just as well I think. I just did it to see what would happen. I wasn’t really looking to make a change.
I feel bad for the generation starting out today. Opportunities are much more limited in many ways. I think it’s a raw deal.
What are you looking forward to?
For me, there are certain things which happen every year, like coordinating the lineup for the reading series, which are always anxiety provoking. We started the reading series Cool Brains! which is really taking off. For the series we try to target kids 8-12 because they’re reading on their own. We tried children’s book writers and young adult writers, but the sweet spot for us is about 3rd grade to 7th grade because they’re starting to read on their own, but by the time they get to middle school they don’t want to go anywhere with their parents. These are the things that grew slowly.
I would like to grow our memoir workshop for seniors. I think we should be at a lot more senior centers. We started a new one and people have been inquiring. That’s dependent on finding funding underwriters, people or organizations who will help pay for it, and also we want to have it at places where the staff is really tuned into the benefits the program has then it can really flourish, but if the staff is not on-board then we’re not going to be successful.
Right now there are a couple of restrictions on expanding our writing workshops. Currently, we run about all we can handle out of our current offices. Plus we want to make sure that we have good instructors and that we can limit enrollment to 12 in a workshop. So, if we move, which I think we will, we’re going to move to a space with a dedicated room for workshops. People love them, there’s such a demand.
I’m skeptical whether Inprint could work in a place where there’s a great writing program, but not much of a community that would support it. We have a very nice situation here and it just sort of happened that all the pieces were in place. We’ve got a great writing program at UH, we’ve got a very philanthropic community with personal wealth in the city, and we’ve got a great independent bookstore in Brazo’s. All of this works in Inprint’s favor.
I’m convinced that much of Rich Levy’s leadership style comes from his early misadventures in sports. Today this seems to be reflected in the team atmosphere he cultivates at Inprint. At the organization each staff member has their own role, but work together in a collaborative setting in which they, as Sir Ken Robinson says in his book Out of Our Minds, “benefit from the stimulation of each other’s expertise.” Levy seems to understand his staff’s strengths and allows them to swing for the fences without micromanaging his team.
It was interesting to hear Levy relate this hands-off approach to his parents. The word “annoyance” came up twice in Levy’s description of his relationship with his parents, and he seems to have been a little out-of-step with their conservative immigrant world view. However, it is also apparent that they gave him the freedom to be himself by not hovering over him, and this has had a profound impact on his lenient leadership style. Additionally, his observations regarding his parent’s fairness and affection seem to have had positive impacts on his latent leadership abilities. These are invaluable traits, which inspire loyalty and stability in staff, by reinforcing staff members inherent value and humanity.
The importance of encouraging empathy and humanity in the workplace seems to have been driven home for Levy during his time working in the corporate sector. This experience appears to have clearly codified what he does not want in a workplace and what steps should be taken to avoid this atmosphere. Sometimes we don’t know what we want until we are confronted by what we don’t want, and Levy’s leadership style has been most sharply honed by his experience toiling under a mechanistic management system. He felt the style pared away his nature in order to optimize time and resources. As Robinson says, “human organizations are not like mechanisms: they are much more like organisms.” A healthy organization, like Inprint, is an organism in which each aspect of the whole is working together, not separately, in collaboration for the benefit of organizations survival. Ultimately, final decisions on important practices at Inprint will need to be made by Levy alone, but he does an admirable job empowering his staff and listening to their voices.
Despite the many positive indicators of Inprint’s health under Levy’s direction, there are a few areas of concern related to the length of his tenure and the lack of a succession plan. Inprint has reached the level of maturity in its organizational cycle but this kind of stability can have negative results if the organization becomes too set in its ways and not reactive enough to changes in the literary landscape. Symptoms of this inertia aren’t apparent presently but it is something to keep an eye on. Additionally, a lack of a clear succession plan is always troubling, but especially so for organizations with directors in their 60’s and up. Thankfully, so far Inprint seems to be making good decisions about what new programming it offers while staying in-tune with its core audience and Levy seems to be vitally engaged in the organizations continued success.
Looking back at Levy’s personal journey, the importance of fit becomes clear. Levy didn’t fit in with the conservative immigrant Iowan ideals of his parents and he didn’t fit into the corporate world of Arthur Andersen. He was perceptive enough to see this early and find his fit at Inprint and in Houston the ugly, weird, wildcat city, which kept drawing Levy from Iowa. It’s this spirit and the ability to recognize it that has allowed both Inprint and Levy to thrive in the city. There isn’t a model for what Inprint does, and that’s why we don’t see more organizations like it across the country. Inprint found a footing in Houston among the burgeoning UH Creative Writing Program and energy money largesse, and Levy found his fit at Inprint, where his stewardship has allowed the organization to thrive. “I draw energy and inspiration from my interactions with people and just being in the world. I don’t want to be separated from it, I want to be in it,” Levy says of his creative work, but he could just as well be talking about the work he does with Inprint and for the city of Houston.