Conversation with Nicki Sanders and Lisette Engel, MPA, Community Advocate


Lisette Engel has had a passion for justice since youth. She is Montgomery County, MD native who strongly believes in the power of community engagement and allowing people to be engaged in policies and programming that impact them directly. While enrolled in a college course during her high school years, Lisette’s class was tasked with researching the conflict in the middle east. She was excited to have an idea and see it through to fruition as they planned a conference to showcase resolutions, this was Lisette’s first responsibility that entailed her doing something bigger than herself. 

In her current role as Director with National Crittenton, Lisette works on various issues impacting girls and young women of color including juvenile justice, foster care, and young motherhood on a national level. Previously, she served as Executive Director of The Dwelling Place, a nonprofit organization that provides housing and case management services to formerly homeless families. Lisette believes that her leadership journey began with the unwritten expectation that because of her gender she would be required to care for a home and a family. Like many girls, her upbringing prepared her for the role with tasks that involved organization and attention to detail. Lisette believes that society still has the expectation that women will lead internally and the idea of having a family and home looks the same for all women. It is these expectations and roles that make women natural leaders.

Lisette is a collaborative leader who recognizes that no one leads alone because you cannot lead without followers. She is grateful that others have put their trust in her leadership and always take the opportunity to give space for others to be seen and heard. Lisette’s leadership superpower is her big picture or forward thinking. Lisette looks at scenarios proactively and preventively. She believes in shared vision. She takes pride in considering how decisions will impact others immediately and, in the future, even if it takes a bit longer to reach a conclusion. Lisette takes the time to consider all the pieces of the puzzle and hear from those intimately involved. As a leader she understands that her role requires her to set limits and manage conversations instead of closing others out of the process.

What Lisette loves most about being a leader is that she can open doors for others. She can follow her passion and create opportunities for those who have traditionally been ignored to speak up and speak out. She is a strong proponent of healthy communication and creating space for growth. Lisette’s collective leadership approach has led to conversations that foster camaraderie, growth, and trust. It is important to her to get to know people’s interests, skills, and limitations and create a safe and nurturing work culture. One positive thing Lisette has learned from a bad leader is that you must consider your team/colleagues and not just yourself and that you must be relatable. She understands that leaders must establish authority and set boundaries but that it is essential to communicate with and get to know your staff individually in all their diversity. 

One thing that Lisette wishes she had known before becoming a leader is that it is OK to make mistakes. Admitting to mistakes requires a level of trust and transparency that can be uncomfortable but that humanizes leaders and allows others to connect with them. Like many other women in leadership, Lisette admits that she holds herself to a dangerously high standard – a standard that she may not hold others to. She believes that because of our upbringing and the unwritten rules for women, society expects that we are organized, detailed, and keep it all together.

These high standards and expectations can also lead to self-doubt. Imposter syndrome is a powerful force and will cause one to question whether they belong in the lead. 

Many women in leadership question if they really belong at the top and Lisette is no exception. Even when she has done an amazing job, she often second guesses herself. What she has learned to do is talk through the emotions either by herself or with someone she trusts. Lisette is a life-long learner who has also always done a lot of community work outside of her regular jobs. This not only allows her to positively impact her community, but also to prove to herself that she can achieve and perform on her own merit. Lisette has found it much easier to lead in formal environments with titles, structure, and clear expectations than in informal settings where one must work harder to prove herself or validate her ideas. This is also a common notion among women in leadership.

Lisette’s advice to women leaders is to talk through imposter syndrome, don’t be afraid to acknowledge fear that creeps in on your journey to your next level, and never to dismiss opportunities because you feel fear or feel that you don’t belong. It takes some people longer to learn or obtain things and that should be accepted and not used to distance or shame. She also wants women to be patient and encouraging with themselves and other women because our journeys are different. 

Self-care is individual and doesn’t have to involve spending money. Lisette’s mantra for self-care is to practice what you preach. She wants to remind women to take the advice they would give to other women or even the advice they would give to their daughter. Self-care to Lisette looks like taking time for herself, setting healthy boundaries, and being a genuine leader. Lisette has learned it is best to pay attention to the physical signs your body sends and avoid exhaustion. She encourages women to take a mental health day or paid time off as needed. A good support system and role models are also a part of a solid self-care plan. She is learning not to feel guilty when she takes the time off that she needs because she is surrounded by other women who value themselves and their team and who lift each other up. She believes that everyone is entitled to self-care. As Lisette works on behalf of other women and girls who may not have jobs that offer paid time off, she is more intentional about taking the time off she needs so that she can continue to advocate on their behalf. 

What Lisette aspires to is that someone who looks like her or who has had similar experiences as she has had would be able to look to her and come to her for help. She has never let circumstances define her or her life with her children. Lisette started and maintains her blog to encourage and support others on their path. Her transparency in her writing has double benefits – (1) she reminds herself that she is a work in progress, and, (2) she shows others that she is a real/regular person. 

Lisette’s favorite place for gluten free cupcakes has closed. She is on the hunt for a new bakery.

Lisette serves on the Montgomery County Community Action Board as an Executive Committee member and on the Board of Directors for The Dwelling Place. She earned her Master’s in Public Administration from the University of Baltimore and lives in Montgomery County with her two children, husband, and four fur babies.

Nicki Sanders, MSW, CEO, is a travel and cupcake lover with an aptitude for authentic connection and career acceleration. She has an extensive background in developing and managing successful programs and leading high-functioning multi-disciplinary teams. She is an accomplished professor, coach, trainer, and group facilitator who has merged her Master of Social Work degree and over 20 years of diverse work experience into a thriving business.  Nicki Sanders Leadership Consulting helps businesses recruit and retain the best employees and helps women in mid-level management Get Promoted to the job of their dreams.  

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