If you’re part of Chattanooga’s business community, there’s a good chance you know Diane Parks, the Chattanooga Chamber’s Director of Leadership & Community Development. Parks has directed the Leadership Chattanooga program for 21 years, helping countless local professionals discover and embrace their potential as they engage with our community at a deeper level. In retirement, Parks looks forward to more of her favorite things – beach time, family, travel and relaxation.
Here, we caught up with her on her best career moments and her significant impact on our entire region. And don’t worry – you’ll still see her around town.
Trend: Tell me about the jobs you have done in 43 years at the Chattanooga Chamber.
Parks: There have been a lot. Switchboard, then Communications. I started when I was 20, still taking night classes at Chattanooga State, and I didn't get married until June of that year. So I've actually worked at the Chamber longer than Steve and I have been married (the pair celebrated their 43rd anniversary last week).
I worked with Membership campaigns, beautification projects, Public Policy. I organized intercity visits where people from Chattanooga visited other cities to learn best practices. I probably managed 16 of those visits and they were a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.
I've worked in every department and done it all except for finance and running the place, though I was an assistant to the executive director at one time.
And I took over the Leadership Chattanooga program in 1999.
Trend: Ever think you’d be at the Chattanooga Chamber for this long?
Parks: I don't think I expected to stay here my whole career, but once I took over the Leadership program, I knew that was my calling. I knew that's where my passion was and what I wanted to do.
My daughter graduated from the program in 2015 and that was awesome to have her experience what I do every day. She loved the program and serves now on the Leadership Chattanooga Alumni Board (LCAA).
Trend: You have never lived anywhere but Chattanooga, right?
Parks: My husband and I have known each other since first grade and we didn't date until our senior year, but we're both from here. His mom is still here. Our families never moved; our parents never moved. I have one sister in Maryland who I wish I could see more of, but I never really thought about living anywhere else except maybe the beach. I have a lot of friends here and can't imagine leaving all those people.
Trend: What are your proudest career moments?
Parks: We’ve earned a lot of accolades for Leadership Chattanooga, but that's not because of me, that's because of all our great people – volunteers, graduates, speakers who believe in the program and have supported it all these years.
It's a joint effort with a great reputation in the community. And I'm proud I got to do this for 21 years. I've been the one who orchestrates and organizes everybody. I think it's the details that make a difference in the program and I’m good at that.
Many graduates have run for office because of Leadership Chattanooga as they see what the community needs. Others have moved up in their companies or to the C-suite. I think that's my proudest accomplishment – contributing to a program that helps people see their potential.
I still have members of the first class active with the Alumni Association, which helps people stay connected in the community.
Trend: What’s your favorite Leadership Chattanooga memory?
Parks: I have so many. Some of the fondest are of our retreats which kick off Leadership Chattanooga each year. You're learning about each other and learning about yourself.
Also, this started before me, but somehow Leadership is represented by peanut M&M's. If I don’t have some in a session I might as well just go home. We even had some on Zoom last week. Any time the classes are together, those are always fun times.
Trend: While you’ve done so much to bring speakers and mentors to your class members, I know that they also look to you as a mentor. What’s your best life advice?
Parks: Find something that you're passionate about and make it happen.
Trend: What’s something in your career that has surprised you?
Parks: Leading the Protégé YP program this year and listening to the mentors, I felt like they were talking to me.
Some of the things they said about when it's time to leave or move on even if you love your job − I felt like some of that I needed to hear. I love what I do, but after 43 years, it was time for me to do something different. You don't have to stay in the same place. My husband's been retired for 10 years, so I was ready to retire as well.
Hearing from the Protégé mentors myself made me so glad our young professionals have the opportunity to learn from them.
Trend: What are your fun retirement plans?
Parks: Not really having a plan – that’s my plan. I’d like to take a few months off. I have always said the first thing I’d do is declutter my house, but that doesn’t sound like fun. I would like for Steve and I to do some traveling when we can. Be home more, visit my sister in Maryland more.
And I'm not totally disappearing. I'll still attend Leadership alumni events, still be a member of Kiwanis and come to those meetings. I was raised by a mother who never sat still ever. And that’s ingrained in my head. I need to get over that and realize that I can be lazy if I want to lay on the couch and read a book.
Steve wants us to learn how to play pickleball. So whatever pickleball is, I guess we're going to learn.