Elisabeth Buck will tell you she is nothing without the people around her.

Whether it’s reaching a goal with co-workers or serving fellow Iowans, Buck said she finds the most success and satisfaction in seeing the accomplishments of a group of individuals working together. 

Those who know her best agree.

“(Buck) is a collaborative leader who never takes credit for the many outstanding initiatives she has helped develop or lead,” said Mary Bontrager, executive vice president of workforce development and education at the Greater Des Moines Partnership. “While she is fully capable of making a decision or determining the direction of a project, she ensures the group (she’s working with) owns the decision. It is always ‘we,’ not ‘I.’ ” 

Before taking her current job at United Way, Buck spent many years in the public sector. In the early 1990s she worked in Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell’s office. In 1999 she was appointed deputy chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, working with a team to redefine the office to accommodate the first Democratic governor in 30 years.

In her next role as executive director of Iowa Workforce Development, Buck faced perhaps the greatest challenge of all, leading the organization through a national recession when unemployment rates skyrocketed and many Iowans found themselves without jobs or lacking education to find new ones.

As a child, Buck grew up in a home with creative parents who taught her to judge no one. It’s a philosophy she’s carried with her through her work in the public service realm and into her role with United Way. She also stresses the importance of both meeting and hearing the stories of the people she serves.

“To listen and learn is most important,” she said. “I don’t have all the answers.”

Buck volunteers her time with organizations that make a difference in the community — specifically, with those focused on poverty reduction. 

“We’re fortunate to live in a community with such great wealth, but if you look at the data, our poverty rates are growing,” she said. “It’s a weird juxtaposition. We get all these awards, we have all this opportunity, but it’s not given to all in our community. I put my efforts into not just improving those lives, but elevating them out of poverty.”

Buck said her accomplishments come less from a desire to lead and more from the enjoyment that comes from finding solutions and better ways to look at and address problems — and always with a team of others at her side. 

“Everywhere I’ve worked, I know everyone, from the governor to the custodian, because his role is important, too,” Buck said. “The company could not be as successful as it is without that custodian.”

Three areas of influence

As chief community impact officer for United Way of Central Iowa, Buck leads the nonprofit and its partners in a joint effort to improve area education, income and health.

As director of Iowa Workforce Development, she implemented a new system to connect unemployed workers with education or employment at the height of the recent recession.

Working in the offices of the Iowa attorney general and Gov. Tom Vilsack, Buck led initiatives on domestic violence, child support recovery and early childhood empowerment zones.