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Leadership Pioneer Valley

New Initiative Strives to Identify and Develop Regional Leaders

Lora Wondolowski

Lora Wondolowski

Recognizing the need to identify and cultivate young leaders, area civic and economic development leaders have created an initiative called Leadership Pioneer Valley. As the name suggests, this is a regional program — covering Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties — crafted to take emerging and existing leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, immerse them in a program to build leadership skills and educate them on the Valley, and then provide them with opportunities to put what they’re learned to work. This is a program, said its recently appointed director, that will have benefits for participants and the region as a whole.

In 2004, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress, initially created a decade earlier, was overhauled, with 13 new strategic goals identified as “critical for growing the people, companies, and communities that grow the region.”
Lora Wondolowski is now working out of a small office just down the hall from PVPC Executive Director Timothy Brennan because of what’s known colloquially as Action Item 7: “Recruit and train a new generation of regional leaders.”
Indeed, Wondoloski, hired in April, is program director of an initiative known as Leadership Pioneer Valley, which operates with a simple core mission: “To identify, develop, and connect diverse leaders to strengthen the Pioneer Valley.” As she talked with BusinessWest about her new assignment, she conveyed the message that each word in that mission statement was chosen carefully, and it’s her job to sharply define each one.
That starts with ‘identify.’ Wondoloski is now in the process of recruiting the first class of 40 to 50 emerging and existing leaders (ages 25-45) from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors to participate. “These are mid-career professionals, people who have been identified as having potential for leadership within their own company or organization,” she explained, “or people who have gotten involved locally somehow; we’re not looking for recent college graduates, and we’re not looking for CEOs ready to retire next year. For employers, these are people they want to keep around, people they want to root in the community.”
‘Develop’ is the next key word in the mission statement, and it will be addressed through a 10-month curriculum (one day per month) that will include a balanced combination of retreats, day-long seminars, and small-group activity, and is still a work in progress, with several weeks remaining before the start of the first planned program in October.
Which brings us to ‘connect’ — once the leaders have been identified and developed, they will be connected to the communities in ways designed to utilize the skills and knowledge they have acquired to benefit the region and specific communities and agencies as program alumni — and ‘diverse.’ Wondoloski said those chosen will, as a group, accurately reflect this region’s changing demographics and, in the process, develop leaders from several different ethnic groups. But it will be diverse in other respects as well, including industry representation.
As for Pioneer Valley, this is a truly regional concept, involving all of Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties, she explained, which separates LPV, as it’s called, from some other leadership programs created in Springfield and Northampton. Meanwhile, one of the goals of the curriculum is to familiarize participants with the whole of the Valley and the specific challenges and assets of specific areas and communities.
“We want participants to get a deep understanding of the Valley and the communities that make up this region,” she explained. “A lot of people don’t leave their communities — people from Springfield don’t often get up to Franklin County, and vice versa; we want to get people out of their silos.”
For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Wondolowski to gain some perspective on Leadership Pioneer Valley, it’s goals and emerging strategies for meeting them, and the reasons why it has become the embodiment of Action Item 7.

A Leadership Position
Since starting her new assignment, Wondolowski, formerly the founding executive director of the Mass. League of Environmental Voters, has been working with a 27-member steering committee on several components of that aforementioned mission statement, from curriculum development to the multi-faceted task of recruitment.
For example, she was in attendance at BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty gala on June 23 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, meeting with several potential members of the first class of leaders. She’s also been finalizing the application form for those desiring to be members of the first class — it now appears on the recently launched Web site — and meeting with area business and civic leaders to gauge what they want and need to see result from this initiative.
The broad yet simple goal is developing leadership, she continued, adding that this has been identified as one of the more critical economic-development priorities in the region for some time. And to achieve that goal, the PVPC, the Community Foundation of Western Mass., and several area businesses are collaborating to create a program modeled after several local, regional, and national initiatives, said Wondolowski.
As examples, she cited a one-year pilot program created six years ago by the Northampton Chamber of Commerce and the United Way called Leadership County, an effort launched nearly 30 years ago called Leadership Greater Hartford — administrators there have served as consultants for LPV — and an initiative in the nation’s capital called Leadership Greater Washington.
LGW, as the Washington-area program is called, was created in 1986, put together by six area chambers of commerce and three economic-development-related organizations — the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, and the Junior League. The linchpin of the program is its so-called Effective Leadership Institute, which provides one-day-per-month coursework focusing on communication, team building, emotional intelligence, and diversity.
“We’re taking the lessons learned from Hampshire County and applying them to a region-wide leadership program, and the Hartford team has helped put together a business plan for us,” said Wondoloski. “We’re taking best practices from a number of different models.”
Hiring a director and assembling a steering committee were the first real steps in the process of getting LPV off the ground, said Wondolowski, adding that recruitment and curriculum development are the next matters in the to-do list, and there has been significant progress with both.
The recruiting process will be highly competitive, she told BusinessWest, adding that she expects the volume of applications to far exceed the number of seats in the classroom. But more important than the quantity of applicants is the quality, she went on, noting that is why she’s working hard to get the word out to individuals and constituencies like the 40 Under Forty Class of 2011 and those that preceded it, as well as the area’s young-professionals organizations.
Meanwhile, she’s reaching out to LPV sponsors, which include MassMutual, Baystate Health, PeoplesBank, United Bank, Westfield Bank, and others — who are each contributing $5,000 to $10,000 toward the program’s $257,000 annual budget — to help recruit candidates.
Diversity is also a key factor in finalization of the first class, she said, adding that there will be targets established for specific ethnic groups, and to reach them, organizers will reach out to groups like the Latino Chamber of Commerce and others like it that serve a specific constituency.

Course of Action
While recruitment work continues, Wondoloski and the steering committee are also finalizing the curriculum for the 10-month program, the cost of which will vary according to a sliding scale. For participants from large companies, the price tag will be roughly $2,500, while those from the smallest nonprofits will pay $850. Participants will be asked to contribute $300 themselves, and scholarships will be available.
Most of the components are in place, she told BusinessWest, adding that they include:
• A retreat, to be staged in September, which will focus on self-assessment of leadership skills, an introduction to the region, and selection of group projects;
• Challenge days, or day-long seminars, held monthly, that will focus on leadership skills and significant challenges facing the region such as education, sustainability, transportation, and the regional economy;
• Field experience in the shape of day-long workshops, also held monthly, at locations around the region to introduce participants to local leaders, the diversity of the region, and an area’s challenges, assets, and potential; and
• Leadership learning labs. Each class will work in small teams to devise strategies to address one of the themes or challenges identified in the PVPC’s Plan for Progress. The teams will have time to meet on training days, but will also meet independently between the monthly sessions.
The seminars will be held at venues across the region, said Wondoloski, listing the Springfield Museums, Greenfield Community College, and Yankee Candle as examples of potential sites chosen to connect participants with the businesses and institutions that shape the Valley.
Meanwhile, to provide what she called a 360-degree view of the region, the field experiences will be staged at locations chosen to broaden participants’ knowledge of the entire Valley. Details have not been finalized, she said, but there will likely be a Springfield Day; a Five College Day to familiarize the class with the Amherst-Northampton area; a day in Holyoke, Chicopee, and perhaps South Hadley to gain perspective on that area; and a Hilltowns and Franklin County Day.
The sum of these curriculum elements will provide participants with opportunities to refine their personal and public leadership skills, said Wondolowski, while also developing diverse contacts and an effective communication network, receiving recognition for themselves and their organization, and gaining opportunities for taking an active and effective role in addressing community needs.
In short, participants will be gaining and honing leadership skills, while also getting a comprehensive education in the region as a whole, but also its specific areas and communities — and then opportunities to apply what they’ve learned.
Looking down the road, Wondoloski said that some of the programs that LPV is modeled after have developed some measures for quantifying the success of their initiatives. These include everything from the percentage of participants gaining promotions in their firms to the number of nonprofit board seats filled by individuals who have taken part in the training regimens.
Ultimately, though, success will more likely be qualified, and the indicators will be quality of life, overall vibrancy, and greater diversity in the business sector, government, and other realms.

Class Act
Graduates of the LPV program will receive a certificate of some sort identifying them as a participant and perhaps some course credits, said Wondoloski, adding that these are some of the details still being worked out.
But they’ll get much more than a piece of paper, she told BusinessWest, adding that they’ll gain not only additional leadership skills, a new network, and a broad education on the Valley, but also, and more importantly, motivation and opportunities to put what they’ve learned to work.
In that respect, they will be helping to address Action Item 7, but also address the critical need for leadership across the region.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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