Cover Story

LPV Refines Its Mission to Identify, Develop, and Connect Leaders

Confidence Builders

LPV Executive Director Lora Wondolowski

LPV Executive Director Lora Wondolowski

Created in response to the impending retirement of the Baby Boomer generation and the leadership void this will create, Leadership Pioneer Valley continues to refine and build upon its multi-faceted mission to groom the next generation of leaders.

Lora Wondolowski says she and her staff at Leadership Pioneer Valley do a lot of measuring.

That’s a broad term she used to describe a number of steps aimed at quantifying the overall impact of this program, now in its fifth year, a key milestone in many respects.

For example, LPV, as it’s known, likes to chart the progress of its graduates, she said, adding that some of the statistics are eye-opening. For example, a good percentage of program participants had received promotions, raises, or both within a few years of graduating. Meanwhile, roughly a third had moved on to new and better jobs with greater responsibility by the time they were polled. Also, 60% had joined a new board as a director, and 80% described themselves as more inclusive when it comes to their leadership style.

But there are other intriguing numbers to chew on, said Wondolowski, the organization’s director since it was conceived, and they speak loudly about what LPV is all about.

“When we ask people about their impression of Springfield at the beginning of our ‘Springfield Day,’ there’s usually about 20% to 30% who have a negative view of the city,” she explained while referring to one specific day of programming in LPV’s 10-month regimen. “And when we ask them at the end of the day … every year, it’s been positive, with no negatives.

I had personal confidence, but I didn’t have confidence that the peers around me had confidence in me. I loved what I was doing and had conviction — maybe that’s a better word to use — but I didn’t have confidence that the people who were senior to me believed in me.”

“And it’s the same with Holyoke and Franklin County,” she went on, adding that LPV also has programs focusing on those areas. “And that’s because there are a lot of perceptions out there, and we want people to look at these places with clear eyes. We don’t want to paper over the challenges, and we don’t, but we want participants to get past the stereotypes and what they think they know.”

Those specific words are not in the LPV mission statement, but they certainly go a long way toward explaining why the program was created and why those who conceived it are even more convinced of the need for it five years later.

The aforementioned numbers clearly show the program’s effectiveness in providing a clearer focus for its participants, and thus greater awareness of the region, its assets, problems, and potential.

Katie Stebbins

Katie Stebbins says she took part in LPV because, while she had confidence in herself, she wasn’t sure other people did.

But the numbers don’t really tell the whole story, or tell it as effectively as words can, and for evidence of that, one need only listen to Katie Stebbins.

A member of LPV’s first class, she is the assistant secretary of innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship for the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development. That means she’s definitely among those who moved on to a new job, a new title, and a larger number on the paycheck since graduating from the program.

But she was already, in many respects, already a leader when, after working for several years in Springfield’s Economic Development Department, she hung out her own shingle as a consultant. At the time, she told BusinessWest, she didn’t exactly lack confidence, but instead lacked a certain type of it.

“I had personal confidence, but I didn’t have confidence that the peers around me had confidence in me,” she explained. “I loved what I was doing and had conviction — maybe that’s a better word to use — but I didn’t have confidence that the people who were senior to me believed in me; I didn’t necessarily have confidence that I could take that conviction and bring lots of other people along with me.”

To make a long story short, LPV became a way to first test her theory — that she was actually better at getting people to follow than she thought — and then eventually rid herself of such doubts. Both were essentially accomplished through that rugged, 10-month program (one meeting per month) designed to inform, educate, inspire, create connections, and, yes, build confidence.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at LPV as it reaches the five-year milestone, and at what lies ahead for this important addition to the region’s business landscape.

Lead-certified

Looking back, Stebbins recalls that 2012 was a watershed year for her in many respects.

In addition to taking on LPV’s program, she was accepted into Valley Venture Mentors, started homeschooling her children, launched a civic technology startup called BYO Family, and even started playing on a local roller-derby team.

You can’t really do any of that, let alone all of it, without a good amount of confidence, she acknowledged, adding quickly, and again, that in many respects she needed more of that invaluable commodity, and more affirmation that she had the ability to lead and get others to follow. And she credits the experience for helping her get where she is, with the seal of the state on her business card.

“It was really gratifying to hear people I didn’t know before say things like, ‘you’ve got leadership skills,’ ‘we believe in you,’ and ‘you’re going to go a long way,’” she explained. “It put extra wind in my sails, and it really energized me.”

In a nutshell, this is essentially what LPV was created to do.

Officially, the program was action item 7 in an update of the region’s Plan for Progress, first drafted by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC)  more than two decades ago and revised several times since to reflect changes and new priorities.

Specifically, LPV, which at first was part of the PVPC and is now a standalone nonprofit, was conceived as a response to the overwhelming numbers of Baby Boomers who would be retiring over the next several years and the need to fill the resulting leadership void.

The term ‘silver tsunami’ has come into vogue to describe this phenomenon and the overall aging of the population, and Wondoloski drove home the point that the issue is real and must be addressed.

“The rate of retirement is increasing each year, and that’s going to mean huge turnover at our companies, both at the leadership level and also on our boards of directors,” she explained, adding that, in some rural areas, the average age of the citizenship is at or near retirement age, presenting huge leadership voids.

Looking back on LPV’s first year and what’s transpired since, Wondolowski said that first class was somewhat older than those that have followed, probably because the concept was new and many established business owners and managers wanted to take advantage of an opportunity.

Today, the program is attracting a younger audience — most are now closer to 30 — and a growing number of entrepreneurs, a reflection of this region’s ongoing efforts to promote entrepreneurship and mentor startups.

The classes are also becoming more diverse geographically, and this is another positive development, said Wondolowski, noting that, in the beginning, individuals from Hampden County dominated the ranks, but in recent years, more rural areas, and especially Franklin County, have sent more representatives. This is critical, she noted, because the populations of such areas is aging at an even more pronounced pace as Millennials choose to locate in cities, leaving communities like Greenfield with a strong need for young leaders.

While the makeup of the classes has changed somewhat over the years, the curriculum, if you will, has been more of a constant. It was constructed with three main goals in mind, said Wondolowski, citing LPV’s mission — “to identify, develop, and connect diverse leaders to strengthen the Valley.” These deliverables, if you will, are:

• Increasing participants’ leadership skills through exercises involving everything from cultural competency to communication and critical thinking;

• Increasing participants’ networks, both within their own class and also through programs in and on various cities and regions; and

• Increasing their understanding of the Valley through these programs, which educate participants about the challenges and opportunities facing these geographic areas.

LPV, which has a current tuition of $3,500 with assistance available to those who need it,  accomplishes these goals through a series of monthly programs, including several ‘challenge days’ and ‘field experiences’ staged across the region. The 2016-17 slate is reflective of what’s been done since the beginning.

There will be an opening overnight retreat this coming weekend at the Berkshire Outdoor Center in Becket, followed by the first challenge day, with a focus on collaborative leadership, on Oct. 21. A second challenge day, this one centered on ‘inclusive leadership,’ is set for Nov. 18 at a still-to-be-determined site in Franklin County.

The first field experience, a concentrated program aimed to educate participants about a given region or city, is set for Dec. 16, and will focus on Hampshire County and the Five College area. Others will center on Springfield (Jan. 20), Holyoke and Chicopee (March 17), and Franklin County (April 28).

Other challenge days are slated for Feb. 10, with ‘creativity’ as the theme, and May 19 (‘skilled negotiations’).

Progress Report

As she talked about this milestone year for LPV, Wondolowski said that, in many ways, the organization was at a type of crossroads.

By this, she meant this was a time to revisit the mission, undertake some strategic planning, and devise a blueprint for the organization moving forward. And, in many respects, this work is already underway.

The focus will be on broadening its overall impact and tailoring programs to meet the many challenges facing young professionals, the region, individual communities, and the workplace of today and tomorrow.

As one example, Wondolowski noted, with MGM and rail car builder CRRC MA, and potentially other large employers, coming to the region over the next few years, there will be dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of younger professionals and managers who will need to familiarized with this region and, more importantly, encouraged to be active within it. LPV can, and hopefully will, take a lead role in such efforts.

“There are lots of new executives coming into the area; how do we orient them to what this region has to offer and make sure that they’re connected in with other leaders?” she asked, adding that LPV will work to answer that question. “We have so many who come here for a few years and then leave because they never got connected to the community.”

Meanwhile, there are four generations still active in the workplace (although the so-called Silent Generation is certainly aging out) and a fifth, known as Gen Z or the ‘Boomlets’ (those born after 2000), will be making their presence known within the workforce.

Each of these generations has its own needs, its own character, and even its own nickname, said Wandolowski, noting that hers, Gen X (born 1965-1980), is unaffectionately known as the ‘slacker generation’. And coexistence in the workplace is an issue for virtually every business in the region and a challenge LPV can help address.

“One of the things we’re really interested in at LPV is the new workplace and what it looks like — and it’s not just about Millennials,” she said, acknowledging that many business owners and managers are hard-focused on that group. “It’s about technology, increasing diversity in the workplace, the multiple generations; there are many forces shaping our future workforce and workplaces.”

As part of this focus on generations, LPV will be sharpening its focus on providing assistance to leaders at all stages of their career, she explained, meaning the programming will be appropriate for people of all ages, and, in many respects, always has been.

Meanwhile, it will work to continually increase diversity within its own classes, geographically and otherwise, in an effort to bring more perspectives to the issues confronting the business community and the region.

“If we’re going to solve complex problems, we’re need people with different mindsets coming at things from different directions,” she explained. “We tend to stay in our silos — if you’re a nonprofit person, you tend to reach out to nonprofit folks, and the same in the public sector. We’re really seeing cross-pollination, or interconnectedness, among our graduates, and we’ll need more of that moving forward.”

Leading by Example

Among those who have been accepted into LPV’s class of 2017 is West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt, who was actually turned down when he first applied four years ago.

West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt

West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt, seen here with the city’s terrier mascot for his BusinessWest 40 Under Forty picture, will be among LPV’s class of 2017.

That’s when he was in law school and working part-time, he told BusinessWest, adding that he applied to be part of that first class because he wanted to make connections, learn something, and share what he knew.

He believes this time in his life and career actually works better, because he knows more, can share more, needs to make more connections, and still has a lot to learn about this region and the many aspects of leadership.

“Now that I’ve had more leadership experience, I can speak more from what I’ve done,” he explained. “I thought working with other people from the Valley now would be even more beneficial; I can share a lot, but I can also learn a lot, and I’m looking forward to doing both.”

Such words, as much as those numbers mentioned earlier, explain why LPV has already become a force in the region, and why it will be even more so moving forward.

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

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