Taking a Leadership Role
When Lora Wondolowski became founding executive director of Leadership Pioneer Valley (LPV), it certainly wasn’t with the expectation that she would one day be hard at work planning 10-year anniversary celebrations.
Indeed, Wondolowski said it was more her style, her pattern, to launch organizations and programs, stabilize and build them, and then move onto something else, probably in four or five years, as she did with her previous assignment, as founding director of the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters and the Environmental Voters Education Fund in Boston.
“I’m someone who gets restless — who has trouble staying,” she said in reference to the many lines in the ‘work history’ section of her résumé. “My last two organizations, this one and the last one, were startups, and if I look at the trajectory of my career, a lot of the work I’ve done over the years is starting new programs or new organizations. I didn’t see myself able to sustain within an organization; I thought I’d get bored.”
Suffice it to say that, in this job, she hasn’t.
When asked why, she said there are several reasons, starting with the inspiration she gets from the graduates of LPV’s LEAP program and their success stories (a list that includes exactly half of BusinessWest’s eight Women of Impact for 2021 — more on that later).
But there is more to Wondolowski’s lengthy stay with LPV. Much more, as she explained.
“The work we do keeps changing and growing, and that’s because leadership is ever-changing; our curriculum is ever-changing,” she explained. There is a lot to keep me engaged and energized as I look for new opportunities for our organization.”
Over the past decade, Wondolowski has become a leader in her own right. She is currently serving on several boards, including those for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, and the Connecticut River Conservancy. Meanwhile, at LPV itself, she has managed and grown the organization, expanding its original mission in several different ways that have collectively made it an important addition to the region and its business community.
And, like those at the helm of virtually every business and nonprofit in the region, she has seen her leadership skills tested during COVID-19, a time of extreme challenge for LPV.
“There’s a difference between leadership in crisis, which it was in the beginning — you had to make quick decisions in a certain way — and then this sort of adaptive leadership, which we are now in, which is a lot about resilience and how to get people through change and things that are uncomfortable, because no one wants to do things differently.”
In the spring of 2020, the pandemic forced the agency to offer its programming remotely, make difficult but necessary staff cuts — Wondolowski was a one-person show (and on reduced time) for several months —and eventually take its graduation to a drive-through format similar to what was seen with area high schools.
In 2021, staffing is back to something approaching normal thanks in part to two rounds of PPP, programming has returned to the in-person format, and another class is working its way toward commencement next spring. But some companies are struggling to enroll employees in the program due to staffing constraints and other challenges, and ‘normal,’ as in what existed prior to COVID, is very much a moving target.
Meanwhile, COVID has also made its way into the curriculum. Sort of. Indeed, the pandemic and its side effects have put new emphasis on decision making, conflict resolution, and other matters that have prompted changes to some of the programs, Wondolowski said.
“There’s a difference between leadership in crisis, which it was in the beginning — you had to make quick decisions in a certain way — and then this sort of adaptive leadership, which we are now in, which is a lot about resilience and how to get people through change and things that are uncomfortable, because no one wants to do things differently,” she explained, adding that LPV changed up one of its sessions, from a hard focus on negotiation skills to one recalibrated to center on collaboration and conflict management — out of necessity and the times we’re in.
“I’m seeing more conflict,” she said. “I think some of it is dealing with people remotely, and the communication skills you need are different, and how people are approaching it is different.”
For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Wondolowski about LPV as it turns 10, but also about her own leadership role in the region and that notion that leadership is ever-changing and how this still relatively new addition to the local business landscape is helping its participants navigate these changes.
Following the Leader
On one wall of her office on the ninth floor of Harrison Place — space LPV is now sharing with Tech Foundry — Wondolowski has put photos of the agency’s graduating classes. A few of the most recent classes are missing, and there are Post-it notes where those images should be — gentle reminders to fill in that space on the wall.
Wondolowski has had a number of other matters on her mind besides those photos lately. Indeed, she has been steering the agency through the whitewater churned up by COVID while also planning for the long term for an agency created to meet a recognized need cited by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress: to create more programming to give people the skills and confidence they need to become leaders in the community.
Overall, there are now 327 alumni of the LEAP program, a number that is a source of pride in and of itself. But the accomplishments of those graduates and their continued upward movement in terms of success in business and involvement in the community are much bigger sources.
Among those alums are a number of elected officials, including Holyoke’s first Hispanic mayor, Joshua Garcia, class of 2016, who won that office just a month ago, as well as state Sen. Adam Gomez (class of 2018) and a number of city and town councilors and school-committee members across the region.
“There’s still so much more work to do. And that’s the thing I really appreciate about this organization; it allows me to be entrepreneurial and to try new things. Some things work and some things don’t, so we take small risks. Overall, the need for leadership keeps expanding.”
“We’ve had close to two dozen of our graduates run for office since 2017,” Wondolowski noted. “There are several on the City Council in Springfield and school-committee members up and down the Valley.”
There are also a number of business leaders and, therefore, individuals who have graced the pages of BusinessWest — especially, those issues announcing winners of its various awards. Indeed, a number of the 600 individuals possessing 40 Under Forty plaques are LPV alums, with some going through the program before they were honored by BusinessWest, and some after.
Meanwhile, as noted, four of this year’s Women of Impact — Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts; Charlene Elvers, director of the Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College; Madeline Landrau, Program Engagement manager at MassMutual; and Tracye Whitfield, Springfield city councilor and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer in West Springfield — are also alums.
The most important statistic is that 97% of the alums are still living and working in the Pioneer Valley, Wondolowski said, adding that keeping talent in the region — by getting people engaged in individual cities and towns and the 413 as a whole — was one of the motivating factors for creating LPV.
And the business plan for the organization is simple: to keep growing those numbers and inspiring more people to become leaders and get involved. It does this through a program that, at its core, connects its participants with the community to identify needs and, through the formation of ‘leadership learning lab groups,’ address those needs. In conjunction with local nonprofit partners, Wondolowski explained, teams have developed projects related to children, youth, community and economic development, arts and culture, anti-racism, and much more.
The experience creates a progress of self-discovery and growth, she went on, adding that LEAP participants return to their organizations with stronger relational and leadership skills that they also apply to the communities in which they live and work.
As for her, the decade she has spent at the helm of the agency has likewise been a process of self-discovery and growth.
“There’s still so much more work to do,” she said of LPV and its mission. “And that’s the thing I really appreciate about this organization; it allows me to be entrepreneurial and to try new things. Some things work and some things don’t, so we take small risks. Overall, the need for leadership keeps expanding.”
This need to be entrepreneurial and take small risks was exacerbated by — and in all ways impacted by — guiding LPV through COVID.
Wondolowski said the past 22 months have been a learning experience on all kinds of levels, but especially when it comes to decision making and confronting change on a massive scale.
“It’s been a real a roller coaster,” she said. “In the beginning, it was, ‘OK, we just have to do this,’ and we pulled our board together to make some tough decisions. In the early months, we were meeting very regularly, and in some ways it was hard … but it was in different ways than it is now because there was a sense of purpose, and knowing we were all coming together helped a lot.
“As it dragged on, and it waxes and wanes, there are some days when it can just be really overwhelming and hard,” she went on. “You get decision fatigue.”
These are the same challenges confronted by all business and nonprofit leaders over the past 22 months, she said, adding that COVID and its many side effects have brought changes to how and where work is done, and thus profound changes to the dynamic of the workplace.
And many of these changes are long-term, if not permanent.
“We’re not going to go back to fully in-person workplaces for a long time,” Wondolowski said, adding that many workers have been very productive at home, and many see little, if any, reason to return to the office. And a number of companies large and small see the logic in allowing remote work to continue.
But with this seismic shift comes changes in how people communicate — and how they must lead.
“There are all these questions about work culture and how you create a culture when people aren’t not all in the same place,” she said, adding that this represents just one of new frontiers, if you will, when it comes to managing in these compelling times.
“For our last class, we actually had a session on executive presence and focused a lot on how you communicate effectively virtually, and all the things about body language and how you frame yourself on the camera,” she told BusinessWest. “These are things you would never have thought about, and now you do.”
That’s just one example of how leadership is, as Wondolowski said earlier, ever-changing. And that’s one of many factors that has not only kept her in this job longer than she ever thought she would be in it, but kept her engaged and energized.
As she plans that 10th-anniversary commencement for next spring, she is also thinking about the many springs to follow and the future classes of LPV and what they will need to be impactful leaders in the community and in business.
Filling in those blanks, especially in the era of COVID and the profound changes it has brought to the landscape, is not easy. But if anything, Wondolowski has demonstrated that she not only grooms leaders — she has become one herself.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]