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Professional Development

Professional Development

Jennifer Law

Jennifer Law says the class in effective business writing has been a benefit to employees across the O’Connell Companies.

Jennifer Law recalls that, when she scheduled a course in effective writing for employees at the O’Connell Companies, there was some skepticism and a few moans and groans.

“I think many of them went into this thinking, ‘this is going to suck,’ or ‘I have to sit through this for a day,’” she said, adding that, as the course unfolded, and certainly when it was over, the responses were much different.

“They were all very thankful, and we got some great emails on how much they learned and how much they enjoyed the class,” said Law, controller for the company, adding that many of these emails were certainly better-written than those in the weeks, months, and years before this class, which was titled “Business Writing Excellence.”

And that was the point of the exercise.

Indeed, Law, who remembers emails and other correspondences being red-inked (literally) by a supervisor at a previous employer who spent years as a teacher, said she certainly became a better, more effective communicator because of those experiences.

“I learned so much from his doing that; it got ingrained in my brain,” she explained. “And when I read something from someone else that’s not right, that’s bouncing back and forth from tense to tense, isn’t cohesive, that doesn’t answer all the questions — that frustrates me.”

Enough for her schedule “Business Writing Excellence,” offered by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE), last summer. The class drew 20 employees from all levels of the company, including Matt Flink, president of Appleton Corp., one of the O’Connell Companies, as well as accountants, site managers, and others.

“When I read something from someone else that’s not right, that’s bouncing back and forth from tense to tense, isn’t cohesive, that doesn’t answer all the questions — that frustrates me.”

The common denominator was that each wanted to understand how to communicate better and more effectively, said Law, adding that this need crosses generations, but is perhaps more apparent with younger generations that have grown up texting and, quite often, taking shortcuts when trying to get their message across.

And in the business world, shortcuts can lead to poor communication, misinterpreted messages, lost time, lost productivity, and more, she noted.

That’s why EANE offers this course, said John Henderson, director of Learning and Development for the agency, as well as another titled “Emails: That’s Not What I Meant,” an aptly named, increasingly popular course on a subject of growing importance to companies of all sizes — helping employees craft better, more effective emails.

“That class gets into not just content, but also the tone of the email and understanding who your audience is,” Henderson explained. “We all know that emails are often misread or misinterpreted by the reader, so we have a specific course on email writing.

John Henderson

John Henderson says the biggest mistake most make with email is hitting the ‘send’ button too soon.

“With any kind of communication, whether it’s email, writing, a phone call, face-to-face,” he went on, “to be an effective communicator, it helps to know who your audience is and be able to create the message in a way that will effectively work with as many people as possible.”

For this, the latest installment in its series on professional development, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this specific need, but also at the broader issue of communication in the workplace and why employees at all levels need to find the ‘write’ stuff.


The Latest Word

Law said the O’Connell Companies invest a considerable amount of time and energy hiring the right individuals for positions at all levels of the organization.

But the investments don’t stop there, she said, adding that the company is focused on ongoing training and education aimed at giving employees the tools and the means to do their work — and serve its many different kinds of clients — effectively.

This training covers many areas, including communication and the EANE course in business writing, she said, adding that the class dealt not in the abstract, but rather with actual emails and other correspondences sent by participants, which were reviewed and critiqued, with an eye on grammar, but also on tone and simply getting the intended message across.

As noted earlier, problems with all of the above are common with employees of all ages, said Law, but especially the younger generations that grew up texting.

“These are people who always lived in that world of technology and texting and short, cut-off responses,” she said. “When you come into the business world, that doesn’t work anymore, and you see that this is how they’re communicating — very short, unclear, not thorough … and then the receiving person gets that message, and they’re confused, and it spirals into miscommunication.”

Elaborating, she said tone can be lost not only in texts, but also in emails, and improper tone can lead to a number of problems.

“These are people who always lived in that world of technology and texting and short, cut-off responses. When you come into the business world, that doesn’t work anymore.”

Henderson agreed, which is why EANE offers both the “Business Writing Excellence” class, one that more than 20 area companies have presented to employees, and “Emails: That’s Not What I Meant.”

The latter was created prior to COVID, but it became more timely, and even more important, during the pandemic, when face-to-face meetings became all but impossible and email became the chosen way to communicate — and often do business.

Henderson told BusinessWest that people make many mistakes with email, but perhaps the biggest is hitting the ‘send’ button too soon. By that, he was referencing everything from checks on grammar to a review of content to making sure the email is going only to its intended recipients.

“People rely on email as a rapid response, and they don’t put as much thought into writing an email as they would a letter,” he explained. “People hit the send button too soon rather than go back and reread what they’ve written.”

And when they do go back and reread, email senders should certainly focus on grammar — typos are embarrassing and do not convey professionalism — but they should also look hard to make sure the proper tone is set and that words and phrases cannot be misinterpreted by the recipient.

“If I’m writing an email, before I send it, I should think, ‘the person I’m sending this to, or the people I’m sending this to … how they are going to read this, and are there nuances in there that someone might take to a different interpretation?’” Henderson said. “Or they might look at it as me being rude because I didn’t start the email with ‘good morning.’”

Indeed, one of the bigger mistakes people make is simply not knowing the intended recipient for an email, he noted, adding that understanding the audience is critical to getting the message across and conveying the proper tone.

Elaborating, he said some recipients will like a reference to the weather or a question about how one’s day is going — ‘fluff,’ as he called it — while others are all business and don’t want or need pleasantries.

“Do they want something direct, or do they want something that’s more personable?” he asked rhetorically, adding that the sender should try to know the answer to that question. “We need to think about the recipient and how they want to receive that message; it’s an interesting dynamic when you’re trying to communicate through email.”

When in doubt — and there is a good deal of doubt with many in business who sends dozens of emails a day, often to people they don’t know well — it’s best to be pleasant and throw in a little of that fluff, he told BusinessWest, because not doing so might set the wrong tone.


Getting It Write

Flashing back to the class last summer and a group review of writing samples sent by company employees, Law said it was a tremendous learning experience.

“Everyone was able to reflect back, get those ‘a-ha’ moments, and say, ‘oh, yes, if I only had I said it this way, maybe I would have gotten my point across better.’”

Getting the point across clearly and concisely is one of the more important, if still underappreciated, aspects of doing business, she added.

And it should be an critical component of any employee’s overall professional development.


Professional Development

Professional Development

Kimberly Quinonez

After getting some help rising out of poverty, Kimberly Quinonez is now in the business of helping others.

Kimberly Quinonez says she’s always had a passion for helping people, and a desire to make doing so a career.

But for most of her life, she was the one needing help.

A native of South Carolina, she grew up in a life of poverty, addiction, homelessness, and a sixth-grade education, and was desperate for a way out — and up — from all that.

After getting clean and moving to Western Mass., she completed her high-school equivalency at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) at age 43 and enrolled in the school’s two-year associate-degree program in social work. And while still earning that high-school equivalency, she told BusinessWest, she met Wally Soufane, social work specialist at Elms College, who became a mentor and essentially put her on a path to the bachelor’s degree-completion program offered at the school.

Completing that program, and the associate degree before that, were stern challenges, she said, noting that there were several times when she wanted to quit because the combination of life and school seemed like too much. But she persevered, with help (there’s that word again) from Soufane and others who helped provide her with the will to carry on.

“I kept on and kept on; I had some discouraging moments, but I just couldn’t give up because this was something that I really wanted for myself,” she said. “And I really like helping people.”

This past May, she completed that program and was among the speakers at Elms’ commencement ceremonies, her story riveting those in attendance. Today, she’s employed at the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department as a care coordinator and counselor, while also working toward a master’s degree in social work at Springfield College.

“If we accept a student, our job is to support them. If they’re going to do the work, we need to support them as best we can and help them be successful, and we do that; our retention rates, over 80%, are very good, and our graduation rates, in the mid-60s, are very good.”

Her story touches on many elements of the bachelor’s degree-completion programs at Elms, said Walter Breau, executive dean of the college’s Kirley School of Continuing Education — everything from its ability to help non-traditional students set and achieve goals to the way its administrators and instructors work with students to help them overcome challenges and complete their degrees.

“If we accept a student, our job is to support them,” he went on. “If they’re going to do the work, we need to support them as best we can and help them be successful, and we do that; our retention rates, over 80%, are very good, and our graduation rates, in the mid-60s, are very good.”

Social work is one of the more popular programs at the Kirley School, said Breau, adding that others, many of them offered online, include computer information technology and security (CITS), computer science, healthcare management, speech-language pathology assistant, management and marketing, psychology, and RN-BSN.

Overall, there are now roughly 200 individuals enrolled in continuing-education (CE) programs at Elms, roughly 20% of the undergraduate population, said Breau, a veteran administrator at the college who recently took the helm at the Kirley School, noting that the goal is to grow enrollment to 300 and beyond.

Walter Breau says the Kirley School is focused

Walter Breau says the Kirley School is focused on not only enrolling people in degree programs, but seeing them through to the finish line.
Staff Photo

And there is certainly some momentum with regard to enrollment, as the region’s community colleges, bolstered by the MassReconnect Program, which provides free tuition to those over age 25, are seeing their first real rise in enrollment since well before the pandemic.

For this issue, BusinessWest continues its series spotlighting professional-development programs across the region with a visit to the Kirley School and an examination of how it can change lives, like Quinonez’s, in a profound way.


Grade Expectations

This past May, Elms’ School of Continuing Education was officially renamed the Sister Kathleen Kirley ’66 School of Continuing Education, following a donation to the school in her honor.

And the new name is quite fitting, said Breau, noting that Sr. Kathleen, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, now retired from the school, was director of Continuing Education at Elms from 1977 to 1990 and served as the dean of Continuing Education and Graduate Studies from 1990 to 1998.

“If you look at the mission of the Sisters of St. Joseph, their goal is to serve the community,” he noted. “And at some point, instead of just having the traditional programs where you come to campus Monday through Friday, they understood that there was a population of individuals we could serve in a different way.”

That was the genesis of continuing education at Elms, he said, adding that, for more than a half-century now, the school has continued to serve non-traditional students with a variety of programs aimed at helping individuals not only earn degrees, but forge careers in growing fields.

These include collaborations with the region’s community colleges, whereby students can earn bachelor’s degrees on the community-college campuses. Indeed, there are social work programs at Asnuntuck Community College, Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College, said Breau, noting that many who earn their bachelor’s degrees at those locations, and on the Elms campus as well, go on to earn a master’s degree and become a licensed clinical social worker in the Bay State.

“If you’re a computer science major at STCC and you’re looking to earn your bachelor’s, we make sure there’s no loss of credits. You finish at STCC in May, and you start with us in August in the computer science bachelor’s program. It’s just another sign to students that we’ve deliberately thought about how to make you successful.”

“We have many of our students at STCC, Asnuntuck, and here on campus go forward and get their MSW,” he said, adding that there is “more than enough demand” for individuals who have those credentials.

Other popular programs include RN-BSN and speech-language pathology assistant, he said, adding that there is growing demand in both fields, and especially nursing.

Elms has articulation agreements, more than 50 in all, with the area community colleges, Breau explained, noting that these partnerships help create what he called “seamless pathways” as individuals take the credits they earned while completing an associate degree and apply them toward a bachelor’s degree at Elms.

“If you’re a computer science major at STCC and you’re looking to earn your bachelor’s, we make sure there’s no loss of credits,” he noted. “You finish at STCC in May, and you start with us in August in the computer science bachelor’s program. It’s just another sign to students that we’ve deliberately thought about how to make you successful.”

There are many such signs, he went on, adding that one point of emphasis at the Kirley School is to not simply merely get people enrolled in the various degree programs, but to see them through to completion.

And completion can be challenging, Breau said, noting that more than 75% of those enrolled in CE programs at Elms are 25 and older, which means they’re likely dealing with a number of life matters, such as work and family.

“They’re an older population who have decided, for one reason or another, that they want to fit in coursework with work, family, and other obligations,” he explained. “Our goal is first to show that it’s possible, it’s accessible, it’s affordable. People can see the end point even before they start.”

After showing it’s possible, the school then helps make it possible, with everything from flexible start dates to initiatives to help them step back in if they happen to hit pause for whatever reason, to many forms of student support, such as a 24-hour tutoring program.

Quinonez has seen these efforts to provide support up close and personal.

She said those at Elms were constantly supporting and “checking up on me” while she was in school. And they still do, months after she graduated.

“They still reach out to me today and say, ‘Kimberly, how’s it going?’” she told BusinessWest. “Elms changed me; I grew up and matured a lot — Elms College became my parents.”


Bottom Line

Today, Quinonez is working toward another degree at Springfield College and expects to complete that work in May. She said her time at Elms didn’t just help her find a career — instead of a job — but it instilled in her the desire to continue to reach higher and position herself to help people in more ways.

That’s what Sr. Kathleen Kirley had in mind when she laid the groundwork for today’s highly successful CE department at Elms.

The program has provided pathways to success and opened doors for people like Quinonez, who just needed a little help. And now they can help others.


Local Connections


Editor’s note: This article is the first installment of a new, monthly series on professional-development efforts at area colleges and universities. It’s as broad a topic as it sounds, and the higher-education community has certainly developed myriad strategies to help businesses find talent while helping area professionals access career ladders to advancement — and will share, during this series, the many ways they’re doing just that. Our first visit is to American International College in Springfield.

Hubert Benitez

Hubert Benitez says it’s critical that colleges understand what businesses need in terms of worker skills and competencies.

At a time when employers in most sectors are struggling to attract and retain a workforce, leveraging the impact of the region’s colleges and universities is more important than ever.

That’s part of what Hubert Benitez, president of American International College (AIC), conveyed during an address to a recent Rise and Shine Business Breakfast sponsored by the Springfield Regional Chamber.

He highlighted that AIC graduates, coming from diverse backgrounds and primarily from the local area, make significant contributions to the economic development of the region — and that retaining talent within the community is key to enriching the social fabric of Greater Springfield and the surrounding region.

“Let’s explore how we can come together and join forces to serve the best interests of Springfield and Western Mass.,” he said. “That is the focus of our work at AIC.”

The intriguing part is how the college intends to boost workforce development and the regional economy — and it involves robust connections and communication with area businesses, in a number of sectors, to determine what they need, and what higher-education leaders can do to meet those needs.

“It’s critically important,” Benitez told BusinessWest shortly after that event. “Workforce development is one of the major focus areas of our education.”

Take, for instance, healthcare, one of this region’s key economic drivers — and, in particular, the persistent need for talented nurses.

“What we need is the employers to truly look at the academic institutions as their partners in this, because we need to be sitting at the table to hear what their needs are specifically.”

“There is no state that is not hurting for a nursing workforce,” Benitez said. “So our approach has been, let’s work together with the major industries in the region; how can we help provide that workforce? And it has to be a joint effort.”

That’s because students who study at area colleges must have a reason to stay here after they graduate. When they leave, he noted, AIC has done its job providing them with an education, but it has not fulfilled its mission to meet the workforce needs of Western Mass. or the Commonwealth at large.

“So we have to create an environment where the student understands that, if they pursue their nursing degree at AIC, they have a clear transition plan to the workforce at one of the major hospitals or hospital systems in the region.”

To that end, AIC has worked closely with Baystate Medical Center and the Trinity Health system to create models to fulfill their specific workforce needs. Benitez and his chief of staff have participated in strategic-planning sessions for workforce development at Baystate, and have also spoken with the leadership of Mercy Medical Center about creating a model to draw more advanced-practice providers to the hospital and the Trinity system.

“We heard firsthand, ‘we need more of this, more of this, and more of this,’” he said. “We have to be working together. If I don’t know — if the academic institution does not know — what they need, and what are the skillsets they’re looking for, there is no way the academic institution is going to be able to fulfill those needs.”

Not only does a college need to understand the needs of industries into which its graduates will enter, he explained, but it must to be nimble and willing to move in the direction of creating or reformatting initiatives that will fulfill these specific needs.


AIC is taking steps to better integrate career preparation into its programs.

“How education has been delivered in the past may not be what employers are looking for,” Benitez told BusinessWest. “That may take form of certificates, certifications, short courses of instruction, staff development. Some may say, ‘well, we really don’t need more of these at the baccalaureate level, but what about a certification with this specific skillset?’ We are looking to fulfill that.

“What we need is the employers to truly look at the academic institutions as their partners in this, because we need to be sitting at the table to hear what their needs are specifically. It’s that close working relationship that I would say is critically important,” he went on, adding that keeping young professionals local is a two-way street, an effort in which businesses must be engaged as well.

“Why should a graduate stay here in Western Mass.? That’s more on the employer side of things. How do they engage the graduate, entice the graduate to stay local and not go elsewhere? That goes beyond pay; that goes beyond benefits. It’s more, how do we make them feel that they have a good career trajectory here at Western Mass.? That’s part of what the employer has to look at as well.”


Partnering for Progress

Benitez stressed that four-year colleges like AIC aren’t the only important players in cultivating a local economy with plenty of young talent.

“As you look around and you read in the press, ‘we need more nurses, we need more physical therapists, we need more of this, we need more of that,’ well, some of those professions and careers are created at the community-college level. I am a full supporter of the community-college enterprise.”

Indeed, he explained, AIC has partnered with Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College on housing agreements, whereby students who attend community college can live at AIC and use its services. “That’s how much we value the relationship between AIC and the community colleges.”

Workforce-development efforts begin even earlier than that, however — with efforts at the high-school and even middle-school level to instill in young people an interest in careers where opportunities abound.

One example is working with middle- and high-school students to entice them to explore careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, Benitez noted. “It’s a two-pronged, even three-pronged approach: we’re working with vocational schools, technical schools, community colleges, and the public school systems because we know that’s where the appreciation for the skillset begins. We’ve got to grab the kids really, really early. And we’re working toward that goal.”

One new partnership between AIC and two community groups — the Coalition of Experienced Black Educators and the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership — promotes access to higher education by empowering parents to support their children’s academic success, which, in turn, will benefit the region’s economy if those young people earn degrees and stay local.

“How do they engage the graduate, entice the graduate to stay local and not go elsewhere? That goes beyond pay; that goes beyond benefits. It’s more, how do we make them feel that they have a good career trajectory here at Western Mass.?”

Another new new initiative aims to strengthen AIC’s commitment to equipping students with the necessary skills and knowledge for successful careers. The college is among 10 member institutions to benefit from a three-year, $2.5 million grant awarded to the Yes We Must Coalition (YWMC) by Ascendium Education Group to integrate career preparation into four-year degree programs.

This grant — titled “Addressing Inequity in College Retention of Low-income Students: Collaboratively Creating Pathways to Careers in Four-year Degree Programs” — will provide AIC with resources to implement new strategies to promote career readiness. The award will support a partnership among AIC, Jobs for the Future, and Sova Solutions to ensure that students from all backgrounds have equal opportunities to succeed in their chosen fields.

More effectively integrating career preparation into AIC’s four-year degree programs is a step that recognizes the evolving demands of the employment market, Benitez noted. By aligning academic coursework with real-world skills, students will be better equipped to navigate their future careers upon graduation. The degree programs slated for redesign include psychology, biology, business, sociology, theater, and criminal justice.


A New Mindset

To Benitez’s original point however, for any college to adequately meet the needs of the regional economy — and adequately prepare its graduates to succeed within it — it must first know what those needs are.

“I’m telling my industry colleagues and the business colleagues, ‘what do you need as it relates to the workforce? Maybe we can deliver that for you.’ I’m not going to my colleagues and saying, ‘look, AIC is asking for this, this, and this.’ No, on the contrary, I’m saying, ‘what do you need? Let me know because I think I can deliver that for you.’”

In his remarks at the chamber breakfast, he emphasized the importance of collaboration and working toward a greater good in the realm of higher education. “This area is blessed with having so many institutions of higher learning. But it’s not about competition; it’s about working together for the common good.”

To that end, he noted that, in his first year since becoming president, AIC has actively engaged with scores of individuals and community leaders, seeking opportunities for collaboration. “We want to be invitational to the community, not asking for anything, but to ask them, ‘how can we work together?’”

This focus outside the campus, on how AIC can be a catalyst for a stronger regional economy, is part of what Benitez means when he says he wants to reimagine a college education.

“We continue doing that every single day — reimagining how we deliver education, the cost of education, reimagining the sense of belonging in an educational enterprise, but also how we teach students,” he told BusinessWest. “Students today come to academic institutions with a completely different mindset. They think differently about the world. They think differently about the profession. Some of them even question the value of an education.

“That is our reality,” he went on. “So how we deliver education, how we communicate with them, has drastically changed. We think about reimagination every single day.”


Special Coverage Women in Businesss

A Matter of Self-worth

When Jessi Kirley took the reins at the Family Business Center in 2018, she was looking for a new challenge — and some meaning.

“I had a major what-matters-most moment,” she said. “I had just lost my dad to cancer, my own health was suffering, I’d been working in the medical field for 20 years, and I was facing burnout and overperformance. When my dad died, I ended up quitting my job — what mattered most was reconnecting to my health and wellness.”

The FBC, known for its dinner forums, morning workshops, peer-advisory groups, custom consulting, and other programs cultivated under the long-time leadership of Ira Bryck, proved a gratifying role, but it — like so many companies and organizations across the U.S. — became a financial victim of COVID-19 and closed its doors last spring.

“That was another moment when I asked myself, ‘what really matters?’” Kirley said. “Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

As the single mother of three teens, she felt pressure to provide stability to her household, but she also loved working. “It was a lot of figuring things out, like so many of us needed to do. And what I noticed was that I felt compelled to go back to my roots of helping people.”

Seven months later, the result of those ideas became JKirley Collective, which offers personal- and professional-development courses, beginning with its first track, the “Dignity Series,” and the pilot program in that track, “Dignity in Conversation,” which includes a virtual workshop on Jan. 19 and a follow-up virtual peer-group session on Jan. 26.

As she explained, JKirley Collective collaborates with others who share the mission of helping people unlock their potential to build the lives they want through transformative action. As the pandemic wore on, she said, “I found myself asking what really matters — to me, and to this world. I started a business to pursue my passion of helping people unlock their potential, to craft the lives they want.”

It’s quite a detour from when she studied biology at Smith College with a goal of one day curing cancer.

“I was very ambitious,” she said. “But I always came back to that anchor within myself, wanting to help people. With COVID and the loss of jobs and just moving through this workforce disruption and transformation, how can I help people navigate that? What skills do I have? That’s what brought me to offer my Dignity Series programs.”


Three Pillars

Although ‘dignity’ is the theme of the collective’s first series of courses, it’s also the foundational concept of the business itself, Kirley explained.

From that foundation rise three pillars. “The first is dignity as defined by self-worth, something that’s inherent, that we bring with us all the time. The second pillar is the embodiment of this connection to our self-worth; there’s a difference between simply understanding dignity and bringing it into the body and seeing it as a platform for growth and a way to increase confidence and ward off self-doubt. That’s the embodiment piece.”

The third pillar is about action. “We’ve dived into concepts of self-worth and our dignity and really worked on ways to embody that and practice that. So, how do we connect to our agency, our actions, our free choice? And the choice, in this case, maybe, is to move through these disruptions to make a better life for ourselves, or to be more generous, or to step into a new role.”

Many individuals these days are certainly doing the latter. “In this time of change, we’re stepping into new responsibilities, with massive amounts of uncertainty — and what does that feel like? Maybe we’re unsure of ourselves, not confident, doubting our own abilities, questioning our success. And that can derail our ability to reach our goals and move to the other side.”

Getting back to the collaborative concept at the heart of her new enterprise, Kirley credits Andrea Bordenca, who is helping her design and develop the Dignity Series, with being a sounding board as she built the business.

“Considering her valuable experience, it gave me a kind of safety net,” she said of Bordenca, who is CEO of both the Institute for Generative Leadership and DESCO Service, as well as the founder of Lead Yourself Youth. “Taking a chance to start a business — the visioning, the planning — is a very vulnerable experience, and it can be scary. Having a safety net in Andrea allowed me to reach higher.”

Jessi Kirley

Jessi Kirley

“Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

Another early collaborator is Amy Jamrog, a financial advisor and founding partner of the Jamrog Group, who is helping Kirley develop a second track of courses, called Claim Your Worth, which will incorporate concepts of self-worth and dignity into practical lessons on financial empowerment. That program’s first course will launch on Feb. 10.

The individual classes are collaborations as well; offerings in the Dignity Series will include Kelly Vogel, owner of Sound Passage, who helps her clients discover the power of their voice; and Dr. Tom Naro, a physical therapist and owner of My PT.

Naro actually approached Kirley, she said, because he felt her concepts could help his clients reach their physical-therapy goals. “Sometimes they struggle with self-doubt, questioning their self-worth, think they don’t deserve to feel good and look good — all those negative thoughts,” she explained.

Each class will feature a workshop followed by a peer-group session a week later, so participants can be introduced to theories and then unpack them in a deeper way, talk about their own personal struggles, and develop strategies for action. While the classes are held virtually now, Kirley sees a role in the future for a hybrid model, even after folks are able to gather in groups again, because it opens her programs up to a wider geographic area.

And, while most participants will likely be women, JKirley Collective welcomes everyone. “Honestly, who doesn’t need this kind of work?” she said. “We know from consumer behavior that women tend to sign up for self-help, self-improvement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial for everyone.”

She also sees many different applications of these courses, from employee-assistance programs to management team building, to an individual preparing to join a nonprofit board or take on a new leadership role in the community. “The theme is, when we step into something new, by force or by choice, we can doubt ourselves. We want to help people be successful in whatever change they’re going for.”

Currently a business advisor for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, Kirley has been committed to serving the community in various capacities for more than 20 years. “I had the fortunate opportunity to go through a Foundations course with the Institute for Generative Leadership,” she said, “which helped me clarify my offering and build a collaboration model for my business.”


Bump in the Road

However, she ran into a discouraging roadblock right off the bat. She initially planned to launch in the fall and call her enterprise DignityWorks — a name that, despite her research, proved to be a problem.

“A business owner in the UK contacted me who had been using DignityWorks for many years, and I faced the threat of litigation,” she recently wrote in her blog. “I halted all program promotion, postponed the pilot to January 2021, and resigned to go back to square one for brand name and design. It felt like a devastating loss of time, money, and momentum. This breakdown opened the door for all of my dignity threats to come knockin’!”

Specifically, all the ‘I’m not worthy’ stories she helps clients deal with flooded her own head and wracked her body with anxiety, thoughts like “I should have known how to avoid this setback,” “this business will never be ‘real’ or earn me a living,” “I am letting everyone down, and no one will trust me after this,” and “I look like a fool, and who am I to start my own business?”

She had to put her own advice into practice — to stay calm, actively move away from anxiety and toward dignity, and take “many deep breaths” — before having a productive Zoom meeting with the business owner across the pond, and then going about changing her business name.

Through the whole experience, “I had to walk the talk of my own worth,” she told BusinessWest. “That was pretty cool.”

By the way, she loves the new brand name, especially its focus on the word ‘collective.’ “Who am I as a person? What are my values? I love connecting people, and I love working collaboratively. When I started to think about my values, it was important that collaboration was the driving force in starting this business.”

So, a new year begins on a more positive note. “Having endured 2020, we’re trying to start 2021 by finding ways to invest in self, grow positively, and have better wellness,” Kirley said — and, above all, do it together.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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Women in Businesss

Leadership Course

Nancy Buffone

Nancy Buffone

Nancy Buffone has three degrees from UMass Amherst and has spent her entire career working for her alma mater. The job titles and long lists of responsibilities have changed over the past 23 years, but the one constant has been that she loves — really loves — coming to work every day. As a manager, leader, mentor, and role model, she says it’s her mission to make all those on the teams she supervises feel the same way.

Nancy Buffone says that as a manager — and as a leader — one thing she tries to do is put herself in the shoes of those she’s supervising.

And in the case of younger staff members, that’s not a hard assignment, because she’s certainly been in those shoes.

Indeed, not long after graduating from UMass Amherst more than 20 years ago, Buffone went to work for the institution in the Provost’s Office. A few decades later, she is associate vice chancellor of University Relations, a relatively new realm at the school, has two offices, and manages roughly 35 people handling a wide array of assignments, from planning commencement to putting out the alumni magazine to dispensing news.

Putting herself in the shoes of those carrying out that work enables her to better understand their wants, needs, anxieties, and challenges, she said, and overall, it makes her a better leader and the offices she supervises better places to work.

“If you don’t enjoy coming to work, it can be really hard to come to work every day,” she said, making an observation that essentially defines her approach to management.

Becoming a more effective leader is one of the few things not actually listed on Buffone’s job description (we’ll get into what is a little later on), but professional development is something she takes very seriously.

In fact, earlier in her career, while working for the university’s Provost’s Office, she developed a leadership program for academic department chairs — an initiative that filled what she saw as an enormous need.

“This was something brand new, and there was a lot to the job. It was a new challenge, and it was something just so out of the box, so out of the comfort zone for me.”

As part of her own professional-development efforts, she became a participant in the Leadership Pioneer Valley program, specifically as a member of its class of 2013. She said the experience not only provided her with a much better understanding of the four-county region — one of LPV’s stated goals — but helped her do something she said all good leaders need to do — step out of her comfort zone.

In this case, that meant taking on the additional responsibilities of the Communications Department with University Relations, which effectively tripled her workload and the number of people she was managing.

“This was something brand new, and there was a lot to the job,” she said. “It was a new challenge, and it was something just so out of the box, so out of the comfort zone for me.

“And to some extent, it still is, but I love it,” she went on. “This is a place to get creative and take a lot of the work that we’re doing here every day and think about how we’re going to tell that story; that’s fun, and that’s a challenge for me.”

Her ability to move well beyond that comfort zone has been invaluable as she has taken on that ever-growing list of responsibilities, many if not most of which have to do with telling the university’s story — and telling it much better than it was told decades ago.

In many respects, it’s better story to tell these days, said Buffone, who was in a particularly good mood on the day she spoke with BusinessWest because the new U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation’s colleges had just come up, and the university had moved up a few notches in many of the categories.

“We keep moving in the right direction,” she said, noting, for example, that the school moved up from 29th to 26th on the list of best public institutions, and from 75th to 70th among all schools.

Meanwhile, her career has taken on the same general trajectory as the university’s. For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Buffone about her multi-faceted role at the university, but moreso about the broad subject of leadership and her ongoing efforts to improve those skills.

Background — Check

There are two large bowls of candy in Buffone’s office at the Whitmore Administration Building on the UMass Amherst campus. And it’s the same in her other office on University Drive, where the Community Relations staff is based.

The candy serves many purposes, she told BusinessWest, noting that, in many respects, it is an icebreaker and a temptation that brings people to those offices, which they generally leave with more than a miniature Mr. Goodbar or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in their hand. Indeed, they also generally leave with a smile.

“We work very hard at our jobs, so I want to laugh very hard while we’re working,” she said of her general approach to management and leadership. “I want to make sure we’re having a good time while we’re doing this.

“As for the candy … my only rule is that you’re not allowed to ask — just take,” she went on. “But over the years, the candy has been a nice icebreaker for people, and it brings people in — it’s an opening.”

Stocking her office — and later her offices — with candy is just one of the traits Buffone has developed in a career that has seen her take on a growing list of responsibilities since she graduated from the university in 1995.

Nancy Buffone sums up her broad job description by saying that that many employees she now supervises are tasked with “telling UMass Amherst’s story.”

Nancy Buffone sums up her broad job description by saying that that many employees she now supervises are tasked with “telling UMass Amherst’s story.”

As a student, she took a job working in the Provost’s Office (the provost is the chief academic officer on the campus) and had the opportunity to work for and be mentored by Judy Barker, who, as fate would have it, retired soon after Buffone graduated.

She was offered a job approximating the one Barker held, thus commencing a 14-year stint in the Provost’s Office that turned out to be learning experiencing on a number of levels.

“It was an amazing educational opportunity,” Buffone recalled. “I learned so much not just about how UMass works, but also higher education and especially public higher education. Being in the Provost’s Office, I never knew from day to day what I’d be working on; my position evolved into more of a generalist position that allowed me to get involved with many different things.”

That list included everything from working on a number of search committees for many senior administrative positions to creating new events on campus, working with the news office to promote faculty honors, and much more.

Along the way, she worked for several provosts who also became mentors, and she also earned two more degrees, including a doctorate in higher education policy and leadership. She said she was given the opportunity by those provosts to take what she was learning in the classroom and apply it in the workplace, especially within the broad realm of leadership and, more specifically, the academic department-chair level.

“Looking at what universities did to train the next person to be in the chair’s role, it became clear that at most places … it was nothing,” she explained. “So I was able to create an orientation leadership program for new department chairs that still exists today, although in a slightly different format.”

That program was among the hardest things to give up as Buffone moved on to the next chapter in her career in early 2009, as executive director of External Relations and University Events as part of the new University Relations department.

That office, created by then-Chancellor Robert Holub, is tasked with a wide variety of assignments, including community relations, events, media relations, federal and state government relations, and more. Early on, Buffone was placed in charge of events, with one of the first being the school’s 150th anniversary, a party that was several years in the making.

“We work very hard at our jobs, so I want to laugh very hard while we’re working. I want to make sure we’re having a good time while we’re doing this.”

These days, she leads two teams, one handing events and community relations and the other assigned to communications — a very broad term covering everything from the alumni magazine to the college website.

As she said, the expansion of her duties and the title on her business card tripled her workload and put dozens more people under her supervision, giving her more opportunities to apply lessons learned in graduate school and also while working with and for many great mentors.

Leading by Example

When asked to describe her style of management, Buffone paused for a second before noting that she’s from New York (Long Island, to be more specific) and thus relies heavily on sarcasm.

And then gave an example. Sort of.

“I learned how to manage by making mistakes, and I try not to repeat my mistakes,” she said with a laugh. “I started small, managing one person, and then four, and then it grew seemingly overnight when I took on the communications team. But whatever the number is, it’s really about trying to understand what I can do for the people I work with every day to make their jobs easier.

“If they can focus on what they need to do, especially the creative people … if I can make it so they can focus on what they’re trying to accomplish and not worry about distractions, then that means they’re going to be better at their jobs,” she went on. “I’m trying to create an environment that will foster that creativity and foster collaboration; to me, that’s really important.”

As for her own professional development, Buffone said her involvement with LPV enabled her to do something she really needed to do but was hard pressed to find the time for — doing some reflection on what she wanted to do and where she wanted to go professionally.

“I think it’s hard to find the time to think about what you want and about how to get where you need to go when you’re moving from project to project — it’s just too fast sometimes,” she explained. “Leadership Pioneer Valley offered that opportunity to really think about what I wanted and what skills I needed to keep moving forward.”

Elaborating, she said that, through her LPV experience, she decided she needed to get more involved in her community (Amherst), and she has, serving as a town meeting member and as president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce board.

Meanwhile, at the office — or, again, at both her offices — she works hard at her job and equally hard at making sure people enjoy their jobs, something she believes is key to promoting creativity and, ultimately, better, more effective telling of the university’s many stories.

That includes the staging of what she called ‘standing meetings,’ which are just that — 15-minute meetings, instituted about five months ago, in which the participants stand and, in this case, keep a huge inventory of individual projects (700 a year for the communications department alone, by Buffone’s estimate) on track.

“The meetings will go half an hour even though they’re supposed to go 15 minutes,” she explained. “But if you’re sitting, the meeting can go way too long; that’s the thinking, and they’ve been pretty effective.”

As have most of her initiatives, all aimed at not only getting the word out about everything going on at the school, but making everyone on the team as enthusiastic about their role as she is.

“I’ve been really lucky; I’ve been at UMass for 23 years now, and I love my job, I really do, and I love coming to work just about every day,” she said. “And that’s how I want the people I work with to feel.”

Grade Expectations

Unlike the university itself and several of its departments — from food service to the marching band — there are no rankings for communications and events departments.

But there are still measures of success, and plenty of them, Buffone said, listing everything from letters to the editor of the alumni magazine (they show that the material is being read) to feedback on a host of events, to the sense of satisfaction showed by her team members when one of those events is over.

Another measure might be how many times she has to fill those candy bowls — which is often. That shows that people are breaking the ice, coming into her offices, communicating, and enjoying their hard work.

Which, at this university and within this department, is an effective course of action — literally and figuratively.

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