This past Saturday I attended a “scrubs party” in a hangar at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport just outside Atlanta. Trust me; I was just as confused when my wife received the invitation. The event was a benefit for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, organized by the healthcare system’s Emerging Leaders for Children’s (ELC). While it has many objectives, ELC is an intentional effort by Children’s to engage young business and community leaders in their 30s and 40s in order to breed the next generation of volunteer leadership. According to ELC, its members “gain unique access to Children’s Trustees and executives and, through two years of service, have the opportunity to enhance skills in fundraising, program development and relationship building.”
“Leadership development” is an area of interest to many of our community clients. As Baby Boomers begin to retire in droves, businesses and communities are finding that workforce sustainability – their ability to replace impending retirees with qualified young workers – is of increasing concern. The same concerns are circulating in board rooms, city halls, and community institutions across the country. Take a look around the room at the next chamber of commerce event or board of directors meeting. Lots of gray hairs, huh? Well, this isn’t much of a surprise; chamber membership, board representation, and community leaders in general are by and large older than the average citizen. They should be; generally speaking, businesses, voters, and institutions want people with experience – experience that comes with age, naturally – to fill those leadership positions. But it’s all those Boomers that make 2014 just a little bit different (okay, A LOT different) from years and decades past. In 1990, the U.S. population aged 25-44 (32.4 percent of total population) was nearly 75 percent larger than the population aged 45-64 (18.6 percent of total population). As the Baby Boomers have aged into that older cohort, these two age groups have become nearly identical in size. As of 2012, those aged 25-44 represent 26.5 percent of total U.S. population, just slightly larger the 26.4 percent represented by those aged 45-64. What was once a very sizeable pipeline of potential “emerging” leaders (aged 25-44) is no more.
Thankfully, chambers of commerce and organizations like Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta have recognized this trend and understand the importance of intentionally developing new volunteer leaders to sustain their organizations. Much of this work, naturally, is motivated by fundraising needs. But that isn’t the only reason – many are motivated by the desire to ensure that their organization and/or community have capable leaders to replace those that will be retiring in the years and decades to come.
There are countless examples of leadership development programs at chambers of commerce across the country. The overwhelming majority are nearly identical in terms of their approach: identify a class of roughly 20-30 predominantly young professionals, guide them through a series of lectures and discussion forums on issues of importance to the community, and potentially take a trip to the state capitol and/or a peer city. These programs have proven valuable for many communities and their participants, but often fall short in one critical area: connecting the program’s graduates to actual leadership opportunities.
A few places are really getting it right – Northwest Arkansas and Tulsa, Oklahoma among them. Northwest Arkansas – home to the global headquarters of Walmart, Tyson Foods, and J.B. Hunt – has a strong, relatively traditional leadership program called Leadership Benton County. It is also home to the Northwest Arkansas Emerging Leaders (NWAEL), a program coordinated by the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce. NWAEL provides young leaders with a variety of opportunities to actually get engaged in the community through a set of “work groups” that pursue a variety of volunteer-led community improvement initiatives. In addition to the work groups, NWAEL offers a Board Service Certification Program, a day-long training program that seeks to prepare emerging leaders for services on non-profit boards and commissions. Graduates of the program are connected through events and communications to staff and board leadership at area non-profits to help place them in actual leadership opportunities.
Tulsa’s Young Professionals (TYPros) is another terrific example of intentional leadership development. What started a relatively traditional young professionals networking group has rapidly blossomed into a serious force in Tulsa’s economic development and community improvement landscape. Similar to NWAEL, TYPros has a set of “work crews” that implement volunteer-led projects impacting a variety of aspects of the community from Arts & Entertainment to Diversity to Environmental Sustainability. In partnership with Leadership Tulsa, TYPros implements a Board Internship Program, placing more than 80 members as “interns” (think “shadowing”) on non-profit boards throughout the region. The organization does so much more to help develop the next generation of community and business leaders in Tulsa by providing young people with opportunities to actually get involved and make difference by enabling them to make decisions, raise monies, and implement programs. Imagine that: they enable them to lead.
This past Saturday, I ate a lot of really good food and had a few glasses of not terrible wine – a rare combination at many catered events! I bid on a framed scrub autographed by Dr. Sanjay Gupta but despite my generous bid, I didn’t win – a fact that greatly pleased my wife, Amy, who rightfully wondered where such an item was going to be stored in our home. Had we won the auction, our bid would have contributed to the more than $200,000 that was raised by the Emerging Leaders for Children’s (ELC) to help save lives at the highly-specialized ECMO Center. Remember, this event and its proceeds were the product of an intentional leadership development effort. The non-profit healthcare system benefitted greatly from the work of ELC, and ELC’s members clearly received the benefit outlined in the program’s objectives – to help emerging leaders “enhance skills in fundraising, program development and relationship building.” I left the event wishing that I was a part of its development. Thankfully, there’s a simple form online to express interest in the ELC program.
The reality is that most leadership opportunities – in business and community – are not so easy to access. Programs like NWAEL in Northwest Arkansas and TYPros in Tulsa get it right. They make it easy. They don’t just “teach” you about leadership; they enable you to actually lead. Many “leadership development” programs fail to take this extra step or make this final connection. And it’s this final connection – a linkage to meaningful experience(s) – that adequately prepares an individual for future leadership.