Leadership Grand Rapids participants meet for a full day once a month for seven months, in addition to an overnight team-building exercise to open the program. Courtesy Leadership Grand Rapids
The Leadership Grand Rapids program appears on the résumés of many a community pillar in West Michigan — but why is that?
Ask a graduate — of whom there are nearly 1,200 since the program was established by the Center for Community Leadership at the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce in 1985 — and they will repeatedly use the word “connections.”
Yes, that refers to connections that will benefit a participant’s business. But it also includes exploring the connections between industries and learning how they impact each other, then paying the knowledge forward.
It means connecting people of disparate socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, genders and races — all of whom bring a different understanding of what leadership is, and all of whom will be challenged to learn empathy.
It involves laying the groundwork for the public-private partnerships that drive economic growth.
Kenneth James is talent development program manager at the chamber and oversees LGR.
He said its well-known graduates include Steve Heacock, senior vice president at Spectrum Health; Juan Olivarez, past president of GRCC and Aquinas College; Jesse Bernal, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Grand Valley State University; Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation; Sara Smolenski, 63rd District Court judge; Kathleen Ponitz, principal emeritus at Progressive AE; and Micki Benz, vice president of external relations at Mercy Health.
James said LGR’s chief aim is creating “community trusteeship” via four pillars: community connections, leadership skills, diversity and inclusion, and systems thinking.
“When someone signs on for LGR, they are making a nine-month commitment,” James said. “We do deep dives on health care, transportation, education, public safety. When we spend a day talking in-depth about those topics, we build that into the framework. How does that affect the four topics?”
LGR alumni help shape and facilitate the program since a key requirement of enrollment is committing to volunteering for two years afterward.
The program, which accepts up to 45 leaders per cohort, begins with an overnight teambuilding retreat at a camp or resort, followed by seven monthly day sessions. It wraps up with a closing celebration, usually held at a restaurant or downtown Grand Rapids event venue.
Day sessions involve site visits to organizations or companies in whichever industry is that day’s focus. James said the current cohort spent half of its health care day session at Mercy Health Saint Mary’s and half at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.
The group spent its arts, culture and recreation day session partly at Van Andel Arena and partly at Richmond Park.
And for the education focus, it went to Grand Valley State University’s College of Health Professions to understand how universities are preparing students to work in the medical field.
Aaron Turner, development manager for WGVU Public Media and a GRCC board member, is a member of the current cohort, which ends May 18.
He said the public safety component was tough for some, as it included a police car ride-along.
“It’s not easy for everyone,” he said, noting African-American participants such as himself often view police officers in a different light than nonminority participants, and the experience affects everyone differently.
He said the conversations LGR fosters, formally and informally, have provided a safe space for he and others to discuss social justice issues while also building “social capital” in the community.
The program has practical outcomes beyond social interaction and learning experiences. All participants are divided into groups at the beginning of the program and assigned to a “community trustee project” in which they will help a nonprofit solve a pressing problem.
Turner and his group were paired with Camp Blodgett in West Olive. Over the course of two months of meetings with the camp outside regular sessions, his group worked to help the organization improve its venue wayfinding and marketing strategy. They also strove to help the camp “marry their wedding venue side of the business with their mission, which is the camp side.”
Murphy Ackerman, marketing coordinator at Start Garden, also is an LGR participant graduating in May. Her group was assigned to HQ, a Grand Rapids drop-in center for youths ages 14-24 who are experiencing unsafe or unstable housing.
“They’re not an overnight stay, like Mel Trotter, but they have drop-in times for people to stop in and get a meal and have people to talk to,” Ackerman said. “We were working with them … to help them reach the community. What were better ways to get out there and help them better understand what they are offering? There are a lot of different things out there, like Mel Trotter and Well House, so how do they make sure people know what they’re offering is different?”
She said the project included strategic development, mission work and brand consulting.
James said even if your passion isn’t helping nonprofits — or any of the other industries included in the deep dives — LGR helps participants be better citizens of Grand Rapids.
“I think they’ll be better suited to move the community forward, because after the sessions, you have a greater understanding of what’s affecting West Michigan,” he said.
“It’s extremely rewarding on a personal level to be able to observe from a distance how the group dynamic comes together, congeals and has discourse (that is) still on the way to positive outcomes.”
James said LGR is geared toward “seasoned” leaders and is fairly competitive, with about one in four applicants being admitted. Tuition costs $3,100 per participant and limited scholarships are available. The application deadline for the 2018-19 cohort already has passed.
CCL also puts on an entry-level, five-week program called the Emerging Leaders Series meant to help those with leadership aspirations think about community stewardship. James described it as a good starter course for those not ready for LGR.
This year’s Emerging Leaders Series runs June 25-Aug. 22, from 11:45 a.m.-5 p.m. every other Wednesday. Registration, $800, is open at grandrapids.org until May 5.