GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce has received some very good news on its 20-year-old Leadership Grand Rapids program: It’s having an impact.
Each year, 36 individuals are selected to participate in the Leadership Grand Rapids program, which is designed to give a broader understanding of the challenges and opportunities in the community and teach the skills necessary to become more effective leaders in both their own organizations and the community.
After graduating 750 people from the leadership program over two decades, the chamber decided to gauge the impact of its initiative by polling LGR alumni, staff and board members, as well as employer organizations and members of the community familiar with the leadership program.
The Learning Alliance, a company internationally known for its expertise in evaluating program effectiveness, conducted the study in April and May. Of the 480 people who were e-mailed the survey, 247 completed it. Additionally, 25 responders were randomly selected for in-depth interviews as a follow-up to the survey.
The overall results were overwhelming on the plus side: Some 99 percent of respondents indicated their LGR experience had positively impacted them on a personal level; 90 percent said it had positively impacted their organizations; and 95 percent indicated their experience had resulted in a positive impact on the community level.
Furthermore, 76 percent of respondents indicated they had ramped up their personal involvement in both the community and their own organizations. And 70 percent said their interactions with others are now “more open, less judgmental and more likely to lead to actions and solutions that have greater consensus, support and effectiveness.”
Dennis Dressler, Ph.D., senior principal consultant at The Learning Alliance, said evaluators are always curious about whether there is a negative “halo effect” around a survey: Are people in Grand Rapids just nice, therefore they were just nice on the survey?
“One of the things that clearly came out of the phone interviews was that people were able to cite chapter and verse exactly what they had picked up from LGR, what they had used, how they had applied it either in their work or community or in their lives personally, and how it had made a difference,” Dressler said. “The thing that surprised me was the relative validity of the survey data. I expected the survey data to have a lot of false-positive in it. The in-depth interviews did not support that false-positive hypothesis at all.”
In concluding their assessment of the LGR survey results, The Learning Alliance stated: “In our experience of evaluating over 50 leadership development initiatives, many of them sponsored by for-profit companies to develop their own leaders, this is the single most impactful example of leadership development leading to very positive behavior changes and results by the graduates of the experience.”
Evaluators found that LGR alumni:
- Actively participate in a variety of public school-related leadership roles, such as serving as a committee or board member or foundation trustee.
- Provide broad leadership to community agencies such as the Red Cross, YMCA and Indian Guides.
- Serve as facilitators in community initiatives on race relations, the needs of the homeless and economic development.
- Provide “extraordinary” leadership in turning failing businesses around.
- Develop networks of diverse people and develop the ability to understand and support broad community issues.
“From the employer base, what we heard was that (LGR graduates) were obviously much better prepared to lead within their own organizations, so it was clearly a leadership development initiative that paid off for the organization,” Dressler said.
As he sees it, LGR graduates have expanded their world view into a broader, much more inclusive perspective, as well.
“LGR graduates really are better decision-makers on community issues because they take more stakeholders and more perspectives into the decision-making process,” he added.
LGR Executive Director Kevin Stotts said he and LGR board members, who are all grads of the program, were well aware of how the program had impacted their lives and had heard other alumni rave about it and recommend it to others. But they really wanted to go beyond the anecdotal information to see what kind of effect the program actually has had, Stotts explained. The board thought it would be extremely valuable to measure the impact at three levels: on the individual, on the sponsoring organization or company, and on the community.
“When the survey statistics showed it having a positive and valuable impact at all three levels, that was a complete surprise,” Stotts said. “We thought we would have some very positive data, but not to that degree.”
Obviously, the survey results are overwhelming positive, Dressler said, but it was really the interviews that revealed the depth of how positive the impact has been.
“When you talk to the individuals about what they’re doing, how it’s helping them and their organizations and their involvement in school boards or community agencies or whatever, you just hear unbelievable stories.”
The evaluators didn’t rely only on self-reported data; they corroborated it by talking to people in the organizations and on the boards and community agencies that the LGR grads were involved in, Dressler pointed out.
The reality is that Grand Rapids is no longer a homogeneous, white, Christian Reformed community, he observed. It’s much more diverse ethnically, socially, economically and age wise, he said, and the more the community can develop people who are inclusive, open and willing to interface in community activities that serve the broader population, the healthier the community will be.
“Quite frankly, I was surprised to (see) the degree to which people are engaging in the community in a much, much more systemic, global way that really recognizes that diversity. I didn’t particularly expect a program like LGR to necessarily create that kind of impact.”