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Ronald S. Kopp and Mark Scheffler: Leadership Akron at Work Preparing a New Generation of Leaders

By Ronald Kopp and Mark Scheffler

Akron Beacon Journal

In 1984, Akron’s community leaders were asking the same questions the Beacon Journal poses in its ongoing series: Who will lead, and what are we doing to prepare for the next generation of the Akron area’s leadership? In 1984, a few icons of industry dominated community leadership, and the question was: Who will lead when the icons are gone? In response, Leadership Akron was founded to strengthen the network of community-minded leaders.

Since our inception, Leadership Akron has equipped over 1,000 participants in our signature program, who now serve the community as Leadership Akron alumni.

As we take stock of today’s leadership trends, here are a few observations from Leadership Akron’s standpoint:

A broad and deep leadership pool is vital to civic life. Is our community at risk of this pool running dry? We have seen a remarkable run of top leaders who know one another well and readily work together. Perhaps less noticeably, those same key leaders have built teams that are abundant with Leadership Akron alumni. These leaders have devoted themselves to learning about and serving our most vibrant and our more fragile community assets. Leadership transitions at the top may cause some turbulence, but unlike 1984, we have many more leaders with deeper community knowledge ready to move up.

So is this conversation worth having? Absolutely. Our evolving leadership base merits more discussion and, most important, more action. Below are two vital priorities around which Leadership Akron’s board and alumni have been taking action:

1. Empowering emerging leaders. We need to see younger leadership talent taking every opportunity to emerge, grow and truly lead. In Akron, baby-boomers occupy a large share of senior leadership roles both in organizations and in the community. Boomers may have a decade or more before retirement. So it will be important to make room for leaders across generations to join with them in leading our community.

After all, Xers and millennials will inherit the results of decisions about the future that are being made today. So they bring an important voice to the decision-making table.

Torchbearers is an effective, independent affiliate of Leadership Akron offering leadership development to the under 40 set. Young leaders need access to more established community leadership to narrow the generational and cultural gaps. We help create that conduit. For example, our alumni association launched Leadership on Main, a forum where Torchbearers and Leadership Akron alumni meet for conversations with each other and with Akron’s top changemakers.

In coming together for conversation and insights, these leaders build relationships across generations, creating conditions for more involvement and opportunity.

Leadership Akron also offers Torchbearers board shadowing, pairing emerging leaders with nonprofit boards, creating space at the governing table for new voices. This is also extended to participants in our Community Leadership Institutes (CLIs). Our CLIs extend the reach of Leadership Akron to hundreds more qualified, enthusiastic and often young leaders at key community institutions like Akron General and Goodyear and to the community at large. In the last month alone, we have connected over 20 Torchbearers and CLI graduates to nonprofits through this effort.

2. Intentionally seeking and creating a more diverse leadership pool. We know that our leadership base is not as diverse as our community, and we need to be more intentional about inviting all aspects of diversity. In addition to the moral imperative to assure equal opportunity, this also has implications for retaining talent: Millennials want to live in vibrant, represented and diverse communities. They move away from places that are one-dimensional. More voices, different experiences and perspectives will enrich our community organizations.

A few examples of our outreach include:

• Bernett Williams, a Leadership Akron graduate and now board member, has been working to strengthen our linkages in the African-American community, including engagement of minority Leadership Akron graduates and outreach to Pan-Hellenic groups whose members are primarily African-American.

• Cynthia Capers is leading a process to revamp Project Blueprint, an effort that originated at United Way to deepen the pool of minority community leaders who are ready to serve on nonprofit boards.

• We are collaborating with the Women’s Network on the Women’s Network CLI to advance the growth and involvement of women leaders in the Akron area.

In addition to changes in who will lead, changes are evident in how leadership is practiced. As more millennials hit the scene, they bring an instinct for working in teams through decentralized networks. This means collaborative leadership, often cited as a hallmark of Akron leaders.

Even if it may come more naturally to millennials, practicing collaborative leadership is hard work in any generation. At the regional level, the Fund for Our Economic Future understands that it is much easier to support the idea of collaboration than to actually practice it. The Fund, Leadership Akron and the Cleveland Leadership Center have been developing new learning opportunities for leaders to hone this set of skills.

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