‘It’s about turning on the light bulb for people’
By Mike Lewis
Tara Sargent pitches what she calls “three levels of benefit” people get by participating in Leadership Washington County.
Each person can benefit by learning about various segments of the community and building relationships with classmates, she said. The sponsoring organization benefits by having an employee who has a deeper understanding of the area. And the community benefits by having more leaders in more places throughout the region.
“It’s about turning the light bulb on for people,” Sargent said.
Sargent is executive director of Leadership Washington County. There are leadership organizations in other communities throughout the Crossroads Business Journal region. The programs have some differences in their approaches. But they share the goals of developing leaders who understand a community’s challenges and opportunities, and how local businesses, nonprofit agencies and governmental organizations work to meet them.
“We’re a nonprofit, and we’re about community engagement,” Sargent said.
‘Every single time’
Leadership Washington County was established in 1987 under the name Leadership Hagerstown. Like many of its peer programs, it began in cooperation with the local chamber of commerce.
The group became a separate nonprofit in 2006.
“You have a little bit more autonomy,” Sargent said.
“At that time, we were a lot smaller on a lot of levels.”
A typical class has about 30 members, she said. There are 36 in the current session, Class 33.
“It all has to do with how many I can put on a bus as we travel around the county,” Sargent said with a laugh.
Through the years, Leadership Washington County has graduated more than 900 people.
Like participants in other Leadership programs, class members learn about the area’s history, economy and people. They visit businesses, governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations.
Some programs focus on individual leadership skills, like the sessions one might find at business seminars.
“We don’t do any of that,” Sargent said.
The Washington County program focuses more on community leaders and showing participants how decisions are made.
At the beginning of every class, Sargent said, she asks participants to “keep an open mind.” At graduation, she said, she changes that line to “Now Chapter One begins.”
Businesses and other organizations send people to the program for a variety of reasons.
“They want their employees to understand their community better,” Sargent said.
Participants also make connections, but at a different level than at chamber mixers or business dinners. Participants work in small groups and they have a say in how their classes are structured. Some classmates develop lifelong relationships.
“So much of the reward comes from seeing the closeness that develops in a class,” she said.
It’s also “rewarding to watch them develop an awareness of something they didn’t know.”
Even lifelong Washington County residents remark that they learn something new. It happens “every single time,” Sargent said.
‘One of the joys of my job’
In Franklin County, Pa., Ginny Harriger is executive director of the Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce Foundation and program director for Leadership Franklin County.
The program boasts more than 640 graduates since it started in 1985.
The sessions do not cover “leadership 101,” Harriger said, but offer deeper examinations of the community.
“The goal is basically to expose them to every subject matter there is,” she said, from economic development to education to criminal justice to government.
“The only way a community can continue to thrive is if we’re checking all the areas.”
Participants work in small groups and do a group project with a nonprofit organization. Organizations apply through an RFP process.
“They come to us for different reasons,” Harriger said of the participants. Some are young people who are early in their careers, while others are close to retirement and looking for their next contribution to the community.
“Obviously it’s good for their business brand,” she added.
In today’s business world, it’s easy to become a specialist in your field, busy with family responsibilities and “pretty saturated in day-to-day life.”
Leadership programs look for the impact of a ripple effect by placing leaders throughout the community.
“This really opens them up to start thinking a little differently.”
There are 18 in the current class, but class sizes have ranged from 10 to about 25.
The adult program has been so successful that the foundation launched a youth program started in 2009. It’s designed for sophomores. There are 28 in this year’s class.
“Wilson College has been a great partner” and has underwritten the cost, so there’s no charge for the teenagers, Harriger said.
“We’re looking for someone who hasn’t found their voice. … It’s a pretty critical point in their lives.”
The Leadership program, she said, is “clearly one of the joys of my job”
‘A great group’
Leadership Berkeley operates under the umbrella of the Martinsburg-Berkeley County (W.Va.) Chamber of Commerce. Tina Combs is the chamber’s president and CEO.
“We just started our 29th (Leadership) year,” she said. “It runs like a school year.”
The program aims for about 28 to 30 class members from diverse backgrounds and organizations.
Like other Leadership programs, the class meets for one full day a month to examine various aspects of the community. The exception, she said, is a trip to the state capital. That’s usually a Sunday-through-Tuesday venture, because of the travel time between Martinsburg and Charleston.
Unlike some other programs, Leadership Berkeley offers classes on individual leadership skills.
“That’s been the biggest challenge for me,” she said, because of the diverse background of the participants.
But she said the major goal is improving the region.
“First and foremost, good leaders are aware of what’s going on in their communities,” Combs said.
Second, she said, having strong leaders is good for businesses and organizations. And having strong businesses and organizations is good for communities.
“We encourage our graduates to be involved in the community if they aren’t already. … We have over 500 people who have graduated,” she said.
Like some other programs, Leadership Berkeley alumni have class reunions and gatherings, and they’re invited to some current leadership events.
Combs said the alumni she speaks with still talk about the leadership experience.
“They also talk about how they still touch base with their classmates,” she said. “It’s a great group to be able to lean on.”