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Friday November 28th 2014

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LeaPing Forward

By Jeremy Morrison

When you ask people involved with LeaP (Leadership Pensacola) about their experience with the program, they tend to get excited.

“It was a life changing experience for me,” reflected Kristine Karsten, a 2007 LeaP graduate, “through so many avenues.”

They talk about teamwork and friendship. They talk about an appreciation for the local community. They talk about networking. Everyone points to LeaP as being extremely helpful in both their personal and professional development.

“The stuff you learn through that program is stuff you’re just not going to learn anywhere else,” said Shane Rowe, current president of the LeaP Alumni Association.

AN EXCLUSIVE CLUB

For nearly 30 years—since 1982—the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce has culled the local community for the area’s future leaders. Each year, around 50 people are selected to participate in the chamber’s Leadership Pensacola (LeaP) program.

“It’s really a hands-on, in-depth look at the Pensacola area,” explained Jennifer Allen, the Chamber’s Programs and Events Manager.

According to the chamber’s website, the program is built on the concept that the idea of a “born leader” is a myth. The ability to take charge is not enough to move a business, an organization, or the community forward. Rather, a leader’s success depends upon developing qualities of leadership, combined with a broad awareness of key issues that will make a positive impact.

Leadership Pensacola, a 501(c)(3), was founded by Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce with the goal of ensuring the community’s pool of talented leaders would be continually renewed. The chamber understood that the future health of any community is linked to committed, educated leadership that must be equipped to make vigorous, well-informed and responsible decisions.

Allen oversees the LeaP program for the chamber. Over the years, a select number have been through the program.

“The number that’s sticking out in my head is almost 1,200,” Allen estimated.

Over the course of 10 months, participants dive into various aspects of the community. They learn about the local government and economy. The leaders meet and interact with elected officials ranging from Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward to Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas to Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan. They travel to Tallahassee to see the Florida Legislature in action.

The LeaP class also visits NAS Pensacola and local hospitals to learn about the military and healthcare. In addition, they will work together in an effort to better some aspect of the community through a group project.

“It’s to engage them,” Allen said. “To create passion for Pensacola.”

The goal of the program is to produce leaders who will be well equipped to lead Northwest Florida–and specifically the Pensacola area–into the future. And to that end, LeaP alumni do seem to populate the area’s influential ranks.

“Collier Merrill, Mike Wiggins…” Allen rattled off notable alumni. “I could go on and on.”

Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson is a 1998 LeaP graduate. He went through the course as a 27 year old.

“It’s been over a decade,” Commissioner Robinson said, remembering his experience fondly. “Great, great organization—offers great opportunity.”

LeaP participants are selected through both an application and nomination process, and a slot on the class roster is considered a Pensacola prize.

“It is a competitive process,” said KC Etheredge, director of Alumni Relations at the University of West Florida and LeaP’s curriculum chair. “The best of the best are selected.”

The benefits of the program being recognized, there is always a large pool of contenders. Some apply for a spot in the program, while others are nominated and sponsored by their employers or members of the community.

“We had 200 people nominated for this year’s class, and we chose 54,” Allen said. “I already have nominations for the class of 2013.”

Not everyone gets in on their first try. But persistence is apparently an admirable quality among the LeaP organization.

“I was well aware of the organization,” Robinson said, remembering his eager, yet unsuccessful, initial bid for entry into the LeaP program. “It certainly can be challenging. You may not get in the first time you apply.”

When Justin Pierce, a recreation supervisor with the City of Pensacola, got the chance recently to participate, he said he immediately recognized his good fortune. He is currently a member of the 2012 class.

“I’ve heard so many good things about the program,” Pierce said. “Once I got nominated, I had to jump on the opportunity.”

LEARNING THE ROPES

The Class of 2012 just began their journey through the LeaP program. They kicked things off recently on a ropes course at UWF.

“That was really the ice-breaker day,” said Allen. From there the group gets down to business. Each month, the LeaP class meets for a day of exploration into a specific aspect of the community.

“It’s an aggressive curriculum that we have,” Etheredge admits. “We throw a lot of information at them.”

The curriculum is determined by LeaP alumni. There are consistent cornerstones, but the program varies from year to year.

“No two years have the exact same curriculum,” she explained. “The alumni are running the days based on their experience in the class and wanting to make it better.”

One day will be focused on healthcare. Participants will visit local institutions and speak with experts in the field. Another day will see LeaPers learning about the impact of the military in Pensacola. Another will have them learning about local government.

“They’ll have privileged access to leaders in our community,” said Allen.

During their February meeting, those in the class will join members of similar groups from nearby areas on a field trip to Tallahassee. At the state capital, participants will learn about the ins and outs of state government.

“How could you learn all that by sitting in your office?” asks MaryEllen Roy, marketing and information director at Pensacola State College and excited participant in this year’s class. “You’re only going to learn by getting in and getting your hands dirty.”

There will also be days focused on ethics and quality of life issues. Regional economics will be yet another topic.

Nigel Allen, vice president for gift and estate planning for Covenant Hospice, is participating in the program this year. At the age of 53—considering himself one of the class’s “more mature members”—he has had the opportunity to go through similar programs in other locales and enjoys the luxury of perspective.

“I’ve got to say, this program is really well thought out and constructed,” he said.

TAKING IT TO THE STREETS

Each year, the LeaP group works together on a class project, the goal of which is to address a need in the community.

“That’s a huge component of Leadership Pensacola,” said the chamber’s Allen. “The class project is ongoing throughout the year.”

This year’s class is still early in their LeaP experience and has yet to decide upon their project. While contemplating, they’ll have a good collection of past projects to look toward for guidance.

One recent project saw LeaP partnering with local schools to encourage healthy eating habits. Members worked with the schools and the community to plant on-site gardens that served to educate students about a healthy diet. After the class disbanded, Manna Food Bank picked up and continued the project.

In 2008, the LeaP class concentrated on curbside recycling. Not long after, Pensacola began offering the service itself.

“I kind of think we were a little bit of a catalyst in getting that going,” said Cameron Smith, a financial advisor at Morgan Stanley and LeaP graduate.

Smith spearheaded the 2008 recycling project. He remembers the group wanted to focus their energies in a green direction.

“We put a kit together, basically,” Smith said, listing off contents such as CFL light bulbs and reusable shopping bags, “just to make as big of an impact as we could with the money we had.”

The group also put thousands of recycling bins out into the community. They took the issue of curbside recycling before the Pensacola City Council and the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority. Within a year, ECUA adopted a county-wide curbside recycling program. The City of Pensacola soon followed suit, and city-issued recycling containers now line its streets.

“We like to think we were a part of that,” said Etheredge.

In 2007, the LeaP class chose to address literacy as its project. Karsten, who works with McGraw Insurance, was one of the leaders on the 2007 project.

“It was important to us,” she said. “We understood literacy was such a big issue. We felt we could make a big impact on that.”

Each Saturday, the LeaP group took to the streets in a particular neighborhood and handed out books. Kids flocked to hear them read.

“The studies have shown that a lot of these children don’t have books of their own,” Karsten said, adding that she hoped the experience sparked a long-term interest in reading with the children.

NO TESTS (THAT’S THE TEST)

Rowe, the LeaP Alumni president, is a true believer. That was not always the case.

“I’ll be honest with you, it gets a lot of ‘rah-rah,’” he said of the program. “At first, I didn’t really buy it.”

But then Rowe went through the program. The Class of 2009 graduate now touts the program’s benefits.

Karsten agreed. The current Pensacola Young Professionals president said the experience opened up her eyes to a larger view of Pensacola.

“You drive around town and you really take everything for what it is, and you may not really know what goes on behind the scenes,” Karsten said.

Smith said he also gained an appreciation for the inner workings of the community.

“I got a broader understanding of the ins and outs of this area,” he said. “I got to see some of the behind-the-scenes stuff.”

Such an education is integral to those interested in helping steer Pensacola into the future. It familiarizes them with both the infrastructure and the people who make up the local community.

“You build a lot of relationships and learn to work with people across the community,” said Commissioner Robinson.

In addition to getting better acquainted with their communities and fostering professional growth and networking opportunities, participants also say LeaP has a personal effect.

“Everyone’s different. It’s going to have a different impact on different people,” Etheredge said. “For me personally, it made me come out of my shell a little more, made me more confident in my leadership skills.”

Working through the class with others interested in their community also offers participants a chance to learn from each other. Pierce said he is looking forward to learning both with and from his classmates.

“You’re just working together and picking each other’s brains to see how other people think—you’re just meeting and learning from different people,” the current LeaP participant said.

Those having completed the LeaP program said the personal relationships developed as a result of the class have also been important. While the participants start off on common ground—all interested in honing their leadership skills—the course of the class further unites them.

“My favorite people in Pensacola are LeaP people,” Etheredge said. “We all have that commonality of going through the LeaP program, and it does bond you.”

Commissioner Robinson also praised the camaraderie.

“There are still members of my LeaP class that I keep up with,” he said.

But just as importantly as what participants get out of the LeaP program is what they will put back into the community following their experience in the class.

“It’s a great thing for both individuals and this community,” Robinson said.

Unlike most classes, the LeaP curriculum does not feature exams. Instead, participants can demonstrate the knowledge learned throughout their lives.

“There’s no test or anything,” Etheredge said, dipping into a bit of go-getter zen. “You kind of get out of LeaP what you put into LeaP.”

This education model seems to be working to a great degree. But then, people venturing into LeaP tend to be fairly driven anyway.

“Oh wow, when it was over I had this desire to get involved,” Karsten remembered. “I don’t know how anyone would go through that program and not get involved in the community in some aspect.”