It’s not often that you get to be part of the agenda for a daylong meetup with four women whose professional goals are to grow other community leaders.
I was afforded that opportunity when Leadership Harrisburg Area CEO and President Una Martone hosted a leadership summer summit at the organization’s Front Street office in Harrisburg. Her counterparts in York, Cumberland and Lancaster were also in attendance.
Leadership development courses in the midstate date back decades. It’s likely you know someone who has been involved in the courses, or your company sponsored one for you. Since the 1980s, the Harrisburg group alone has graduated thousands of community leaders.
“2007 was the best class, let that be for the record,” joked Martone of her own Harrisburg graduating class. (OK, she wasn’t really joking).
What’s the main focus of the leadership programs? Well, you already work, live and/or raise a family in the community, how can you become more involved? How can you put your own leadership skills to use? Maybe it’s an elected position or you’re interested in serving on a local nonprofit board. In a nutshell, the programs help guide you in this process. It’s commonly known as servant leadership.
“Leadership programs are giving people the pathway to being change agents,” said Kate Zimmerman, executive director of Leadership Lancaster. This summer, Zimmerman started her second year leading Lancaster’s program.
Executive directors for Leadership York, Wilda Alessi, and Leadership Cumberland, Nicole Deary, also attended the summit. Alessi started her third year with York while Deary joined midway through her first Cumberland class in 2017. The veteran in the group, Martone, recently celebrated a 10-year-milestone anniversary with Leadership Harrisburg.
What’s your back story to becoming executive director?
Three different people in three days approached Alessi to take over Leadership York after her predecessor, Carolyn Warman, announced her retirement. Warman had led Leadership York since 2000.
“It was a sign,” Alessi said. She went through the leadership program in 2009 and she was a believer in the organization’s work. Alessi met with Warman to learn more. “I grilled her about the organization” to see if it would be a good fit, she said.
It was. Alessi took over during the summer of 2016.
“Running a nonprofit is like running a small business,” she said of the busywork. Other rewards are more fulfilling. “I’m getting paid to do this. I’m getting paid to inspire people to give back to the community.”
Deary took a faster track. She was halfway through attending her first Leadership Cumberland class when she took over as its executive director.
“I sat in on the first day of class and I knew there was something uniquely special about this program,” she said. “I was a junkie on personal development and had a heart for nonprofit work.”
Initially, when the position opened, Deary was drawn to it, but her inner voice doubted that it was a fit for her at the time.
“It was imposter syndrome,” she said. “‘I’m not qualified. I’m not old enough. I’m not wise enough.'”
She sought advice and assurance from others. It helped make up her mind. This year Deary graduated her first two classes.
“It can be daunting being a party of one, but I feel like I have the best job ever,” she said.
Zimmerman’s family hails from Michigan, but she made Lancaster her home about 10 years ago. At first she said she didn’t “get Lancaster,” as she described it. The leadership program helped her to better understand the community.
“Leadership Lancaster made it my home. They became my family,” she said. She applied for the executive director position in 2017 and sustained more than four grueling interviews. Of the 120 applicants that applied, she was named to the top spot.
“Lancaster is very much a collaborative community. Instead of competing they look for what is good for the overall community,” she said. “Every single day I’m seeing the people who want to do good and it’s an incredible feeling.”
Here are some of the questions that I ran by the group: Their answers, edited for length and clarity, are below.
CPBJ: What keeps you up at night?
Alessi: Are the decisions that I’m making today the best decisions in the long run? Am I keeping my board up that in five years am I going to have the board that I deserve?
Zimmerman: Am I building an organization that lives beyond us? In addition to keeping the lights on, am I building the nest egg to grow programs? What do we need to know about so we can train leaders in five years? What trends are coming? What do we need to know that we don’t know?
Martone: What can I do today to make it easier for the organization if something should happen to me, such as a family emergency? I develop all the programs. Who will take on that full-day session with 60 people should I get sick overnight? The organization would have to do some really fast footwork. Leadership Harrisburg has only two people on staff.
Deary: I have the same fear. What if my little one is sick? I have a program tomorrow, I have three committee meetings, I can’t work from home. There’s no plan B. That’s always the worry.
CPBJ: How do you motivate yourself to lead when some days it might feel impossible to do so?
Alessi: Going to a program session. Being able to see people being inspired and seeing the light bulbs go off. At times of stress we tend to retreat. But if I go out and speak to groups, it’s so energizing to hear people say that this organization has made an impact on their lives. You have to get out of your own head sometimes. I remind myself, when things get tough, what is the opportunity here?
Zimmerman: I’m reminded of the good that the organization helps to provide for the community. Even a trip to the grocery store is not without someone saying how much they appreciated going through Leadership Lancaster. It happens organically. It’s hard to stay in a funk.
Deary: My frustration comes from wanting to do so much, and I have trouble sitting on my hands. but I can’t do it all. It’s so intoxicating with what the community needs with how people want to help out. My bad days come from … reality, I guess?
Alessi: It’s good to look back, especially in the middle a big project and you feel like you might not be progressing. I take a look back to where we were two years ago and I say “Holy cow, look what we did. We did a lot and we should be proud of that. Savor it.”
Martone: It’s really a phenomena, these community leadership programs are a phenomena. You can’t really explain but you want to be a part of it. Our challenge is expressing what we do in such a way that people feel that they have to get into it and become a part of it. If they want a piece of this positivity? You don’t get that sitting behind your computer.
Zimmerman: We take a 360-degree look on really tough issues. We are talking about the justice system, racial equity and inclusion. We are talking about poverty … but it isn’t the end of the conversation, now go be engaged.
CPBJ: What are some good takeaways from the summit?
Deary: I feel that I’m not alone. Sometimes you just need an “Am I crazy? phone call.” It’s that incredible feeling of community. Or there a places that I can take my program that we haven’t achieved yet.
Martone: There is a lot of power in this group because of the organizations that we are representing. Imagine if we got together on a regional basis and brought the power of our communities behind them. Today can be the start of that conversation. What can we all do together to pull our resources, pull our people and pull our goodwill to make a greater impact.
Zimmerman: There is value in us knowing and talking to each other. Those imagined borders, for example of York and Lancaster, don’t stop there for the people working in those communities.
Alessi: Our group can provide a different perspective that no one else in our communities can provide. This group provides that sounding board.
Martone: Who knows where it can go from here?