Leadership Austin story

GivingCity Austin, Spring 2009

Somewhere along the way, "networking" became a vaguely dirty word, conjuring images of exclusive schmooze-fests and powerbroker backslapping. Somewhere along the way, Leadership Austin became associated with this kind of exclusivity, a who's who of Austin to which mere mortals need not apply.

But Leadership Austin's new CEO, Heather McKissick, insists that anyone who has that impression has got it all wrong. "It's important for me," says McKissick, "that people understand that the programs of Leadership Austin are open and available to anyone who wants to participate."

Yes, there is networking. But it's the good kind, says Marion Martin, a 2009 Essential Class participant, who currently serves as the YMCA's director of financial development. The kind that she says "opens lots of doors and provides lots of resources."

But Martin's enthusiasm for the organization goes beyond the benefits of networking. "It's fantastic. It's the best thing I've ever done. It's incredible," she says.

While McKissick acknowledges that the exclusive reputation is out there, she says several factors are responsible for a recent drive to become more open and accessible. "One, there's new leadership here, with a new view. Two, you've got this changing demographic, and we have to be able to responsive to that in our programming. There's also such a significant demand for community-based and nonprofit leadership. Combine that with...a new president that is calling the nation to service in a way that has not happened in decades. It's a real opportunity for an organization like ours to reach out and develop leaders from all generations and all walks of life."

Founded in 1979, Leadership Austin began as a program of the chamber of commerce, but now operates as an independent nonprofit, though it's hardly one of a kind. "Pretty much everywhere you go, there's a program," says CEO McKissick. "Most of them originated to help advance community-based leadership and civic leadership skills, as opposed to business-management type skills."

This still describes Leadership Austin's basic mission, though the programs have evolved and proliferated over the years. One of the reasons for the organization's exclusive aura may be due to the fact that two of the six programs require an application and selection process. Each year, out of hundreds of applications, only 55 people are selected for the Essential Class, and 45 for the under-40 Emerge program. But there are four other programs, all of which are open to public participation.

This is a point that Steve Benesh, Leadership Austin's board chair and a partner at law firm Bracewell and Giuliani, wants to emphasize. "Regardless of where they are with regard to their leadership in the workplace or in the community," he says, "there is a Leadership Austin program for them."

Still, one glance at Leadership Austin's alumni roster, and prominent names and positions jump out: Kirk Watson. Brewster McCracken. Dawnna Dukes. Law firm partners. Bank presidents. CEOs. University presidents. Nonprofit directors.

Intimidated? Don't be, says McKissick. This "who's who" reputation is a chicken-and-egg problem as she describes it. "The good news," she says, "is that graduates have gone to take on leadership positions throughout the community...[but] the downside is that people can begin to think it's exclusive because of the high caliber of alumni that have been produced over the years."

"But the truth is," says McKissick, "that our processes are very inclusive processes and our classes are selected to be as highly representative of the region as they can possibly be."

Board chair Benesh knows about the selection process for the Essential Class firsthand, having served on its selection committee. "One of the things that the committee is very careful to do is to make sure that no profession is overrepresented," he says.

Even with a focus on accurate community representation, there's no getting around that there is a cost for each program, ranging from $25 for each installment of the Engage speaker series to as much as $3000 for the 9-month Essential Class program.

Marion Martin, one of the 2009 Essential Class scholarship recipients, has this to say: "Money shouldn't be anyone's criteria," she says. "It should be what they're going to get out of the program, and how they're going to pay for it, we should worry about later."

And there is help. Financial need will not impact selection, says McKissick. "It's a blind process," she says, adding that scholarships range up to 50 percent of the total tuition.

So if you don't need to be a somebody, and you don't need loads of cash, what does Leadership Austin want in an applicant? "The number one selection criteria," says McKissick, "is demonstrated commitment to the community through service. It's not about your business resume, not about how many professional awards you have received."

Martin marvels at how much she's gotten out of her participation with Leadership Austin, even going so far as to call it necessary. "You acquaint yourself with your own passion, and once you do that, you've been set on fire and off you go," she says.

"Can it be done without Leadership Austin?" she asks. "I suppose so, but I can't imagine it. I'm going to be a much more engaged citizen of Austin than I was before."

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