AUGUSTA, Maine — When Leadership Maine was launched by the nonprofit Maine Development Foundation 20 years ago, staff would recruit people to attend the training program by speaking at Kiwanis and Rotary clubs.
Now, Cheryl Miller, who coordinates the yearlong program, says she has to turn away applicants, most of whom are referred by Leadership Maine alumni or required to attend by the businesses or nonprofit organizations for which they work.
In addition, Leadership Maine, a statewide endeavor whose alumni include former Gov. Angus King and former Attorney General Steve Rowe, has spawned regional leadership programs which have followed its model. Those who have completed the programs, both regionally and through MDF, describe it as life altering, a response that does not surprise Miller, whose own professional course was changed when she attended Leadership Maine.
MDF launched Leadership Maine in 1993 when one of its board members, then-CEO of Verizon in Maine Ed Dinan, suggested creating such a training institute. Dinan had attended a similar program in Rhode Island.
Leadership Maine’s goal was to prepare 1,000 leaders for work in business, nonprofit and civic realms. To date, it has graduated 766. But if the graduates of the regional spin-off leadership programs are counted, the thousand leader goal has been met and exceeded.
“It really was designed because the same leaders were always around the table,” Miller said, a complaint heard in many Maine communities that struggle to find people willing to serve on committees, boards and in local government.
The idea, Miller said, is to build a small army of leaders.
“If we had a thousand leaders with a common base of understanding, we could really move mountains,” she said.
Leadership Maine and the regional programs, such as the Midcoast Leadership Academy based at the University of Maine Hutchinson Center in Belfast, typically accept people who already are engaged in their communities and perhaps poised to take the next step. It exposes them to people and institutions that play key parts in civic and economic life in Maine.
The programs typically run for a year, beginning with a two-day retreat in the summer, then a daylong seminar or field trip each month after that, culminating in a final, two-day event.
Lisa Roming, a research and program officer at the Unity Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit organization built by the late Unity businessman Bert Clifford, attended Midcoast Leadership Academy and graduated in 2007. She describes herself as “sort of the poster child” for the program.
“I can say that it truly, truly, truly changed — both personally and professionally — my life,” Roming said. Though she considered herself an accomplished professional when she signed up, Roming described herself as a “stage manager” type.
“My career choices had been in a support role, not a leadership role,” she said. But while inquiring about another course being offered at the Hutchinson Center, she was told about the Midcoast Leadership Academy and thought, “I’ll give it a whirl.”
Reflecting back on that choice, Roming, 51, said, “It absolutely turned out to be life changing.” She remains in the same job — a position she loves — but has been able to expand her role there, in large part, “Because I have more confidence in myself.”
One area of growth was in public speaking.
“It is amazing to me that five years ago I was afraid to say ‘boo’ if there were three people in the room,” Roming said. Now she serves on nonprofit boards, speaks at conferences and “I am a better advocate for my program.”
Other grads are “stepping up” as well, she said. At a recent civic meeting of some 20 people, Roming counted nine MLA graduates. She also noted that Carole Gartley of Rockland, who is running for the Legislature, is a grad, as is Jim O’Connor of Belfast, who ran last year for mayor of that city.
Jim Gamage Jr., 36, of Rockland, who owns All Aboard Trolley and a temporary workforce business, graduated from MLA in May. “A couple of buddies of mine took it and liked it,” he said.
As a graduate, he now believes, “It was one of the best things I’ve done so far. It’s helped me in every aspect of my life.”
Specifically, he said, “It’s taught me to listen, and to know it’s not selfish to take care of myself first.” Taking time for family, relaxing and ensuring he was getting rest helps him better lead his businesses, he said, which the program helped him learn.
“It’s excellent for networking,” Gamage added. “It’s made me more aware of what’s going on around me instead of just my little world.” Just about every day he crosses paths with an MLA graduate or two.
Robin McIntosh, who helps coordinate MLA, had completed similar leadership training in Portsmouth, R.I. She stresses the broad approach MLA takes in educating participants about how their communities function.
One day is devoted to studying the judicial system, and when participants visit a local jail and see someone serving time for a drug offense, they will bring what they learn to their later study of the local health care, education and economic development systems.
“It broadens your base of knowledge,” she said, allowing participants to see that “they’re all woven together. These are the people who are going to be on your planning board, on your city council, the hospital board,” she said, so such knowledge is valuable.
One of MLA’s goals is to foster more cooperation between Knox and Waldo counties, McIntosh said. Dan Bookham, executive director of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce, the organization for which McIntosh works, is a MLA graduate. When the Rockland-based Chamber sought to merge with the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber — an effort that had failed in the past — MLA grads on both chamber boards, as well as Bookham’s leadership, helped bring the groups together, McIntosh said.
McIntosh continues to meet regularly with MLA grads.
“There’s a bunch of us who get together for lunch once a month,” she said.
Shirley Erickson graduated from the Washington County Leadership Institute in 1998. At the time, she was vice president for student affairs at the University of Maine at Machias.
“The main thing that was helpful was learning additional problem-solving skills,” she said. By meeting with various nonprofit and business leaders, Erickson said she learned that those skills were common, “regardless of people’s positions.”
Erickson now is executive director of Maine Educational Loan Authority, based in Machiasport and Portland. Looking back, she believes it helped fine-tune the skills she already possessed.
With 250-plus graduates, the Washington County institute has brought forward fresh blood, she said. And, as others noted, there is a fraternity of sorts.
“People recognize who’s participated, and you kind of run into alumni,” Erickson said.
Erickson also attended the Maine Leadership Foundation program in 2000.
Miller said participants in her program typically are evenly split between those working for private businesses and nonprofit organizations or government. Companies such as L.L. Bean, Bangor Savings Bank and Camden National Bank send their top-level managers through the program, as do nonprofits such as Spurwink.
“A huge amount of people from state government” also complete the training.
And there is no arm twisting.
“People pay tuition to go through it,” Miller said. “It’s about finding out a lot more about what it takes to be a leader today.”
Those denied acceptance to both the regional and Leadership Maine programs are encouraged to continue to remain engaged in their communities and reapply later.
Several of the regional programs were founded by Leadership Maine graduates, Miller said. Leadership Hancock County was founded by Bonnie Sparks, a 1999 graduate of Leadership Maine. Other regional groups include the Bangor Region Leadership Institute, Kennebec Leadership Institute, Androscoggin Development Leadership Institute and the Institute for Civic Leadership in Portland.
There’s even Encore Leadership Corps for seniors, operated by the Maine Development Foundation.
Leadership Hancock County defines leadership as “the capacity to think and act beyond the boundaries that limit our effectiveness. Leaders are made, not born and leadership itself can be learned through strengthening interpersonal skills, cultivating situational and self-awareness, and building business and community networks.”
Miller said surveys of grads show that participants say the program met or exceeded their expectations. The surveys also show grads often report increased responsibility at work and being more engaged with their community.