There’s a joke among Leadership Tri-Cities alumni that theirs was “the best class ever.”
And when the organization’s board members talk about incoming classes, they refer to them as “the next best class ever.”
The leadership group is now accepting applications for its “next best class” and planning an open house for those interested in learning more about the program that’s graduated 478 leaders since 1994.
[blockquote quote="It was the best thing I ever did." source="Holley Sowards, Einan’s at Sunset" align="right" max_width="300px"]
Over the course of a year, class members attend several sessions led by community experts focusing on the various sectors and industries shaping the region, including agriculture, human needs and services, economic development, law enforcement and the justice system, education, local and state government, medical and health services, arts and culture, and the Hanford site.
“Every single speaker that you hear, they are — most of the time — the most established (authority) in the community. They give you handouts of all the speakers and their numbers and email addresses,” said Holley Sowards, a member of the Class of XVIII.
Sowards recalled being told how Leadership Tri-Cities would be “life changing,” and at the time thought, “how canned.”
But, she’s now a believer. “It was the best thing I ever did,” she said.
“It really is an amazing experience. I have connections and I have met so many people. I would have worked so many years to meet those people,” she said.
Class members also participate in a class retreat to focus on team-building, attend leadership development trainings and must complete a class project that benefits an organization within the community.
Past projects have included relocating a children’s museum, remodeling a domestic violence safe house and installing a serenity garden at the Tri-Cities Cancer Center in Kennewick.
“It’s a big time commitment requiring attendance at all sessions,” said Danette Layne, an alum of the group’s Class of XIV. Layne will serve as the incoming class’ leadership development director, overseeing the slate of programs for the incoming members.
The program’s time commitment can seem daunting. Each class member is required to attend a two-day trip to Wenatchee in early August, one weekday session (usually on a Wednesday) per month September through June, a two-and-a-half day trip to Olympia in February, a required pre-learning session on a Saturday in May for the Hanford session, as well as additional meetings for the leadership skills development.
One excused absence is allowed.
Sowards said she underestimated the time the program would take when she applied.
“It’s a bigger time commitment than I thought it was when I signed up. And there is more time that goes into it when you go into the planning of the projects. … It was a little stressful, and at the end, we were all glad we were done,” she said. “But the reward in the end is very much worth it.”
Tawni Gama, client services coordinator at Conover Insurance in Pasco, a member of the current Leadership Tri-Cities class, Class XXII, said she wasn’t 100 percent what to expect from the experience.
“I think the most I knew was I would learn a lot about the community and meet some new people. I never realized that right off the bat I would make 22 new amazing friends to share this experience with,” she said.
Gama said the leadership development sessions and the community session days “are always so motivating, especially getting to go through them with such a motivated group of people. I would highly encourage those that have considered it in the past to apply; it’s well worth the investment.”
Leadership Tri-Cities tuition is increasing this year for the first time in 23 years, from $800 to $1,000. It’ll be followed by staggered increases during the next three years to reach $1,400 in 2019-20.
The organization reviewed leadership programs in similarly sized cities before adjusting its rates.
The tuition, which is subsidized by program sponsors, goes toward transportation, food and program costs.
Each class member is responsible for personally paying at least $100 of the total cost.
For the amount of time and money invested, the return is worth it, said Rick Redden, president of Leadership Tri-Cities and a member of Class XVII. The program provides more than 170 facilitated hours of training and 45 hours of leadership development training.
The state’s chamber of commerce, Association of Washington Business, offers a nine-month leadership course with a tuition of $3,500. Participants are required to attend seven seminars at various locations throughout the state, including in the Tri-Cities, to learn about agriculture, immigration and food processing.
Three Tri-Citians participated in the 2016 class: Austin Nielson from the Tri-City Regional Chamber; Karen Blasdel from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; and Marie Thomas from Energy Northwest. The inaugural 2015 class included Gordon Matlock, who was with PNNL at the time.
Battelle, which manages and operates PNNL in Richland, is a founding sponsor of the statewide program, which began in 2015.
The deadline for this program is June 1. Visit awbinstitute.org/leadership to apply.
The Tri-Cities’ program offers a more localized approach.
“We think we provide a unique and unparalleled immersive learning experience about our community and what goes on here and what makes us thrive,” Redden said.
Layne said the “engaging program” provides leadership skills and knowledge to the Tri-Cities’ next crop of leaders. “Leadership Tri-Cities graduates are serving on boards and in other capacities and are looking forward. … We strengthen them to be better leaders and community members,” she said.
The group’s ultimate goal is to give participants the tools they need to serve the community, whether on a city council or on a board for a nonprofit. People make more informed decisions when they better understand all aspects of their community, LTC officials said.
“We want them to get involved and obviously we ask a lot of them. We ask them to give back and dedicate a great amount of time,” Redden said.
Ideal candidates for the program should reflect the community’s diversity, from a local business owner to an employee working for a bigger company or corporation to representatives from the various industries in Benton and Franklin counties, Redden said. “I think our history will show we’ve had great diversity. We’re always trying to develop and further develop a diverse set of skilled leaders.”
Sowards agreed: “It’s super important to have a really diverse group so you can get all those connections. People who’ve been in work force for a while and worked their way into good positions and a certain amount of people who are up and coming leaders. I think they’ve done a good job with that,” she said.
The deadline for applications for Class XXIII is April 28. Applicant interviews will be scheduled in mid-May. Visit leadershiptricities.com for details.
Ideal class sizes range from 20 to 25, Layne said.
To learn more about the program, attend an informational night from 6:30 to 8 p.m. March 30 at the Events Center at Sunset, 915 Bypass Highway in Richland. Attendees will hear from former class members and board members.
Sowards said Leadership Tri-Cities changed her career trajectory and helped her find her voice.
She took the lead for her class’ fundraiser — raising $17,000 to remodel a transitional home for veterans — and her enthusiasm, talent and skills caught the eye of a board member of her current employer, ultimately leading to a career change. She manages the operations of Einan’s at Sunset funeral home and event center.
“I made some major strides in my career path through that program,” she said. “Had I not gone through that, I don’t know I’d be in the career I am now. I went from marketing, sales, shipping and receiving in manufacturing to running an operation,” she said.
Sowards said Leadership Tri-Cities was “a game changer for me and I think it would be a game changer for a lot of people.”
“When you go to the ropes course on the first day, you meet everyone. They tell you that you will leave as friends and I thought that was insane. Starting out, I thought, ‘I can’t handle this person or that one,’ but then literally through that process, you get to know people and understand that some of those things don’t matter. …We literally left that day and it was like a new family,” she said.
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