Doing Great Work, Making Work Great in Chautauqua County, NY

Apr 7, 2011

Chautauqua Lake

A Chautauqua in Chautauqua
Susan McNamara leads the Chautauqua Workforce Investment Board (Chautauqua Works) in western New York State - a rural community bordering Lake Eerie. When we learned that she had been selected by the Chautauqua Leadership Network as Leader of the Year, we knew we had to meet her.

The workforce system is complex. What Workforce Boards (WIBs) do can be difficult to explain, especially as federal and state workforce policy directives shift, creating expectations at the community level that local programs may not be prepared to meet. But Susan is very clear about the workforce board's role in her community: "We are the eharmony of talent. We link job seekers with opportunity and firms with talent. We grow both people and businesses."

When we asked her to identify the big workforce issues in her community, she didn't hesitate: literacy, "bench strength" (especially in industries rooted in STEM - science, technology, engineering, and math - skills), and entrepreneurship.

Bench-strength? We couldn't leave that alone.

Developing the Next Generation of Community Leaders
Like many smaller communities rooted in manufacturing, young people in the Jamestown-Dunkirk-Chautauqua County region have a hard time seeing themselves in jobs or careers without leaving the area. But data shows that there are good jobs available and that there will be a wave of coming retirements across firms and industries. (The recession may have slowed the exodus, but it has not reversed the trend.)

The Chautauqua Advancement Project is one way the WIB hopes to build the next generation of business and community leaders - and the next, and the next. Funded by the Gebbie Foundation and run by the Chautauqua WIB/Chautauqua Works, the project offers young professionals (many, recent college-graduates) paid internships with local firms. Interns work four days per week with their host firms and meet as a group on Fridays for a variety of coaching, mentoring, leadership development and networking activities. The interns also work on volunteer and community projects as a group and meet with high school students (the next, next generation) to share their experiences as young people building careers in the region.

WIB staff learn as much from the future-leader-interns as the interns learns during their program. "Young people understand social networks in a profound way. They can connect to knowledge and resources with such immediacy - it never occurs to them that they cannot access the answer to the question or find a person who can help them. This orientation brings "the globe" right to Main Street. It's going to change the way we work."

Growing People Who Grow Business
Entrepreneurship is another area in which the WIB has been active since its founding as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization over a decade ago.

"We work a lot of angles to support entrepreneurs - we host the young professionals networking group (to support peer connections), we helped found a tech incubator, and we do serious hands-on support for start-ups looking to meet their human resource needs so that 'talent' is on the radar of start-ups at their founding. We're a small, rural community. Our growth will be through entrepreneurship, not through business attraction, so if we're about workforce, we've got to be about entrepreneurship."

Literacy, regional economic development, STEM skills - the Chautauqua WIB touches many issues. We asked Susan what it really takes to lead on such a complex agenda. "This economic crisis is a great opportunity for WIBs to shine because they can address both long- and short-term." But engaging on an issue, she noted, does not necessarily mean that the WIB leads the charge, "You have to know your strengths - what you are uniquely good at. Then take roles that play to those strengths."

A Methodology for Engagement, Skills to Make it Work
Susan and her colleagues use a familiar approach to community engagement:
1. Engaging people around data to make a case (making sure more than one organization does the convening - if the community is going to take charge of an issue, the issue has to be broadly owned).
2. Convening conversations about how the community might address the issue.
3. Developing a tentative plan and engaging people around it.
4. Nailing down partners and commitments to own pieces of the plan - this often requires resource development efforts.
5. Piloting solutions.
6. Documenting and assessing progress.
7. Analyzing results.
8. Improving, scaling, or redesigning approach.

So we asked her what skills she finds essential for doing this work well. She replied,"You can always learn the content - workforce, WIA, etc., but to do this public-facing work, you have to be able to listen, understand constituent interests and motivations, facilitate, and get stuff done - set priorities, identify timelines and tasks, make decisions, learn, and build relationships - without which, you can't do this work."

Great Leadership Development Experiences
We've been asking our interviewees about their own leadership development - great experiences, activities, or people from which they've learned. Susan named events in other fields - a convening hosted by the National Science Foundation, for example, that provided her with insight about how scientists and science educators see the world.

But she also noted something we thought was really important. She observed that we could do a better job of making everyday activities great - by thinking about the design of those activities more deeply and broadly. "Our field organizes events as if they are all about sharing information - all cognition, no connection, but connection really matters. Relationships (online and offline) are how we get things done."

Hmmm....We'll be chewing on that for some time to come.



*Thanks to Susan Manus (suespix) for the Flickr photo.