Sometimes the path to thinking more deeply about engagement and leadership starts off with taking a lump.
Back in fall 2005, I traveled to WaKeeney to meet with an alliance representing 53 western Kansas counties. Earlier that spring, I had been hired as the first director of the Kansas Center for Entrepreneurship, known as NetWork Kansas. We were brand new then, a creation of the Kansas Legislature to develop a statewide network of resources for entrepreneurs. My operations manager, Erik Pedersen, and I had both worked in the private sector for years. This was the first job in the public sector for either one of us. In presenting to the Western Kansas Rural Economic Development Alliance, we hoped to get enough buy-in that most would join the network of resources and help us find additional partners in our area.
As I prepared my slick power point presentation, Erik chatted with some of the economic development directors. About five minutes before I was introduced, Erik walked over to me. “Listen,” he said, “I just talked to one of the directors. She said she didn’t know why we were needed and didn’t believe in what we are doing.” Not a good start. But I powered through my presentation. Afterward, no one asked any questions and the group took a break. It had not gone well. As Erik and I wondered what to do, Sheila Frahm, a former lieutenant governor and U.S. senator who we had met earlier in the summer, walked up to us.
“They’re just going to have to get used to you,” she said. Her words were encouraging, but behind them was an admonishment. She knew effective civic action required engaging at a deep and local level.
The meeting proved pivotal for us. We didn’t realize it at the time, but like many other organizations, we had shown up to offer a technical solution — tools and resources — to a group that had seen them all. Now we saw, for the first time, how we were being perceived. We realized that our approach wouldn’t have the impact that we wanted unless we gave a lot more consideration to local engagement.
So we set out to: engage partners and communities by relying on them; empower them with assets; and push decision-making away from us. We moved from short-term projects to long-term processes and from trying to have all of the answers to asking more questions.
We didn’t know it, but we had started to take our first steps towards an adaptive approach to civic engagement. That approach solidified further after I participated in the first week-long “open enrollment” training program offered by the Kansas Leadership Center in the fall of 2008. The competencies I learned and experimented with there represented a framework that could expedite the design of more skillful interventions. I began to see the road we had started down at NetWork Kansas more clearly.
When I returned to work the following week, Erik and I concluded that we were on the right track and wanted to expedite our efforts by ensuring that the staff understood the four KLC competencies so we could accelerate growth in all phases of program development.
Today, all of our full-time staff members participate in programs or are being coached to learn and apply the competencies. This has accelerated engagement with partners and communities have transformed our efforts. It’s a formula that’s proven effective, from our perspective.
Since 2008, our flagship approach, the Entrepreneurship (E-) Community Partnership has grown from six to 30 communities. It provides communities with a locally controlled loan fund to assist entrepreneurs and small business owners with capital and connectivity to resources.
And in our relationship with the western Kansas alliance, we’ve gone from being strangers to being friends, with 12 of our E-Communities hailing from the region. They have become one of our most valuable connecting points, representing multiple communities and network partners.
I often tell skeptics who question the rural community plight that they haven’t met the people I’ve met. If they had, they would think differently. Those folks were nice enough to give us exactly what we needed — a good swift kick.