Learning how to lead

Five years ago Stefanie Millette, a 30-year-old human resources generalist for a construction company in Portland, yearned to refine her leadership skills.

Millette, who was serving as an education and special project coordinator for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Portland at the time, had “burning questions,” she said, including why programs were run a certain way.

She wanted to learn more about how the boards that run nonprofit organizations, like Habitat for Humanity, really worked.

“That’s when I started researching leadership programs and board programs,” said Millette, who lives in Freeport.

She turned to Lift360 – a nonprofit organization based in Portland that works to develop stronger community leaders by providing leadership training and development programs. For Millette, then 25, the solution was Lift360’s Emerging Leaders Program.

“Before Lift360, I tended to be more impulsive, and personal-reaction driven,” she said. “It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of my bias, but I definitely let it control a conversation a lot more.”

When Millette entered the program in fall 2011 she had little experience in the nonprofit sector either as a volunteer, intern or employee. She hadn’t held a position on a nonprofit board before, either.

“Once I actually experienced the program, and consequently sat on boards and councils, it became a lot easier to understand why, often, systems are a little more complicated, and how to break them down,” she said.

It also taught her how a board can be “really, really valuable in understanding the way an organization is made up, the community is made up, and their relationship with each other,” she added.

“You learn how to go into a room with a variety of different individuals from all walks of life and work collaboratively. It wasn’t that my undergraduate experience, or even my grad school classes, didn’t prepare me for that – or that my companies hadn’t prepared me for that – it’s just the nature of the issue that a lot of nonprofits go through. They are trying to fundraise (while) running very efficient large-scale systems. They encounter problems that a for-profit organization isn’t going to.”

The Emerging Leaders Program is one of several innovative leadership programs in Maine that are currently being offered. Whether the goal is to prepare leaders to help shape Maine’s changing economy, creating a network of civic-minded students who will better their communities through volunteering, or preparing 22- to 40-year-olds to become leaders on nonprofit boards or committees, there are programs to help.

Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Maine, or HOBY, a national youth leadership development organization, is targeted toward high school students and is held during one weekend every spring – HOBY Maine 2016 will take place at the University of Maine at Farmington June 3-5.

Sydney Clifton, leadership seminar chairwoman for HOBY Maine, volunteers hundreds of hours to the organization every year to help create a powerful leadership experience for the participants. Her role is to inspire the young leaders to find their passion and teach them how to recognize and develop their leadership skills to create change.

The students then put their skills into action by giving back to the community through projects at their school, church, or elsewhere, said Clifton, of South Portland.

“This past year we made dog blankets and dog toys for the Pixel Fund, which is an animal rescue program,” she said.

Clifton said the program focuses on personal leadership – students look at who they are as a person, what they value and how that shapes who they are as a leader – and group leadership, where they learn to understand how their leadership style works within a group; and community leadership.

“We have kids that go back (home) and do more volunteer work in general, we have kids that start nonprofit organizations, and we have kids that get involved in politics doing campaign work,” Clifton said.

Following the program the students are challenged to log 100 hours of community service within a year, she said.

Similar programs in Maine include Coastal Studies for Girls in Freeport, Maine Youth Leadership in Portland, and the Maine Youth Action Network in South Portland.

Then there’s Leadership Maine, a program of the Maine Development Foundation in Augusta that is designed for K-12 education leaders, and Maine Women’s Network, whose mission is “to increase women’s professional growth and leadership skills through networking and education, and to serve people in Maine through community outreach,” said Karen Brace, the organization’s president and mid-coast chapter chairwoman.

Maine Women’s Network, which has about 150 members, has chapters in Camden-Rockland, Lewiston-Auburn and Portland.

Brace said the Maine Women’s Network sponsors a leadership program for high school girls through the Rockland-based New Hope for Women organization. New Hope for Women, according to the organization’s website, offers support to women in Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox and Waldo counties affected by domestic violence, dating violence, and stalking.

“Maine Women’s Network holds programs throughout Maine that feature speakers and offer opportunities for networking,” Brace said. “In this manner, Maine Women’s Network develops business leaders who are informed and involved in their communities.”

The Lift360 program was launched soon after the recession hit, said Lift360 Director Laura Moorehead, and during that time, most nonprofit board presidents were baby boomers nearing retirement.

Moorehead said the goal of the program is to engage young leaders in nonprofit board service.

“We have so many young people in the state of Maine who are trying to find their way in some of the cities in Maine and at times make the choice to leave Maine to find better employment and better lives,” Moorehead said. “So we decided an emerging leaders program would be helpful to both bring new blood onto boards – where most board members are over 50 – and also help young people get more rooted in Maine, particularly in the Greater Portland area.

“We have found in many of the applications we’ve received and the conversations we’ve had in class, that for younger people in Maine, they really are looking for ways to contribute,” Moorehead said.

Since completing the Lift360 program, Millette has been a board member of both small and large nonprofits. Millette most recently served as a member of Easter Seals Maine, from January 2012 to December 2013.

She hopes to rejoin the Easter Seals Maine board, which she was matched with as a result of her Lift360 training, sometime next spring after taking a break from the organization to earn her master’s in business administration from the University of Southern Maine.

“If you asked me before doing Lift360 I think I would’ve told you that the smaller board would have been the more functional and enjoyable one,” she said.

But that wasn’t the case, she said, and it was “surprising.”

“It’s programs like (Lift360), and leadership experiences like this, that prepare people for (working with) a variety of people around a table,” Millette said.

The Easter Seals Maine board is made up of a diverse group of people, she said, but it’s “one of the most effective groups of leaders” she’s ever seen. And “It’s because of the leadership programs that a lot of people around the table had participated in,” said Millette.

Since August 2014, Millette has served as a volunteer court-appointed special advocate for the Maine Judicial System, where she advises the judge on what is in the best interest of an abused or neglected child in Maine’s child welfare system.

“You sit once a week, or more, with their educators, their lawyers, their parents, foster parents, concerned relatives, their medical professionals, their behavior counselors,” said Millette. “You sit in a room – it feels a lot like a weekly board meeting, it’s just in different buildings – representing that child and making decisions about that child’s life.”

“I honestly don’t think I’d be as successful if I hadn’t had the training,” Millette said. “A lot of what the leadership program does with Lift360 is, teaches you about ‘mission creep’ – understanding what your role is related to everybody else.”

According to Millette, Lift360 has instilled in her that it’s important to remember her own role, while inspecting the roles of others on a board or committee.

“Everyone walks away with exactly the right measure of responsibility if everyone remembers his or her role,” she said. “It’s kept me sane through a role that often can be very emotionally draining.”

Since the Emerging Leaders Program launched in 2010, it has helped place more than 150 of its graduates on nearly 70 nonprofit boards and committees in Maine, “after training them very rigorously on what a nonprofit is, why nonprofits form, what it means to be a board member,” Moorehead said.

Participants of the three-month program learn how to develop their leadership abilities and become more engaged in their communities by serving on a nonprofit board or committee for six months to three years, depending on what they are assigned. According to Moorehead, the cost of the program is $650 per person and is offered from September to December.

Moorehead said the participants are given the opportunity to sit in on board meetings for various nonprofits, “which gives them a very direct experience” so “they can envision what it might be like when they join a board” as a full-fledged member. She said very few of the trainees have prior board experience.

“It’s a great way to find meaningful volunteer work in the community,” she said, of the Lift360 experience.

Millette said she would encourage other young women between the ages 22 and 40 to participate in the Lift360 program, in part because “the connections you make are very, very real.”

And, she said, “You learn a little bit more about yourself.”

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