Innovation takes LRI beyond Rhode Island’s borders

With a strong Core Program foundation, a forward-thinking staff and board, and demonstrably successful programs that raise both revenue and alumni engagement, LRI is poised to lead the way.

At the 2017 annual luncheon, Governor Gina Raimondo congratulates Leadership Rhode Island on its dramatic statewide impact on workforce engagement.

At the 2017 annual luncheon, Governor Gina Raimondo congratulates Leadership Rhode Island on its dramatic statewide impact on workforce engagement.

In June, Matt Coupe, Leadership Rhode Island alumni and community engagement liaison, travelled to Phoenix, Arizona, to lead a workshop at the national conference of the Association of Leadership Programs.

His message: Alumni participation and alumni dues leaped significantly when LRI expanded its footprint to include the larger community. Coupe cited several successful LRI engagement activities — the Jeffersonian Dinner series, Publick Occurrences discussion forums, Hi! Neighbor block parties — to make his point.

A month after Phoenix, Mike Ritz ’07, executive director, and Kevin Cooper, strengths expeditor, took center stage at Gallup’s Global Strengths Summit in Omaha, Nebraska, to tell the story of LRI’s booming Make RI Stronger campaign, now in its fourth year.

You, too, can make an impact by harnessing the positive power of strengths-based thinking, they told the summit’s 1,200 strengths coaches and professionals. Attendees received “All-Aboard Rhode Island” tickets, inviting them to visit what Gallup calls the nation’s first “strengths-based” state.

Early this month, Sulina Mohanty, volunteer strengths coach, flew to Ohio to provide strengths training for Cox Business employees working in the Cleveland office. Mohanty, an LRI board member and 2006 College Leadership RI graduate, also dropped by the office of Leadership Cleveland to do some networking.

Later this month, Michelle (DePlante) Carr ’14, deputy director, will head for Nashville, Tennessee, to plant the seeds for a national leadership movement “to help heal the generational, cultural, geographical, partisan divisions” polarizing the country.

Carr, who will be talking to executive directors of statewide leadership programs, is convinced that uniting alumni across the country has the potential for national impact.

AS THESE ANECDOTES illustrate, a growing record of innovative programs — all built on the Core Program’s rock-solid foundation — is putting LRI at the center of a national conversation. Staff members are not only willing to share the wisdom gained from its initiatives, they are gearing up to do even more.

The concept of sharing successful programs with community organizations far beyond Rhode Island’s borders is now embedded in LRI’s new vision statement.

Pamela Alarie ’05, past chair of LRI’s governing board, sees a move to the national level as a “win-win.”

“Our country desperately needs a grassroots movement focused on that simple premise of meeting new people and finding common interests,” she says. “Tapping LRI to springboard such a movement would put Rhode Island on the map as the place where big ideas are born. All of Rhode Island would benefit from that.”

Others agree.

Jorge Garcia, an LRI-trained strengths coach, says Rhode Island is a “great incubator” for developing best practices, particularly in the strengths movement. Garcia oversees strengths-management approaches at Carousel Industries, where he is senior director of professional services. He also coaches some of LRI’s strengths clients.

Folks will want to visit Rhode Island, he says, to learn strengths-thinking from the Rhode Island businesses, nonprofits and governmental agencies now using strengths management techniques.

“If you can achieve meaningful change in RI . . . then LRI should share [its] approach on a broader platform,” says Josh Starr, who, as president of Starr Opinion Research, has conducted data-driven surveys for many community leadership programs, including LRI.

Starr, who grew up in Rhode Island, says LRI will benefit by expanding its reach and influence. As a leader on the national level, he says, LRI will be exposed to the best ideas and best thinkers on 21st-century dilemmas.

Ritz sees the possibilities of expansion in much the same way. By sharing and learning from one another about best practices, problems and solutions, LRI and other community leadership programs across the country can create dynamic networks of effective, influential “leaders as hosts,” he says.

The “leaders as hosts” concept comes from Margaret Wheatley, the nationally recognized leadership guru, who argues that “leaders as heroes” is an outdated concept. It is time to stop waiting for someone to save us, she writes. “We need to figure out how to mobilize the hearts and minds of everyone in our workplaces and communities.”

LRI’S FIRST BIG move to engage alumni, Core Program participants and the larger community came in 2012 when the entire Theta II class concentrated all their team action projects on Central Falls, a city then struggling with bankruptcy. “What can we do to help?” project teams asked the city’s residents, leaders, businesses and other stakeholders.

Answers came quickly.

The citywide initiative was “an example of neighbors helping neighbors, a modern-day barn raising – Leadership In Action,” says Ritz.

The extraordinary effort brought statewide and national recognition to LRI, which received Common Cause’s Excellence in Public Service Award and the 2014 Innovation in Excellence Award from the Association of Leadership Programs, an organization representing 200 of the nation’s 800 community leadership programs.

HARD ON THE HEELS of that success, LRI, in 2014, launched Make RI Stronger, an initiative to address what Gallup called “the most actively disengaged workforce” in the nation.

Make RI Stronger, now a revenue-producing social enterprise, has moved the needle in powerful ways by introducing positive strengths-based thinking to thousands of Rhode Islanders, and by training more than two dozen Strengths Coaches to work with clients in businesses, nonprofits and governmental agencies interested in strengths management.

This year, Rhode Island shed its rock-bottom status of having the largest percentage of actively disengaged workers in the nation and jumped to first place in a nationwide comparison of this performance measure: “At work, I get to use my strengths to do what I do best.”

Beyond dramatic improvement in workplace measures, LRI sees indications that learning about strengths can change perceptions outside the workplace as well. A remarkable 92 percent of Core Program participants in both 2016 and 2017 said that the emphasis on strengths “helped me see strengths in others.” Also, 68 percent said that learning their strengths strongly influenced their thinking about how they can contribute to making their community better.

That “is very inspiring; keep taking it higher,” urged Gallup Chairman and CEO Jim Clifton, when told of the results.

“You’re doing a great thing . . . a great experiment to rebuild a great American state,” he said.

IT HAS BEEN IMPOSSIBLE for LRI to ignore the polarization sweeping the nation, marked by the deterioration of civil conversation and the inability to appreciate those with differing values and opinions.

That concern is one reason LRI agreed in 2011 to join the Providence Journal and Rhode Island College to offer Publick Occurrences, public forums to explore significant, often controversial, issues facing Rhode Island. The award-winning effort has attracted more than 5,000 Rhode Islanders to the discussions.

Then, in early 2016, LRI launched a series of Jeffersonian Dinners, small-group discussions around the dining table. LRI solicits alumni to be hosts and selects the guests, with the goal of gathering together alumni who see the world differently. A moderator encourages each guest to tell stories that reveal personal experiences and opinions.

A stunning 98 percent of attendees say they gained “new perspectives and ideas” at a Jeffersonian Dinner.

EMBRACING THE POWER of positive thinking, conversing with strangers around the dinner table, rekindling human contact in an age of social media, examining controversial subjects in civil public forums . . . Can such deliberate human interactions have a positive impact on the nation’s psyche?

Yes, says Ritz, who sees great possibilities if the 750,000 alumni of the country’s 800 community leadership programs were to become “host-leaders,” actively engaged in the search of innovative problem-solving and good solutions.

Yes, says Carr, who sees a national leadership alumni network, united in bridging the gaps that now divide us.

With a strong Core Program foundation, a forward-thinking staff and board, and demonstrably successful programs that raise both revenue and alumni engagement, LRI is poised to lead the way.