Browsing the names of Leadership Austin‘s 2,700 alumni is like reading a list of who’s-who in the region. It includes movers and shakers from every level of government, executives from the social and private sector, as well as activists, academics, and entrepreneurs. This year, Leadership Austin marks 40 years since it was formed as a program of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. But while the organization’s name implies that it offers leadership training, Christopher Kennedy, CEO and board member before that, says the secret to its longevity is in creating the right mix of people.
“If there’s anything I wish we could trademark, it would be our selection process,” said Kennedy. In forming the class of about 50 Central Texans for its signature leadership program, staff seeks diversity of not just gender and ethnicity, but also industry, geography, lived experience, and more. The goal, he said, “is to help people expand the circles of people they talk to.”
About 60 people a year are selected for the “Essential” program, a nine-month course where participants meet one full day a month to take a deep-dive into various community issues such as the environment, housing, the arts, and more. Each Essential program starts with a two-day, mandatory retreat, where many participants meet each other for the first time. Kennedy says the retreat is structured so that participants don’t meet each other with a business card. “They meet as individuals,” he said. “And that’s where the relationship starts.”
To mark its 40 years, Leadership Austin is posting a blog post a day for 40 days, allowing participants to share their memories of experiencing the program. In his story, Alan Graham, founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes as well as the Community First Village, said he applied for the Essential program in 1995 to build his network, but that he got more than that. “I met people who I’m still close to and collaborating with. I got relationships out of it,” he wrote.
Other participants find that exposure to community issues prompts them to step outside their professional roles and into community service. Dan Bullock was a member of the first Essentials class of Leadership Austin in 1980, which also included Bill Stotesbery, CEO of KLRU-TV, Cathy Bonner, a prominent public servant and entrepreneur, and Pike Powers, an influential Austin attorney who helped establish Austin as a technology hub in the 1980s. In his blog post, Bullock wrote, “My Leadership Austin experience was the catalyst that prompted me to complement my personal and professional lives with serious community service involvement.”
Kennedy credits the longevity of Leadership Austin to it being responsive to community needs. It’s recent decision to focus on racism and diversity led to it proving a diversity training program, which has had almost 2,000 participants. In the coming years, it will take on the generational challenges in the workforce and continue to seek participants from the growing region at large. “The more we talk to each other,” he said, “the more we’re going to be able to advance the challenges in the community.”