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Leadership Lehigh Valley grads share takeaways from 2019 session

Participants in the 2019 Leadership Lehigh Valley program helped the Kellyn Foundation build garden beds for students to grow and harvest food at Freemansburg Elementary School in the Bethlehem Area School District. Photo/Submitted –

One of Zandra Whalen’s a-ha moments came during a trip to Marvine Elementary School.

The director of marketing and design at the United Way of Lehigh Valley joined her fellow participants in Leadership Lehigh Valley for a visit to the school to learn about the ways the Bethlehem School District is working to improve third-grade reading levels. A few students gave the group of professionals a tour of the school.

That’s when it started to click. Leadership starts at any level, Whalen said.

“Leadership comes in all different forms,” she said. “It could be the quiet person, the loud one, the person on the front lines, or the ones behind the scenes. It doesn’t matter which one you are. It’s the combination of all of those that will really accomplish the goal. They all have to work together to create the change.”

Whalen is one of 15 graduates in the latest cohort for Leadership Lehigh Valley, or LLV. The leadership development program, run through Northampton Community College’s Center for Business and Industry, utilizes strength assessments, visits from local experts and community leaders, group research projects, and team-building activities to help participants reach a deeper understanding of their leadership styles and the communities in which they work.

Learning leadership style

In her role at the United Way, Whalen sells the organization visually by handling all of its print and digital design, as well as coordinating the brand and advertising strategy. Over the last few years, she had heard success stories from colleagues who completed LLV.

“Ideally I wanted to meet new people and make new connections,” she said. “As the classes kept going on, I started learning more about my leadership style and how I can best apply my style to my work and community.”

“I didn’t always know this is OK, but I learned my leadership style is quiet,” she said. “Everyone’s strengths are different, but that’s what is truly important to create the positive impact you’re looking for. I learned what strengths others possess that I may not, but those are the people I have to surround myself with.”

During the course, participants are separated into groups, each assigned to a different component necessary for sustaining a community – the social sector, education, economic development, government, quality of life, and health care. Though Whalen was in the education group, she said the program shows how all of those components play a role in building a vibrant Lehigh Valley.

For one of its activities, the group went to Freemansburg Elementary School where participants helped the Kellyn Foundation build garden beds for students to grow and harvest food, a hands-on lesson in health, wellness and food access. The experience has inspired Whalen to get more involved with local food banks, whether that’s stocking the shelves or collecting donations.

“There are so many ways to make a difference in your community, company, or personal life,” she said. “Find that voice no matter how loud it is or what path it takes and use it to really encourage the positive results. Grow the next set of leaders. Without that voice, the next set isn’t hearing you. They won’t know what’s needed.”

Developing soft skills

Thomas Milcetich, manager of sales for the east region at UGI Utilities, has always had a passion for self-development and continuous learning.

“I was hoping to further develop leadership skills, understand the impact and opportunities to promote change in the community, and make professional connections through (LLV),” he said. “The program was able to fill all of my expectations. The class of 2019 instantly felt like a close-knit group from our very first class.”

He was surprised at how much the program helped him to develop his soft skills. He’s now working to be more aware of how his body language and responses are perceived by his coworkers.

“It is very important for a leader to understand how significant of an impact they can have on their employees, peers, and community,” he said.

Letting others lead

At his job at Aesculap Biologics, Michael Ottinger recently transitioned from a task-oriented position to people management, so he was looking for tools on building and guiding his team.

“I learned that leaders aren’t perfect and to lead from my true self, don’t emulate other leaders but take what’s important to me and share why it’s important,” he said. “Be open, transparent and lead from that personal standpoint.”

Today he’s allowing his direct reports and peers to be leaders themselves.

“Early on, when I first got into my role, I didn’t delegate,” he said. “I did it myself. I’m making sure they know I’m a resource for them but really giving them the leeway to execute how they see fit. A lot of times they think of things I wouldn’t have thought of.”

Like Whalen, Ottinger found the garden box activity valuable, as it highlighted how a group can function well when united by a common, singular focus.

Ottinger started to see Leadership Lehigh Valley’s impact on his life when he and his wife started their own coffee-roasting business, Shady Grounds Coffee, named for their pet Rottweiler. The class helped instill accountability in Ottinger, and now they’re fulfilling online sales and selling at farmer’s markets.

Learning the Lehigh Valley

Cynthia Donchez, manager of continuous improvement at Crayola, also found the community aspect of LLV valuable. She was surprised to learn how much has happened in the Lehigh Valley over the past 30 to 40 years and the transition that’s take place, such as efforts to bounce back from the fading of Bethlehem Steel.

One of her early takeaways was realizing that the things that are sacred or important to her are not always important to others on her team. She also grew more comfortable saying no to opportunities that don’t fit in with the range of what she excels at or what she’s passionate about.

One of the lessons Donchez learned that she feels could benefit businesses and organizations is the importance of being intentional about diversity.

“The reason behind that is so you can represent … the community that you are working in,” she said. “I hadn’t given enough thought about it, but that kind of clicked for me. That’s something we need to be more thoughtful about.”

Scott Blair started his job as chief diversity officer at Northampton Community College about 11 months ago, shortly after which his colleagues encouraged him to get involved with LLV, not just for the leadership skills but to gain a better grasp of the community’s makeup and history. A graduate of Kutztown University, he had spent the last 12 years working in New York.

“There was a little hesitation on my part because I was so new, just balancing that commitment with what I was hoping to do in the office,” he said. “I’m glad I made the choice. The connections I made with my fellow cohort members and the understanding of the Valley I was able to pick up through the experience was invaluable.”

Despite having past roles like coach, teacher, union chapter president, and other leadership positions, the program showed Blair “you never get it with leadership – you always have something to learn.” For Blair, that was seeing how education connects to economic development and the health sector, namely through presentations by Don Cunningham, CEO of the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.

“He presented different dynamics, different items to consider with respect to the history of the Valley, where we were and where he thinks it’s going,” Blair said. “All of those things connected.”

Blair said the program reaffirmed his career path and inspired him to look for community organizations or boards that he can get involved with to address education inequities in the Lehigh Valley and spread a message of diversity and inclusion. He’s more curious now about how school districts are supported financially and what can be done to balance the playing field.

Aside from juggling his new job with the program, Blair said the learning process was a challenge, as it served as a reminder that one’s perspective isn’t everyone’s perspective.

“This is what I say when I’m working with students, faculty and staff – we all have our strengths, and sometimes when you bring all of us together there can be a tendency to overwhelm ourselves because we want to show what we know,” Blair said. “You do have to humble yourself and give the space for everybody to process together. We need to do more listening to understand and not listening to respond.”

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