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Nonprofit grooms leaders for Niagara region

What does it take to be a good leader? A select group of nearly 50 will soon embark on a year’s study of this question, against backdrops as varied as the Niagara County Jail, Niagara Landing Wine Cellars and Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.

Along the way, they’ll also visit with a judge in his youth court; stop at Niagara Falls State Park; and meet with representatives of two local manufacturing sites.

Leadership Niagara, a local nonprofit organization that has been helping individuals and companies broaden the scope of the definition of “leader” since 1984, will soon begin working with its Class of 2018.

It will expose participants to themes like tourism, binational relations, and criminal justice, to name just a few. And it will delve into topics including social awareness, diversity, and ethics and standards.

Elizabeth “Liz” Zulawski is approaching her first anniversary as president and chief executive officer of Leadership Niagara.

She said that while there are other leadership programs in the Western New York region, they “are each a little bit different.”

“We focus on three core elements here,” she noted. “The impact on the individual – focusing on in-depth issues to nurture them; the impact on the organization – developing talent within the organization and connecting with others; and the impact on the region – our adult members participate in community projects, helping nonprofits that need assistance, for example.

“Our mission is to strengthen regional leadership,” she added. “We think our program offers a comprehensive, well-rounded leadership format. Most of our sessions are held out in the community, viewing different sites and gaining field experience. We have competency training in every session and topical areas like teamwork and collaboration, or diversity and inclusion, or critical thinking. And this is all tied back into the field experience.”

The organization was founded through a collaboration with the Gannett Foundation, Niagara Falls Chamber of Commerce, Cornell University, the Niagara Gazette and Niagara County Legislature. It was the first of its kind in the state.

Zulawski is also quick to point out that while it is still “the longest-running leadership development program in the state, we’ve also served as a model for several other leadership programs.”

Zulawski actually heads two programs, with the addition of Leadership for Youth of Niagara County (LYNC), founded in 2001, for high school students. It follows many of the same principles, in a format geared for the leaders of tomorrow.

“We currently have 102 youths from 13 schools throughout Niagara County, as well as from Grand Island, and this program is funded through the Irene E. Witkowski Agrawal Foundation,” Zulawski said.

Zulawski has spent nearly 30 years in different roles in largely nonprofit organizations, most recently as executive director of the American Heart Association (AHA) before she joined Leadership Niagara, and she maintains an office at Niagara University. Prior to the AHA, she served as inaugural executive director of the Buffalo Public Schools Foundation and as director of community employment and training services for Goodwill Industries of WNY. She lives in Williamsville with her husband, Paul, and their three children.

Zulawski recently took some time to chat about Leadership Niagara and Leadership for Youth of Niagara County.

Q: How does one become involved with Leadership Niagara? Do you apply as an individual or are you recommended by your employer?
A: We have a call each summer for applications, which just closed for the 2018 session, and applicants submit a resume and answer some essay questions about their leadership philosophies.

Most participants are sponsored by their employers, who are looking to help grow their leadership development programs, but others self-initiate. All live or work in Niagara County or do business in Niagara County.

We have a pool of scholarship money available each year, and depending on the need, that’s divided up, maybe to someone from a small business or someone who is self-employed, or not currently employed. Most companies sponsor their employees.

Q: How many participants do you take?
A: We accept 40 to 50 individuals each year in Leadership Niagara and we have an orientation process in October/November. This is a yearlong commitment, with class beginning in January and going through December.

Q: How old, generally, are your participants and what fields do they predominantly come from?
A: We have a very wide range, from those very new in their careers to people who are well-seasoned. And they come from a wide variety of careers. For instance, in our upcoming class, we have an architectural designer, some from sales and marketing, a school counselor, a founder of a nonprofit and an assistant fire chief.

Our approach is so unique – there is something for everyone here – something to be learned by everyone.

Q: Please take us through your typical year’s program.
A: We start with a day-and-a-half retreat in January, led by Gina Paigen, our principal facilitator. She is chief impact officer at ThirdWay Leadership.

Sessions begin in February, on the second Thursday of each month, with a midyear retreat in June. We meet at different locations and have different topics each month. For example, we’ll visit the Niagara County Jail and Sheriff (James) Voutour will talk about the leadership style he needs to run the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, which is really like a small city. And, Judge William J. Watson invites us to sit in for a session in his City of Lockport Young Adult Court, which is an eye-opener. We’ll talk about ethics and standards, interdependency and communication with them.

And we have two local manufacturers, Bob Confer, vice president of Confer Plastics Inc., and Joe McMahon, president of Audubon Machinery, that we’ll visit, to talk about transformation. They are both graduates of Leadership Niagara.

We’ll also take a bus and travel all around Niagara County one day to visit farms for the agribusiness theme, looking at innovations.

We see the different types of leadership people use, based on their businesses, with behind-the-scenes access. We visit nonprofit organizations, for-profit businesses, even the Niagara Falls Air Base – a real comprehensive mix.

Q: What other components are introduced?
A: At the mid-mark point, we start our coaching and mentoring program, with industry experts. The majority of these volunteers are Leadership Niagara alumni. They usually meet two to four hours a month with our participants, and some even do this over the phone. A relationship forms with this, a bond that can extend years and years. That’s part of our strength, that we’re really connecting people to one another.

At the midway point, we also start our service projects. We split the group into teams of four or five. We have 10 projects going on right now throughout Niagara County. The projects are determined by the needs in the community, and in the past we’ve helped build a handicapped bathroom and held a clothing drive for nonprofit organizations. They’re different every year. At our closing session, the teams present their projects to the rest of the class.

We work with Niagara University, and our participants can receive graduate level credit, which is transferable. Niagara has been a wonderful partner.

Q: Please tell us about Leadership for Youth of Niagara County.
A: It’s a little different than the adult program because we follow the school calendar, so it’s held for eight months, but students can earn college credit through this program, as well, through Niagara University.

Dr. Paul Vermette, of Niagara University, handles the training program for it and we split it into two cohorts of 50 students each. We cover very similar topics and also travel to many of the same sites, and some different ones, too, like the Tuscarora Nation House, to talk about diversity and inclusion; and we visit Community Missions to discuss being in service to others.

We are open primarily to sophomores, juniors and seniors, who are recommended by their high school principals or guidance counselors, who work with us through the application process.

We kick off with a weekend retreat in August and meet throughout the year until March.

We put the students in touch with who they are. They learn self-awareness and how to leverage relationships. They learn public speaking and how to develop a stronger peer-learning network. As a mother, this is the program I’d want my kids to do. It’s really inspiring to see.

Editor’s Note: Anyone interested in becoming an applicant, a sponsor or a mentor for either leadership program, may visit or call 908-8787.

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