A City that Leads

Leadership Programs Cultivate Chattanooga’s Next Generation of Professionals

With a presidential election looming, our country faces a monumental decision: which leader should we choose? The question sounds simple, but as we know, those five words can ignite debates fueled by powerful emotions and conflicting ideologies.

by Keely Stockett


That question also serves as a powerful reminder—one that is difficult to dispute: great leaders are vital to the success of our society. Our need for strong, committed leaders stretches far beyond the White House. We need them in our homes and our classrooms, in our non-profit organizations and our religious communities. We need them on Wall Street, in our Fortune 500 companies, and we need them in our small businesses and startups.

Chattanooga has recognized the value of cultivating great leaders, starting with our young professionals. Our city has established an impressive variety of programs and organizations to empower young adults, giving them the confidence and tools they need to become the future political, civic, business and cultural leaders of our city. These leadership programs diff er in terms of focus, but the foundations they are built upon are remarkably similar. Why? Because leadership roles vary—from the president of the country to the president of the PTA—but the traits that make a great leader don’t change.


Holmberg Arts Leadership Institute,
Allied Arts

Launched in 2005, Allied Art’s Holmberg Arts Leadership Institute is offered annually in memory of A. William Holmberg, Jr., a long-time board member and arts advocate.

The program is designed to prepare people who are passionate about the arts for prominent roles within arts organizations in Chattanooga and beyond. Each year, 32 people participate in the four-month program, which now has 240 graduates. Classes explore the many sides of arts leadership, including non-profit governance, fundraising, arts education and marketing. Several site visits are made to cultural and educational centers in Chattanooga as well as in Nashville, and participants have an ongoing opportunity to engage in dialogue with various city leaders.

The institute’s alumni network is strong and well connected. Many graduates now sit on boards of arts organizations or donate their time and money to advance the arts scene in Chattanooga. According to Rodney Van Valkenburg, Allied Art’s director of grants and initiatives, it’s difficult to find any sort of arts initiative in Chattanooga where the program and its alums aren’t involved in some capacity.

Because funding is often limited within the arts community, the institute emphasizes the importance of donations. But Van Valkenburg says the program is more concerned with the “creative capital” that participants have to offer.

“Throughout the program, they should be reflecting on themselves, identifying their talents and skills and learning how that can be applied to leadership situations,” Van Valkenburg says. “They have to become part of the process. To be successful, it’s going to require their time.”


Protégé Chattanooga,
YPAC & Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce

Future success also requires time from our current leaders—a concept that Protégé Chattanooga was founded upon. A joint initiative between the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga (YPAC) and the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, Protégé Chattanooga is a program that provides an intimate forum where young professionals can gain insight from established leaders in the community.

Currently in its first year, the program connects eight participants—the protégés—with eight mentors. From August to April, the protégés will meet monthly, as a group, with one mentor. The protégés are encouraged to research the mentors before each meeting so they can ask meaningful questions and dig deeper into the mentors’ experiences.

“The ultimate goal is to equip emerging leaders with practical advice and real-life examples,” says Cara Hicks, the president of YPAC. “The experience of learning from past successes and failures of established leaders is invaluable.”

While the program has received a high level of interest, Hicks says that keeping it small is the key to creating a strong connection between protégés and mentors. She also notes that it’s a win-win for the protégés and the city.

“Chattanooga benefits by equipping future leaders with the know-how to create their own path. It creates networks that young professionals can draw on as they take on positions and projects that will make a positive impact on the city.”


Leadership Chattanooga,
Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce

One of the city’s oldest leadership training programs, Leadership Chattanooga is a 10-month program that familiarizes young leaders with the city’s issues and needs. Its comprehensive training—focused on interaction with community leaders, experiential learning, and service projects—prepares participants to take on prominent roles in the city.

Some 950 people have graduated from the program since its inception. The impressive list of alums includes U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, Chattanooga Councilwoman Sally Robinson, as well as countless CEOs and upper-level managers.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time, but there is one lesson that has always stuck: in order to learn how to lead, you have to learn how to follow,” says Diane Parks, who graduated in 1997 and has directed the program for 14 years. “That’s not always easy, and it’s a big part of what we teach.”

About 40 people enroll in each session, which runs from September to May, beginning with a two-day retreat. Class topics include civic and political leadership, economic development, education and arts. Participants are asked to complete topical homework assignments, such as a police ride-along, attending a school board meeting or shadowing a principal.

Like Protégé Chattanooga, Leadership Chattanooga engages community leaders who can share their experiences and off er words of wisdom. “A lot of people here really have a story to tell about where they’ve come from and where they are today,” Parks says. “In a city like Chattanooga, with so many strong leaders, you never quit learning.”


Young Professionals Association,
Urban League of Greater Chattanooga

The Urban League of Greater Chattanooga offers another form of leadership training, designed to reach young professionals within the city’s urban communities. The Urban League of Greater Chattanooga Young Professionals Association connects the next generation of leaders with one another and allows them to explore issues that affect the city.

“To be a leader, you have to take ownership of yourself and your community. I think the Young Professionals Association empowers our members to take that ownership,” says Ashley Gates, president of the association. “We’re here to show the current leaders of Chattanooga that we’re prepared to take the baton.”

The association’s 85 members have access to complimentary workshops and training that cover skills such as resumé building, business planning and grant writing. Each member is required to complete 25 hours of community service per year and participate in or lead one of the organization’s committees, which include Professional & Personal Development, Civic Engagement, Economic Empowerment, and Community Outreach.

Gates said that the association helps recent graduates become immersed in the “real world” by surrounding them with established professionals and leaders across a range of industries and institutions.

“Success attracts success, and success breeds success. So in this organization, we’re helping members network with high-profile, successful people—attorneys, CPAs, engineers,” Gates says. “We’re establishing connections that will keep our talented young adults in Chattanooga and help them become professionals here.”


100-Day Plan,

CO.LAB, a business incubator launched in September 2010, shares that desire to attract and retain promising young adults.

CO.LAB’s 100-day startup accelerator program gives entrepreneurs access to potential investors and customers, as well as offering them mentorship in developing companies and building a business model.

“With the 100-day plan, there are several main areas of focus. One of those is management,” says Charlie Brock, Executive Entrepreneur at CO.LAB. “We encourage our entrepreneurs to ask themselves, ‘What makes a leader effective?’”

Participants often come into the program with strong business ideas, Brock says, but they don’t always possess the skills or experience needed to lead a company, particularly in terms of recruitment and employee organization.

“Leaders have to identify the core competencies of each member of their teams,” Brock says. “You’ve got to get the right people in the right seats—and that can be tricky because there aren’t a lot of seats.”

That’s only half the battle. As business heads, the entrepreneurs are responsible for creating a culture that empowers their team and results in a productive environment. They’re also the ones who must develop—and perpetuate—an overall vision for their companies.

CO.LAB’s training sessions offering mentoring and resources build the framework for these concepts. Brock has found that interaction with current leaders offers big benefits.

“Communicating with mentors provides real-life examples,” Brock explains. “We want the entrepreneurs to follow in their footsteps, so that they build solid companies in Chattanooga and become successful leaders in their own right.” So far, the program has graduated 15 companies representing about 35 entrepreneurs.


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