July 15, 2013

Show & sell: Execs tap onboarding course to learn their way ‘round Hartford’s region

Photo | Pablo Robles
Photo | Pablo Robles
Leadership Greater Hartford President Ted Carroll and Senior Director of Membership and Business Development Katy Bannister oversee a 29-year-old executive “onboarding,’’ or orientation, program. Through it, incoming executives get a first-hand glimpse of the sights, sounds and nuances of the corporate, recreation, culture and community of Hartford and its suburbs.
Photo | Pablo Robles
ING U.S. customer-service center manager Bill Valentine says his six-week immersion into positives the Hartford area had to offer him and his relocated family was “definitely worth my while.’’

When Maria Green's employer, The Corporation for Independent Living (CIL), moved offices from Wethersfield to Hartford, the suburban resident's movements within — and knowledge about — the Capital City were extremely limited.

"I usually would drive in and drive out,'' said Green, a Newington resident and controller for the South End social-services nonprofit, on Charter Oak Street.

Then, CIL pitched her the opportunity to join co-workers who had participated in Leadership Greater Hartford's nearly three-decade-old orientation program for executives who are new to, or unfamiliar with, the city and surrounding region.

In May 2012, Green was among the last batch of two dozen graduates from a rare tutorial — few like it exist elsewhere in Connecticut or the nation — that many hail as an effective, introductory bridge between the Hartford region's businesses, civic and cultural communities, as well as its education, state and municipal institutions.

"There's a lot to be proud about in this region,'' said Leadership Greater Hartford President (LGH) President Ted Carroll, who has shared in the program one way or another from its inception in 1984. "But you can't be if you don't know about it.''

Since then, about 600 "graduates'' have come through the program, many of whom are seeded throughout some of the region's biggest and smallest companies, nonprofits, government and academia, LGH officials and others say. After a 15-month delay, LGH resumes its annual orientations in October.

The program's existence, Carroll said, validates "the vision our leaders have.'' It, too, is a major reason, he said, that the Hartford region has been so successful over the years attracting and retaining its brightest executives and leaders. Metropolitan New York and New Jersey; Philadelphia; Louisville, Ky.; Richmond, Va.; San Diego; Seattle; St. Louis, Mo.; and metro Washington D.C. are among other cities that offer, or once did, similar orientations, said Katy Bannister, LGH's senior membership director and business developer.

Ex-Hartford schools Superintendent Stephen Adamowski went through Hartford's program. So did, LGH officials say, Capital Community College President Wilfredo Ramos; Travelers Executive Vice President Andy Bessette; ING executives Bill Valentine and Judeen Wrinn; and University of Hartford Dean Nancy Stuart.

Randy Gowdy, Northeast president for Summit Financial Group, a Dallas, Texas, employee-benefits broker-consultant, was Maria Green's spring 2012 classmate.

"I wished I could have gotten in a year after I got here'' to Connecticut from Tulsa, Okla., in 2001, Gowdy said.

Gowdy, who offices and lives in Simsbury, said he heard about the executive orientation program from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, while scouring community-service leads.

Summit picked up the tuition tab for Gowdy, who, among other things, went "to places I never knew existed.'' There was, he said, his visit to the working nonprofit farm in New Britain's city limits; The Artists' Collective in Hartford's North End; and The Kitchen at Billings Forge in Hartford's Frog Hollow neighborhood.

Gowdy says he even towed other Summit managers to LGH's related networking events, where they plied fresh business contacts and opportunities.

"It was a great value for the dollar … especially with how transient people are today,'' he said. "What a great opportunity to see a city you've never been in before and get introduced to the culture and the community."

Bill Valentine, who runs the customer-service center for ING U.S. in Windsor (Voya Financial, beginning 2014), said the six Saturday themed tours and workshops he attended shortly after ING transferred him from its New Jersey turf was "definitely worth my while.'' Rubbing elbows with fellow newcomers, many of whom he remains in touch with today, was even more beneficial, he said.

"I'm probably not the most outgoing person,'' Valentine said. "So for me, it was a way to get out there and find out something about the city that I otherwise would not have on my own.''

Richard "Dick'' Rogers graduated from the program in 2000. As the top hiring executive for ConnectiCare Inc., Rogers said he knew little about the program, even less about the Hartford region, before joining the Farmington health insurer.

But before he would put other executives through what he'd heard was a solid transitional resource for new employers and executives to the region, Rogers thought, "I better go through it myself."

It was an eye opener, he said. His group toured via shuttle bus Hartford's landmark Colt Factory complex, then undergoing revitalization to housing, office and industrial space. They also climbed the inside stairs to the top of Bushnell Park's Sailors' and Soldiers' Memorial Arch. In Hartford's North End, they stopped in at a community center, to watch children being tutored in music.

"The enthusiasm of the kids and the enthusiasm of the teachers, frankly, astonished me,'' the Trumbull resident recalled recently. "That was a great way to see different parts of the city."

That enthusiasm spread to Rogers, who says his exposure to LGH and his newfound awareness of Hartford's "gifts'' prompted him to volunteer on the LGH board, eventually becoming past chairman.

"I really got to see," he said, "what the organization was all about and how committed they were both to developing leaders as well as impacting the community in a positive way.''

The rest of the weekly sessions — up from four in the beginning — feature speakers from area institutions, including school, police, fire and town government officials, for- and nonprofit executives, among others, to enlighten participants. Spouses are also invited to do the tour portion, to learn their way around the region.

Participants pay tuition. Corporations pay the most, $2,700 per enrollee. It's a sliding scale, with small business, government and major nonprofits charged $1,350 per head. Mid-sized nonprofits pay $1,250, and small ones $650.

However, LGH relies on a lean pot of scholarships and grants to offset at least some of the cost for the neediest nonprofits and businesses, Carroll said. Common Ground, Travelers Cos., Lincoln Financial, and The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving are among donors for that.

LGH's annual budget is $1.3 million for this and other white-collar mentoring and training programs, and 11 full-time equivalent staffers.

In Richmond, Va., corporate donors and alumni, too, chip in with scholarships to defray the $3,000 tuition that 65 enrollees pay annually from corporations, nonprofits and government for the 10-month session, said Haywood Spangler, education director for host Leadership Metro Richmond. Its workshops focus on regional issues and community leadership methods.

According to Carroll and others, Hartford's orientation program began seven years after LGH's launch by the then Hartford Chamber of Commerce (now MetroHartford Alliance) at the urging of a group of business and civic leaders — all influential, wealthy, white men — euphemistically known as "the bishops.'' They wanted a vehicle through which a new generation of leaders could be groomed, observers said.

Jon Sandberg recalls that a brainstorming session among he and other chamber officials led to the creation of an orientation series in which participants could learn everything important to and about Hartford and the region. Sandberg says he ran the orientation program for at least its first year.

"It's grown and prospered tremendously,'' said Sandberg, communications vice president at Bloomfield health giant Cigna Corp.

Something like the orientation program was inevitable in Hartford, he said.

"It's a way of sensitizing the business community to some of the more pressing needs in the city and region,'' said Sandberg, a former Hartford Courant reporter. "I actually think it would exist in some form or another because a healthy community equals a healthy business environment.''

Ironically, Sandberg said, Carroll's involvement with LGH happened because he was recruited, while head of a South End community-services agency, as one of the orientation program's regular speakers.

"Businesses can't survive in a sick community,'' Carroll said. "They need to be located in a place with good amenities for executives, good services for employees, good schools, quality healthcare not just for some but for all.''

Maria Green's orientation experience mirrored other participants' in the fresh venues she got to visit during her six weeks. But it was the visits to some of the area's ethnic restaurants, said Green, who, like Valentine, has since joined LGH as an "ambassador,'' that raised her concern for her waistline.

"Good thing it was only [six] weeks,'' Green said.

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