Stotts Follows The Leaders

May 1, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Becoming a leader often involves making the right connections with the right people. As someone who has benefited from being in the right place at the right time, Kevin Stotts knows the power of those connections. As the executive director of Leadership Grand Rapids, Stotts is making a career out of making connections — for himself and for others.

Stotts earned that position through fortuitous timing. As he was completing his own participation in the 2003 session of Leadership Grand Rapids, he was ready to move on from his position with the Education Freedom Fund, a statewide scholarship program for low-income children.

“At the same time I was finishing up, the position became available. Even when I was first introduced to Leadership Grand Rapids, I always had an appreciation for this organization’s role — its place in the community and its role in terms of building the community. I always thought that would be a great job.”

Stotts had previously worked for the Michigan Republican Party, including a stint as its director of operations. During that time, and his time with the scholarship fund, he learned to weave his way between public, private, educational and political groups, getting different organizations and individuals to work together. He also learned a great deal about event planning and management.

“Things kind of lined up well,” he said. “I had a lot of prior work experience that gave me some of the skills necessary for this position.”

Despite his credentials, and his experience on Leadership Grand Rapids’ fundraising committee, he was in for a surprise when he started his new position.

“I had no idea what the job entailed until I kind of got into it and saw the complexity of all that we do,” he said. “That was kind of mind-blowing.”

Leadership Grand Rapids is an offshoot of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. Although it has now branched off into several smaller programs, the core mission of Leadership Grand Rapids is to build connections between the area’s leaders of business, government, politics and nonprofits. In turn, the program encourages those leaders to become more interactive with other facets of the community. The flagship program is celebrating 20 years of “enhancing and connecting leaders” in West Michigan. Its alumni list is a veritable “who’s who” of the area’s leaders.

Stotts’ role with LGR is first and foremost that of an organizer. He plans nine daylong events for each LGR class. He organizes similar sessions for Inside Grand Rapids, the weekend-long condensed version of the leadership program. He has also been busy in the last few months organizing new activities to engage the LGR alumni, as well as putting together the upcoming Community Leadership Conference, a combination 20th anniversary celebration, alumni get-together, recruitment tool and educational event.

When Stotts describes his job, he unleashes a machine-gun-fire list of responsibilities.

“It’s planning for the day sessions, doing the fundraising to sustain the program, looking ahead to what we have to do next, marketing, getting ready for the application process for the next leadership class, seeking enrollments for the Inside Grand Rapids program, lining up speakers for the next event,” he said, mentioning just some of his duties. “So it’s always kind of looking ahead and planning.”

Just as every class roster is different, the nature of each session of LGR changes. Stotts said the dynamic nature of the program holds his interest, but it also challenges him and his volunteers to reinvent LGR every year.

“Our alumni are kind of connected to what’s going on in all the different sectors, so they’re always bringing new ideas and new perspectives on what’s new in the community. And then we’re able to incorporate that into the leadership program,” he said. “So it’s always kind of a living, breathing thing. The program is never the same from year to year. We have a process of continual improvement built in.”

One form of “continual improvement” that Stotts has been working on recently is maintaining the connection of LGR alumni. He said that there is a trend among program graduates to be very involved in boards, volunteer work and community improvement for a number of years after their LGR graduation. However, after three to five years, he said, that commitment wanes. His current goal is to strengthen his organization’s role as a clearinghouse for volunteer and community service opportunities. He said that LGR alumni have often voiced a desire to stay involved, but have not been aware of the right applications for their time and talents.

“When people go through the LGR program, they see all these connections taking place through all these different sectors,” he said. “There are so many unique collaborations that are presented during the program. That’s really what makes Grand Rapids and West Michigan: This sense of collaboration and service and working together in partnerships.”

Stotts would like to continue that energy, making it a regular part of graduates’ lives well beyond their graduation. In fact, that is one of the primary goals for the upcoming Community Leadership Conference.

“There is a constant response from the alumni: Help us get connected to service opportunities,” he said. “So one way we’re doing that is with the ‘Get On Board Expo’ at the conference. We’re bringing nonprofits to an expo and having booths, and at the end of the conference, having those attendees who have been inspired and want to get involved — we’re providing a venue to connect those.”

The application deadline for this fall’s session of Leadership Grand Rapids is Friday, May 5. The Community Leadership Conference will be held at DeVos Place Convention Center May 18. More information is available at    

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