Leaders are made, not born

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“Leaders aren’t born, they are made,” said revered football coach Vince Lombardi. That’s the guiding principle behind the Boreas Leadership Program, a strategic initiative of the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment. Boreas offers leadership development opportunities to graduate, professional and postdoctoral students from all University colleges.

Boreas seeks to develop the next generation of social and environmental leaders — those who will tackle the tough challenges facing the world today — through skills workshops, networking and mentoring events (the weekly Boreas Booyah!), and participation on a student advisory board.

“Boreas programming complements a traditional graduate education and helps develop the kinds of leaders we need in the transition to a more sustainable world. Boreas students move beyond the University as stronger communicators and better-networked leaders ready to jump into making an impact,” says Boreas program director Kate Knuth. “It’s exciting to see what they’re up to and where they’re going.”

We recently caught up with a couple of busy Boreas alums to see how they are putting their experiences into practice. John Bussey graduated from the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences in spring 2013; Julia Eagles is completing her master’s degree at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

John Bussey
John Bussey
Program Director
YMCA Camp St. Croix

What did you do at the U and what are you doing now?

I studied conflict around environmental choices, researched the relationship between the U.S. Forest Service and tribal groups, and assisted in teaching a few environment-related classes. I loved it.

Service on the student advisory team of IonE’s Boreas Leadership Program was a breath of fresh air through much of my second year. It gave me an outlet for my creative energies and kept the academic and nonacademic firmly joined in my mind. Really, it’s a wonderful program.

I’m now a program director for YMCA Camp St. Croix, where I manage a staff of 15 program coordinators and 60 counselors who work their butts off in the summer to provide safe, fun, and enriching weeklong programs for kids and teens in the woods south of Hudson. I am having so much fun.

How did Boreas prepare you to make the transition to your current leadership role?

A year ago, in the spring of 2013, I and a few others on the Boreas student advisory team helped put together a nonprofit board service workshop. It went wonderfully; we brought in three leaders from the nonprofit community to share their perspectives with a dozen or two Boreas students. It was just weeks after that event that I was asked to join the community board of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, the camp where I had guided wilderness trips for many years. While I can’t say for certain that planning the workshop got me the spot on Widjiwagan’s board, service there certainly set me apart as I applied for my current role.

Was there a Boreas experience that gave you an “aha” moment?

I remember Mark Tercek, the leader of The Nature Conservancy, asking us why there were no MBAs at a Boreas networking event — he jokingly asked if they all got lost on the way over. Of course the point was that individuals with business skills are increasingly important in the efforts to solve complex environmental problems. That moment plays in my head still and was the first of several experiences that has me on the brink of pursuing business school.

I also feel that I learned a ton from getting to know Kate Knuth. She so genuinely cares about people and about the work that she is doing. I can’t imagine a better mentor for sustainability-minded graduate students trying to figure out how to make an impact in the world.

Can you give an example of how you use what you learned at Boreas in your current work?

Incredibly, just last week I spent 15 minutes drawing out a systems map related to staffing at St. Croix, a skill that I learned through a Boreas workshop, “Systems Thinking & Tools.” I can’t say I remembered all the correct labels and I probably should have used more double arrows, but the process certainly helped me clarify my thoughts.

Julia Eagles
Julia Eagles
Research Assistant
City of Minneapolis

What are you doing inside and outside of academia?

I’m a master of public policy student at the Humphrey School, with a minor in science, technology and environmental policy, and will be finishing up my program in the next couple of weeks (graduate is May 18!). I also work for the City of Minneapolis in the Sustainability Office and as a smart grid policy research assistant with professor Elizabeth Wilson.

I got involved with the Boreas Environmental Leadership program at Institute on the Environment in my first semester as an opportunity to connect with students from other departments at the University, develop tangible skills for work in the environmental field, get exposure to leadership and professional development opportunities, enjoy networking opportunities with environmental professionals working in the field, and have an excuse to visit the pastoral St. Paul campus (plus the delicious food and drink at the networking events doesn’t hurt!).

How did Boreas prepare you to make the transition to your current leadership role?

The Boreas program has given me some excellent skills for my current positions — both as a research assistant and in the City of Minneapolis Sustainability Office. The key theme throughout the Boreas workshops I participated in was communications — how to effectively communicate the message of your research or your work to a general audience. It started with [IonE Communications Director] Todd Ruebold’s “Building Better Presentations” workshop, which changed the whole way I think about PowerPoint, and continued with “Interacting With the Media” and “Telling Your Story.” Being able to put together an effective (and visual — no bullet points!) PowerPoint, press release, poster presentation or policy brief has served me again and again in my work. Then being able to talk about it in a way that’s compelling and accessible is the icing on the cake.

Which Boreas event gave you the “aha” moment?

As I said, “Building Better Presentations” was a game-changer for me. It turned me into a total PowerPoint snob, but has also made me the person my colleagues and classmates turn to for presentation design advice. Whenever I start a presentation now, my process is to go analog — to sketch out my main points and supporting visuals, and then go to the computer to lay it out. It’s changed the whole way I think about presentations and comes in handy all the time in my work.

Another slightly less exciting skill I gained was the nuts and bolts of meeting planning in the “Meetings that Matter” workshop. We spend so much time in meetings for work and school, and yet spend very little time preparing for those meetings to make them effective. Taking the time to sketch out an agenda, outcomes and goals ahead of time has made me much more effective in the time I spend in meetings.

Can you give an example of how you use what you learned at Boreas in your current work?

Last spring I was working with the Environmental Quality Board at the State of Minnesota, a board consisting of five citizens and the heads of nine state agencies that shape shared priorities for Minnesota’s environment and development. I was involved in helping to plan and create the program for the Minnesota Environmental Congress in March of 2013. One of my tasks was designing the presentation summarizing the outreach and public participation leading up to the congress, which was presented by Kate Knuth, who was the newest Environmental Quality Board citizen member at the time. That process gave me a chance to put my presentation skills to work, to tell the story of what citizens around Minnesota were saying about environmental issues, in a way that combined quantitative and qualitative data and was visually compelling. Kate and I got to work together on the design and it came together really nicely (and she of course presented it like a rock star!), thanks in large part to the skills I learned in Boreas.

My co-workers at the city regularly ask me to put together presentations for them, which gives me a chance to learn a variety of subject matter topics and practice visualizing them effectively. Most recently I put together a presentation for the Community Environmental Advisory Commission and the Minneapolis City Council Health, Environment and Community Engagement Committee on setting a long-term carbon reduction goal for Minneapolis. It resulted in the council setting the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Banner photo by somebody_ (Flickr | Creative Commons); profile photos courtesy of John Bussey and Julia Eagles.