It has been said that Highlands is blessed with excellent leadership throughout the community, its businesses, its government and its organizations. The number of outstanding leaders in this relatively small mountain resort can be attributed in large part to the Leadership Highlands Program. Started in 1999, the program has graduated 100 well-trained citizens, many of whom have already stepped into community leadership positions, including the 65 non-profits now operating in Highlands. And when this year’s class graduates in August 2011, ther e will be seven more community leaders.
Not only has the program turned out professional leaders, it has developed a strong network of people dedicated to the betterment of the community.
Brian Stiehler, Highlands Country Club Golf Course Superintendent and current president of Leadership Highlands, says, “Some of my best contacts are graduates of the program. If I want to do something in Highlands, I always consult with some of them.” Helene Siegel, owner of the 4 ½-Street Inn and member of the class of 2001-2002, was the program’s fourth president.
“You establish a relationship with the people in your class. It is real bonding. You also develop contacts with people from other classes. There is a gathering every year, a party, where you get to know everyone who has been through the program. It really helps to get things done,” said Siegel.
Stiehler, a member of the class of 2008-2009, says the program has a class every other year. The off year, known as a flex year, allows the just graduated class to complete a community project. Last year, the project involved a series of lectures by faculty members from Western Carolina University. The well-attended lectures featured topics dealing with community interests such as the economy. One year, the class planted maple trees on Maple Street.
In the beginning, the Highlands Leadership Program was sponsored by the Highlands Area Chamber of Commerce, the Peggy Crosby Center and the Center for Life Enrichment. After a few years, the Chamber became the sole sponsor. Initially, the program had a class each year, beginning the every-other-year schedule with the 2006-07 class. The Chamber has also reduced the cost per student from $400 to $300.
“Not everybody who applies is accepted into the program,” said Bob Kieltyka, executive director, Highlands Chamber of Commerce. “Each applicant must complete an intense application [It’s 14 pages long] and is then interviewed by the selection committee. The applicant must have some affiliation with the Highlands community. Selection is a two-way street. The Board will recruit applicants when it recognizes someone in the community that would make a good candidate.
“If the applicant has an employer, the employer must also commit to allowing the applicant the time required to complete the course,” Kieltyka explained.
Each class begins in August with an opening reception. In September, the class has a twoday retreat that includes team building exercises.
“Focus Days comprise the heart of the program,” Stiehler said. Two of the program participants are responsible for each Focus Day and must do the research and interviews necessary to prepare for, and lead the class, in that day’s Focus. With Focus Day training scheduled in October, the program includes six Focus Days, one a month, beginning in November.
The six Focus topics are:
1. Area economy
3. Law and government
4. Health and human services
5. Arts and culture
“When I came through the program, participants in charge of the Focus Day led the class all day. Now Leadership Highlands has an arrangement with Western Carolina University. Class members lead the Focus Day discussion for half a day; then WCU professors provided classes on different leadership aspects. And that is really a good thing,” said Siegel.
This year’s WCU topics:
• “Effective Leadership Skills and Techniques”— Dr. Edward Wright
• “Mentoring, Training, Coaching, and Employee Development”—Dr. Teri Domagalski;
• “Managing an Effective Non-profit Board/Board Meetings”—Associate Dean Ken Flynt;
• “Small Business Problems and Opportunities”— Dr. Michael Smith;
• “Improving Employee Performance”—Dr. Paul Johnson;
• “Accounting for Not-for-Profit Enterprises”— TBD.
Dr. Louis E. Buck Jr., Wesley Elinburg Distinguished Professor of Business Innovation and Interim Dean, College of Business, WCU, tells Macon County News, “We have developed a program that should help people become community leaders. Some of the participants have never had to run meetings before. We try to help prepare them to do that type of thing ... to run effective board meetings and so on.”
“The arrangement with Western Carolina has turned a good program into a great one. The faculty is great to work with. Dr. Buck is just a great teacher,” said Stiehler.
Robin Taylor, Executive Director of the Foundation and Marketing Director, Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, is a member of the Class of 2010-2011. Her class is about one-third of the way through.
“I have learned so much about the community, the history and culture of Highlands. The leadership skills I’ve learned are already helping me in the workplace,” she said. Taylor will be leading the January Focus Day on “Law and Government.”
News of the Leadership Highlands Program success is spreading around. Linda Harbuck, executive director, Franklin Chamber of Commerce, comments, “We have been following the success of the Highlands program. Bob (Kieltyka) has been kind enough to share the materials with us. We are moving forward with a program here in Franklin under the direction of our Industrial Development Committee led by Trevor Dalton. We haven’t decided whether we are going to call it Leadership Franklin or Leadership Macon, but it will be open to citizens throughout Macon County. Of course Highlands will still have its own program, but should people from Highlands want to participate in our program, they would certainly be welcome to do so. We plan a kick-off retreat in March 2011.”
For information on the programs, call the Highlands Area Chamber of Commerce at (828) 526- 5841 and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce at (828) 524-3161.