Developing and Engaging Business Champions

Although the target message is different (community colleges, rather than sector strategies), a report from a “Business Champions” project supported by the Lumina and Ford Foundations – Engaging Business Leaders as Partners in Community College Access and Success: A Practitioners Guide to Lessons Learned - presents relevant information in identifying five primary characteristics of business leaders who are likely to succeed in the Business Champions role. The following excerpt from the report describes these characteristics:

1. Clear and “gut-level” understanding of the skilled workforce issue.

Effective Champions have personal experience with the skilled workforce crisis and the role of increasing post-secondary attainment. They know the problem; have seen its impact, and can clearly describe its implications for individuals, firms and communities.

2. History of investment in solutions and in people.

The best Business Champions have a reputation for investing in their workforce and their communities. They may offer tuition reimbursement programs for their employers or sponsor English as a Second Language classes for their immigrant workforce. They participate in internship and mentoring programs. In some cases, they have contributed to community college campaigns and donated valuable equipment.

3. Inclination, interest and authority to speak out about the skilled workforce problem, the need for increased levels of post-secondary attainment, and promise of emerging solutions.

Effective Business Champions are willing to speak at conferences, have their names attached to op-ed pieces and openly engage with a broad base of leaders from government, education, policy, and the community. Many employers who are good partners in developing programs are not ready to become Champions because of this requirement. These “programmatic partners” tend to stay at the individual firm level and do not want to become involved in broader discussions with policy leaders. In some instances, they stay at the program level because they lack the authority to speak out. In other instances, they may lack the interest or time.

4. Credibility and an established circle of influence.

Our most effective Business Champions have earned a place of respect and influence in their communities. They may be recognized leaders in their local chamber of commerce or the chair of their national trade association. They may bring strong connections with elected officials, college trustees or other community leaders. They do not need to be leaders in education circles; they may have earned their position through to connections to other causes, such as work with the United Way or work on tax policy.

5. Willingness to learn, respect for complex systems and a sense of urgency.

Strong champions understand the symptoms of the skilled workforce shortage and have theories about root causes and potential solutions. Our strongest champions want to test their theories and learn more about systems. They understand from the outset that increasing higher education attainment in this country is complex work, but they are not paralyzed or intimidated by the complexity.

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