Passion never rests. For Kate Bennett – the director of Skagit County’s Leadership Skagit program – those words have served as a guiding force throughout her life.

Bennett is a nonprofit powerhouse who served in executive positions with the American Red Cross, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Washington and Alaska, and the Island Hospital Foundation in Anacortes, Wash. before taking the helm at Leadership Skagit 10 years ago. During that time, she has led what’s arguably the most successful leadership development program in the county, commonly known as Leadership Skagit.

This intensive program, which operates within the nonprofit Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County Foundation, began in 2003 and has 500 graduates. It’s designed to inspire people to serve as active leaders and to prepare them for community leadership roles. Shell’s Puget Sound Refinery has partnered with Leadership Skagit since 2008, and 16 employees from the refinery have successfully graduated from the program.

“We have a tremendous impact on Skagit County,” said Bennett. “We’re intentionally building a foundation of leadership and creating a fabric of shared experience and direction to allow leaders to meet big challenges and work on them together across our community.”

Each year, Leadership Skagit selects 25-35 participants who represent the county’s private, public and nonprofit sectors for a nine-month civic leadership development program. The goal is to create a network of leaders whose increased awareness and commitment to serve will energize Skagitonians to shape the county's future.

Sean Cornett serves as the refinery’s production excellence manager and graduated from the program in 2014.

“I gained a lot from being around such a diverse array of people from all industries, functions and backgrounds,” he said. “It forced me to step outside of the tunnel vision that many of us grow accustomed to and helped me become more empathetic.”

What makes a good leader?

Bennett is a strong believer that leaders come from everywhere in the community. “They come from large and small businesses, they have different ethnicities, they have different beliefs, and they come from all age ranges and life stages,” she said.

“But what they all have in common is their willingness to lead – that’s all you need. The biggest misconception about leadership is that you must have a certain title to be a successful leader. That’s just not true, and we’re proving it with this program.”

Michelle Stahl serves as a learning and development advisor at the refinery and participated in the program in 2016. Stahl grew up in Skagit County (in Anacortes) but didn’t have a solid grasp on the county’s biggest challenges and opportunities until she completed the program.

“I loved delving deeper into big, complicated issues with my classmates, and Leadership Skagit showed me how everything and everyone across the county is connected in unique ways,” she said. “The program also gave me a greater appreciation for where I work and the impact that Shell has on the county when it comes to jobs, taxes, nonprofit partnerships, employee volunteering and more.”

Program features ‘challenge days’ and service project

The program includes monthly ‘challenge days’ where participants gather once a month for an entire day to study the issues challenging the region and to work on leadership skills. Each day takes place in a different location around the county and focuses on critical topics such as government, business and economics, health and human services, natural resources, education, agriculture and arts and culture. Participants meet with local leaders and learn how to apply leadership skills to current issues within these topics.

In addition, participants work in small teams to choose, plan and complete a service project for a local nonprofit. While directly applying leadership skills, team members provide lasting benefits to the community. Nonprofit partners have included the United Way, Anacortes Family Center, Growing Veterans, Sedro-Woolley Food Bank, Boys & Girls Club, and more.

Stahl enjoyed every component of the program and learned a lot about her strengths – and how to leverage them.

“Leadership Skagit made me more confident in what I can offer, and it empowered me to take on more leadership roles at work and in my community,” she said. “This program helped me find my voice and then gave me the confidence to share it.”

Refinery is committed to investing in community leaders

The refinery serves as one of the largest investors in the program.

“Shell has made community leadership a priority through its many employees who participate in the program, the financial support it provides, and its willingness to offer up leaders who can provide valuable info about the oil and gas industry with our participants,” said Bennett.

In addition, several Shell employees have served as team coaches for the program. Janita Aalto serves as a learning advisor at the refinery and graduated from Leadership Skagit in 2010. She has also volunteered as a coach for the community service project teams on three different occasions.

She tries to impart a few key pieces of advice to her teams, including 1) Leading is not about being the boss or doing it all. 2) If you’re willing to work together with others who have a common goal, you can accomplish truly extraordinary things.

“An effective leader is a great listener, knows when to step back but also knows when to step in, and values the team’s voice,” she said.

Don’t underestimate the power of human potential

Bennett loves her job for many reasons, but she’s most inspired by the power of human potential that she has the opportunity to witness on an ongoing basis.

“Investing in leadership is the gift that just keeps on giving,” said Bennett. “Leadership is vital to ensuring our communities can solve problems and create prosperity for all. At the end of the day, we want to develop a place where today’s and tomorrow’s kids can thrive.”

She wants the program’s graduates to take advantage of every opportunity to empower those around them to step up as change agents.

“Always be on the lookout for potential in others, and don’t forget to tell them what you see,” she said. “It could change their lives – and your life – in ways you never could have imagined.”

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