Know How: Widen your perspective

To combat tunnel vision, sign up for Leadership Minnesota’s exclusive tours of the state’s industries

By Erica Rivera
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

For business leaders, tunnel vision can be an occupational hazard. That’s why Leadership Minnesota aims to widen perspectives on the state’s economy. Director Jennifer Munyer believes that acquainting oneself with as many industries as possible “makes us much more well-rounded business leaders within our industry and within our own company. It helps us help each other as business leaders.”
Leadership Minnesota began in 2001 after a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce volunteer from Colorado suggested the idea. Tailored to Minnesota’s strengths, the annual program consists of five two-day sessions that take place throughout the state, held once a month from September to March (except December). Via lectures and on-site visits to robust Minnesota companies, participants learn what drives the state economy, which challenges different companies face, and how to help their own companies grow and be successful.
“What makes these sessions so engaging is a combination of a great discussion with the leadership of that company and also getting an exclusive, inside tour of that company,” Munyer says.
Getting participants out of their comfort zones — and their usual downtown, rural, or suburban environments — further facilitates the learning. 
“What I love about the program is that it is purposeful about showing you industries and showing you the geographies where they are the most prevalent and successful,” says Michele Engdahl, who participated in the 2009-2010 sessions and is director of government affairs for Thomson Reuters
Each year, Leadership Minnesota accepts 35 applicants from a variety of industries and places around the state. “We don’t want 35 bankers or 35 lawyers or 35 small business owners,” Munyer says. “We want folks from Ely down to Austin and into the metro, but we want them to be in leadership positions.”
“You get a mix of large-company and small-company people, executives and emerging leaders, and business owners,” says Sanjay Kuba, who attended the 2009-2010 sessions and is a consultant for Shoreview-based PaR Systems, a manufacturer of waterjet cutting machines and robotic systems. “I developed quite a few relationships.”
Ultimately, however, the value is in the tours and experiences that Leadership Minnesota provides. “Networking happens, of course, but really it’s learning about what makes our economy tick and how your company fits into the big picture,” Munyer says.
Though the participants might not sell the same products or target the same customers, the lessons about manufacturing, distribution, and marketing have universal applications in the business world.
“I work for a large, global corporation that has deep roots in Minnesota, and many of the companies we visited have very deep roots in Minnesota,” says Engdahl. “They, too, have grown and become market leaders because they have found markets outside the U.S.”
The current program includes behind-the-scenes visits to Mankato for a primer on financial services and manufacturing, a trek through a professionally managed forest in the Iron Range to understand paper mills, a tutorial about health care costs paired with a close look at how hospitals deliver services, and a crash course in agriculture and food. 
For Engdahl, an “absolutely fantastic glimpse” at the Hormel headquarters in Austin left a lasting impression. She was surprised to learn that one of Hormel’s products, Spam, is popular in China, Japan, and South Korea. It made her wonder in what other markets Thomson Reuters could expand its reach.
 “I looked at the products that we create and sell and asked, ‘How do we deliver that same sort of feeling about the product that our consumers buy?’” Engdahl says.
For Kuba, seeing the unique educational systems throughout the state was helpful for his IT work. “It was great to get a better perspective of what goes on in the economies in the school districts of Grand Rapids, Austin, and Owatonna,” Kuba says. “It gave me insight that I don’t know you could get anywhere else.”
The last stop on the session’s schedule is in St. Paul, where policy makers have a conversation with participants about public policy and how it affects business — and vice-versa.
“The state can always do a better job of business-related policy,” Kuba says. “Becoming informed ensures we’re advocating for policies that are good for business. A very strong business climate produces a high quality of life.”
Parts of the Leadership Minnesota curriculum change every year; other elements remain. Before tweaking a program, committee made up of alumni asks, “Is this still what we need to be showing our business leaders? Is this still what we want to be focused on?”
Success is measured by surveys taken by the participants. “The reviews are off the charts as far as what participants feel they got out of it,” Munyer says.
“It’s a unique program,” Engdahl says. “People go back to their jobs and are forever changed.”
Leadership Minnesota also hosts mini-sessions and events for alumni to reconnect throughout the year. The latest event took place in Mankato and 70 past participants attended. “Our alumni are some of the most active members of the Chamber and in their communities,” Munyer says. “They’re really engaged in their companies.”
Whether you’re looking for an opportunity to build relationships, to be exposed to a variety of businesses in different parts of the state, or just get out of the daily routine, Leadership Minnesota can serve as the catalyst.