Because of Athabasca University
Denise Blair was working on a marketing plan assignment for her Master of Business Administration degree when the idea came to her.
“Something just clicked,” says Blair, the founder and executive director of the Calgary Youth Justice Society and a 2010 graduate of Athabasca University’s MBA program. “In a very real way, everything I had studied came together in this idea.”
Her idea? A program she would eventually name In the Lead. “It’s a leadership program for young people who are commonly referred to as ‘at risk’ — teenagers who are engaging in high-risk behaviour. But really, these youth are ‘at potential,’” she says.
“I saw a program that was different than any other … What if we acknowledged [that these youth] have leadership capabilities because of their challenges and their ability to rise above those challenges? What if we’re overlooking young leaders with great potential simply because they’re not using their strengths in conventional ways?”
Blair envisioned a program where teenagers would be paired with adult coaches who would focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses, listen and provide support, and ultimately believe in them.
But that was only half the idea. The other half was to partner with a company that would give their staff a professional development opportunity to volunteer in the program as coaches. “I needed a partner — a business partner — one that saw my idea not just as a compelling community investment opportunity, but a company that was ready to engage in a meaningful way with their people and values,” says Blair.
That company turned out to be Cenovus Energy, which is investing both human and financial resources in the program for the next three years.
“The outcomes have already been well beyond what we’d hoped for,” says Blair. “In January, we held a graduation ceremony for our first group of young leaders, and I asked the coaches to send me a list of the gifts or sparks or strengths they saw in their young people — and I had to edit some of them down because they were so long. We read the list for each one as they called the young person up to the front. You would have thought you were at Harvard. It was amazing. There were so many people in tears.”
“I learned a lot, both personally and professionally, from being part of the program,” says Megan Marshall, a volunteer coach and a community program advisor for Cenovus Energy.
“I’ve been a mentor with other organizations, but the fundamental approach of this program — focusing on what is strong with youth, not on what is wrong with youth — was different and very appealing to me.”
“A lot of making that shift in thinking comes through the coach training that happens before you’re matched up with your young leader,” she says. “So for example, if someone has previously been labelled as really stubborn, [you learn how to] turn that into a positive — perhaps they’re actually very persistent.”
“[For me and my] young leader, it gave us a clean slate right from the beginning … It made me look at all her amazing abilities and potential right off the bat and eliminated any judgment that could have happened … And I think it created an environment for us where, because it was so supportive and encouraging and positive, a lot more trust could be created.”
Marshall says the program reinforced her listening skills and her ability to be flexible and think on her feet. And she’s carrying over these improved skills to both her personal life and her workplace interactions.
“The program supports leadership development for youth, but it also supports leadership development for the staff of Cenovus,” says Blair. “It’s a truly innovative partnership between the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds, and it was inspired by my Athabasca University experience.”
“Because of my MBA studies, I was able, for the first time, to develop a program through a business lens. And that made all the difference,” she says. “I used what I learned in marketing and ethical decision-making and human resources and leadership to really carve out what the program would look like. My MBA enabled me to transform my idea into a plan and then into reality.”
But more than that, Blair was inspired by receiving a full scholarship to complete her MBA. Without the Alberta Scholarship for Leadership in Community Service, a one-time-only AU MBA award made possible by a private donor and the Alberta Advanced Education and Technology Access to the Future Fund, she wouldn’t have been able to enrol in the program.
“From the moment I received the scholarship, I knew I wanted to pay it forward by applying what I was learning to making a difference in my organization and in the community,” she says. “It was never about what I could get with my education, but how I could give with my education.”
“One of the challenges for the MBA is tuition, which is equal to a lot of annual salaries in my sector,” she adds. “And for non-profit leaders, it’s an investment in your cause and your organization and making a difference in your community as opposed to furthering your own interest. There’s no salary increase after you graduate, as there would be in business.”
But Blair’s success with In the Lead demonstrates the creative and empowering possibilities that come about when leaders from the non-profit sector pursue an MBA. “If we build into the capacity of leaders in this sector, it also builds the capacity of these leaders to make a difference,” she says.
And in Blair’s case, that translates into making an incalculable difference in the lives of youth. “Some of the coaches in this program will be that one person who the young people will look back on and think of as the one who changed their lives,” says Blair.
“Because of Athabasca University, some kids who may not have made it are going to make it. I know their names.”