10 to Watch

Katie Varney

What she does:Program and Special Projects Manager, Leadership Rhode Island Layman’s terms, please:Every year LRI accepts 50-60 established and emerging leaders from all industries and all …

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What she does:
Program and Special Projects Manager, Leadership Rhode Island

Layman’s terms, please:
Every year LRI accepts 50-60 established and emerging leaders from all industries and all corners of the state into its Core Program. This program explores the issues affecting our state – like education, healthcare and the economy – through intensive, full-day sessions, then directs the members of the class to take action through group projects. Varney is responsible for the curriculum and projects – meaning what these people will learn and do for the next 10 months. That’s a pretty influential position for anyone to be in – let alone someone who’s not yet 30.

“The tremendous wealth of experience and expertise for each session day comes from our alumni-driven Program Committee, but I have the task of turning their insight and ideas into a series of activities and facilitated discussions.”

What she brings to the role:
“My approach revolves entirely around finding unique ways to bring every perspective to the discussion and continuously implementing new techniques to accommodate different learning styles. In my opinion, the ideal session day would be one where every leader deepened their understanding of another perspective, gained a holistic view of the topic for the day, and felt inspired and empowered to strengthen their communities.”

How this translates into action:
Over the past two years, LRI class members have engaged in “community reconnaissance” in Central Falls and Quonset, conducting face-to-face interviews with over 600 community members to learn what their needs are and what kind of projects would have an impact.

“The value in this approach was two-fold. First, they learned what kinds of projects would actually be valuable to these communities instead of making assumptions. Second, by engaging these communities in the process, they had the support of the residents and stakeholders.”

The results:

  • The 2012 class selected and assisted the committee that reviewed the city charter and recommended a number of changes, all of which were approved by the city. (One member of that class, James Diossa, was subsequently elected mayor.)
  • Members of the 2013 class staged the Quonset Ground Show in response to the cancelation of its famous Air Show due to budget cuts. 

What that’s taught her:
“The most important lesson I have learned from the community reconnaissance model is that I don’t know better and neither do you… My advice to any people looking to make change in their communities would be to engage as many people in the process as possible and to keep an open mind to what a solution might look like. Every single person adds value and a new perspective to consider.”

Fast facts:

  • At four months old, she was adopted from an orphanage in South Korea. 
  • At one point she decided to become a chef: “One severed nerve and artery, and a huge vat of charred fig jam later, and I realized that I am actually pretty awful in the kitchen.”
  • Gallup, the national public opinion polling giant, has developed a leadership program based on its StrengthsFinder model; Varney is one of only 91 certified StrengthsFinder coaches in the entire country.

How Leadership RI can help the state:
“Rhode Island’s human capital is, without a doubt, its greatest opportunity and strength. I cannot think of one area of expertise that I couldn’t connect with either directly or through a member of Leadership Rhode Island’s alumni, and that is just a small fraction of the state’s population. Directing this collective talent towards a common goal is going to be the key to making positive change in Rhode Island.”

The importance of focusing on Rhode Island’s strengths:
“When I think about the people we consider as exceptional leaders, I think of people who were especially talented in a particular area. Steve Jobs, Gandhi, Anne Hutchinson, and Samuel Slater did not make their places in history by being exceptionally well-rounded individuals. They figured out what they were good at, and then did those things very well. Rhode Islanders must first identify what their strengths actually are, and let go of trying to be something that they are not.”

What’s on the horizon:
The next Leadership Rhode Island class begins this month with a theme of “LRI Crosses the Line.” Though the organization has been tight-lipped about what this means, it hasn’t been shy about making a splash over the past couple of years (its work in Central Falls raised its profile considerably), so expect a lot of noise in the next 10 months.

Follow Katie on Twitter @LeadershipRI