Archive for February 15, 2012

Mary Prefontaine and the Institute for Career Advancement Needs: A Leader and Organization in Alignment

February 15, 2012 3 comments

Energy.  Vision.  Passion.  Focus.  Leadership.  Institute for Career Advancement Needs CEO Mary Prefontaine embodies the very qualities that her not-for-profit helps emerging leaders maximize. ICAN is that rare animal – a career or professional advancement organization based in the Midwest and founded and headed by women but serving both women and men.  Over its 31 year history the Omaha-based organization has helped advance the careers of many an individual now working in the top executive ranks of Fortune 1000 companies.  Its self-development programs may have seemed far-out or fringe in these parts decades ago but have long since entered the mainstream. An annual women’s leadership conference it hosts has become a big deal.  The 2012 conference is April 4 in Omaha.  My story below profiles Prefontaine and why she’s found the perfect fit for herself at ICAN.  The piece will appear in an upcoming issue of Metro Magazine.





Mary Prefontaine and the Institute for Career Advancement Needs: A Leader and Organization in Alignment

ICAN President-CEO Finds Purpose and Meaning in Her Work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine


Mary Prefontaine

Institute for Career Advancement Needs president-CEO Mary Prefontaine hails from the Great Northern reaches of the Canadian Rockies. There, the roots of her ever-searching, forward-thinking personal brand were nurtured.


She hails from a British Columbia family line that includes big game hunters and outfitters on her mother’s side and railroad men on her father’s side. Opening up the vast Canadian wilderness to the world is a family tradition.

Growing up amid diversity in Vancouver, she embraced a wide open view of life.

“I lived in a very multicultural community and then worked in a diverse cultural environment, so I’m drawn to that. My parents were always inclusive of people uniquely different than them and it made me curious about the world and to want to go explore,” says Prefontaine, who’s traveled to 14 countries.

“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t see the world as totally connected, and I often can find connection and reasons for collaboration with the most diverse of ideas, people, situations, communities.”

This executive, wife and mother of two says in today’s hyper-connected world “the most challenging thing for us in business and for we as parents is to be discerning about what it is you want to be connected with.” That same discernment gets to the heart of what ICAN helps emerging business leaders do by helping participants find purpose and meaning in their work.


“One of the things the work of ICAN assists people with is addressing their values by having them ask, What’s the most important thing to me at this time in my life? It’s about becoming more selective about the things that have meaning to you and making sure you’re living them, connecting with them, fostering them, inviting them in and being curious about them rather than just letting the waves of social media or the demands of the every day hit you,” says Prefontaine.

“Our inquiry with people who go through our Defining Leadership program always begins with, Why should anyone be led by you? Why should anyone follow you? What is it you’re going to inspire in others that’s going to want them to give their absolute best?”

She says in today’s demanding environment of workplace efficiencies one needs to be the kind of leader that inspires people to do good work and still produces bottom line results. She says ICAN takes participants out of their towers and cubicles to learn alongside others in cohorts.

“What you end up having is a very powerful shared experience, and it’s very often a deep experience because it’s self-reflective and you’re with a group of peers,” she says. “You’re not being taught something by a facilitator, you’re actually learning from each other. This is a learning journey they begin and it never ends. If we can poise you to go out and say, ‘My whole life is a learning journey,’ then you will always be evolving and bring something new to the table because you’re coming from that place of curiosity.”

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Finding congruence, being a hurricane

Her own life as a seeker is an example of meshing core principles with work. After pursuing a passion for dance as a producer, choreographer and studio owner, she became a destination marketing and development professional promoting Vancouver, British Columbia and Canada to the world. She worked on the team that helped Canada land the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

When she joined her then-partner, now husband Rob Hallam here in 2006 after he accepted the Omaha Symphony CEO post, she couldn’t know that a year later she’d find a job perfectly aligned with her values. First though she served as the symphony’s interim vice president of marketing. Then she was hired as an ICAN consultant – she’s done much senior leader executive consulting. It wasn’t long before she assumed leadership of the not-for-profit. As a dynamic transplant brimming with new ideas, she took ICAN by storm and to new heights.

“I was invited in to the strategic planning circle of ICAN and became what I call a hurricane factor. and I think that has stuck a little bit even in the leadership role I now have. I am an entrepreneur, I am of the creative class, I do see outside the box, and the work of ICAN has expanded as a result of that.

“We have in less than five years doubled the size of our business. We’ve been successful at listening to what customers say they need to evolve their business and people to be fabulous leaders and delivering new products and services to that, such as our Defining Leadership and Coaching programs. It’s been a really terrific journey of innovation.”



Conference and program growth

She says ICAN’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference April 4 at CenturyLink Center “has grown to be one of the largest women’s leadership conferences in this region.” The event features heavy-hitter speakers, this year led by Arianna Huffington, breakout sessions and exhibitor booths. Past guest headliners have included Deepak Chopra and Suze Orman.

Prefontaine anticipates hosting 2,000 women, including top executive from across the U.S. and Canada. “We have a global conversation,” she says.

Presenters are selected, she says “because there’s something about their work in the world that aligns with our philosophy and work in leadership.” The message of ICAN, she says, “is really straightforward but it’s a big one: to develop inspired business leaders to transform the communities they serve. We’re very clear and specific about that and we have a long term strategic plan that supports that mission.”

ICAN counts among its leadership development program graduates Fortune 1000 executives. Some graduates making a difference in Omaha include Jim Young at Union Pacific, Mike Foutch at First National Bank and Pamela Hernandez at Woodmen.

“We’re in our 25th year with those programs,” she says. “We see people from across the country from a diverse set of industries. We have 30 to 60 graduates annually and these people are now all over the world. If you’re a leader in an organization of any size among the most significant challenges you face are, How do I engage my people? How do I instill loyalty? How do I value their contributions? And if you really want help with these questions, then ICAN is the place to come to because we provide a platform of leadership training and collaboration with other community leaders and by the time you’ve finished transformation will have occurred.

“If you’re an individual entrepreneur or middle manager and you want to accelerate your learning and network then ICAN is the place to come learn, be inspired and connect with others.”

As organizations increasingly embrace creative thinkers who demonstrate initiative and add value, she says ICAN’s work “is more valuable than ever,” adding, “The demand for our work is growing, and it’s growing in other geographic locations and in different modalities of service. We just launched our first defining leadership pilot program in Denver last fall.”

Heal thy self

She marvels that ICAN’s founders made self-development the crux of its philosophy when launching the organization in 1981. She says the notion of taking responsibility for how you show up, the opportunities you create and the connections you make were considered “woo-woo or new agey” in business but now these same tools of self-reflection, journaling and peer-to-peer mentoring circles are mainstream.

“It’s interesting to me because my turning point in looking at the evolution of consciousness came in the ’80s. I fell in love with the idea that as human beings we are powerful intellectually, spiritually, physically, emotionally. That we can create positive change in our communities and in business if we only pay attention and take responsibility to move ourselves forward.

“So when I learned about the mission of ICAN it just seemed like the most beautiful, amazing, fantastic organization that I could have ever stumbled across. It’s got purpose and meaning to me at my very core.”

For more info on ICAN programs and the conference, visit

Part I of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

February 15, 2012 7 comments

One of the best nonfiction reads of my life is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. A journalist by trade, Wilkerson proves herself a historian of the first order with her exhaustive, compelling, always insightful, and often moving work about the sprawling, decades-long migration of African-Americans from the South to the North, West and points in between.  This epoch movement of people and culture  transformed the nation but went largely unreported in the mainstream media because it was not organized in any formal sense and it played out quietly in countless streams and currents and eddies over such long time and across such a vast expanse.  The Great Migration had no leader or organization.  Instead, each individual, couple, family, and group that made the courageous leap of faith to leave Jim Crow for a strange promised land far away acted independently in  asserting their self-determination. The mere act of leaving was as brave and militant a thing to do as any recognized civil rights action. The book has been out now for more than a year, but it took me awhile to catch up with it.  I am so glad I did.  As Wilkerson will be speaking about her book April 12 in Omaha, where I live, I recently interviewed her.  I am presenting the interview here in a four-part Q & A that will also run in The Omaha Star.  If you haven’t read the book, do so.  It  manages to do the seemingly impossible by taking on this epic story in all its complexity and scope and yet makes it an intimate journey by focusing on three individuals, Ida Mae, Robert, and George, who become the prism through which we experience the migration journey alongside them.  I thought I knew a lot about the black experience until she immersed me in this world, and now I realize how little I really do know and how much more I have yet to learn.

Part I of four-part Q & A with Pulitzer-winner Isabel Wilkerson on her book, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the Omaha Star

 Isabel Wilkerson

This is the first of a four-part interview Leo Adam Biga conducted with award-winning author and journalist Isabel Wilkerson about her 2010 best-seller, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Her critically praised book explores the mid-20th century African-American migration from the South to all points North and West.

Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize, is giving a free book talk April 12 at 7 p.m. at Countryside Community Church, 8787 Pacific Street. She’ll sign copies afterwards.

LAB: What were your hopes for the book?

IW: “I have many hopes for the book when it comes to the potential impact on the reader. This migration and demographic experience had been discussed primarily in scholarly terms until recently. My goal was first to try to understand what people who never spoke about what they had endured had actually been through. I really wanted to be able to hear the stories and make it possible for anyone who would listen to know what they had endured so it wouldn’t be lost to history.

“I felt the migration had such magnitude and impact on our country and yet it was not an entire chapter in 20th century history books. It did not command the attention I felt it deserved given how massive it was and how much it affected our culture. I find it surprising even now if you look at a high school history book that it’s just a paragraph if mentioned at all. I felt it needed to take its rightful place in history and that perhaps one way to do that would be to actually go back to the people who lived it and to convert their stories into a narrative people would want to read and live through the journey with them.

“I wanted to hear the stories before it was too late and to in some way validate the experiences of the people who lived it but who had been unwilling or unable or in too much pain to even talk about it.”

LAB: Has the book sparked more migration inquiries?

IW: “I have been reading newspaper stories from around the country where journalists have been inspired to go and interview people in their own communities who were part of this. Every single city in the North, the Midwest and the West was affected by this migration, so there would be people alive in all these cities that have been part of the migration. They’re getting up in years and their stories would need to be captured soon if they’re to be captured at all, and that’s the urgency with which I went about interviewing the 1,200 people I did. Because I was aware with each passing, day, month, year we were losing them, and with each person passing away you’re losing part of the archives before it can even be recorded.

“The interviews were in some ways like a casting call. I was auditioning people for the role of protagonist in the book, but in doing so I was also hearing many stories and building my own understanding and archive of what people endured. Not all of them clearly made it in the book but they all helped to inform the work and provided insight into some aspect I otherwise wouldn’t have understood. Hearing these things many times from different people helped make it a more authentic, richer work.”

LAB: Did the fact your parents were migrants add import for you?

IW: “Yes, my mother was from Georgia and my father from Virginia and they would never have met had there been no Great Migration, which is one of the realities that really inspired me to want to write this book. The majority of African-Americans and Americans on the whole had somebody in their backgrounds do what the people of this book did. Whatever the migration stream, whole new lineages and cultures were created. That’s what happens in a migration.

“I became really inspired by the idea a single decision can literally change certainly a family line but also even a country. I realized this was so much bigger than a simple move and I think perhaps it’s been misunderstood as that.”

The Star and The Reader are collecting African-American migration stories. If you or a loved one migrated from the South email or call 402-445-4666 to schedule an interview.

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