Archive for the ‘ICAN (Institute for Career Advancement Needs’ Category

Happiness is as Happiness Does – ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference gets Busy framing Happiness and how to apply it to Business

If getting your happiness on is a priority, there’s no shortage of strategies and disciplines for finding it in self-help books, videos, CDs and the like.  My story here for Omaha’s Metro Magazine focuses on a women’s conference devoted to the theme of happiness – what is it, how to achieve it and sustain it and the difference it can make in people’s work lives and in the bottomlines of organizations and businesses.









Happiness is as Happiness Does – ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference gets Busy framing Happiness and how to apply it to Business


Now appearing in Omaha’s Metro Magazine (


Happy is as happy does.

As organizations get ever leaner-meaner trying to maximize profits, happiness may seem a strange value to cultivate. But experts like Shawn Achor, whose consulting firm Good Think Inc. applies positive psychology findings to help clients achieve happier, more effective work experiences, say their research shows the happy quotient is a lead indicator of business performance and employee satisfaction.

Happiness may just be the antidote for the lagging productivity and job dissatisfaction plaguing America. Lack of happiness may explain why so many workers rely on controlled substances to relieve stress, enhance mood and boost energy. Philosophers and artists have waxed about happiness as a desired state of being for centuries in treatises, songs, poems. It’s even written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence as an unalienable right to be pursued.

Achor’s study of belief systems and attitudes has led him to develop a kind of happiness index that equates its attainment with realizing human potential. His easily digestible analysis has made him a best selling author and popular TED presenter. His “The Happiness Advantage” lecture, which airs on PBS, is much in demand.

He’s hardly alone today in framing happiness. Books, films, seminars and classes try unlocking its metrics. This hunger for bliss is part of a growing self-reflective movement that finds many folks, including business professionals, taking stock of what really matters and putting into practice habits that promote happiness as a pathway to success.

All this interests Mary Prefontaine, whose journey for enlightenment and fulfillment aligns with her work as president and CEO of the Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN). Her Omaha-based nonprofit is all about “inspiring leaders and transforming organizations,” so she pays attention to what’s affecting businesses. Noting that studies of happiness were trending up, she and her team made Happiness, Bending the Bottom Line, the theme of this year’s ICAN Women’s Leadership Conference.

“We plan the conference around what seems to be relevant in our work, in business, in people’s hearts and there’s a social conversation going on about happiness and what it means,” she says. “The work of ICAN is built around that holistic model of self-examination of body, mind, spirit, emotions. So what if we are accountable to all of that and the choices we make?. Does that make us more happy? And how do we define that? How do we distill our lives to get clear enough to understand what it means to me to be happy at the most fundamental level?. How do I shed my attachments to things in order to get there?

“Some research shows that people who are givers are happier.”

The April 9 all-day event at the CenturyLink Center is presenting panels and speakers to synthesize the latest thinking on happiness and to perhaps answer questions about this ephemeral, elusive thing.

Getting happy
In setting the conference agenda Prefontaine says she and her team asked, “Is happiness a glib thing or a real thing? Is this just a made-up human condition that isn’t even actually plausible? What does it really mean and how do we actually know we have it?”

The consensus holds happiness is not something that happens to us, rather it’s something we manifest as an intention or choice or attitude that informs how we apprehend the world and act in it.

“Looking at happiness as a choice rather than just happenstance intrigued us. We really began to look at it from the perspective of self first and then the impact it might have in everything around you. We’re interested in this idea of raising human consciousness. That’s what the work of ICAN is all about. At the conference we’re examining this idea that happiness is a choice.

“One of the great points of intersection to decide on this theme was looking at Shawn Achor’s meta analysis of happiness as it relates to the workplace, and the life of a business and the human talent associated with that business., That took us into how does having happy employees with a sense of well-being affect productivity, innovation, teamwork and the bottom-line. Well, the research shows it has a huge impact in a positive way.”

It seems happiness has little to do with the things in our lives.

“What’s interesting and what I’m most excited about is that in most instances research says those who have encountered the most adversity in their lives are also some of the happiest individuals.”

She’s seen this phenomenon on trips to Kenya, Tanzania, Singapore, Thailand and China.

“I see a lot of happy people with nothing. We have much to learn from them. In Buddhism you’re actually invited to stand in a place of suffering, without attachments, and come to peace with what really is. But we’re not living in a society that thinks that’s a good idea,. We place no value on that. Some research states if you have certain things in place you’re more likely to be happy. Here in the West many of us have stable shelter, food, employment. In other parts of the world that would make many people happy. Yet in this nation of plenty we’re increasingly dependent on pharmaceuticals to treat depression.”

Spreading happiness
Prefontaine says the conference is a vehicle for holding a forum about happiness and its ability to bend the bottom line. She’s excited by the prospect of 2,100 expected attendees who can potentially make their work environments more attuned to individual and collective well-being.

“The research is saying happy employees are more engaged and productive and therefore more effective and innovative and that happiness really can bend the bottom-line in an upward trajectory. In that case, how do you as an employee affect it and as an employer what’s your accountability? How accountable and aware are companies to this idea? I think it’s about a company being aware that health – good diet, exercise and sleep – makes for a much healthier, happier life and a more satisfied, productive employee.”

She says some mavericks are taking the lead.

“Certain business leaders today are paying attention to the well-being, happiness and engagement level of their employees, so much so they are encouraging nurturing practices that allow for rest, mindful meditation, sleep and wellness at the core of every part of being, knowing that will help employees deliver more to the company.”












Breakout sessions will feature speakers exploring specific themes:

Achor – “The Happiness Advantage at Home and Work”
Stacey Flower – “Maximizing Opportunities: One Person, One Moment”
Amy Dorn Kopelan – “Your Life is Always an Interview”
Jo Miller – “Take Charge of Your Career Trajectory”
Ishita Gupta – “Get the Confidence to Be Yourself”

ICAN faculty will conduct a “Live Your Voice: Values-Based Leadership” session and Omaha Yoga Path founder Mark Watson will lead a session on “Mindfulness and Meditation, Simple Ways to Manage Your Stress.”

In addition to Achor, two other keynoters will share their spin on becoming empowered in uncertain times: CBS news personality Norah O’Donnell and global economist Sherry Cooper.

A panel will discuss the STEM gap that finds more women in the workplace than ever before but females lagging far behind males in science, technology, engineering and math studies and careers.

Whatever your path to bliss and success, Prefontaine says the conference has it covered. Setting the tone the day before is a special public screening of the documentary Happy, which explores notions of happiness around the world. It shows at 6:30 p.m. on April 8 in the CenturyLink Grand Ballroom. Admission to the film is $9 and all screening proceeds benefit the ICAN Education Scholarship Fund.

Prefontaine says the conference offers a full immersion in the power of leadership and positive thinking. “I think I’m most excited about bringing a conversation to our community about happiness being a choice.”

For the conference schedule and registration details, visit

Shawn Achor Resets the Happiness Formula
Popular Psychiatrist to keynote ICAN conference

ICAN conference keynote speaker Shawn Achor, a leading positive psychologist, has become a happiness guru after years immersing himself in what makes people tick.

“I studied Christian and Buddhist ethics at Harvard Divinity School to explore how our beliefs change our actions,” he says. “This is exactly what I do in positive psychology now. Since then I’ve traveled to over 50 countries researching and speaking at over a third of the Fortune 100 companies and with schools worldwide. I became fascinated by the idea we are not just our genes and our environment, but that we can choose happiness.”

As a teacher he repeatedly saw students fall short of happiness when they expected it as a birthright or reward.

“In my 12 years at Harvard I saw students who thought the success of getting into a good college would make them happy, but 80 percent report work debilitating depression at some point over the next four years. I saw the same things out at companies. Even as success rose, happiness flatlined. It turns out we had the formula wrong. Success is a moving target. As soon as we hit a goal our brain changes the goalpost of what success looks like. If you hit your sales target, we raise your sales target. If you make more money, you’re surrounded by others who make even more money.

“But flip around the formula and it actually works. Raising optimism and deepening social connection raises every business and educational outcome. My TED talk has over 6 million views, which feels surreal, but is yet another indication that we are living through the beginning of a revolution where people recognize that the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain.”

He found happiness to be an internal construct we build as we grow.

“In my work we define happiness as the joy you feel striving toward your potential. This changed the way I pursued happiness. Many researchers try to separate which is better a happy life or a meaningful one. That is impossible. Happiness cannot be sustained without meaning. Pleasure is short-lived, but joy is something you can experience in the ups and downs of life. And we only feel it on the way to our potential, so growth as a human being is crucial.”

He says most of us have been programmed by societal tenets to follow the wrong formula for happiness and success.

“We think if we work harder we’ll be more successful and happier. It’s a broken formula. The human brain is actually designed to work better when it is positive, rather than negative, neutral or stressed.”

Nurturing ourselves and our passions, combined with serving the needs of others, are surer ways to bliss than slavishly working to get ahead.

When all is said and done, he says some simple but profound differences separate happy people from unhappy people.

“The happiest people can delay pleasure but they do not delay happiness. And they realize happiness requires a work ethic. Only by creating positive habits like writing down gratitudes, journaling about positive experiences, meditation and writing positive emails to people in our social support group can we create sustained and quantifiable positive change.”

Achor’s keynote talk is at 9:15 a.m. He will lead a breakout session at 10 a.m.



“In my work we define happiness as the joy you feel striving toward your potential.”

Live Wires: Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) Nurtures Leadership

The Institute for Career Advancement Needs or ICAN offers leadership immersion experiencse that give established and emerging leaders the tools they need to improve and empower themselves.  My new story about ICAN for Metro Magazine looks at the organization’s core values and service, the institute’s continued growth, and where it is headed in the work it does to nurture today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.  An earlier article I did about ICAN and its own leader, Mary Prefontaine, can also be found on this blog.  Perhaps the most public face of ICAN is its annual Women’s Leadership Conference and this year’s slate of keynote speakers for the April 3 event is as impressive as past years.
Live Wires: Institute for Career Advancement Needs (ICAN) Nurtures Leadership
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now in Metro Magazine



With the Institute for Career Advancement Needs 30-plus years old now and its annual Women’s Leadership Conference celebrating 20 years April 3, the not-for-profit has entered the ranks of established Omaha institutions.

ICAN’s footprint

ICAN’s reputation as an effective leadership accelerator has led the organization to expand its coaching, mentoring and training into new geographic areas, including Denver, Colo. and Vancouver, British Columbia.

The organization’s goal of developing inspired business leaders and equipping them with the tools to transform the communities they serve is carried out in many ways, including Defining Leadership programs.

ICANs biggest splash is the all-day women’s conference held at the CenturyLink Center, where attendees from around the nation hear national and international thought leaders and innovators. This year’s keynote speakers come from vastly different backgrounds but have in common lives and careers built around self-improvement and empowerment. Model-turned-CEO Kathy Ireland has become a design mogul, best-selling author and philanthropist. Muslim studies consultant Dalia Mogahed is a White House advisor and the author of the best selling book Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. Humanitarian Tererai Trent is the founder of Tinogona, which builds and repairs schools in her native rural Zimbabwe, and she’s a staunch advocate for education and women’s rights as empowering tools to lift people out of poverty and oppression.

More than 2,000 attendees are expected at what is one of the region’s largest women’s conferences. There’s been a surge of partners and sponsors.

ICAN board member Katrina Becker says the conference gathers globally connected individuals representing a diversity of thought, behaviors and locations. Participants share a desire to grow and serve. ICAN president and CEO Mary Prefontaine says her organization’s leadership programs invite participants “to engage with others regardless of place or space or credentials,” adding, “That’s a really important principle ICAN stands on. It offers an opportunity to be engaged regardless of career level. It’s more about the level of curiosity and interest to evolve one’s self.”

Core values

ICAN’s curriculum of emotional intelligence and behavioral science is the framework that guides participants on a self-reflective journey of discovery. Prefontaine says those discoveries are enhanced when participants interact with each other.

“What we’re doing is allowing people to connect in the most meaningful way around the things most important to them – their values, their life’s purpose, their ability to succeed in their organization or career or family or community.”

The curriculum draws on the latest neuroscience and behavioral findings.

“Science has provided us more and more tools we use in our programs that help people assess their emotional intelligence and understand where they’re strong and where there are opportunities for growth. Through that we create programs where graduates can step more fully into their own wisdom to impact the results for their company, for the people they lead and for their community,” says ICAN board president Scott Focht.

ICAN encourages participants to share their self-inventories with their peers.

Prefontaine says, “The opportunity to have a meaningful conversation within a safe context of peers is a really unusual things for most leaders in business today.”

“The curriculum really provides the structure for the dialogue to happen around the networking and the connection. The most important thing that happens is the actual dialogue,” says Focht.


“Because you learn from that dialogue,” says Becker. “You have to talk and dig deep on yourself but you also learn from other people talking and digging deep around themselves. There’s a two-way symbiosis of learning. Our learning programs teach you how you react, what you value, what’s important to you and how to become better at recognizing that in other people,

“As important as it is to learn about yourself you have to learn how to pull that out in other people. For people to grow in an organization they need to build to inspire and motivate and align people around common goals and objectives. It can’t be all about you. You have to know where other people are coming from. That becomes important if you’re going to take an organization to the next level because you have to help people come together to achieve those objectives.”

Emotional Intelligence

The emotional intelligence ICAN teaches strives for harmony.

“The work of ICAN gets participants to look at things from the heart and head levels,” Becker says.

“Emotional intelligence is where fact and emotion come together to create something that’s real and truthful,” says Focht. “So let’s say there’s an economic issue a company is facing. There are the facts surrounding that economic issue. There’s also the emotions triggered by having to take some action. Well, there’s this space where it’s not just about the fact or the emotion, but where the two blend together beautifully, where you come up with the right direction to go that is a good balance between the two and that represents and respects both sides.

“When you’re pursuing the most wise thing, the results are going to be optimized.”

Focht says it’s all about finding balance.

“If I say for example it’s just and only exclusively about the bottom line there could be some downstream consequences that are more negative and far reaching than you had anticipated that actually could have a longer term negative effect on the bottom line if you don’t pay attention to the emotional side. But if you just go with the emotion you might not be able to manage your way through the financial part of it.”

Maximizing potential

Prefontaine shares a testimonial by a recent graduate that perfectly sums up for her what the organization seeks to do:

“You hold a mirror up for me to see who I truly am and who I hope to become.”

She says that sentiment is not an isolated experience but expresses “really what occurs for many if not all of our participants in these programs.” She adds that many graduates tell her “that without ICAN their career and life trajectory would perhaps have been much more narrow.”

Focht says ICAN has proven its worth again and again.

“Thirty years ago a conversation began because a couple of community leaders really saw a need for the leadership dialogue here to shift and to change to really become something about authenticity in leadership and moving away from some older models of leadership.

“And I think the fact the conversation has lasted for so long tells us we have the right conversation going and that is – How do we as leaders show up authentically to make a contribution to impact the communities we serve? People keep showing up and participating in the conversation. It’s something people clearly want to have.”

Prefontaine terms ICAN’s evolution and growth, especially its recent expansion of services outside Omaha and the adoption of its programs within companies, “gratifying and exciting.” She fully expects the organization to continue adding value for existing and new customers.

Focht suggests the most fundamental impact ICAN will continue making is the personal and professional transformation its graduates experience.

“I’ve seen people transformed in terms of not only how they’re showing up at work but also how they’re showing up in their families and communities and in whatever groups they’re serving. It makes them more effective all-around. They understand what they can bring to the table and how they can make a contribution.”

For ICAN program and conference details, visit

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

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