Posts Tagged ‘ICAN’

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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