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Institute's experts teach business leaders to thrive in recession

What if a sharp group of business executives created a local institute dedicated to sharpening leadership skills and even customizing its content to address your most pressing management challenges amid this vile recession?

And what if that institute focused on helping managers rethink their business models in such turbulent times, deepen their bench of leaders and even defy the economic downturn — in keeping with the institute's informal slogan: We refuse to participate in the recession!

That's the mission and mantra of the newly formed Innisbrook Leadership Institute. It's a compelling coalition of a University of South Florida unit dedicated to innovative management training, a business coaching enterprise called ActionCOACH and the billionaire owner of the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor.

"There are leaders in companies today facing challenges they've never faced before," says John Lankford, newly named CEO of the Innisbrook Leadership Institute.

"We want the Tampa Bay area to become known for leadership," says Mohamad "Mo" Kasti, who runs the USF business leadership program that will provide the institute with training content and the business experts to teach it.

"If we want to be a progressive community and have ambitions to have a stronger business community, we have to start with our leaders," he says.

Those are lofty goals, especially in times when you'd expect most businesses are too busy slashing costs and scrambling just to stay afloat.

But that's not the case. Seventy area business execs, when polled this month by the institute, said they most need ways to increase revenue, but also most want help in strategic thinking.

That means leadership training, say institute founders.

Partnering with the institute from the start is the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce. On Sept. 9, the chamber kicks off a six-month, $3,700 leadership training program for members (other companies are also welcome) run by the institute. Later this year, the chamber plans a higher-level curriculum aimed at chief executives and other senior-level managers.

Will such a leadership institute work here? There's some early buzz about its potential, especially given the clout of some of the diverse players who have come together to make it happen. A quick introduction:

Sheila Johnson is one of America's first black female billionaires and a co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, whose Salamander Hospitality company owns the 900-acre Innisbrook resort where the leadership institute will be based. The institute is also owned by Johnson, who coined the phrase "We refuse to participate in the recession!" at a recent institute planning meeting.

Mo Kasti is chief transformation officer at USF's Center for Transformation and Innovation, a management training facility that helps improve business performance and enhance leadership skills both within USF and at such area companies as TECO Energy and BayCare Health System. Kasti cut his leadership teeth at General Electric, among other places, under CEO legends Jack Welch and Jeffrey Immelt. And he has the full backing of USF president Judy Genshaft.

Institute CEO John Lankford worked at Ford Motor, Comcast University and Ascension Health, the second-largest Catholic health system in the nation. He is part of the business consulting firm ActionCOACH Pinellas, whose principals include Ford Kyes. A former St. Anthony's Hospital CEO, former chairman of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and an Innisbrook resident, Kyes played a key role introducing many of the institute's founding players to one another.

The goals of the institute were also inspired by Steve Raymund, chairman of Fortune 500 company Tech Data Corp. in Clearwater. As the current chair of the St. Pete Chamber, Raymund set a goal of forming a school to aid area business managers in gaining stronger leadership skills.

Chamber CEO John Long says his group has endorsed the institute to help run a leadership program because he wants his group's 2,800 members better prepared — and in a more positive mental state — to emerge quickly from the recession.

"As we talk to our members, we find we need to remind them to look ahead, to market their products and to train people so they can be on the cutting edge as things start to turn around," Long says.

The timing smells right for such an approach. The drumbeat of recession news has everybody too distracted with simple survival, and too forgetful of what new business potential might lie just down the road.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Institute's experts teach business leaders to thrive in recession

06/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 4:31am]
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