Fast-forward: Intense short course preps cotton leaders

Editor's Note: The following article chronicles The National Cotton Council's Cotton Leadership Program, which is commemorating its 20th anniversary this year. The CLP is funded by The Cotton Foundation via a grant from DuPont Agricultural Products.

The CLP is also a project that I'm familiar with, because my father, Emmett Robinson, former public relations and promotions director for the National Cotton Council, helped design the program and even acted as “den father” for the first two leadership classes. It was a project near and dear to his heart.

When Marks, Miss., cotton producer Bobby Carson applied for a slot on the National Cotton Council's inaugural Cotton Leadership Program, he didn't think he stood a chance of being selected.

But Carson was just the type of person the program was looking for, a young farmer who was already emerging as a local leader with the Delta Council and one who believed with all his heart that the future of the cotton industry had more to do with what happened beyond the farm gate than within it.

Carson was selected for that first CLP class, and in 1983/84, he spent six weeks expanding his view of the cotton universe. Twenty years later, Carson is living proof that the program works.

After graduating from the leadership program, Carson went on to work on several National Cotton Council committees and on Cotton Incorporated's board at the national level. Recently, he served as president of The Cotton Foundation and is currently president of Cotton Council International.

Carson recalls that he didn't quite know what to expect coming into the leadership program, only that he would learn. It didn't disappoint.

“It gave me an immediate understanding of how important industry coordination is and how important it is to have those contacts and develop those friendships and work with the industry leaders in the different segments to accomplish our goals.”

The program also honed Carson's communications skills. In one session, Memphis television personality Marge Thrasher tutored class members on how to work with the media.

Carson recalled, “One of the things she told me and I still try to apply that today is ‘Don't try to be important. Just be yourself.’ That stuck with me and still does anytime I'm in front of a camera or a lectern.”

But it's not just the training that helped Carson over the past 20 years. “It created friendships that Sally (Carson's wife) and I still have today. We look forward to seeing those friends and their wives at Council meetings and other places.”

All a graduate needs after CLP training is a few years of seasoning and a little patience. After graduating from the program 19 years ago, Courtland, Ala., ginner Bobby Greene worked his way through numerous leadership positions — including a stint as president of the National Cotton Ginners Association. Today, he is the first CLP graduate to assume the chairmanship of the NCC.

Greene's CLP experience, “gave me the perspective on how interrelated the industry is. It's not an industry just made up of cotton farmers and ginners — there are seven segments. When we come together as an industry we have a great deal of strength and zest for our position because we represent such diverse interests.”

Greene, a member of the 1984/1985 class, recalls that myopic viewpoints were usually the first casualties of the day when class members got together, often squeezed into a van for a trek down a dusty turnrow or to a research facility. “We were all from different industries and geographic areas and there's banter in that bus all the time. But I don't ever remember an instance where any members were at odds when we finished a session.”

Greene found out from fellow member, Buckeye, Ariz., cotton producer Chuck Youngker “that it took five-acre feet of water to grow cotton in the Central Valley of Arizona. Talking with Chuck helped me understand how expensive it is to grow cotton in the Far West.”

Greene describes the program as an intense short-course on leadership. “From a professional standpoint, it was probably the most important one year in my life. The program stretches an individual. It causes the person to do things he would rather not do, like public speaking,” said Greene, who admitted to having such an apprehension prior to the program.

“But isn't that how we grow? If you're afraid to get behind a lectern and you never get behind one, you're always going to be afraid. You have to face your fears.”

On the other hand, the program is so intense that most participants simply don't have time to worry, Greene noted. “You start early in the morning with a breakfast meeting to go over what's going to happen that day. It's not at all unusual to not get back to the hotel until 10 o'clock at night. It's hard work, but almost every bit of it is fun.”

When nominations for the upcoming leadership class are in hand, one of the first things that Prattville, Ala., cotton producer Jimmy Sanford will look at is each nominee's level of participation in his or her local, state and regional organizations. Sanford is chairman of the CLP's Leadership Development Committee, which selects the class.

“I also look for their participation and volunteer work in other non-agricultural organizations. There's no substitute for someone willing to give his or her time.

“Another thing that I look for is the breadth of a candidate, especially how well-read he or she may be. We have questions on the application asking what daily newspapers and periodicals the person reads.”

Most leaders will rise to the top with or without a leadership program, noted Sanford, who has been on the selection committee since the CLP's inception. The CLP is simply a fast-track for those with the right stuff.

“Over time, a leader will assimilate the information about the industry,” he said. “But it takes years. With this program, you can get a capsule of the factors that impact the cotton industry in one year. The program's greatest benefit is to expedite a potential leader's knowledge of the industry.”

In addition, recent industry consolidation has intensified the search for leaders because it's limited the universe of leaders, according to Sanford. “That puts a premium on a need to identify them.

The Cotton Leadership Program began under the direction of Arlie Bowling, former Cotton Foundation executive director and director of economic and market research for the NCC and Emmett Robinson, former public relations and promotions director for the NCC.

The 2002/03 Cotton Leadership Class marks the 20th anniversary of the leadership program, which receives support from The Cotton Foundation via a grant from DuPont Agricultural Products. The CLP is the longest running active Cotton Foundation program.

Bowling, who is now retired, recalls dinner meetings between those early leadership classes and the managers and researchers at DuPont in Wilmington, De., “Both sides provided advice to each other and I thought it was a wonderful exchange of information. It was of value to the total cotton industry because the exchanges could help DuPont in its service to the industry.”

“The reason for the program's success is that it cuts across all sectors of the cotton industry,” said George Montgomery, regional sales manager, seed crop protection, southern region, Integrated Pioneer/DuPont Co.

Montgomery, who was DuPont's marketing manager for cotton products in the 1980s, worked with Bowling and Robinson during the program's formative years. DuPont continued its significant commitment to the program, “even during times when its cotton ag business declined before Staple and some other products came along,” he said.

Two things kept the sponsorship going, according to Montgomery. “We knew that putting people in industry, governmental and environmental leadership positions was a benefit.

“We also built up a network of people who had gone through the program. We could pick up the phone and call people to get ideas fairly quickly, because they felt good about the program and felt good about DuPont.”

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