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Professional development is an important undertaking for incubation programs of all sizes. This article provides an overview of incubator manager professional development needs and preferred professional development activities for both small and large staffs, based on the experiences of several NBIA members.

For more on professional development for incubation professionals, see the April issue of the NBIA Review, which will contain a listing of useful resources and an examination of an exemplary state association program.

Members hone staff skills via professional development

by Dinah Adkins

February 2012

NBIA has always focused on members' professional development, particularly assisting incubator managers to improve skills in incubator operations and client services. The aim has been to elevate the level of industry performance; provide better services to clients; and, thus, improve the return on investment to communities; raise the prestige of incubators; and increase resources available to them.

Historically, NBIA has emphasized incubation fundamentals — how to develop client mentoring programs or ensure incubator financial sustainability, for example. That emphasis may have resulted in underrepresentation of other professional development issues, such as improving leadership and team-building capabilities, gaining personal fulfillment while engaging in career development and creating an environment that helps others (clients and staff) succeed.

Yet it's clear that some NBIA members have delved deeply into books, exercises and training that address the gamut of their professional development needs, through NBIA resources, training and certificate programs available from other organizations, and a slew of self-development and leadership books.

Professional development should be addressed mindfully. After all, as Rafael Garcia Moreira, incubator manager of Ingenio-Incubator de empresas in Montevideo, Uruguay, explains: "We see incubation as a continuous learning process for everybody: clients and staff as well. Indeed we see life as a learning process."

Top topics for professional and personal development

Professional development topics of interest to NBIA members can be organized in at least three broad fields: topics specific to incubation; areas of expertise necessary to provide knowledgeable advice and effective services to clients; and topics related to personal, career and leadership development.

Mark Long, president of Long Performance Advisors of Ellettsville, Ind., and a former incubator manager, sees three major divisions of incubator-specific topics. These include client management: how to "handle client issues, deal with difficult clients and know when to draw the line," among others. Second is program development, which Long says is a "key element to incubator success or failure." This includes developing programs for client recruitment, retention and graduation; client mentoring and education; client financing; incubator record keeping and finances; business principles and organization; etc. He characterizes a third set of topics as sponsorship and fundraising activities, which are important for operating a sustainable program.

Areas of expertise necessary to provide effective client services include having a working understanding of business domains such as corporation and tax issues, intellectual property, venture funding, marketing, branding, etc. While it is not possible for any incubator manager to become a specialist in so many domains, it is important to keep generally up-to-date and learn tools and techniques to assist clients.

"The point is, you must have more than theoretical knowledge to work with clients; you also need an approach (tools) to do it," explains June Lavelle, president of Lavelle & Associates in Slomczyn, Poland, and a former NBIA board chair. "What happens without having a standard methodology and consulting tools is that the staffs of incubators don't know where to begin."

Lavelle, an incubation pioneer who founded the Fulton-Carroll Center for Industry in Chicago in 1980 and ran the program until 1992, has since been consulting in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, and in Africa. In those regions, staff may have no business coaching or business development experience. "I work mostly with incubator teams in transitioning and emerging economies where the professional infrastructure is very thin, so we have to create it almost from scratch," Lavelle says. Among the core needs she identifies are "a methodology for assessing client needs and a methodology for coaching clients, presumably based on those needs."

Last among the major divisions of professional development topics are those related to personal, career and leadership development. These include leadership development programs, training on managing teams, reading and discussing books such as those by Peter Drucker and Steven Covey, and participating in exercises to gain an understanding of important life goals or how to find balance in life and work.

Opportunities for learning even when staff is small

A problem for many incubator managers is that their programs are "chronically understaffed" with perhaps only the manager and a receptionist, says Long. "The constraints of time and money prohibit many managers from availing themselves of opportunities for professional development."

However, small incubators can do many things that larger incubators can. If you're the sole professional on your team, or if there are only two of you, you still need to ensure that your incubator environment is one that helps others succeed. And this requires taking your own professional development seriously and modeling that for your clients — building a culture that is based on continual self-improvement and learning.

"I subscribe to the Disney philosophy of leadership that states every leader is telling a story by his or her actions," explains Karl LaPan, president & CEO of the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center in Fort Wayne, Ind. Basic for building a dynamic and growth-oriented culture is ensuring high performance by setting high expectations for yourself and others, he says.

Having been strongly influenced by his participation in a three-year coaching certification program based on the premise of Matthew Kelly's book The Dream Manager, LaPan notes Kelly's main coaching thesis: "An organization can only become the best version of itself to the extent that people who drive the organization are striving to become better versions of themselves."

So, of course, incubator managers should ensure their budget includes funds for their own development, whether this permits attending NBIA conferences and enrolling in the Incubator Management Certificate Program (see, buying books from the NBIA Bookstore or other activities.

"The NBIA library is a must," says Moreira, who particularly recommends two books: Best Practices in Action: Guidelines for Implementing First-Class Business Incubation Programs, Revised 2nd edition, a top-seller that describes in detail 118 examples of incubator best practices; and A Comprehensive Guide to Business Incubation, also in a second edition, which contains more than 70 chapters on incubation topics.

Moreira also finds back issues of NBIA newsletters (see NBIA's online archives at and the member listserv of great value. "This is the best … continuous education available for me and my staff. We keep the [listserv] postings and all the attached materials of the last three years. It is part of our reference library," he explains.

Dionne Palmer, incubator manager of the Technology Innovation Centre in Kingston, Jamaica, concurs about the usefulness of the listserv. Using it, she makes contact with people who have addressed similar issues or who have experience with programs she would like to implement.

The listserv and newsletter archives are free to NBIA members. Another resource that is free to all is the library of information attached to an NBIA tool that permits benchmarking your incubator's operations (see This library contains hundreds of pages of excerpts and Web links organized by 10 topic headings, such as "Selecting Clients" and "Incubator Finances."

Many incubator managers we contacted mentioned NBIA's occasional free Webinars. Even Webinars available for a fee offer great training value at $69. Archived Webinars are available to members for $29 each.

NBIA ReviewOther resources are also available inexpensively, for free or for only the time spent organizing them. "Due to budgetary issues, we look for opportunities that are either free or inexpensive," says Ann Lansinger, president of Baltimore's Emerging Technology Centers. "We look to local seminars usually offered by law and accounting firms on such things as changes to the IP [intellectual property] laws or new financial services regulations. We also ask our mentors to prepare seminars for our clients, which we attend."

Megan Reichert-Kral, manager of the University of Michigan Venture Accelerator in Ann Arbor, Mich., relied heavily on the business community in both Toledo, Ohio, where she previously managed an incubator, and now in Ann Arbor. Her current program tapped alumni networks to bring in a founder of The Foundry, an innovative company based on image-processing technologies, who was glad for the chance to return to his alma mater. "You need to find some kind of tie to your community; having that alumni network is useful. But there are entrepreneurs who have made it big elsewhere. Frequently those people are able to come back for no or a reduced fee," she says.

Lansinger has found another inexpensive way to assist with professional development. "We ask each staff member to prepare a training exercise for the other staff on an annual basis," she says. This could be anything from a tutorial on a new software program to how to run a wet lab incubator.

Agencies and businesses that support your program may provide sponsorships for professional development activities, if asked, and other sources include local foundations that support capacity building for nonprofits. "I depend heavily on sponsorships [to attend training programs], free Webinars and any printed material that comes my way," says Palmer. "Sometimes creativity is necessary for professional development."

"Most incubators participate in 'action learning' [an educational process whereby the participant acquires knowledge through actions and experience] and don't even realize it," explains Long. He notes that many "top level" programs conduct monthly CEO/manager meetings in which the "client CEOs sit around and exchange information. I did and it made a huge difference in how I operated and how the businesses interacted," he says.

These days, many incubator managers also are conducting Startup Weekends (see These events offer opportunities for professional development, even though the primary beneficiary is the start-up business, says Steve Morris, executive director of the Oregon Technology Business Center of Beaverton, Ore. "Startup Weekend attracts a different set of investors and mentors than our usual crew, so it's an opportunity to hear how others approach the coaching/advising task, and for junior staff, it's an opportunity to see the start-up process in a 54-hour microcosm."

Professional development for those with larger staffs and budgets

Over the 24 years Charlie D'Agostino has managed the Louisiana Business & Technology Center in Baton Rouge, La., he has grown staff from two to 11, including Small Business Development Center counselors and seven MBA students. Yet, despite his experience, D'Agostino signed up for the NBIA's Incubator Management Certificate Program. And he sent his student incubator director and office manager to earn NBIA certificates as well.

To fulfill LBTC's need to sharpen other skills, D'Agostino has attended or sent staff to programming organized by the National Association of Seed and Venture Funds, the State Science & Technology Institute, the Federal Laboratory Consortium, the Association of University Research Parks and the Association of Small Business Development Centers. "If I hire a per son and the bulk of their time is charged to SBDC counseling, I will ask them to become ASBDC certified," he says.

D'Agostino encourages staff to participate in local or state leadership programs, Chamber of Commerce committees, Startup Weekends, and Entrepreneurs' Organization and Entrepreneur Headquarters meetings. "Our attitude is that we have to be involved to see what they are up to," D'Agostino explains.

Ed Hobbs, president & CEO of the Toronto Business Development Centre in Toronto, introduced professional development into all levels of the organization. "Managers, as part of their annual review process with staff, must jointly identify an area of development need with each staff member, and then together with the staff member and our human resources person, choose a course or seminar that could address that need," he says. "We register the staff member and have them put in writing their learning objectives prior to attending," then assess the value of the session afterwards. Each manager can send each of their staff to one session a year, "with the option to find a second course if the original one failed to address the individual's learning objectives."

Hobbs sent a vice president to Toastmasters to improve one-on-one and presentation skills. He himself attends NBIA events including the Summit for Advanced Incubation Professionals, which offers small group discussions of various topics and abundant networking — all designed for experienced incubator managers.

Hobbs also found Bill Hybels' Willow Creek Community Church, which runs an annual Global Leadership Summit. Though initially concerned by the retreat's religious backing, he found it so "rejuvenating" that he attends each year, paying for it himself. "They bring in two days worth of guest speakers, mostly from the world of business or successful government officials, and they talk about their leadership philosophies and the importance of leadership. I was totally shocked by how valuable this was," says Hobbs. Hybels recruits "the likes of Jim Collins (Good to Great), Terry Kelly (CEO of W.L. Gore, the GORE-TEX company), Blake Mycoskie (CEO, Tom's Shoes), Michelle Rhee (CEO,, and Jack Welch (famed former CEO of GE).

"I came away with a lot more insightful ideas from these speakers than from most so-called professional development sessions," Hobbs explains. "There are many valuable professional development tools out there. People have to be willing to experiment."

John Mercer, executive consultant to the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology's BADIR Program for Technology Incubation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is fortunate that BADIR incubators have generous government funding. Mercer and BADIR Program Director Abdulziz Al Hargan are willing to consider a range of professional development options for staff, including:

  • On-the-job in-house incubator manager training, including training in business counseling skills based on Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation-accredited business counseling (Mercer is an APEC-accredited trainer and his consulting colleague Julian Webb is a World Bank infoDev program master trainer)
  • International and Saudi conference and training program participation and international placements of two to four weeks with host incubators in the U.S., U.K., Australia, etc.
  • Transfer of knowledge through staff peer presentations on returning from training/ placements
  • Training and professional development competency-based reviews as part of their ISO 9000 quality management process
  • An annual monitoring and evaluation of each incubator by a team of international and local experts

Like Lavelle, Mercer sees "common gaps in the skills and ability to counsel clients. Hands-on assistance with directly helping a client — not just managing a mentoring or advising program — is more difficult and requires a different skill set as well as an understanding of entrepreneurs."

Pondering the issue of professional development, United Kingdom Business Incubation Chief Executive Peter Harman says, "In looking at the successful business incubator managers and directors around the world, I firmly believe that the key competence is one of leadership — in that primarily they 'create environments where others succeed.'"

Many managers agree with Harman's assertion. "It is all about empowering others," Mercer says, "be they entrepreneur clients, incubator staff, mentors or advisors."

For more on training related to leadership issues, see "Leading and innovating from Fort Wayne, Ind.."

Featured Sources

Charlie D'Agostino, executive director, Louisiana Business & Technology Center, Baton Rouge, La.

Rafael Garcia Moreira, manager, Ingenio-Incubator de empresas, Montevideo, Uruguay

Peter Harman, chief executive, United Kingdom Business Incubation, Birmingham, U.K.

Ed Hobbs, president & CEO, Toronto Business Development Centre, Toronto

Ann Lansinger, president, Emerging Technology Centers, Baltimore

Karl LaPan, president & CEO, Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, Fort Wayne, Ind.

June Lavelle, president, Lavelle & Associates, Slomczyn, Poland

Mark Long, president, Long Performance Advisors, Ellettsville, Ind.

John Mercer, executive consultant, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology BADIR Program for Technology Incubation, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Steve Morris, executive director, Oregon Technology Business Center, Beaverton, Ore.

Dionne Palmer, manager, Technology Innovation Centre, Kingston, Jamaica

Megan Reichert-Kral, manager, University of Michigan Venture Accelerator, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Keywords: professional development – general, staffing – incubator, networking, leadership development, management team building/compensation

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