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NeXt Willmar celebrating one year of offering opportunities for younger employees

Chris Roering and Kari Steinbesser write down some of their ideas about leadership styles during a brain-storming session during a recent Willmar NeXt workshop at the Holiday Inn and Willmar Conference Center. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- NeXt Willmar offers younger employees in the area an opportunity to broaden their leadership skills and build networks.

The organization is about to mark its first birthday with a celebration and get-acquainted social on Jan. 12. Its organizers see it as a low-pressure way for prospective members to see what NeXt is all about and for members to build their networks. The event will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 12 at the Willmar Conference Center. The group is open to people from ages 19 to 40.

The celebration is a free event, and it will include games and free food.

NeXt grew out of the Young Professionals group of the Willmar Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce. NeXt is still affiliated with the chamber, but the name change seemed to attract more members and expand the group's possibilities, said Ken Warner, chamber president.

"We said we need to take it to the next level," said Justin Mattern, the liaison between NeXt and the chamber board. Mattern, 32, owns ETap Marketing of Willmar.

"They're flying," Warner said, and he expects NeXT will be a long-term asset to the larger chamber organization. The involvement of younger people should help the chamber maintain a healthy membership in the coming years and bring in new ideas, he said.

As to the name NeXt, "we thought it would be a fun play on words," for members who are wondering how to take their careers to the next level, Mattern said.

The group put a leadership team in place and began about 18 months ago to plan events that would provide "opportunities for younger employees to connect." The kickoff event was in January.

The group offers educational opportunities, like a recent workshop on leadership styles and an upcoming one on speed reading. Social and recreational events are part of the mix, too. "Hopefully, it will help them in their careers and build leadership skills," Mattern said.

An intergenerational seminar is in the planning stages, too. "We want to help each generation understand the nuances of the other," said Aaron Madsen, NeXt chairman. Madsen, 31, is customer service/sales manager at Nova-Tech Engineering in Willmar.

"With every educational event, we like to combine it with a social event," Madsen said. "You don't have to be there for both," Mattern added.

The NeXt leaders praised Warner and the chamber leadership for supporting the group and giving it room to develop on its own.

About 110 people attended the kickoff event at the beginning of the year, and about half of them joined that night, Madsen said. The group has grown consistently and now has 130 members.

Mattern and Madsen said they have a "good mix" of members from their early 20s to their late 30s in the group. They've had some Ridgewater College students join, and would like to have more. Members of the group have many different types of jobs, ranging from people who own small businesses to those who work for large companies.

The variety of activities means the group is able to offer something of interest for most of its members. "We don't expect everybody is there for the same reasons," Madsen said. Some are interested in networking or education, and others enjoy the social events.

Madsen said NeXt is a "bottom-up organization" and its committee structure offers numerous opportunities for members to build teams and develop leadership abilities. He's been impressed with the drive and motivation he's seen in the younger employees in the Willmar area.

The group also has added some special-interest groups for people who want to discuss issues like financial leadership or technology. "With 130-plus members, there's going to be people with similar interests," Madsen said.

Members are free to propose a new discussion group or committee. "It gives more chances for people to become a leader," he said.

The group encourages members to become involved in chamber activities as well. "We have a vision," Madsen said. "The more we can get the groups together, we may develop some mentorship opportunities."

"Hopefully, those of us that have been around for a while realize we can't do things like we've done in the past," Warner said. The area is growing and changing, he said, and the chamber will need to change along with it.

For more information, go to www.nextwillmar. com or follow NeXt

Willmar on Facebook.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340