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It’s been said that an effective leader knows when to step out of the spotlight and let others shine. This sentiment holds true for The Connecticut Forum. As part of a planned leadership transition, Co-Founder and CEO Doris Sugarman plans to step aside from her day-to-day responsibilities at the end of June 2021. Longtime Connecticut Forum staff member and leader Ruth Cullen has been named Executive Director.

MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price spoke with Doris and Ruth about their experiences stepping out of and into leadership roles.

NAN PRICE: First off, congratulations to you both for entering new chapters in yours lives. How do you feel?

We planned this transition well and it’s been very thoughtful. It’s shown Ruth and me that there’s an amazing base of support for the organization. It is so satisfying to feel comfortable stepping aside knowing that The Forum will be in very good hands.

This past year has been the hardest of times for any nonprofit. The role Ruth is stepping into, without the pandemic, would be challenging. But I know Ruth and others on the team are just going to take the organization to the next level. I appreciate this opportunity to start highlighting Ruth as our incoming Executive Director. It’s a great time for The Forum.

RUTH CULLEN: Thank you, Doris. I wanted to add that, as we shared the announcement, we’ve received wonderfully kind and heartfelt messaging from so many sponsors, longtime subscribers, donors, and community partners. After 30 years of making an impact in this community, all you can hope for is to have built these relationships that will stay in the organization going forward.

I can speak to these relationships personally, too. This is my 14th year at The Forum, which is amazing. I started as a volunteer when my son started first grade. I came to Hartford to investigate and fell in love with everything about the organization—the people, the mission, the work, the constant stimulation and learning. So, I never left. My volunteer work quickly morphed into a part-time then a full-time job.

NAN: What’s it like to step into an Executive Director role after someone like Doris has created such a dynamic organization?

RUTH: One of the best things about working with Doris at The Forum is that anything goes, in the best possible sense. Meaning, if you have a great idea, run with it. If you have a suggestion about how to do something, go for it. It was very empowering all along.

I’ve really felt that, in terms of an entrepreneurial spirit, The Forum lives in that space. We’re always thinking about how to do things better, newer, and with more impact and ways to extend our mission, our reach, and our brand.

Through the years, Doris established this very lively culture of empowerment and entrepreneurship that runs deep in The Forum. That’s been especially helpful in our work during this last year of utter disruption. Arts and cultural institutions were hit particularly hard this year. And we’re no exception.

However, unlike many institutions that have buildings and venues, we don’t. The Connecticut Forum is small and nimble. So, we were able to make quick adjustments to fine tune our focus and use that time to figure out how to execute our programming in new ways.

NAN: Doris, from your perspective, how has The Forum evolved and innovated over the years?

DORIS: We’ve always been innovative from the spark of the idea to thinking: How are we going to get 3,000 people to come to the theater to see this? We’ve always been confident. We have a saying, “We’re small and mighty.” And to Ruth’s point, we’re pretty nimble. And we’re all about running with those good ideas.

The innovation comes from being very inclusive in the way we operate as a staff and invite people into the organization to share their input. A great example of this is our season development meetings. Bringing people together to encourage the free and active exchange of ideas is part of our mission.

I mean, we’re innovative people, but a lot of the innovation comes from including others in these season development meetings. When people get together to brainstorm, and when you think anything is possible, that’s where the innovation starts. So, the innovation and programming come from our constituents.

RUTH: It’s the imagining. How cool would it be for Hartford if we brought so-and-so here to talk about a specific topic with these other people? That’s what’s so incredible about The Forum. That big, wide open thinking about the possibilities is so freeing. That growth mindset is conducive to innovation and creativity.

NAN: What’s next?

RUTH: As challenging as this past year has been for us, it’s also been motivating. We’ve been able to spend time creating new programming we’ve always dreamed about doing. We’ll be rolling some of that out soon.

And we’ve challenged ourselves to continue that kind of big thinking and create a model to move us forward that will extend our reach and our impact. We want to continue to add value locally in the way we have traditionally, but also share the essence of The Forum conversations, the thought-provoking nature of the content we put out there far and wide.

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Photos: The Connecticut Forum incoming Executive Director Ruth Cullen (left) with Co-Founder and CEO Doris Sugarman (right) at a pre-event dinner  in 2016. The Forum will be celebrating its 30th anniversary next season.
Connecticut Forum Office Manager Kathleen Grant, Connecticut YOUTH Forum Program Manager Alex Taylor, Ruth Cullen, and Doris Sugarman with comedian, writer, producer, actor, and television host Seth Meyers in 2019.