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Look-Ahead Leadership

July/August 2013

By Laurie Stickelmaier, Melanie Garcia, and Gary Thompson

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With sketchy succession plans, staffing that didn’t reflect worldwide demographic changes, and employee difficulties in envisioning their next professional steps, the College of Wooster initiated a leadership training program to face the future head-on.

In many ways, the College of Wooster fits the economic model for small, private liberal arts colleges with endowments under $500 million. Although thriving in terms of reputation, admissions, and academic quality, the college, located in Wooster, Ohio, is somewhat stressed by current economic conditions. Rising costs and pressure to keep tuition and fees stable have put limitations on net revenue. 

Regardless, Wooster continues to allocate its resources to the initiatives outlined in its Strategic Framework, and we can point to evidence that indicates success in distributing limited resources to maintain quality academic programs. This requires strong, able, and innovative leadership in all sectors of the organization now and into the future.  

Despite this ongoing need, we’ve had concerns that the institution was not providing sufficient opportunities for leadership development, especially among potential leaders within the college.

One of us (Laurie Stickelmaier, vice president for finance and business) was inspired by a leadership program discovered while serving on a nonprofit board of directors, and wanted to develop an intensive, mission-focused, campuswide leadership development series. The “Leadership Academy” would focus on building communication, collaboration, partnering relationships, and understanding between and across divisions. 

Rely on a Qualified Partner 

As a small institution, the College of Wooster did not have the resources to develop, coordinate, and facilitate the classroom training, coaching sessions, and assessments that would form the foundation of the academy. To address this, we developed a partnership in 2010 with the Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute (Ohio State ATI), an academic neighbor across town. Leaders of our institutions (including Gary Thompson, then-director of Wooster’s human resources department) had teamed up in the past, and we knew that Ohio State ATI’s Business Training and Educational Services department’s mission—to help people and organizations succeed by providing professional development experiences customized to their needs—would fit well with Wooster’s objectives. 

The costs associated with the academy are about $3,300 per employee per year. Last year’s program included seven participants; this year there are eight, at a total cost of $26,400. Employees selected for the program understand that they are expected to fulfill their current job responsibilities while participating in the three to eight hours per month of Leadership Academy program time.

Culling a “dream team” of expert coaches and facilitators from the OSU Leadership Center and around the state, the Ohio State ATI (led by Melanie Garcia) collaborated with Wooster’s leadership team to craft a transformational yearlong development experience. Ohio State ATI worked with the participants, facilitators, and campus personnel to set dates and book meeting space; provide training content and materials; manage online assessments; conduct evaluations of each session; and share feedback from both the participants and instructors to continuously improve the program. 

By allowing Ohio State ATI to handle the classroom training and logistics, the College of Wooster could focus on “field experiences,” the unique aspect of the academy that shows participants how each division of the college advances the overall mission. The plan was to provide participants with a face-to-face, hands-on interaction led by staff representing each of the seven divisions of the college. That way, participants could see the wide range of functions and activities required to support the college through a typical year, while gaining insight as to how these elements connect together. The real-world interactions range from two-hour private sessions to special invitations to selected student activities.

Professional Development Objectives

We developed the Leadership Academy to address four specific areas of concern:

The academy is the first step toward “filling the pipeline” with employees trained in managerial and leadership skills—as well as the broader understanding of how the various college divisions interact and affect one another—that will be needed to replace key personnel who are departing.

As the participants recognize how they and their jobs fit into the college’s larger administrative structure, there is a gradual shift from seeing themselves solely as a member of a particular department to engaging with the college as a larger entity. Exposure to the ways other departments work to advance the college’s stated mission helps participants understand how their own jobs affect that mission. This is a critical objective for the academy. 

While the college continues to make inclusion a priority in attracting and hiring administrative staff, the forthright discussions in the academy sessions help participants grasp the value of diversity and understand why it matters—to them, the college, the community, and the country.  

It’s true also that “departmental blinders” were an obstacle to building relationships across divisions. Thus, one of the objectives for the Leadership Academy mentoring program is to increase connectivity and caring across departments, divisions, professional backgrounds, and other areas, and to create positive role models.

While a recent study found that we have made significant increases in the diversity of Wooster’s student and faculty population, we have work to do. We are approaching these concerns from many different angles, including support from faculty, students, and employees. The Leadership Academy’s effort is an additional investment in our progress toward a more representative campus.

All Minds on the Mission 

One of the aspects of the leadership training concept that resonated well with Wooster’s board of trustees was the idea that program content would reflect—and support—the college’s reason for being. The mission of the College of Wooster is basically that of a community working together to support students who are mentored by excellent faculty. This broad goal is apparent in every aspect of the Leadership Academy, which focuses on building leaders who understand and embrace their role in enabling the successful implementation of this mission and the recognition of the college’s core values. Here are a few specific values that drive the Leadership Academy content mentioned earlier: 

Community of learners. This value states that “the learning process educates … through the relationships that develop between and among students, faculty, and staff.” 

Independence of thought. Here, the emphasis is that “we place the highest value on collegiality, collaboration, openness to persons and ideas in all of their variety … the understanding of each is made more complete through an ongoing process of dialogue with others who think differently.” 

Diversity and inclusion. This area stresses that “Wooster actively seeks students, faculty, and staff from a wide variety of backgrounds, starting places, experiences, and beliefs. We believe that achieving our educational purpose is only possible in a diverse community of learners.”

The college’s officers choose academy participants based on division directors’ recommendations of individuals who demonstrate core values: capacity and appetite for learning about leadership; appreciation for innovative ideas and different people; a dedication to effective communication; and openness to collaboration. While the Leadership Academy class isn’t necessarily diverse in terms of ethnic/racial background, it is quite varied in other ways. The seven or eight participants differ in age (from 20 to 55) and personality types (as determined by assessments); professional interest (from grounds crew to assistant registrar); and gender (five women and three men in this year’s class). 

The curriculum includes a session covering the subject of diversity and requires participants to consider their perceptions, their first judgments, labels, and the power of words and language they use in conversation at the workplace. This structured session reinforces the value of diversity, which is a consistent institutional message to all employees from new employee orientation to the ways in which daily work gets accomplished. We anticipate that participants will be role models for their coworkers in these efforts. 

We’ve realized several positive outcomes of these academy efforts:

Components and Content 

The most recent academy launched in September 2012 with sessions for both mentors and new participants. Mentors (who are last year’s academy graduates) attended a training session to learn effective mentorship skills and to receive guidelines for their interaction with their mentees. Following the mentor training session, both participants and mentors attended a kickoff and team-building session. 

The training program falls into four other categories:

During a private session with a certified coach, the participant creates an action plan to capitalize on strengths and tackle areas for development. A second private coaching session scheduled several months later promotes accountability and advances the goals set in the previous session. 

Participants are encouraged to discuss action plans with their mentors as a way to help them stay on track. In fact, mentors are invited to attend coaching sessions with their mentees, if desired. All participants have remarked on the benefits of this review process. One participant said: “Knowing what my own style is and how that relates to the other styles allows for better interaction with my coworkers.” Another said, “Realizing that there are many forms of leaders, one does not need to be at the highest level of a department or organization to be a leader.”

Division heads set the structure of field experiences to give the best overview of their division’s work and how it supports the college’s mission. Or to state it a bit differently, the participants see and experience the wide range of functions and activities required to propel a four-year residential liberal arts college through a typical year, as it strives to maintain excellence in all areas. 

The total field experience package gives very clear insight as to what all the parts of the complex mechanism are doing, and how they are connected. Such real-world interactions range from a two-hour private session with the college president, detailing the planning and carrying out of a major fundraising campaign, to a special invitation to attend, as a guest of student affairs, several student activities. Gatherings such as the Greek Lip Sync Competition, Springfest, the International Student Banquet, and the Shabat Dinner probably have not seen an employee in the crowd for many years. The participants love the field experiences (See sidebar, “Field Experience Feedback,” for reactions to this exercise.)

Wooster’s president, Grant Cornwell, has eloquently articulated the vision for the Leadership Academy, saying recently, “The Leadership Academy connects colleagues to the mission of the college and to one another. It is an outstanding program for creating networks of knowledgeable colleagues across all divisions to support our common purpose.”

Factors That Foster Success

Looking back over the development and launch of the Leadership Academy, we can identify several actions that laid the groundwork for an effective program.

Leadership at New Levels

The Leadership Academy is completing its second year, with the current session concluding in August and participant presentations in October. While it is too early to claim statistical evidence as to the success of the program, supervisors and directors talk of significant professional growth in the participants, during and after the program, that shows promise for generating positive long-term results. They describe employees with increased engagement in their jobs, their departments, and in the college community. 

Leaders and participants all agree that there is an improved respect and empathy for the work of other departments (“I’m not the only one who works hard”)—as well as a common increased understanding of personal leadership styles and what sorts of roles academy attendees might play now and in the future.

More specifically, five of the seven original participants, within nine months of program completion, made the following professional advancements: (1) a groundskeeper was selected for the search committee for the position of associate vice president for human resources; (2) the purchasing manager began pursuing a degree while working full time; (3) the information systems person in the human resources office was promoted to operations manager, with expanded duties; (4) the safety and training manager was promoted to assistant director in dining services; and (5) the program manager moved to a higher-level position as assistant director at a larger university.

Has it been easy? No. As one participant noted: “Not only other departments but the administration has to work in the same dynamic, unique, challenging environment, making tough decisions and balancing historic Wooster traditions with the fluid cutting-edge ideas that keep us different than peer institutions. This is no easy task.” Is it worth it? We’d definitely say, “Yes.”

LAURIE STICKELMAIER is vice president for finance and business; and GARY THOMPSON is retired director of human resources, The College of Wooster, Wooster, Ohio. MELANIE GARCIA is account executive, Business Training and Educational Services, The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute, Wooster, Ohio.


ESSAY: Remedying the Demographic Disconnect

Dawning Demographics

Next-Generation Expectations

Discussions help participants grasp why diversity matters—to them, the college, the community, and the country.

Supervisors and directors describe employees with increased engagement in their jobs, their departments, and in the college community.