Learning to take the reins

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By Heather B. Hayes

Sherry Graves once worked as a receptionist at Martha Jefferson House, a long-term care facility in Charlottesville, but through hard work and an eye for day-to-day detail she quickly worked her way up to administrator and chief operating officer. It was at that point, though, that she began to struggle a bit, largely because she lacked key leadership skills. “During strategy sessions, I sat there and took notes,” says Graves. “I was never one who was really an active participant in looking ahead. I still tended to focus on the day-to-day and didn’t think outside of that box.”

That was before she attended the Virginia Association of Nonprofit Homes for the Aging Leadership Institute, a program developed by and held at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Corporate Education.

Over eight months, alongside other executives and managers in the nursing home industry, Graves learned skills in critical thinking, strategic planning and financial management, and she challenged herself to determine how she could apply them in her organization. Through various assessment tools, she was able to get critical feedback from her supervisor and employees on her strengths and weaknesses as a leader and worked with instructors and classmates on ways she could improve. She also learned how to delegate more effectively and how to deal with her department managers on a more individual basis.

Graves thrived in the environment, and the training quickly paid off. After demonstrating her new leadership capabilities on the job, she earned a promotion. In June, she becomes the president and CEO of Martha Jefferson House. “I would have never seen myself in that position before,” Graves says. “This course helped me identify and refine my capabilities and gave me confidence that I could, in fact, lead.”

Graves’ testimonial points to the fact that leadership development has moved beyond the top echelon of corporations and the top echelon of employees. Because of an impending wave of retirements among baby boomers, increased competition in a global economy and the need for growth through innovation, companies of all sizes in a variety of industries need to develop a new generation of leaders. “What we’ve seen with our clients is there’s a shift from leader as position to leader as process, and so the expectation from Day 1 is that you will engage in leadership at whatever level you’re at,” explains Sharon Scott, associate director of management and professional development at Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business. “And that means that you will take initiative and use your influence and motivation to move the team toward the organizational objectives.”

The trend is shown in national statistics. An annual industry report by Training magazine found that demand for leadership development was up 6 percent in 2007. For its part, Virginia Tech is getting more inquiries than ever and is providing customized leadership coursework for a range of organizations, including Wolseley North America, American Electric Power and the Virginia Police Chiefs Foundation. “We’re really busy,” says Ross Mecham, program manager and instructor for Business and Professional Development.

Drawing out existing talent
Other colleges and universities are also experiencing demand for more leadership development, and they are responding with training content designed to “draw out talent that’s there, even though the participant may not realize it’s there,” says Michael Dugan, director of the Executive Development Center at Old Dominion University, which offers leadership training through its Mini-Executive MBA program. “Leadership involves skills that can be learned, like strategic planning and communications, but it also involves enabling self-awareness on the part of the people who are doing the learning.”

The University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, for example, offers a number of courses designed to bring out leadership skills in middle managers and front-line employees. These include “Developing Your Leadership Skills,” which defines the key differences between leading and managing and helps participants determine their own style by performing self-assessments and analyzing the different characteristics that make various real-life business leaders successful.

Rosanna Koppelmann, director of the Executive Education program at the College of William & Mary, agrees, noting that leadership development courses that use coaching, mentoring and individual assessments to teach and refine key leadership attributes such as persuasive communication, active listening, strategic thinking, decision-making and analytical skills are particularly popular right now. “It’s a good sign because companies really want to develop their most valuable asset, and that’s their people,” she says.

Leadership development training also provides participants with a big-picture view of company operations. That is an increasingly critical need now because many companies have eliminated a large number of general management positions during the past decade. David Newkirk, CEO of executive education at U.Va.’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, says that many of his executive education clients, including Capital One, Northrop Grumman and Genworth Financial, are rethinking the trend toward functionally specialized managers in favor of managers who possess a broader knowledge of the company.  “There’s a real question of: ‘How do I give people the breadth of experience, the perspective, the ability to see the whole business when I don’t have those general management jobs available anymore?’” Newkirk notes.

Those clients are answering the question by enrolling more managers in Darden’s management development program. It provides functional literacy in finance, marketing, operations and other key areas of the business, as well as teaching on globalization, strategy, and personal and organizational leadership. “Leadership is not independent of context,” Newkirk says. “It’s not about charisma and charm. While there are characteristics that are purely about human interaction and behavior, to talk about leadership without the kind of broad understanding of the business to let you create a vision of the future just doesn’t work.”

Another factor driving the push for leadership development is the overall change in growth strategy. In the 1990s, companies focused more on acquisition and cost-cutting measures that paid for those acquisitions. In today’s global competition, innovation is increasingly seen as the most effective way to expand and capture more market share. That goal requires a more concerted, company-wide effort, Newkirk states.

“You cut costs in a business by making a few big decisions, but you grow a business by having a lot of people at the frontline of the business do something differently,” he says. “Most of our executive education is really aimed now at improving the ability of the middle of the organization to conceive of, lead and drive change.”

Rich Chvala, director of the Center for Corporate Education at the VCU School of Business, adds that as organizations become flatter in their quest to be more innovative, there is more emphasis on the “individual contributor.” People in these roles can be nontraditional leaders that suddenly have new responsibilities, such as a scientist that develops a patent that becomes a revenue-generating business solution, or a roving employee that is involved in several teams and team-centric activities and has responsibility in several areas of the business.

“Companies want leadership development programs that focus on giving these unique contributors key leadership skills like strategic thinking, initiative and accountability,” Chvala says. “They want these employees and managers to really understand their own role and how that fits in, not only within their own team or business unit process but the entire organization. That’s important to making sure that everyone is headed in the same direction.”

Getting payback
Although it’s difficult to determine a return on investment in leadership development, executive education officials say that companies that choose to send employees for training will realize a number of benefits. Graduates of the programs are able to communicate better, align tasks and decisions with the overall direction of the company and make changes that allow for innovation and revenue growth.

Mary-Beth Johnson, vice president of the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges, knows firsthand the payback that leadership development can offer. After going through an executive development program at Darden, she began doing more strategic planning, market analysis and income projections. As a result, Johnson was able to forecast turmoil within the real estate and mortgage lending industries before the housing bubble burst and the impact it would have on fundraising. On Johnson’s initiative, the organization made adjustments and was able to seek out new donors.

“It was really a life-changing experience,” Johnson says. “They really beat it into my head that my job as a leader is not to be in the day-to-day details but to really be big-picture, strategic and visionary and in the business of keeping our program and organization moving forward.”   

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