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Leadership Development That Makes a Difference

Creating a culture that fosters leadership among staff and faculty can pay handsomely in employee commitment.

By Chester C. Warzynski, C. Clinton Sidle, and Roxana Bahar Hewertson

During the past decade budgetary restrictions at colleges and universities have forced many institutions to transfer focus from the leadership of people to the management of budgets and FTEs. At Cornell University, Ithaca, a comprehensive leadership development program launched in the spring of 1998 is helping the institution re-humanize the workplace by bringing the focus back to people—their values, motivations, creativity, and relationships.

As an outgrowth of several isolated programs offered on campus, the universitywide Discovering Leadership Program provides experiential training focused on four levels of leadership: personal, interpersonal, team, and system. More than 300 faculty and staff members have participated in the program. Of those, 88 percent say the program has significantly enhanced their performance. Participants leave the program with improved leadership skills, more extensive professional and personal networks, and the motivation to make a difference in the university through work-related contributions.

Rethinking Leadership Development

One major challenge faced by many institutions of higher education is getting people who are highly independent to collaborate in interdisciplinary and cross-functional work. This is no different when it comes to leadership development. The result can be a collection of unrelated or redundant programming. Such was our situation at Cornell. Prior to launching the Discovering Leadership Program, individual efforts targeted to specific audiences had been implemented with mixed results.

For instance, Cornell’s Administration, Facilities and Finance Division launched its own program in 1993 to change its internal culture from a top-down management approach to a team-based collaborative approach. Supervisory staff were required to take the nine-day course across four months as on-the-job training. Bottom-line results in terms of measurable operational improvements, customer service satisfaction, staff loyalty, and productivity resulted in managers from outside the division asking if their leaders could attend the course—one indication of the demand for a universitywide program.

In fall 1997, Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management inaugurated the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows Program. This two-year program for MBA students includes an assessment component in which participants learn about their predilections and potential impact on others through structured assessment tools such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and a 360-degree assessment. The success of this program has led to expanding the curricula to provide enhanced leadership training to all Johnson School students, not only to fellows. The program consistently receives high ratings from students.

Cornell’s Office of Human Resources (OHR) began delivering its Leadership for Change Program for faculty and staff at about the same time that the fellows program launched. The three-day program was created largely in response to increasing demand for developing the leadership competencies of department chairs. The program was well received by those who attended and helped create new experience around the concepts and practices of leading change at Cornell. However, the program had no requirements or mandatory sessions, and it was often difficult to get faculty to stay the full three days. In addition, the program did not include components of individual growth and team development, and a critical mass of people from across the campus never became involved.

The idea for a universitywide leadership development program for administrators, faculty, and staff at all levels emerged from a meeting in which we, as the primary champions of these three other efforts, discussed our observations about leadership training needs at Cornell. Our first task was to compare the existing leadership programs, isolating the central components of leadership development and determining a pedagogical strategy and structure for the new program (see sidebar, “Hands-On and Real-World”). This included discussion regarding the fate of the three existing programs.

Since both the Park Leadership Fellows Program and the Administration, Facilities and Finance program provided customized training for target audiences, we believed those programs should remain intact. We agreed that the OHR Leadership for Change Program should evolve into the new program, incorporating elements from the other two programs, including personal and peer assessment components and a strong focus on experiential learning through real-world assignments and projects that participants work on between sessions. We also proposed that funding for the OHR program be rolled into the new program.

Our discussion also required working through the differences of our respective programs and learning strategies as well as defining our roles and examining our interests, strengths, and limitations in relation to this new program. Once we determined a basic structure for the program, we were convinced that this was a good idea, but we knew we had a serious challenge ahead in developing institutional support for a universitywide program. Foremost among the steps we took to shepherd our proposal through the university system was lining up key administrative support and ensuring that our program content was credible.

Seven Steps to Program Launch

Step 1: Identify and cultivate key administrative sponsors or champions. Two of the three programs mentioned had been sponsored by members of Cornell’s senior administration. Our senior vice president for administration and chief financial officer sponsored the program in Administration, Facilities and Finance, and our vice president of human resources sponsored the Leadership for Change Program. We again secured the support of these two individuals to serve as champions at the executive level for the Discovering Leadership Program by sharing their perspectives on the importance of good leadership to the university and emphasizing the program’s potential impact on bottom-line performance.

Step 2: Develop credibility of program content. Once we developed a draft of the program, we sought help from faculty in the Johnson Graduate School of Management and the School of Industrial and Labor Relations to give our proposal greater credibility, which we knew was critical, especially among senior administrators and deans. Three faculty members with interest and expertise in leadership formed an advisory committee to review and sanction our program outline and content. They were particularly helpful in fleshing out intellectual content regarding teams, change, and conflict. We were then able to develop relevant, practical exercises to match content theory.

Step 3: Communicate the program’s concept to senior management. With the help of our vice president champions and the faculty advisory committee, we presented our proposal and request for a pilot to the university’s Senior Management Committee. Because senior management often tends to resist “soft” training programs such as leadership development, we knew that our strategy would need to demonstrate potential bottom-line impacts to the university. In our presentation we proposed that the program should be evaluated, in part, on operational improvements and changes in attitudes and behavior. As anticipated, several members of this committee were skeptical, raising questions about conflicting theories of leadership, length of the program, composition of classes (for instance, mixing faculty and staff), and cost of the program, which we estimated at $40,000 per class of approximately 24 participants. (Actual costs have averaged $35,000 per session and include fees, instrumentation, meals, and off-campus facility rentals.) With the help of our administrative sponsors and support of our provost, these questions were addressed and the pilot program was approved. We believe that one key factor that ultimately helped us sell the program was the focus on providing real work-related assignments for participants, whether the charge be to implement a new technology system, organize workshops or retreats, redesign a department, develop department and employee action plans and training goals, resolve worker conflicts, or lead team-building efforts.

Step 4: Select a cross section of key participants. We selected participants for the pilot program who occupied central positions across the university and who we knew had an interest in leadership development and would provide a constructive assessment. Part of the reason initial participation was so important was because we had requested a pilot program where feedback from participants and their supervisors would determine continuation of the program based on actual changes in behaviors, practices, and attitudes.

Step 5: Fine-tune and conduct the pilot. We designed an 11-day experience divided into one five-day segment and two three-day segments spread across a four-month period. With the three of us serving as facilitators, pilot participants worked with real-life leadership challenges and learned from their own experience and those of colleagues from across the campus. Through exposure to skill-building activities, these leaders developed a heightened awareness and understanding of themselves and their roles and the possibilities of creating real change. During interim periods, we asked participants to practice skills learned. This included addressing conflicts, developing teams, and assuming change initiatives within the workplace. With guidance on how to apply their new skills and motivation, they returned to their units with increased self-understanding and a new sense of confidence and energy.

Step 6: Evaluate the pilot, and share feedback with senior management. We asked pilot participants not only to provide us with honest feedback but also to make their recommendations known to senior management. Based on participant feedback, we prepared and provided a written evaluation of the program to the Senior Management Committee. The results were extremely favorable, with a rating of 4.6 out of a possible 5.0 for quality of information, 4.5 for skill development, and an overall rating of 4.5. As added testimony, many members of senior management commented that they had immediately noticed changes in the attitudes and behaviors of participants. News of the program’s success quickly spread through the university grapevine. The only promotion necessary has occurred through personal testimonials of participants and their supervisors.

Step 7: Formalize and fund the program. Based on the positive evaluation and feedback from pilot participants and their supervisors, senior management approved funding for two programs per year, which have occurred ever since. While we handpicked the pilot group, participants are now nominated by deans, department heads, and vice presidents.

Kudos and Cautions

Cornell’s Discovering Leadership Program had a lasting positive effect on its participants and on leadership behavior throughout the university. Classes have consistently drawn a waiting list. In the fall of 2003, a graduate class in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the program, surveying 185 former participants. Participants noted that as a result of the program they were measurably more productive, aware, prepared, positive, committed, creative, and effective in accomplishing their goals. Most found the program stimulating and appreciated opportunities for interaction with facilitators and the involvement of their managers as coaches. They also felt the program provided valuable networking opportunities with peers from across the university and resulted in self-discovery and on-the-job improvements. Specifically, assignments completed during the program resulted in resolution of long-standing conflicts among staff and supervisors; measurable improvement in meeting effectiveness; increased staff development and accountability; better relationships on the job; improved teamwork and team performance; and significant results in leading organizational change.

The leadership program also resulted in increased use of internal university resources to build organizational capacity through strategic planning, organization design, team building and inter-group development, conflict resolution, and performance management. In other words, program participants were more predisposed to take advantage of organizational development services to fully develop their people, teams, and work systems.

In that same study, however, a significant number of respondents indicated a need to improve transferability. Almost 20 percent of survey respondents reported that once they returned to work they lacked the understanding from peers and the support from managers necessary to transfer their newly acquired leadership skills and abilities. Some participants suggested this was because others in their department had not gone through the same training and were not open to new methodologies and practices. To correct this situation, participants recommended greater involvement by administrators, deans, associate deans, and faculty members to increase support of the program and of a culture that welcomes new ideas and methods.

Hands-On and Real-World

In the field of leadership development, the debate continues as to whether leadership is innate or acquired, despite mounting evidence that it is both. As we joined forces to discuss and ultimately create a universitywide leadership development program that would be instructional for all levels of staff and faculty, we began by naming what we know about leadership.

  • We know that leadership is learned through experience and hands-on application. Intellectual understanding is important in terms of framing experience, but leadership for the most part is behavioral, and behaviors are developed through practice.
  • We know that leadership is a discovery process in which individuals reshape and leverage their experience around the real challenges they face in their work. With this approach, effective leadership goes beyond a simple set of techniques and quick fixes to delve into self-understanding, the efficacy of experience, and the motivation to make a difference.
  • We know that outstanding individual contributors do not necessarily become outstanding leaders of individual contributors—that is, exceptional scholars and teachers are not necessarily or naturally good leaders. Effective leadership requires an interpersonal skill set for working well with others, particularly in difficult situations involving multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives. Leaders have to understand their impact and how to shape communication, provide constructive feedback, resolve conflict, and negotiate acceptable solutions.

As a starting point for developing a comprehensive leadership development program we named three essential program components: experience, assessment, and methodology. An effective leadership development program must build a safe environment in which individuals can examine and share their own experiences with others. It must provide structured learning activities in which individuals and groups can create and test new experiences that relate to real-world challenges. Finally, it must engage individuals and groups in the direct application of concepts and methods to the workplace through assignments and projects, since without application, no real hope exists for behavior change or organizational improvement.

Within Cornell’s Discovering Leadership Program, leadership skills and abilities focus on gathering many individuals in teams and systems to develop a shared purpose and engaging them in a process to succeed independently and together in shaping social reality and accomplishing organizational goals. Faculty at Cornell who have completed the program understand the importance of this well, particularly when they have moved from positions of researcher or professor to chair or dean. The Discovering Leadership Program likewise teaches all participants that leadership is not something you do to others. Rather, leadership is a state of being in which you integrate your own experience, values, ideas, dreams, and emotions with those of other participants within a learning process for enlarging and enriching experience and making a difference in the university. This state of being in which a shaping of social reality occurs is the essence of leadership and the essence of our program.

Program facilitators, together with university administration, are in fact addressing the issue of support. Each year participants who have completed the program are now invited to a full-day conference with senior management at which special topics are presented to improve understanding of the program and build relationships between participants and senior management. Conferences have been held on enhancing emotional intelligence, creating communities of practice, and exploring critical issues facing the university. As a result, the university community is more cognizant of the important role of leadership and is exploring a broader range of leadership development options for students, faculty, and staff, including spin-off programs for supervisors and project managers. We now also offer a version of the Discovering Leadership Program to the wider public through Cornell’s continuing education program.

Another response to the issue of creating a supportive culture is to provide the Discovering Leadership Program to managers and staff as intact work units. This cohort structure would create units of employees who could understand and leverage all aspects of the program together. Having an entire department involved in the program at the same time would more likely facilitate transferability of skills and foster a positive culture for change. This approach has already been successfully tested in two instances. The entire management staff of Cornell Information Technologies completed the program together, and in the process, redefined its culture and strengthened its management team. In another instance, a faculty unit from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences participated as a group and developed a strategic plan and operating agenda to move its organization forward in the areas of teaching, research, and outreach. Other working groups such as Cornell’s library system staff and student services division have likewise requested enrolling in the program as a unit.

Among the lessons learned from this program is that effective leadership development must be aligned with the university’s priorities, strategies, and systems. From a marketing perspective, the launch of the Cornell Discovering Leadership Program was fruitful because it had senior management champions, gained the support of key faculty, connected with and involved informal leaders from across the campus, and was promoted by its participants. In a more fundamental and substantive sense, the program’s success continues because the program helps people understand themselves and work more effectively with colleagues. Understanding personal values and aligning these values with organizational needs and challenges forges a personal relationship between individuals and an organization, increases trust, creates enthusiasm and optimism, and results in a renewed commitment to the institution.

Author Bios Chester C. Warzynski is director of organizational development services for Cornell University’s Office of Human Resources and a lecturer in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations; C. Clinton Sidle is director of the Park Leadership Fellows Program in Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management; and Roxana Bahar Hewertson, formerly director of administration in Cornell’s Administration, Facilities and Finance Division, is an independent leadership consultant.
E-mail ccw7@cornell.edu; ccs7@cornell.edu; and rbh9@cornell.edu


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