10 Tips for Creating a Public Sector Leadership Development Program

Apr 13 00:04 2006 Marnie E. Green Print This Article

This article defines the essential elements of effective leadership development efforts in public agencies.  The tools presented here are applicable to any organization seeking to develop leadership talent.

The most recent edition of Public Personnel Management,Guest Posting Winter 2004, focused solely on one of the hottest issues facing today’s public sector human resource professionals: workforce and succession planning. During the 2004 IPMA-HR International Training Conference, numerous sessions focused on the growing need to implement workforce and succession planning systems in order to address the mass exodus of workers that is anticipated in the next five to ten years. In both Public Personnel Management and at the conference, the issue of leadership development was cited as a primary tool for preparing the workforce for the future.

Numerous agencies are incorporating leadership development as an element of their workforce planning efforts. Notable leadership development programs that have been documented include those implemented in San Diego County, CA; Henrico County, VA; Hennepin County, MN; City of Las Vegas, NV; City of Phoenix, AZ; and City of San Jose, CA. In my observation, many of the best practice elements in public sector leadership development are consistent between agencies. The purpose of this article is to share ten practices that appear to be common threads among agencies that are developing leaders internally to fill anticipated vacancies in the future.

The following tips are provided as guidance to public sector organizations that may be interested in developing their own leadership development programs.

Tip One: Base the program on a competency model.

Before any training or development activities can take place, it is critical to identify the skills and competencies that will be developed as a result of the effort. As discussed in the Public Personnel Journal, Winter 2004, Henrico County developed 20 core leadership competencies including communication, critical thinking and decision making, organizational astuteness, and personal integrity. These competencies provided the framework for their development efforts. Other agencies, including the County of San Diego base their leadership academy on the same model as the multi-rater, 360-feedback tool that is used in the program.

Whether your organization has an established competency model that is used throughout your human resource programming or not, it is critical to spend some time defining the skills that leadership program participants are expected to develop. For example, the City of San Jose conducted a survey of top managers, followed by round-table discussions to determine the competencies to be developed in their leadership program called The Art and Practice of Leadership.

Tip Two: Allow participants to self-select.

Each agency must determine for itself the best method for selecting leadership development program participants. Factors including collective bargaining influences, time, and the intended target audience may impact the process you use to identify participants. Some organizations are targeting potential future executives only while others are offering leadership development opportunities organization-wide.

In my experience, the highest levels of success in terms of participant commitment result from a competitive process where interested participants apply to be involved. By self-selecting, rather than by being appointed, participants are more likely to clarify their purpose for wanting to take part in the program. When participants are mandated to attend a leadership development program, they are often reluctant to commit the time and energy into their development, and oftentimes, they do not fully understand why they are being asked to participate.

The selection process you choose will depend upon the target audience for the program (entire workforce vs. middle managers). You may choose to use a written application, manager nomination, personal interviews, assessment centers, or other means by which participants compete for entrance into the program. Nevertheless, it is highly recommended that participants have a choice in whether or not they participate in your leadership development efforts.

Tip Three: Involve executives and elected officials in the development and implementation of the program.

It has been said in numerous articles about employee and leadership development that without the full support and involvement from the executive leadership team, the program will fail. Top management must be involved in the development of the curriculum, the selection of the attendees, and in the presentation of the program. Their support is critical for the success and long-term viability of any leadership development program.

Likewise, many agencies are finding that involvement by an elected official can also supplement the curriculum of a public sector leadership development program. For example, the City of Las Vegas invited a councilmember and the City of San Jose invited the Mayor to address their recent leadership academy programs. The official in each case addressed the class of leaders for up to one hour. They were asked to give their expectations for public sector leaders, and program participants were allowed to ask questions. The dialogue created in these forums allowed the organization’s future leaders to see the organization through the eyes of an elected official. A facilitated conversation that followed the presentation encouraged the participants to identify meaningful “take-aways” from the elected official’s comments. Because program participants have not likely interfaced extensively with an elected official, but will likely be expected to as their leadership responsibilities increase, this has become a critical element in public sector leadership development programs.

Tip Four: Use 360-degree feedback, individual development planning, and coaching as the core around which other development opportunities revolve.

360-degree survey tools provide feedback enabling leaders to realize strengths and areas for development based on their own and other’s perceptions. Typically such feedback comes from the participant’s direct supervisor, direct reports, and peers. Today, such processes can easily be facilitated on-line and feedback reports are comprehensive and detailed. Numerous vendors can now customize survey tools to reflect your organization’s competency model (see Tip One above).

The feedback process, however, is only the start of the development process. It is recommended that the feedback be delivered in conjunction with opportunities for one-on-one coaching, as many participants find the feedback difficult to translate into everyday behaviors. A trained coach can assist the participant in making sense of the data. In addition, the participant should be expected to develop their own individual development plan that addresses competencies that are highlights in the feedback report. The individual development plan, once endorsed by the participant’s direct supervisor, should then become the blueprint for the participant’s leadership development efforts.

Because the feedback process can be so powerful, it is recommended that any leadership development program begin with this element, as it will provide the direction that each participant will need as they pursue the program. With their feedback, the participant can customize their leadership development experiences to address the identified needs. Because of this flexibility, 360-feedback is a highly recommended and popular tool.

Tip Five: Implement action learning through project teams.

Another popular tool for enhancing the leadership skills within public organizations is the use of action learning. Action learning is a typical educational approach where participants learn by addressing issues that are unique to their own organization and/or community. The format involves a continuous process of learning and reflection, built around learning groups of colleagues, more often with the aim of getting work-related initiatives accomplished.

The City of San Jose is using action learning as part of their new leadership development effort. The program participants are divided into six, functionally-diverse teams. Each team is assigned one of the city’s corporate priorities which include:

• Performance-driven government
• Support for effective council policy-making
• Effective use of technology
• Customer service
• City as an employer of choice
• Neighborhood-focused service delivery

Teams are guided by team sponsors, who are all members of the City’s executive team. Over a period of six months each team is expected to identify a City issue or project that needs attention. The teams research the issue, benchmark approaches with other jurisdictions, propose solutions the City could consider, develop a formal written report, and make a formal presentation in the City Council chambers as part of their program conclusion. The City Manager and other top executives will receive their presentations and provide feedback to each team. Whenever possible, the team will be given the authority to implement or participate in the implementation of their recommendations which may have citywide or regional implications. As a result, the participants are able to practice their communication and team skills as part of the process, receive feedback on their report writing skills, and practice making presentations in a forum that is new to many of them. They also have the opportunity to showcase their skills related to issues that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to explore.

Tip Six: Use internal and external resources.

As mentioned in Tip Two above, it is important to make full use of your organization’s executive leadership team sessions that directly relate to the organization’s strategic plan, culture, and expectations. However, other concepts may be better presented by individuals outside of the organization, who provide an outside or neutral perspective. You may also find that your organization does not have the capacity or expertise to address all the competencies included in your model. A balance of internal and external presenters provides participants with the opportunity to compare and contrast the agency’s approach with practices and methods used outside of the organization.

Tip Seven: Maximize internal publicity.

In every case, leadership development program participants dedicate a great amount of time and energy to these kinds of programs. Not only is it a commitment of the participant’s time, it is a commitment of their manager and staff’s time that cover for the participant when they are attending program activities. You can communicate the goals and outcomes of the program and recognize the importance of the effort by using internal communicating tools like email, newsletters and Intranet postings. Everyone who is touched by the program should understand its importance to the organization’s goals.

Prior to the start of the program, formally introduce the participants to the organization and encourage each organizational member to support them. After the program, each graduate should be recognized using the same communication tools (email, newsletters, Intranet, etc.) and their managers and staffs should be thanked for supporting them. Internal publicity can help garner support and enthusiasm for the program and its goals.

Tip Eight: Continuously adjust.

The first version of any comprehensive program like this is rarely perfect. It is important to continually modify the program based on the feedback received not only from the participants, but from their managers as well. By continually improving the program, it will meet the needs of the organization, even as the organization changes. In every leadership development program I have developed and managed, the agenda and curriculum is modified during the program and after graduation to reflect the changing needs of the participants and the organization. It is critical to be flexible and to listen to the program participants and their managers in order to ensure the program continuously improves and maintains its credibility and relevance.

Tip Nine: Celebrate the achievement.

A learning opportunity such as a leadership academy or leadership development program requires a commitment of time and resources, not only on the part of the coordinators, but on the part of management and the participants. A graduation or other public celebration is critical to recognize the achievements of all the parties involved. The graduation does not need to be elaborate or lengthy. A brief lunch with informal presentations will do the trick. Nevertheless, finishing a program like this without some recognition is like going to a movie that doesn’t include the credits at the end.

Tip Ten: Measure and track outcomes.

While each organization determines the level and extent to which the results of a leadership development program are measured, a variety of tools can be used to determine the impact of the program. Such measures include:

• Knowledge of leadership concepts as measured via a pre- and post-assessment tool

• Perceived change in selected leadership skills as measured by a multi-rater, 360-degree feedback tool
administered at the beginning of the effort and again one year later

• Number of participants retained over one, three, and five years

• Number of participants promoted over one, three, and five years

• Perception of participant’s supervisor related to the participant’s change in behavior after attending the leadership development program

• Reaction to the leadership development program curriculum as measured by end of session evaluations

However your organization decides to measure the outcomes of your development efforts, it is recommended that the measurements be established prior to the start of the program and that they be monitored closely. Such measures will allow you to make appropriate adjustments to future programs and will assist you in showing the impact of the effort on your organization’s strategic objectives.

If your organization has not yet embarked on a leadership development effort, it is likely that you will in the near future. Changing demographics, an impending “brain drain,” and a need to enhance retention levels are driving public organizations of all sizes to explore tools for ensuring the stability of their workforce. And, while many organizations are exploring these efforts, each must find a solution that works best for their organization’s culture and goals. The elements presented in this article reflect the common practices in public sector leadership development efforts today.

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About Article Author

Marnie E. Green
Marnie E. Green

Marnie Green, Chandler, AZ, USA

Marnie E. Green is Principal Consultant of the Arizona-based Management Education Group, Inc. She is the author of Painless Performance Evaluations: A Practical Approach to Managing Day to Day Employee Performance (Pearson/Prentice Hall). Green is a speaker, author, and consultant who helps organizations develop leaders today for the workforce of tomorrow. Contact Green at http://www.managementeducationgroup.com

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