Promoting from the Ranks
As growing numbers of senior staff approach retirement, agencies are developing internal leadership programs to prepare younger staff for leading them into the future.
By Jennifer Michael
With all the discussion around the imminent wave of retiring baby boomers, Ray Schimmer and his staff at Parsons Child and Family Center in Albany, New York, decided to gauge where their own agency stood amid the trend. They pulled records on members of their management group and were alarmed to learn 21 out of 28 key leaders would be turning 65 within seven years of each other, including Schimmer.
"After clarifying the size of the challenge, we saw we needed to focus specifically on internal leadership development if we hoped to maintain institutional continuity," Schimmer recalls.
To better prepare for the future and the retirement party clean-up, Schimmer and his staff developed and launched an internal training program, or Leadership Academy. The academy is just one aspect of an agencywide program to manage succession and build the leadership abilities of existing staff, with the goal of reducing reliance on outside recruitment to build the workforce, preserving institutional knowledge, and allowing for continued agency growth.
A leadership development task force of 32 staff members from across Parsons's 21 programs, including line staff, managers, and senior administrators, developed the Leadership Academy. They also designed a list of "stretch opportunities"-- experiences that go beyond an individual's job description that increase awareness of the agency's range of activities, as well as the individual's portfolio of professional relationships-- for program directors to consider offering staff. Additionally, an administrative reorganization expanded the senior management team from four to nine people.
"The reorganization, in effect, institutionalizes last-stage mentoring," Schimmer explains. "It also institutionalizes our group's determination that given both internal and external considerations, growing leadership from inside the agency is likely to be a more effective strategy than recruiting from [the outside]."
The first Leadership Academy, which concluded last fall, received enthusiastic interest and participation from Parsons's approximately 550 staff. Sixteen people participated in the first cycle--after nominating themselves and securing approval from their supervisors--but twice that many applied initially, requiring the human resources department to pare down the number. Schimmer says the staff 's interest taught him two things--a staff member's personal ambitions may be greater than a supervisor's expectations of that person, and offering staff potential future growth opportunities within the child welfare field and the agency generates excitement.
Of course the risk that staff will take their newly acquired leadership knowledge and pursue higher positions with other agencies is always there, but Schimmer contends, "That's a risk we would prefer to be taking as opposed to not doing anything and having to resort to the outside or to the promotion of an individual internally who we haven't prepared."
Getting Acquainted with Parsons
When looking for models of internal leadership academies to follow, Parsons's staff couldn't find any pertaining to child welfare agencies, so they adopted concepts from a business sector model used by their local chamber of commerce.
Parsons's resulting Leadership Academy model does not focus on transmitting skills, but rather with acquainting future agency leaders with the span and complexity of the organization. "We're trying to help them break out of their program and job silos to advance their appreciation of all mission-related activity," Schimmer says of his staff.
The first Leadership Academy met once a month for eight months and included a frontline social worker, a social work supervisor, a group home worker, a trainer, an Early Head Start staff member, a human resources professional, a fundraiser, and a medical clinician. The daylong sessions took place at different locations across Parsons's 11 sites to give participants a 360-degree view of the agency's multifaceted activities and services.
Different program staff led the academy sessions each time, and sessions were treated similar to graduate course study. Typically, session leaders would lecture, put together panels of outside customers and clients, open up question-and-answer sessions, and conduct field trips. Participants were evaluated on their level of participation in the written work and class discussions.
Academy participants worked in teams of three, with no more than six per team, to allow for the maximum level of discussion and synthesis of material presented. They studied the agency on three levels--departmental, agency-wide, and future--and were assigned position paper topics and leadership proposals to write.
During the orientation session about the agency's mission and how to build a community around the agency, for example, participants were asked to write a position paper outlining what their new mission statement for the agency would be and how they would share that mission with the community. Then they were asked to create a leadership proposal outlining how the community could provide resources for the agency and how, in turn, the agency could act as a resource for the community.
One of the Leadership Academy participants, Mike Conway, says he had been looking for leadership opportunities within the agency long before the Leadership Academy was developed. After 18 years with Parsons, he felt professionally stagnant.
"My biggest complaint to my direct supervisor is that I don't feel I have a plan for where I'm going in the agency," he says. "I felt [the Leadership Academy] was my chance to get my foot in the door and learn some skills, get to know people, get to know what the agency is doing and what type of plan they have to grow new talent and identify people."
Conway was recently promoted from Manager to Director of Software Development for Parsons, due in part, he believes, to participating in the Leadership Academy, as well as taking a CWLA supervisory training course also given to Parsons staff last year.
"It's definitely given me direction; it's definitely exposed me to areas of the agency I wouldn't have otherwise been exposed to," Conway says of the Leadership Academy. "If I need something from another program that I have no information about, I know who to talk to for more information."
As an offshoot project from the Leadership Academy, the 16 participants are continuing to work with one another on their own time to develop a comprehensive agency directory so all staff can better know who their colleagues are, what everyone does, and how everyone's work is interrelated.
Overall, Schimmer believes the Leadership Academy helped build business friendships across the agency. "We are looking for bonding between our young leaders so that when they become program directors, we'll be able to utilize interpersonal synergies and unify the organization."
Parsons's leadership development task force continues to work on identifying components of leadership that are particular to the agency, and then figuring how to transmit and evaluate them. For instance, the agency is considering incorporating a merit-based pay system and job shadowing.
"A lot of the business research we got into indicates that for-profit companies are much more forthright about making qualitative comparisons," Schimmer notes. "They identify individuals on the basis of their performance, then they favor those individuals in developing them as leaders. That's something that we're interested in but we haven't done yet."
Other Leadership-Building Strategies
Other child welfare agencies are similarly beginning to explore internal leadership training, though on a less formal basis than Parsons's Leadership Academy program. Three years ago, Ted Blevins, Executive Director of Lena Pope Home in Fort Worth, Texas, started taking a day each month to conduct sessions explaining the different aspects of an executive's role in leading a child welfare agency, including the executive's role in budgeting, construction projects, public sector advocacy, and legal issues. "You have a much better workforce when you're supportive of their development," he explains.
Blevins invites about a dozen internal staff, and even staff from external business partners, who have the credentials and potential to be in executive leadership. Program directors and outside vendors and contractors are invited to speak to the group. Blevins keeps the sessions informal to maintain a "comfortable and safe learning environment" where individuals can feel free to ask questions and explore ideas. Even though some of the training participants have moved on to become leaders at other agencies, Blevins views such promotions as a way his agency has helped improve the child welfare field beyond its community.
Blevins, like Schimmer, decided it was time to initiate succession efforts when he realized most of his senior staff had decades of tenure under their belts--his chief operating officer has been with the agency 35 years; a finance executive, 20 years; the properties manager, 20 years; and the executive director of programs, 12 years. Blevins himself plans to retire in 2009 after 25 years as executive director. He is only the fourth leader in Lena Pope Home's 77-year history.
[For more on Lena Pope's succession efforts, see "Exiting Executives," the Management Matters entry in the November/December 2007 issue of Children's Voice.]
Norma Stoker-Mtume, on the other hand, has been dealing with staffing a West Coast agency that hasn't been around as long at Parsons and Lena Pope Home, but is rapidly growing. She is the Chief Financial Officer and Associate Director of SHIELDS for Families, Inc., in South Los Angeles. Since Stoker-Mtume cofounded SHIELDS in 1991, the agency has grown from 11 staff and a $500,000 budget, to more than 260 staff and a $20 million budget. Finding field staff during this time of growth has been challenging, "So we decided to grow our own," she says.
SHIELDS directors had always wanted to provide leadership training for the younger, more inexperienced staff but lacked the time and the funding until Stoker-Mtume received a two-year, $50,000 fellowship through the Los Angeles-based Durfee Foundation. She is focusing her fellowship on developing a young executives mentoring and coaching institute, with particular emphasis on building leaders of color.
The first sessions, open to all levels of line staff, were held in September 2007 and provided a general overview of nonprofits and how they operate. Many agency staff, Stoker-Mtume notes, don't have a complete understanding of how nonprofits function, even though they work for one. Supervisory training for young staff was also held late in 2007 and early 2008, conducted in part by CWLA consultants. In addition to the training program, SHIELDS has established a partnership with California State University at Dominguez Hills to conduct master's of social work degree classes onsite at the agency, taught by university faculty.
Stoker-Mtume believes part of her role as a leader is to help grow other leaders. Too many young staff become stuck in administrative roles, she says, and never receive a chance to aspire to higher roles, yet it is these young staff who bring new energy to an agency.
"Young people can figure out how to do this better than we can," Stoker-Mtume says. "One of the challenges is convincing other nonprofit leaders they can do it."
Jennifer Michael is Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.
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