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Developing Leadership Excellence in Higher Education

Graduations are a time to celebrate accomplishments and reflect on the knowledge and skills that have been attained. Recently, I had the opportunity to be a part of a different kind of graduation. The “students” were not the ones you might expect to see. This graduation ceremony was the celebration of 17 administrative staff leaders at my university who had completed the executive level, high-potential leadership program, Excellence Through Leadership.

This graduation was also a time for reflection. The university’s president addressed the graduates and spoke about qualities of successful leaders. The executive vice president for business and administration also spoke, highlighting important leadership qualities while relaying his own greatest leadership failure and the lessons that can be learned not only from success, but also from examining and learning from mistakes.

As the ceremony continued and each graduate came forward to receive a certificate of completion, we listened as they all shared aspects of the program that had influenced them most. Some of their statements had similarities, whereas other remarks were unique to the individual. One younger leader (a Millennial) reflected on how she began the program with very little confidence and explained her new level of confidence in her leadership abilities, based on the work she had completed in the program. On the other end of the spectrum was a more senior leader, who admitted that he was initially skeptical about what he could gain from the program after retiring from a military career and working for many years in managerial roles. However, he shared that this had been a wonderful experience; his self-awareness had been greatly enhanced through feedback from the assessment tools (such as 360-degree feedback and the Birkman method), which had also increased his leadership skills. Other graduates commented on their opportunities to build relationships and the importance of the Excellence Through Leadership program for breaking down the silos that exist in a large, decentralized research university; their better understanding of the university’s overall strategy and where they fit in to it; and how they were applying what they learned in the program to better develop their own staff.

Higher education has been a late-comer to the world of leadership development, not to mention talent management. These initiatives have a rich history in much of corporate America, and more recently in healthcare. However, higher education has focused more on developing students and has only more recently, in the last decade or so, embraced leadership development efforts for faculty and administrative staff.

At Emory University, the Excellence Through Leadership program began in 2005 with two simple goals:

  1. Strengthen leadership performance across the university.
  2. Establish a leadership pipeline for succession planning.

We have recently graduated our seventh cohort from the program. Participants engage in eight months of activities, including assessments, competency-based workshops, executive coaching, and strategic group-based action learning projects. The success of the Excellence Through Leadership program has prompted the creation of several other management and leadership development initiatives during the last seven years, and talent management has begun to blossom in a way that does not typically take place in institutions of higher education.

Emory’s success can be attributed, in large part, to:

  • a focus on developing programs that incorporate best practices within learning
  • a focus on measurement, in order to demonstrate the impact of the programs
  • incredible leadership support at the highest levels of the university.

Throughout my career, I have heard many people say, “What if you spend all this time and money developing people and then they leave?” My answer can be summed up by a quote from Dr Shawna O’Grady, from Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada: “What if you don’t and they stay?”

About the author: 

Wanda Hayes is the senior director of learning and organizational development at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is responsible for the development and implementation of a learning strategy that includes executive, management, and employee development, e-learning, executive coaching, and organizational development. Prior to joining Emory in 2007, she served as manager of leadership development at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where she created and implemented management and executive development programs. She has also served as manager of leadership assessment and development at BellSouth Corporation in Atlanta, and as director of academic assessment and institutional research at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, where she also was an adjunct faculty member. Wanda earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology and her master’s and doctorate degrees in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Georgia.

Want to learn more about developing leadership excellence in higher education? Take a look at the upcoming EdExMENA 2016 In November 2016.

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