Last month, I spoke to two Boulder County, Colo., employees who developed the Boulder County Leadership Academy, an intensive professional development program for employees who want to take on bigger roles in government. Program managers expect participants to dedicate a year to completing leadership assessments, mentoring sessions, a team pilot project and up to 12 hours of outside individual work a month.
For this month's newsletter, I spoke to one of the over 60 graduates from the Leadership Academy. Megan Davis is a policy analyst with the Boulder County Board of Commissioners. Davis started the program in January 2009, and became an Academy graduate a year later. She shared her Leadership Academy experiences with me via interviews and e-mail in this edited transcript.
How did you first become involved in the Leadership Academy?
I had been working at the commissioner's office for two years. A couple of people thought it would be a good opportunity for me, and my supervisor nominated me to the program. I went through the application and interview, and was accepted.
What did you expect going into the program?
There are expectations in terms of participation. It is pretty strict that you attend all of the trainings, complete the coursework and make a commitment to completing all of the elements of the curriculum.
I think there is an expectation that you'll come with an open mind and a willingness to advance your leadership skills and open yourself up to learning more about what you'll need to become a better leader.
What was your experience with the different activities in the program?
At the beginning, you basically have a full assessment of all the different kinds of leadership components. The profiler looks at innovation, communication, creativity, judgment -- all of these different characteristics. You have different people who you work with at all different levels, and they weigh in on your strengths and weakness. It helps you identify where you might want to go or areas you might want to improve upon. The program leaders really learn to leverage your strengths to improve on your weaknesses.
After the [assessment], there are coaching sessions that follow. [They're] helpful in developing your plan and setting your course for the year -- and years -- to come. We had to develop a leadership plan: what we were hoping to see changed in our skills that year. It gives you something you can go back to and say, 'I'm going to make an effort in the next meetings to really focus on a certain piece,' like being a better listener or having better reflection before you respond.
There were trainings where you have a full day of learning about organizational stewardship and self mastery. There were also some very practical, more technical trainings like business acumen, budgeting and ethics. The trainings cover some very concrete skills that are a central foundation for anyone in a leadership role. I actually took the budget [session] twice because I'm a policy analyst. I found it very useful to have concrete understanding of how the budget process works in different departments.
We had what we called the Living Leader series: Leaders within the county come and talk about their leadership experiences. That was really useful because you began to be able to identify what strong leadership characteristics are.
What was your favorite part of the Academy?
I had a very good team project experience. It was a lot of work. We developed a plan and a pilot, and actually implemented it. My project was the Bridges out of Poverty program, which helps people better understand -- and develop a language -- around poverty issues. My team wanted to integrate that training into Boulder County. I got to work with people from different departments that I didn't have the opportunity to work with before. There were a lot of ups and downs and decisions we had to make as a team.
[The team project experience] really allows you to apply what you were learning in the practical part of the program. It was sort of like an incubator project. You really got to push yourself. If you wanted to push the envelope on some of your weaknesses, you had a forum to do that safely. I thought that was really effective for me to be able to have a place to test those skills.
How did you feel about the mentoring portion?
I think that people have different experiences with the mentoring. You get matched up with someone and a lot of it is about personality. I learned a lot from my mentor, and in some ways we were more peers than mentors. I think some people had someone who they really clicked with, I learned a lot from my mentor, and we continue to work together and have a relationship. I think it's a good program no matter what connection you end up making.
I met with my mentor monthly; sometimes less frequently. The program had some tools to get the mentoring relationship off the ground, and occasionally [there were] assignments to do with mentors. But, we rarely focused on these and spent our time talking. My mentor reflected on our action team project, offered suggestions when we had road blocks and provided insight based on her experiences. She also provided suggestions for my personal leadership plan, and how to put in to motion to achieve my goals. She served as a sounding board on a lot of fronts.
How do you feel the program prepared you for a leadership role?
One of the real benefits of the program is that it gives you a wide array of tools that you can access in years to come. I think it has prepped me to be armed with information and the ability to self reflect and develop a pathway to practice and realize all of those parts that I identified during the leadership academy. You aren't an outstanding leader in a year -- [the program] gives you the personal and practical tools that you can lean on, go back to and [use] through the progression of improving yourself as a leader. It's a constant work in progress.
Is there anything you would change about the program?
In terms of the skills we learned, I don't think I would change anything. It was a great experience. It was a lot of work. That was, I think, a shared experience that at times it felt overwhelming, but I don't see anything that could be cut out. Every piece enhanced the whole experience for me.
Do you feel the program improved your ability to work cross-departmentally?
I do. I know that the people who I went through the academy with are now people I can go to, ask them questions -- and not just to get info, but to get their opinion and to collaborate on things. That's simply a result of when you have people come together for intense training. But I also think it gets more people to think about how people work cross-departmentally.
How did you balance your full time job with the Leadership Academy and your home life?
That is an interesting question, because when I entered the Leadership Academy, I just had a baby! (He was about 6 months old.) That was okay, because when I wasn't at work, I was at home and had down time in the evenings as my son went to bed early. I don't know if I could do it now with a toddler. I would probably wait until he got a little older.
The Leadership Academy did require some work after hours, which was mostly reading. A lot of the work was integrated into my day-to-day work, such as the development of my leadership plan, which I reviewed with my supervisor at the same time that we reviewed my work plan.
There were a few activities that I even brought home and replicated with my family -- including a great values game that allowed my partner and I to compare our own personal guiding values. (This was a part of the self-mastery training, understanding how to lead from your values). His values were pretty close to mine, but it was enjoyable to discuss where we overlapped and didn't!
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