Preparing Boulder County Employees To Lead

The county's selective and intensive leadership academy results in a alumni pool that is ready to tackle challenges if and when leaders decide to retire.

Three years ago, Boulder County officials began to plan for the expected retirement of its baby boomer employees. They developed the Boulder County Leadership Academy to focus not only on preparing some of the county's 1,700 employees to take on bigger leadership roles, but to allow current leaders to share their knowledge.

The expected wave of retirements didn't come, due to the effects of the Great Recession. But with each passing year, program officials made the leadership academy more and more intricate, resulting in an intense program that requires a year-long commitment and an expectation of eight to 12 hours of individual work a month, sometimes outside of business hours. Required elements of the program now include a leadership evaluation, creation of a development plan, classes and workshops, attendance at presentations by current county leaders and mentoring sessions.

In addition, the program divides participants into teams and asks them to work together  to develop and implement a county program that has been put on the backburner. This team project allows participants to practice the leadership skills they acquired and apply them to a real world situation. Over 60 participants have graduated from the academy: one is now a department head and least four of them have gone on to become managers.

To learn more about Boulder County's program, I spoke to Susan Mann, Boulder County's employee development specialist, and to Rick Meyers, employee development coordinator for the county. Rick and Susan worked on the creation of the leadership academy and are involved in administering the program. Below is an edited transcript of my conversations with them.

Why was the Boulder County Leadership Academy created?

Rick Meyers: We started actually three years ago and it was part of our succession planning efforts. We are, like many, experiencing the retirement of the baby boomers. What we anticipated to be a tsunami of retirements has not quite occurred because of the economy, but leadership positions are beginning to retire. In order to prepare ourselves, we decided to create this leadership academy, and we basically grew it ourselves our first year.

Susan Mann
: All of this is really framed around our county's mission and vision statement and our guiding values. As we've developed this program, we've really made sure that each element is aligned with the county mission statement.

Was there a development program in place before this academy?

Meyers: Even longer ago (around 2003), a program was designed to be broader. It was open to middle management employees and supervisors. It was a year-long program much like this one, however, it was structured differently. The participants got together once per month and would go to the various departments and hear presentations from the staff to get a better understanding of the broad range of services offered by the county. In one of those sessions, they would talk a little about leadership skills. But there was a need for a next level of development for those emerging leaders to really nurture their leadership skills and that's how we started the leadership academy.

In developing this academy, were there other goals you were focused on?

Meyers: In addition to succession planning and fulfilling our county mission, especially in these economic times when a lot of governments are going through furloughs (which fortunately we have not had to incur), the academy has been important in terms of retention. It was one way we could offer a benefit to a select group of employees who were meritorious that didn't involve salary increases. A lot of public entities are cutting back on training as well.

How competitive is it to get in the program? Has anyone applied one year and was denied, but accepted another year?

Mann: We accept no more than 24 participants each year (what our budget allows) and we receive more applications than slots. The leadership academy committee interviews all applicants and selections are made. To date, denied applicants have not reapplied but we encourage them to do so.

What are the different components of the program?

Meyers: When the participant receives the results of the [leadership inventory], they have two-hour-long coaching sessions and craft their own personal employee development plan. That's an important improvement we brought on board last year to help the employees consider other opportunities they need to gain the experience and the knowledge to step into leadership positions.

That first year, we didn't have a core curriculum as refined as [this year's]. This [year's program] provides a common knowledge base. We address [leadership topics] in a full-day class with the participants, so they have the opportunity to get together and have discussions on the various topics on a quarterly basis.

We also offer Leadership in Action, which are brownbag lunch talks where current leaders given presentations. This is an opportunity for county employees [whether in the program or not] to address some leadership topics we cover at the academy.

Mann: The program is enhanced by mentors, who are our current leaders, who will help guide the future leaders as they move forward.

How do you select and match mentors with participants?

Mann: This is always a challenge and the steering committee deliberates in matching participants to mentors. We discuss what we know about each participant's stated development needs, qualities they look for in a mentor and [we] do the best to match them with our mentor's strengths. We also try, whenever possible, to make the matches convenient by location.

Besides training the next generation of leaders, what has this program accomplished?

Meyers: Another big component is that this helped in terms of cross-departmental collaboration. Like many county governments, we have a lot of divisions and departments without the opportunity for employees to interact. This brings them together with common goals in mind.

Mann: They build a strong network through which they can collaborate.

How do you choose the team projects that academy participants take on?

Meyers: Sometimes there isn't the funding or the time [for new county programs], and this group takes on some very important projects that we wanted to move forward. In the program year, they make recommendations [regarding implementation, budgeting, etc.]. From this, we've had policy changes and the participants have done an excellent job of moving these projects forward.

If those in the program find that they need additional support or training, is there a method for them to seek additional help?

Meyers: They may find resources within their own department or find connections that may lead to cross training in other departments for follow up, but there is no existing budget to support them financially.

However, employees may decide they need a class for further training, and then they can apply for the county's tuition reimbursement program. Not all programs have a cost, so their need may just be further mentoring from their mentor. That's been one of the wonderful things -- although this is a year-long program, some of these relationships continue beyond the year-long commitment.

Mann: We haven't really heard that need. I don't think there has been that person that has come forward and said they realize they need a specific training -- we've not heard that so it's really not an issue.

In next month's Public Workforce newsletter, we'll hear from Megan Davis, a policy analyst with the Boulder County Board of Commissioners, and past participant in the leadership academy. Davis will share her experiences and thoughts on the program as she juggled her daily job, leadership sessions and her team's project, which addressed the issue of poverty.


Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.