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Born ready to lead and learn

Leadership training programs at Emory invest in people, creating a destination community for work.

Leaders are born, not made, as the adage goes. But organization and management professor Rick Gilkey has a twist on that thought. "You may not be able to teach leadership, but you can learn it," he told participants in the opening session of the Excellence Through Leadership (ETL) program last fall.

In the nine months since, the ETL participants have experienced that learning first-hand. They've gone through their paces on making financial analyses, understanding the university endowment, managing change, understanding talent management, and developing and implementing strategic plans. This spring they presented capstone group projects that will help shape the future of Emory -- from how we develop enterprise data management to how the university can incentivize innovation to how we approach big construction and renovation projects guided by an Emory-specific framework.

The ETL program for Emory staff is one of a trio of professional offerings that cultivate leaders at Emory, along with the Academic Leadership Program (ALP) for faculty and the Woodruff Leadership Academy (WLA) for health sciences faculty and staff. These programs take a select group of nominated participants through a rigorous curriculum from five months up to a year that explores leadership and Emory-specific topics and builds skill sets around developing budgets, building teams, setting strategies, and driving change. The programs also include self- and external assessments, executive coaching sessions, and a group project.

"We decided years ago that our strength would be getting things done through teams and not just individual efforts," says Gary Teal, chief administrative officer of the Woodruff Health Sciences Center who oversees WLA. "This can be a challenge in academia and in a health center, where people are recognized and promoted for individual accomplishments. Yes, we need outstanding individual performers, but none who think they're bigger than the team."

All three programs support the strategic theme articulated in Emory's strategic plan, Where Courageous Inquiry Leads, to create community and engage society. These programs focus on making the university a destination for faculty and staff to work, raise families, and contribute to the campus and the world. Their goal is not only to develop leaders but also to retain them.

Numbers and beyond

The rationale makes sense. In a given year, Emory spends 60 percent of its operating budget on its people, specifically on salaries and fringe benefits. If employees leave, it is expensive to rehire and train someone new. Although Emory's turnover is fairly low, it is trending up over time with an 8.4 percent overall turnover over the past 10 years.

The numbers speak loud and clear. If we assume the cost of turnover is 150 percent of annual salary, cumulative annual turnover cost to the university is more than $91.5 million. If Emory reduced voluntary turnover through retaining critical talent, providing career mobility, and developing professionals by only 5 percent, it could save more than $4.5 million annually. Even using a more conservative estimate of turnover cost at 100 percent of annual salary, annual turnover expenses still add up to more than $61 million, and even a small 5 percent reduction saves Emory more than $3 million in a year.

Beyond the numbers, programs like ETL, ALP, and WLA develop leaders who in turn strengthen the university as a whole. Wanda Hayes, who manages a slate of learning programs for Human Resources as senior director of learning and organizational development, is sometimes questioned about investing in training people only to have them leave. In answer, she borrows a quote from Zig Ziglar, "The only thing worse than training employees and losing them is not training them and keeping them."

"Taking that type of time and money to help staff grow means you care about your people," says Marilane Bond, a WLA 2006 alumna and associate dean of medical education at the School of Medicine. "And it benefits the organization."

These programs also have garnered external recognition for Emory as a "LearningElite" organization for five straight years by Chief Learning Officer. "That's a big deal," says Hayes. "Emory competes against top corporations, and we're still the only university to be selected in the ranking."

Leaders in shades of red, yellow, green, and blue

Early in the fall semester, Hayes is front and center in the leadership training suite at the Goizueta Business School, taking this year's ETL class through an analysis of the Birkman assessment tool. With a palette of colors, the Birkman can help people discover their preferred work styles and see their life style grid mapped out by interests, usual styles, needs, and stress behaviors. Each person has a dominant color based on the results of the survey, with the color in most cases accurately predicting how that person will act when performing at peak and under stress. To oversimplify, reds go straight to action while blues need reflection time -- lots of it. Greens have to have an interpersonal connection and get things done through relationships while yellows need lots of detailed information and are more than happy to get in the weeds on a problem.

Hayes has a detailed PowerPoint to explain the tool, but she doesn't need it. She makes the material come alive by sharing her stories of how the Birkman plays out in daily life and how to use the information to enhance your leadership style. (She is blue problem-solver, with a red implementation style.) She can tell you if you have interests scores of 80 or higher, you better make sure you find a way to engage that interest at work or away from work or you'll be unhappy. She can tell you the strengths and pitfalls of your color, and she even uses the information from the ETL participants' Birkman to assist in determining the makeup of the project teams.

The participants in ETL, ALP, and WLA have access to a portfolio of testing tools to increase self-awareness. In addition to the Birkman, they take the Kolb Learning Style Inventory and undergo 360-degree feedback, in which they rate themselves on wide-ranging skills and receive feedback from other raters, including their supervisor, direct reports, and other colleagues. "Feedback is a gift," Hayes reminds the test takers before she delivers their results.

"You can learn only so much about leadership from reading books," says Provost Claire Sterk, one of the sponsors of ETL and ALP. "A program like ALP goes a step further to help faculty have a better understanding of themselves as leaders and how their style fits with the many complexities of academic leadership."

Individuals are selected for these training programs based on interest, high performance, and high potential, and program alumni tend to move into more senior positions over time. Talk with even a few of these leaders and, reflecting Emory's vision and mission of collaborative work in service to others, a pattern of modesty emerges about their own roles and how much they learned.

"People often get promoted because they're very good at what they do, and managing others requires a different set of competencies," Hayes says of the transition from primarily tactical to more strategic responsibilities. "These programs provide tools-oriented training and give people a safe space to practice."

School of Medicine Dean Chris Larsen graduated from the WLA in 2003. Kathryn Yount, Asa Griggs Candler Chair of Global Health and a professor of sociology, credits her WLA experience with preparing her to serve as 2014-15 Faculty Council chair and University Senate president. "I had never considered going into an administrative role like this, and I also would not have imagined how much I have enjoyed it," she says.

Senior Vice President and General Counsel Steve Sencer moved into his current job five years after participating in WLA. "One of the lessons that stayed with me was that taking on a leadership role is a choice," Sencer says. "Some people pursue traditional leadership positions, while other qualified and talented people do not. A good thing about Emory is that there are many ways to contribute and lead."

"The challenges facing academic leaders are growing and we need to understand skills outside our own scholarly discipline," says Robert Schapiro, a 2010 ALP participant named to the law's school's top post in 2012. "When I became dean, one of the first people I got in touch with was Wanda."

New ways of seeing and connecting

Steve Walton starts his ETL class on operations strategy by showing a video. His assignment to the ETL participants is simple. There are two teams, one dressed in white and one in black. Count the number of times they pass a basketball around a circle. Walton's class does pretty well with its counting. Many get the number right. But then Walton asks, did you notice anything else? The classmates look puzzled. Then Ulf Nilsson, director of operations in the Laney Graduate School, pipes up: "Well, what about the gorilla?" Everyone else was so busy with counting that they missed the person in a gorilla costume who entered the frame midway in the showing. They also missed the changing background colors of the curtain.

What's the point of Walton's video? "The human brain doesn't see what it sees," he says. "It sees what it expects to see." Then Walton drives home his point: "Your perspective is important but it's not the whole truth." In a nutshell, that's why teams with multiple perspectives are so important when solving problems or running a university.

Ann Loehr, a national expert on how to leverage diversity in the workplace, further solidifies Walton's lesson in her day-long presentation to the ETL class. "Time and again, it's been shown that diversity is good for business," she says the participants. "To accomplish innovation, we need more, not less, diversity. We have to bring diverse perspectives to the table to experiment before we can discover something unknown and leap frog to a new place."

Not only do the lessons in these programs heighten the sense of value of other perspectives in the workplace, they come with a bonus: the networks that participants build with colleagues. Frank Wong from the Rollins School of Public Health and Pamela Scully from Emory College of Arts and Sciences worked together in 2012 on an ALP project that studied potential changes to traditional academic calendars. Now the two regularly intersect in leadership roles taken on since -- Wong as co-chair of the Faculty Council's University Research Committee, Scully as director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence.

"It was great to meet peers across the university and learn more about other units," Scully says. Wong agrees: "ALP gave me a different perspective on how a school should be run and how my individual part fits into the school."

Campus Services Chief of Staff Karen Salisbury enrolled with a goal to learn about the financial side of university operations. "I welcomed the opportunity to be in a classroom with our business school faculty and learn to think in different terms," she says, pulling open her ETL notebook from 2013 to point out favorite classes. In doing so, she highlights two more traits of program alumni -- even years later, they recall the impact of challenging coursework and keep the class and project materials on hand for frequent reference.

Even after their engagement with the WLA program ends, alumni remain a resource for the university and the Woodruff Health Sciences Center, according to Teal. "They serve as a group to bounce ideas off of and to call on to get involved when we are looking for solutions."

Finishing the course

In 2006, Sandra Dunbar was part of a WLA project that looked at a model for improving quality and safety in ambulatory care. Dunbar, now associate dean for academic advancement at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, says her team focused on new ways to coordinate care, incorporate more prevention and patient education, and make sure patients received evidence-based care. The team also envisioned new ways patients could communicate with providers. After hearing the WLA group presentation, Dean James Curran of the Rollins School of Public Health predicted that the work would be revolutionary, and he was right. It opened the door to what eventually became a new email system for Emory Healthcare, which allows doctors and patients to connect through the Patient Portal among other care improvements.

A number of projects taken on during WLA, ETL, and ALP have developed into full-blown, division- and university-wide programs. Emory's Office of Sustainability Initiatives, for example, got its start in an ETL project. Healthy Emory, which was born in 2008 as a WLA project, was further developed in 2013 in ETL and then implemented enterprise-wide.

One ETL project this semester took on the largest temporary relocation of services and functions in Emory's history. The Dobbs University Center (DUC) holds Emory's only board dining facility, a black box theater, mail and document services, a credit union, collaborative spaces for studying and meeting, Bike Emory, and offices for Campus Life staff, student government groups, and student identity organizations. To complicate the relocation, the assignment changed midstream after architects presented proposals for a new student center. The "DUCling" team rebooted and delivered their plan, which brought some ideas to the table that Campus Services previously had not considered. They also left a framework in place for Emory to pursue large construction projects in the future.

The way the projects are designed and unfold often offers fresh perspectives and new awareness even to those with a deep-rooted knowledge of Emory. Take Philip Wainwright, for example. An alumnus whose father Arthur Wainwright taught at the theology school for 30 years, Wainwright now leads the Office of Global Strategy and Initiatives, which recently launched a university-wide plan for global strategies for the next five years. His ETL project in 2007 focused on employee engagement and called for more training programs like ETL.

"It was one of the experiences that we really felt had helped us understand the broader mission of Emory and the scope of its activities," says Wainwright. "It gave us a greater appreciation of the institution we work for."

Wanda Hayes and her team in Human Resources are following through on that recommendation. Soon to roll out for Emory is a new training program -- based on the formats of ETL, ALP, and WLA and designed for mid-level managers -- ready to empower a new group to learn and lead.

Illustration credit: David Hollenbach