By Philip Reed
In July 2020, five WAPA employees were selected to participate in the Department of Energy's Leadership Development Program, sponsored by the University of Maryland. With the recent conclusion of that program, Closed Circuit reached out to the participants to discuss their experience.
The eight-month program was designed as a career-development opportunity for new and current leaders. It focused on strategic alignment across all leadership levels, with the intention of driving transparency and accountability throughout the DOE.
Participants knew that the program would help them to develop critical leadership skills and improve their leadership competency proficiencies. What they were less certain about was the approach, which would necessarily take a virtual format due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was expecting the Leadership Development Program to be a 'lecture' series, where the instructor would lead the attendees through the content," said Information Technology Specialist Corinna Gonzalez. “I was pleasantly surprised to find that the coursework encouraged a high amount of student engagement, both with the instructor and the other attendees." She continued by saying she was surprised by how well the program still allowed for a feeling of fellowship.
“The format encouraged open and honest conversations in relation to the course material," she said. “I was grateful to be able to connect with each of my classmates."
Human Resources Specialist Allison Burnett agreed that, while the virtual format complicated things somewhat, there was still a strong feeling of togetherness and camaraderie.
“I feel as though we all came out of the program with strong relationships with other participants, who we will be able to rely on for support going forward," she said.
In addition, the program took a unique approach to its subject.
“This was not your typical leadership program," said Human Performance Program Manager Krystall Valencia. “The course covered how we, as leaders, go from 'self to symphony.' Within that, we learned about emotional intelligence for leaders, building a cohesive team and resilient leadership."
“I really expected this to be a very structured program focused on spreadsheets and change management," said Human Resources Specialist Courtni Hively. “I was pleasantly surprised to see the emphasis on 'self to symphony' which took us on a journey of better understanding who we are and how to effectively work with others, understanding our personalities, understanding that they may not also align with others, and how to use the strengths and weaknesses that we have identified within ourselves to lead teams."
“It was not what I expected," agreed Burnett. “I was thinking more along the lines of what it takes to be a leader, such as budgets and performance and so on, whereas this program taught us a lot about ourselves and how we can use our skills and traits to lead others."
IT Web Architect Vitaliy Demchuk said that he began the experience without any expectations at all.
“I went through the program with an open mind, willing to learn anything and everything," he explained. “And I wasn't disappointed."
Some of the specific topics the participants studied included active listening, empathy and building trust among team members. In addition, each of them found different aspects of the training especially compelling.
“We learned about effective communication within teams, which I found particularly valuable," said Gonzalez.
“One thing that I learned that I find to be valuable is that as a leader it is acceptable to be vulnerable from time to time," said Valencia.
Demchuk agreed, adding, “An environment where a leader is 'comfortable being uncomfortable' allows team members to admit weaknesses, share ideas and develop trust."
“I learned that to lead others, you have to first learn about yourself and your styles of leading and communication, in order to understand where others may be different, so that you can adapt and meet them in the middle," said Burnett. “What works for one may not work for others."
For Hively, the biggest takeaway was the Lencioni Trust Pyramid, which she said resonated with her the most.
“The five biggest pitfalls of a team are clearly mapped out in the model, so that people can work toward a successful and effective team," she explained. “Number two is Fear of Conflict, which reminded me that there should be no hesitation to disagree with, challenge and question one another. It is all in the spirit of finding the right solutions, finding the truth and making great decisions! Usually I would get kind of frustrated with conflict. Now I have changed my perspective, or remind myself to do so, and I think, 'What can I learn from this?'"
The program left the participants with much to consider as they develop their leadership skills, and they believe that they've been given useful tools with which to do so.
“The program put me in a position to carefully evaluate myself and my interactions with others, give more grace and thought to situations that I don't always agree with and better understand my personality," Hively said. “I can capitalize on the strengths and be aware of the possible blindsides."
“It helped me discover some leadership skills I didn't know I possess," said Demchuk. “It revealed different processes, tools and techniques that assist with developing new or enhancing existing leadership qualities."
“I am so grateful to WAPA for encouraging my participation in the Leadership Development Program," said Gonzalez. “My confidence as a leader has grown tremendously. I was able to connect with current senior leaders throughout the DOE, and as a result learned from their successes and how they bounced back from failure."
Overall, the participants felt their time with the program was beneficial, and would encourage others to attend this and similar trainings.
“As we entered into the last week I felt despondent, as I wanted additional time with the cohort," said Valencia. “I took so much away that I now have in my tool bag to apply in my position here at WAPA. I encourage emerging and existing leaders within the organization to apply for the course, as you unlock strengths and reflect on content in a different perspective."
“It was a great program," agreed Burnett. “I hope that I can take what I have learned and use it to be a great leader."
“I learned many valuable skills which I can use to make a positive impact on the organization," said Gonzalez. “I would absolutely recommend this training for those who are motivated to take an honest evaluation of themselves as leaders, and are open to change and self-improvement."
“Many people forget the importance of understanding oneself and the impact it has on working with others," added Hively. “I especially recommend this to supervisors and managers because their supervisory responsibilities are crucial to building and leading effective teams."
For Demchuk, the program also provided an opportunity to reflect on broader ideas, and to express his gratitude.
“Organizations that value leadership development are better at developing their leaders and placing the right people in the right roles which, in turn, drives greater innovation and stronger financial performance," he said. “I am glad WAPA is one of those organizations."
Note: Reed is a public affairs specialist.