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Leadership Academy Wraps Up Its First Year

May 20, 2014
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
Story By: Aubrie Walker

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Rising to the challenge: participants in the first cohort of the High Potential Employee Leadership Academy had their ideas, and bodies, put to the test, as seen in the photos above, during the nine-month program. —Photos by Brian Blalock


When you think about the qualities that a good leader would possess, you might think of someone who is confident, honest, agreeable, innovative, passionate, outgoing or direct.

Many look to people such as Martin Luther King Jr., who stepped out from his jail sentence with perseverance, bravery and patience; Mother Teresa, who committed her life to loving and caring for the poor in humility and determination; even your fathers, mothers, teachers, coaches, or the woman in the next cubicle.

Something about the way they live, speak, or, sometimes, what they did not do makes an impression and classifies them as leaders.

“It is your own experiences that define what a good leader is to you,” said David Yebra, facilitator of the Sam Houston State University High Potential Employee Leadership Academy. “The qualities you bring to the table of leadership were shaped by those experiences and what you learned from them.”

This past year, 18 individuals from three organizations in the Huntsville community were nominated to go through a nine-month program called the High Potential Employee Leadership Academy, a series of monthly development sessions that address key leadership topics and specific focus groups.

Employees from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Huntsville Memorial Hospital and SHSU were selected for their potential as future leaders within their fields after an application process.

“The goal is to identify, select, and develop high preforming employees in order to strengthen the fabric of the community by enhancing the leadership ability of our emerging leaders,” Yebra said.

Throughout the course of the program, participants learned about various issues related to leadership, from developing themselves, to understanding organizational culture, to decision-making, implementing changes in the organization, and sustaining organizational goals.

The concept and design for the leadership academy is based on best practices around the country, with input from national and community leaders.

“The SHSU Leadership Academy captures the essence of leader development by bringing together enrichment, experience, and reflection through a series of unique leadership challenges,” said 80th U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, who spoke to the academy participants in March. “This is leadership development in action. Participants are immersed in real-world situations that bring these critical experiences to life.”

Once a month, the participants came together for a group experience that put into action the topics discussed throughout the month. They were asked to spend the rest of the month reflecting on that experience, as well as what they are going to do with that experience. As the first cohort graduates in May, many reflect on the activities and lessons learned.

What they're saying...

A Community Leader:
"The Leadership Academy provides an avenue for strong leaders to develop further. The participants are challenged and stretched in ways that facilitates their growth as leaders. This expanded leadership capacity benefits both the individual participants and the organizations they represent."
—Brad Livingston, TDCJ executive director

A Participant:
"The time spent in session and in community with organizations outside of Sam Houston has been invaluable. I have grown from the relationships in my class as a person, as a leader, as an employee, and as someone who lives within this community. Every session gave me insight to the critical decision making process in regard to leadership. I am a better leader because I have been a part of this first class, and I am a better person as well. I want my time in this class to serve my organization well, but I also want to expand that knowledge into every aspect of my personal life. I am grateful for this opportunity."
—Maria Busby, SHSU

A Presenter:
“The SHSU Leadership Academy captures the essence of leader development by bringing together enrichment, experience, and reflection through a series of unique leadership challenges. This is leadership development in action. Participants are immersed in real-world situations that bring these critical experiences to life. It has been a pleasure for me to participate in the process of expanding the leadership abilities of such wonderful emerging leaders.”
—80th U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales

A Mentor:
"Accepting increased responsibility as a professional in career progression requires constant introspection and acknowledgement that self-improvement is critical to overall success. To achieve the goal of being an effective leader, accepting courses, reading books and actions that will help improve not only ones self-view but that of others as a leader should be a constant motivator toward this goal.… What an honor to have been designated as a coach/mentor of this multi-career endeavor that allows group and personal interaction to the highest level of career seeking achievement….I personally feel it was a resounding success and will continue to develop and as a course seeking to achieve an even higher level of contribution in leadership development."
—Wayne Keen

One activity challenged participants to think about what a leader is to them, personally, and look at what experiences have shaped that idea. During the group experience, they watched the 1949 film “Twelve O’Clock High,” starring Gregory Peck and Hugh Marlowe.

"What I really appreciate about the discussion from the movie was the sort of analysis of strong leaders and good leaders,” said associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences Lee Miller, one of SHSU’s participants. “That discussion highlighted that even in our three organizations, the leadership styles have some differences and each person has a different leadership style and different circumstances might call for different styles.”

After examining participants’ thoughts about leadership, Yebra challenged the comfort zones of each participant by illustrating the uncomfortable situations they could face as leaders during an exercise at University Camp, where they completed the ropes course and several team-building activities.

Eric Guerrero, regional director for TDCJ, reflects and connects his experience from the University Camp’s ropes course to his everyday job.

“In TDCJ, we depend on co-workers; there have been several situations where it is life and death literally, working in a prison system, so you depend on the other co-worker. In the ropes course we had to do the same,” Guerrero said. “I think understanding that you have to work with a partner and communicating with each other helps you get through the fears.”

Yebra said that throughout the exercise, the group dynamic began to change and the participants became closer; many found that they could learn a lot about leadership from each other.

“Having an opportunity to work with others from TDCJ and HMH has been great because their perspectives have caused me to reflect on issues in a new light,” said SHSU health and kinesiology assistant chair and professor Ryan Zapalac. “Additionally, I now feel as though I have a network of people whom I could call upon in those organizations, which will benefit our department, our college, and the university as a whole. I know that I would not have had any of these opportunities if I hadn’t been a member of this experience.”

In another exercise, the leadership academy covered the culture of organizations, with the idea that being aware of a certain culture can help a leader implement change.

Participants went through an incident-response scenario at Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas, where they role-played a series of events that hypothetically happened in the Huntsville community and reacted in their assigned role.
The activity challenged a leader’s ability to make decisions on the spot. They were asked to create a plan of action to present and discuss their decisions before important “community leaders.” Doing their presentations during their critical decision briefing, department heads—including Huntsville Mayor Mac Woodward and other university and community leaders—were allowed to question their decisions.

“I got to be the ‘city manager’ for our emergency incident,” said assistant budget director for TDCJ Jennifer Gonzales. “Our community learned a lot and built a lot of relationships with the Sam Houston point of contact and all the different entities that are involved.

“I think it is an excellent experience. It was challenging just making sure to stay calm and in control,” she said. “Being aware of the communication and information that we were gathering and depending on those key individuals to get that key information to present to the mayor at the briefing, that was a challenge as well.”

The key to the exercise was that critical incidents generate chaotic moments where we learn about ourselves as leaders, according to Yebra.

“It was powerful to see our participants stepping out of their comfort zone, taking risks, and practicing leadership in an attempt to bring order to the chaos,” he said.

In its exploration of organizational culture and the challenges associated with implementing change, the leadership academy spent time with Randy Stewart, president at Amegy Mortgage Bank in The Woodlands. The scenario for the experience was derived from Stewart’s personal experiences in implementing change and allowed participants to see how leaders exist at every level of the organization and the key role they play in the development of the culture and their role in implementing change, Yebra said.

Finally, Yebra lead the participants in lessons about decision making and sustaining the organization through those decisions and wrapped up with a review of the topics they had covered for the last nine months.

During this phase, the participants we able to share ideas about executive decision making with Alberto Gonzales, who shared his perspective on decision making from his time in the White House advising the President George W. Bush. They were also able to experience a corporate-level decision making exercise led by SHSU President Emeritus Jim Gaertner.

“I have been humbled and grateful for the willingness of leaders in all these organizations to dedicate time to help us and to talk to us,” Miller said. “It is time that is precious and they have a lot of responsibility so to take time to dedicate to helping us develop is really generous.”

“I think the lesson plans Yebra has put before us have been very beneficial. The team building, (exercises in) understanding leadership in the roles of the leader, and getting different books about leaders, not only in our nation but around the world, put a different view in my mind of what I need to do better and that I need to understand my weakness to become a better leader,” Guerrero said.

Aside from the once-a-month, group experiences, participants had other responsibilities. At the start of the program, they were required to read a book called “True North,” which defines leadership as someone who leaves a job with positive influence on how they treated people and problems other than bringing in the big cash flow, according to the book description.

To help the process and reflect on each experience and reading Yebra required each participant to journal and pair up with a coach who met with them periodically throughout the program.

“It has been interesting to learn from my coach and being able to apply that to myself,” Jennifer Gonzales said. “Obviously, I won’t be the exact same leader he is, having a different story than I do, but to understand that pivotal point is what will make you be that leader in the crisis situation if it arises.”

"Rather than simply focusing on how to move to the front or head of a division, the Leadership Academy teaches its participants to lead from any position they hold within an organization,” said Todd Kercheval, who served as a mentor for the academy.

As the academy prepares for its second cohort, Yebra said he expects the program to continue to evolve “with the group dynamics, using their experiences, strengths, weaknesses and ideas to build each phase of the program.”

The deadline for SHSU employees to apply for the second cohort is June 1 through the Office of the President. Participants from external organizations will be identified by July 1.

For more information about the program and the nomination process, visit shsu.edu/dept/leadership.




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