Leadership education

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Various training programs help New North employers groom management to handle more complex challenges

Story by Sean Fitzgerald, New North B2B publisher

It’s one stress out of a business owner’s life to find dedicated employees who come to work on time each day, fulfill their job responsibilities, and routinely contribute to the overall mission of the company without issue.

But it’s even more rare to find that same dedicated employee who could also step in and run the company with much the same vision and passion as the owner if that person were suddenly gone due to an unforeseen illness or injury, or even unexpected death.

Growing companies in northeast Wisconsin increasingly recognize the recipe to continued success doesn’t only include access to capital, a healthy workforce supply, regular demand from the marketplace and a healthy attitude favoring innovation and change. The recipe isn’t complete without an evolving crop of leaders within the ranks of company management who can break out of their day-to-day responsibilities, grab the proverbial bull by its horns, and help lead the organization with much of the same vision and style of execution as the owner would.

“Owners have an important need to have people step up,” said Alan Patterson, president of the Fond du Lac-based professional training and coaching firm Mentore and one of the collaborators who helped found the STRAT program through Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac.

STRAT is just one of a number of programs across the New North region designed as solutions for employers to further develop the leadership talent within their organization. While some programs are focused on helping a recently promoted skilled laborer from the shop floor learn the finer points of supervising co-workers who were previously peers, many of these other programs are geared toward those employees already providing leadership through a management or director-level role, but perhaps need additional guidance to help them someday handle the more complex responsibilities of a vice president or general manager position.

A succession plan in place

Moraine Park’s STRAT program is just getting started with its third session, having rolled out its inaugural class of about ten participants in 2011. The intensive 9-month program was designed to provide employers with succession solutions for executive-level management roles within their organization, said Jo Ann Hall, dean of economic and workforce development for Moraine Park.

“This isn’t your standard leadership development program,” noted Hall, who said STRAT is intended to train leaders to become strategic thinkers within their organization, linking strategy and execution to achieve measureable results.

The name of the program itself is taken from the terms strategy, alignment and talent – all focal points of Patterson’s training methodology. A Ph.D.-educated trainer and business strategy consultant, Patterson’s list of clients includes Fortune 500 firms as well as small to mid-size companies across the country.

The program involves regular sessions where participants come together as a class – representing second-tier management from area manufacturers, retailers, health care providers, insurance firms and educational institutions, among others. It also involves one-on-one coaching between class sessions from experienced business leaders in the region. Each participant also develops a project for their employers of which they ultimately need to execute and provide measureable outcomes.

Patterson emphasized the employer sponsoring a manager to participate in STRAT needs to have an understanding and sound belief in staff development and its ability to help define its strategy.

STRAT helped challenge Keith Johnson to further reflect on his own leadership style, as well as that of others he’d worked for in the past. After nearly four years at Kondex Corp. in Lomira as its manager of product engineering, Johnson was promoted in 2012 to vice president of business development and product engineering for the designer and manufacturer of specialty cutting implements for the agricultural industry. He said the program helped him broaden his perspective of Kondex, which has grown substantially in just the past few years.

“For any growing company, building that ‘bench’ of skilled leaders for succession planning is critical as we grow to the next stage,” Johnson said.

Having spent his entire career in a manufacturing environment, Johnson said he took particular delight in going through the program with peers from unrelated industries, in which he discovered many of the issues associated with leading a large organization forward – whether it be financing, finding a sufficient amount of qualified employees or complying with government regulations – are common across all sectors.

Additionally, Johnson found it valuable to meet and network with CEOs from other companies, as well as meeting economic development and government leaders from the area.

“Being connected in the community is a big part of leading a growing company,” Johnson said.

In fact, after two years and two complete sessions, Patterson indicated the networking component of the STRAT program – not initially considered critical to the program – has emerged as one of the more valued aspects of the curriculum. He said greater emphasis is being placed on teaching participants to recognize the value of connecting to the right person within an organization.

Results shared by the more than 20 graduates of the program during its first two years are encouraging, both for the participants’ careers as well as for their employers. A total of 92 percent of STRAT participants reported they increased their level of visibility and credibility throughout their organizations. Prior to enrolling in STRAT, fewer than 10 percent of participants reported having a clear sense of how to measurably impact their leadership performance on the job – at the completion of the program, more than 90 percent were able to do so.

Participation in STRAT is an investment for an employer – tuition costs about $5,000 for the nine months of intensive training. Hall emphasizes STRAT isn’t a ‘fix-it’ program for an organization who is having difficulties with the skills of its management. There are other training programs available – both through Moraine Park and elsewhere – to help address such concerns within a company.

Grooming leaders in Green Bay

While the STRAT program is currently offered only through Moraine Park’s service district in Fond du Lac, Washington and Dodge counties, Hall said she hopes to eventually attract more participation from employers up into Oshkosh and the Fox Cities.

Other leadership development programs do exist, though the structure of each varies from program to program, and each varies in its experience and length of service to local employers.

One such program just settling in to the starting blocks in the Green Bay area is the Leadership Excellence course through the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Small Business Development Center. The six-month-long program is designed to enhance the leadership skills of those managers and executives “who have influence on the business owner,” described Ryan Kauth, director of the SBDC office at UW Green Bay.

Kauth is still recruiting participants for its inaugural session, which will kick off later this spring. The program includes a half-day morning session with all of the class participants once each month for half of a year. The class sessions are designed to educate leaders on relevant organizational development principles and practices, and will focus on various leadership topics such as culture, performance management, organizational purpose and leadership legacy. It also has an online component to engage participants in between class sessions. The program is being delivered in conjunction with Inspired Training Institute, a Green Bay-based leadership coaching and consulting firm.

“It’s more of an executive coaching program,” Kauth said, noting it’s designed for executive management in a “larger-sized small business,” though participants enrolled for its first upcoming session represent companies of various sizes.

Similar to the STRAT program, class participants come from a variety of different industries, including health care, service and the financial sector. That’s by design, Kauth indicated, allowing those enrolled to recognize the similarity of issues that exist within organizations in non-parallel industry sectors.

The Leadership Excellence program was created to prepare participants to deal with “the uncomfortable stuff” that the business owner often has to handle, Kauth said. He noted business owners – particularly in small operations they started themselves – don’t have the time and often don’t know how to go about starting any genuine succession planning for themselves or other key positions within the company. As a result, the Leadership Excellence program also includes a project-based component.

“The six sessions blend together so that they have this holistic approach to developing and executing a project for their organization,” he said.

The cost for employers to send a participant through Leadership Excellence is $1,495. A few spaces remain for its upcoming six-month program, and Kauth said he welcomes inquiries to provide more information by contacting him at 920.496.2112 or emailing kauthr@uwgb.edu.

A new approach to an MBA

The more classically academic approach to leadership development through a master’s in business administration degree is taking a new approach through an upcoming executive MBA program at UW Oshkosh which will be the first-of-its-kind in northeast Wisconsin.

Starting this coming September with an expected class size of about 25 students, this accelerated 16-month program meets only on Saturdays and is geared toward the working professional who’s already a bit seasoned in their career. Participants are required to have a minimum of eight years of professional experience and at least five years of management experience, indicated Kathy Hagens, MBA program director for UW Oshkosh’s College of Business.

That’s by design. Class discussions are intended to be more practical than theoretical, with students drawing upon their professional experience to discuss and understand the management principles they’ll be learning. The curriculum is also designed to provide a stronger emphasis on leadership than the more traditional MBA program offered through the school, Hagens said, as well as studies in change management and strategy development, among other areas of running an organization.

“Students will learn to develop and deploy business strategies and grow revenues within their organization,” Hagens said of the program’s outcomes. “They’ll learn to think strategically, assess risk, and identify alternative solutions to problems that arise.”

Students enrolled in this first executive MBA class will go through the program as a cohort, with graduation planned for December 2014. Subsequent eMBA classes will begin the program anew each September, Hagens said.

Holistic leadership

Marian University’s master’s degree in organization leadership and quality was built more than 20 years ago on the principles and criteria of the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, though it’s attracted students from a broad spectrum of professional backgrounds. Past students entering the program have included physicians, vice presidents of industry, law enforcement executives and even one student who already achieved a doctoral degree in engineering, according to Hank Lindborg, a graduate professor at Marian who developed the program back in 1992 and has since been involved with its delivery.

The master’s program is designed for working business professionals to lead and manage organizations in an increasingly complex global environment, though Lindborg emphasizes the unique approach to ethical and social responsibility, teamwork and quality is the attraction for many of the participants looking to enhance their leadership focus.

“This gives a holistic view of what leaders do to improve organizations and make them successful,” he said.

The accelerated program is set up as a cohort in which students move through the two-year program together as a group. The program is available at both Marian’s main Fond du Lac and Appleton campuses, as well as through its Milwaukee area location. It consists of 12 courses, each course meeting one night a week for seven weeks.

Lindborg said each class collaborates to manage two or three team-based projects – consistent with the Baldrige Award principles – all of which support nonprofit efforts in a variety of communities across eastern Wisconsin.