Leader’s Challenge in Arlington County, VA

ARTICLE | Feb 29, 2012

The Leader’s Challenge program in Arlington County Government was created in 2008 to address succession planning concerns at senior levels of the organization. At that time it was determined that a significant percentage of senior managers were going to be retiring, and the County was concerned where the next level of leaders was going to come from.  It was from this concern that Leader’s Challenge was developed. The program was created as a fast track program to train high potential employees to take on senior management level jobs.  “High potential” employees are identified using the Corporate Executive Board definition - someone with the ability, engagement, and aspiration to rise to and succeed in more senior, critical positions. 

The primary goal of the Leader’s Challenge Program is to increase the number of leaders ready to compete for promotional positions as a significant number of retirements in leadership are anticipated in the next three to five years.  Secondly, the County is seeking to develop leaders who can work effectively in cross-functional teams on complex problems that require cross-departmental solutions and cooperation.  In the program these teams are created and they use action learning techniques to develop innovative solutions to complex County issues. The teams are sponsored by senior leaders of the organization, where they are exposed to the leadership of the organization and vice versa.  The third goal is to develop self-aware, resilient leaders who understand that a critical aspect of leadership is a journey of self-discovery, managing energy and personal engagement. 

The overriding intention of Leader’s Challenge is to fast forward the development of high potential staff at all levels of the organization, providing them with the opportunity to grow and develop as leaders in Arlington County. 

Leader’s Challenge was wholly developed by Arlington County’s Training and Organizational Development staff, making it a unique and innovative program among other leadership development programs.  This “custom built” solution allowed the County to design a program that addressed the County’s unique needs. 

County staff knew that there will always be a place for the “expert culture”- the particular knowledge of different departments, but increasingly the solutions of today involve collaboration across domains of expertise.  An effective leader needs to be able to understand where these new frontiers are and work to influence and communicate with people across departments and areas of skill.  They will interact and collaborate with many different people throughout their day and need to be willing to listen and hear from others in order to drive innovation in the products and services that will build this community into the future.  An important aspect of this program is teaching leaders to think and produce products across the organization as a whole.

The design of the program was created to give the participants an idea of what this was like - cross functional teams, collaboration, etc.  There are four main capability building components:

  • Classroom-Based Instruction – “Self as Leader ,” “Team Development” and “Change Management”
  • Participation in an Action Learning Project, as established by the County Manager’s  Office and Executive Leadership Team  
  • Individual Executive Coaching
  • Commitment to healthy work-life balance practices

Combining the classroom-based development with individual coaching is often the norm in leadership development programs today. However, the action learning teams, comprised of individuals working on problems outside of their normal domains, is innovative and has proven effective in driving new solutions to critical problems. This approach also hones participants’ listening, communication and problem-solving skills—making them even more effective leaders.

The first thing that potential leaders do in the program is to gain understanding of what they are there to accomplish.  The group will work through “Self as Leader”- exercises that help the employee to understand what they are there to do, to help them connect into their purpose and passion for their work, determine the impact they want to have and discover what their “offer” is to the community.  This is done because once employees have had the chance to get clear on these factors, they feel differently about what they do every day.  When things get tough they know how to re-inspire themselves about their work.  Additionally, it helps employees to remember why they do what they do and supports a renewed energy for their work in local government.  Connecting the employee comes from the Training and OD team’s background in executive coaching and desire to bring that to group learning opportunities and leadership development. 

Action learning is one of the processes used in this program.  It is a problem-solving process where teams and the problem owner create a solution together.  This is done through the power of questions, which allows different viewpoints to come together and create a well-rounded perspective of the problem and helps the group reach a more holistic solution. Action learning also values that different backgrounds and thought processes come together to create better solutions for the organization.  During these sessions participants are also practicing leadership skills and gaining feedback from their peers on how they are doing in that particular area.   

Investing the time and energy to help leaders to grow and develop is a core value in Arlington and there is a strong commitment to providing opportunities for potential leaders to thrive.  This program has been fully supported by senior management, and that has greatly contributed to the overall success of the initiative.  Leader’s Challenge is innovative because of the type of program it is- - one fully developed by County staff that contains components not usually found in local government leadership development programs, e.g., individual executive coaches, action learning on current County issues, and focus on self-awareness and healthy work-life practices, all supported by senior leadership.  Each year small groups of people in this program have worked on critical issues within the County and created innovative solutions in a real work setting. Some of the issues addressed have been civic engagement, telecommuting and storm water management; the work has continued past the program and is being used and evolved into actual work product that is going to be used across the County. 

The best measure of Leaders Challenge’s success is in the outcomes it has achieved.  After each cohort a number of participants have successfully competed for promotions in the more senior levels of the organization- 45% of the participants had been promoted in the first year after the program.

Arlington County is very proud of the success of this program.  The County is committed to innovation, and Leaders Challenge embraces this by developing and coaching employees so that they grow and develop into the leaders they have the potential to be.

Learn more about Arlington County at http://www.arlingtonva.us/. For more information about Leader's Challenge, please contact Emma Kiendl, Manager Training and Organizational Development, at ekiendl@arlingtonva.us or (703) 228-3469.

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