How to Stem the Retirement Tsunami and Build Organizational Leadership Capacity

ARTICLE | Aug 25, 2014

Albemarle County’s Innovative Leadership Institute

Like many other local governments, Albemarle County is anticipating a “retirement tsunami” in the near future and is looking at the potential loss of long-time senior leadership and significant institutional knowledge. At the same time, particularly difficult budget times have required our employees to think and act more innovatively than ever, develop a stronger sense of “ownership of the whole” rather than working in departmental silos, and to embrace best practices and use of performance indicators. Creating the “Innovative Leaders Institute” (ILI) allowed our organization to stay focused on our values of innovation and learning at a time when funding for professional development has been very limited. It also provided structure and support to build organizational leadership capacity and retain high-potential employees, position the organization as forward looking and focused on excellence as we respond to our new budget reality, and support SPQA and high-performing organization values.

Staff from the County Executive’s Office and Human Resources collaboratively developed the ILI by assessing our own organizational culture and needs, talking with senior leaders, and drawing from best practices of similar local government programs. The ILI required no additional staffing and only modest funding (less than $500 annually for supplies such as books and a few lunches). The program required no private consultants. We kept costs to a minimum by relying on in-house expertise to develop and deliver the curriculum components. We believe that our model can be easily replicated by other local governments.

To date, three cohorts have gone through the ILI program: in 2011 (15 participants), 2012 (18 participants), and 2014 (19 participants). To recruit these participants, we asked department heads to nominate an employee from each of our 14 local government departments, allowing two nominees from our three largest departments. We asked departments to target high-performing employees with a track record of embracing innovation as well as demonstrated leadership potential. Selected participants represented folks ranging from management analyst up to and including assistant directors.

ILI has two components: classroom work and outside work.

Classroom Work

ILI participants met six times (once a month, over a 6-month period) for 2-hr long sessions, which were moderated by CEO/HR staff. The fluid curriculum changed based on participant feedback as well as organizational priorities. Topics past and present include broad leadership themes (such as innovation, performance measurement, benchmarking, change management, and presentation skills) as well as organizational issues (such as understanding the County’s budget process, the role of the County’s elected officials, and inter-governmental relationships). Mixing both theory and practice, participants examined these themes both through discussion of assigned reading and by listening to senior leaders in the organizational speak on their experience with the topic. The classroom sessions also included a local current events pop quiz and designated networking time—both served to nudge participants out of departmental silos into the knowledge- and relationship-building that is key to an organization committed to excellence.

Outside Work

The outside work consisted of the following components:

1) Shadowing assignments 

We required participants to shadow (for a minimum of four hours each) a fellow ILI participant and also someone external to the County. The internal shadowing assignment is determined by CEO/HR staff, and is designed to give participants the opportunity to spend some time in another department. The external match is up to the participant—we’ve had participants shadow folks from neighboring jurisdictions, from our own School division, from state government, and from private-sector partners. We encourage them to shadow someone from whom they can learn something meaningful.

2) Required reading

Participants are required to read a book and several articles over the course of the ILI.

3) Attendance at a Board of Supervisors meeting

A majority of our employees have never attended a meeting of our elected officials—this requirement gives our ILI folks exposure to the realm of elected officials and their decision-making functions to develop a broader organizational perspective.

4) Capstone/research project

This offers participants a hands-on leadership opportunity on an important organizational issue.

As we developed ILI, we found a wealth of information in the Alliance of Innovation’s Knowledge Network that gave us ideas contributing towards the program’s final unique design, as well as linking us to like-minded communities. We also required all ILI participants to participate in the Knowledge Network as a way to expose them to this great resource for their own work.

From almost all accounts, the ILI was deemed a great success. As one way to assess the impact of the ILI program, we asked participants and their respective managers to complete pre- and post-ILI assessment surveys. Those survey results quantitatively suggested that as a result of the ILI, participants are now better able to understand significant organizational issues facing other departments, to understand how other departments proactively engage County citizens, to understand how the County’s budget is developed, to look for best practices related to work on a regular basis and to feel comfortable presenting an idea or innovative initiative to upper management.

Other feedback from ILI participants:

  • “I really enjoyed the peer shadowing…it opened up a dialog in how we can work together as departments in delivering great services to customers.”
  • “I have never really thought of myself as a leader, so this experience has made me look at myself differently.”
  • “I feel like I could collaborate with leaders from other departments whereas before I would not have known why or how to go about doing so.”
  • “I have learned to be much more open minded, especially to new ideas and concepts. As a long-term employee, you sometimes get comfortable and set in your ways, because you rely on your experiences.”
  • “I am able to explain how and why the County government as a whole operates to those I work with and supervise. I have stopped being overly critical of why and how the County operates. I feel that there are still improvements to be made throughout the County, but I now know of ways that I can be more effective in addressing ideas from my position.”
  • "I have met more County employees and learned about their job descriptions than the entire time I have been employed with the County. Learning about strategic planning has also been valuable.”

Certainly the program faced challenges. At a time when our workforce was down by almost 10%, it was challenging to ask participants to make such a sizeable time commitment. To mitigate this challenge as much as possible, we made sure we had early buy-in and support from department heads and managers to give employees the necessary time to participate in the program. Also, it was sometimes difficult for public safety employees to participate due to shift work schedules—program organizers attempted to consider those challenges as much as possible when scheduling events.

We believe this relatively low-cost, in-house program has served as a foundation for our organization’s cultural shift towards innovation. For example, the success of ILI also helped make the case for the creation of the County’s Innovation Fund in FY14, which is a designated pool of money set aside for employee-submitted innovative ideas to improve service delivery and/or lead to cost-savings. We now don’t just talk about innovation, but actually put money where our mouth is. By now having almost 60 employees serving as innovation champions in their respective work roles, we believe the ILI has significantly strengthened our organization, ultimately leading to more efficient and effective delivery of services to our community.

As with most endeavors of this nature, it is critical to keep this momentum going. To do this, we started an alumni group in 2011 that meets on a regular basis. For example, the group has met to get an “insider’s scoop” on the current budget process as well as holding a networking “mashup” with emerging leaders from the nearby City of Charlottesville to discuss fostering regional innovation. As another way to encourage relationships and knowledge-sharing between ILI cohorts, we regularly invite ILI alumni to present to current ILI participants. Most recently during the 2014 ILI session, we organized an informal “leadership lunch” that invited ILI participants (past and present) to talk in small groups with department heads about the concept of “leadership at all levels.” That almost every single department head voluntarily chose to attend this event is evidence of the support that this program enjoys from the organization’s senior leaders.

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