Leading from where they stand

By Abigail Stonerock

Faculty and staff in Virginia grow their leadership skills through an immersive, system-sponsored academy.

They arrived at the system office not quite sure what to expect. Before arriving, they had been required to read leadership articles from Harvard Business Review, review strategic planning documents from the American Association of Community Colleges and the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), and complete self-assessments. As they took their seats, you could hear whispers, “Are you ready for this?” followed by friendly but nervous laughter.

“We had heard that, since the Office of Professional Development redesigned this course, we needed to arrive rested and ready. The four days were going to be exhausting.  Little did I know, they were also going to be life changing!” said Dixie Dalton, dean of humanities, social sciences and business at Southside Virginia Community College.

The Chancellor’s Faculty and Administrators Leadership Academy is an intense, immersive four-day leadership development course designed for rising VCCS leaders seeking positions of greater responsibility. Attendees are nominated by their president.  It’s a significant investment in time and talent.  The course is constantly updated for currency, and reflects best practices in leadership development benchmarked from some of the world’s most respected programs, including UPS, McDonalds, USAA, Proctor and Gamble, Harvard, West Point and more. Among those best practices: setting expectations, recruiting the right faculty and delivering a “stretch course.”

“When we were told to turn cell phones off and dial in to the course, the content, the context and our colleagues, I thought, ‘no way.’ It was the best thing that could have happened,” said Jerry Stinson II, program director for the Administration of Justice program at Southwest Virginia Community College. “Suddenly, we were all present for each other, a true community of learners and leaders.”

With a strong undercurrent and an overt challenge to every graduate to lead from where they stand, this course proves that leadership is about action, not position.

The rigorous curriculum includes courses on fundraising, legislative affairs, power and persuasion, transformational leadership, networking activities with system office leaders, leading difficult change, student success, crisis communication and executive leadership.  Bringing the curriculum alive were a faculty including the VCCS chancellor, three state board members, eight presidents, five vice chancellors/assistant vice chancellors, seven vice presidents, 11 directors, and key managers, system counsel, and CEOs.

“The executive leadership panel was the last day of the course, right before lunch. I expected people to be tired and ready to go home.  Boy was I mistaken!” said state board member Robin Sullenberger. “I have never seen such energy, excitement and engagement in the final hours of a class.  It was fantastic.”

With a renewed focus on the community college mission, this course is a stark reminder that great leaders don’t set out to be leaders, they set out to make a difference. As participants stepped forward to receive their certificates, a book was slipped into the palm of their hands:  Start with Why, by Simon Sinek, from the Chancellor’s Professional Reading List.

“We were challenged from the start to ask why, and to begin with the end in mind.  So today isn’t really an ending, but a new beginning,” said Mimi Getachew, a counselor at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. “Likewise, this certificate is less a reward, and more a commitment to continuous learning, to each other, and to advancing the institution to the best of each of our abilities.”

Does your college or system have a leadership program? Talk about it on LinkedIn.

Abigail Stonerock

Dr. Abigail Stonerock serves as director of faculty development and professor for the Virginia Community College System (VCCS).