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Why Leadership Development is Critical in Higher Ed

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Founded over 150 years ago, Davenport University is based in Michigan. It is home to 7,000 students spread across ten campuses throughout the state, including a significant online presence as part of its global campus. Davenport’s Office of Performance Excellence currently has just six employees serving over 600 full- or part-time faculty and staff, plus 600 adjunct faculty.

Lessons learned from Davenport University

In 2016, Lynda Cribari, executive director of performance excellence, and John Niedzielski, director of learning design and strategy, noticed a downward trend in Davenport’s employee satisfaction numbers. This trend also came when enrollment numbers across the US higher education sector increased competition and pressures to reduce costs.

In response to these trends, these administrators set an ambitious goal to cultivate creative, engaged, and impactful leaders within their institution across three key business drivers:

  • Employee engagement
  • Succession planning
  • Employee recruitment

The challenge was to achieve these goals in a budget-neutral manner while maintaining Davenport’s high levels of quality education and student service. Their solution was EmpowerU, powered by Cornerstone Learning and Cornerstone Connect.

Participants in the leadership program reported a 23% to 33% increase in their leadership knowledge during the 2016–17 academic year.

Nurturing rising leaders

With the help of Cornerstone, Davenport designed a custom leadership development track for its employees: A nine-month program with 60 hours of in-seat curriculum and real-world collaborative projects focused specifically on understanding Davenport’s financial model. Staff and faculty members are encouraged throughout the program to consider how their new skills can support Davenport through the entire student lifecycle, from move-in to graduation.

Prior to implementing Cornerstone, Davenport’s leadership training was organized by sharing various bits of learning-oriented content via email. This system created a rather chaotic and disjointed learning experience for all involved. Davenport soon leveraged the Cornerstone Connect community to develop unique learning cohorts around critical issues like “What it takes to recruit the right talent for Davenport” and “How to plan for the next generation of leaders.”

However, the true value of EmpowerU has been the flexibility and connectedness of the leadership training module. Because Davenport runs a multi-campus university, its employees needed a way to learn and collaborate anywhere with ease. Cornerstone allows them to do just that while giving employees a space to share comments, personal stories, and best practices with each other.

How Davenport University is driving measurable results

Davenport has achieved some impressive results by putting employee engagement and leadership into focus via EmpowerU. For starters, the university grew its overall employee satisfaction score from 3.65 (weighted out of 5) in the 2016–17 academic year to 3.74 and 3.79, respectively, in the following two academic years. Participants in the leadership program also reported a 23% to 33% increase in their leadership knowledge during the same periods.

Davenport also has its leadership training underscore the value of diversity, define inclusion as a core value, and set specific behavioral expectations for all employees. The university’s senior leaders, including the president and members of the Board of Trustees, have become actively involved in mentoring high performers’ leadership skills. These initiatives helped Davenport receive several workplace awards, including the 2019–20 Association for Talent Development Excellence in Practice Award.

Davenport achieved these improvements and awards by focusing on leadership development, ongoing recognition, in-house training, and mentoring and coaching, to name a few.

Leadership development requires the right tools and techniques

Davenport University is a perfect example of making leadership development a priority. When academic institutions can deepen their pool of future leadership talent, empower faculty and staff members to take charge of their career progression, and double down on their commitments to diversity and inclusion, they can achieve more than ever before.

Ongoing faculty and staff recognition

Just like recognizing academic staff and faculty for their research contributions, it’s equally important to recognize them for their leadership skills. This recognition can be as simple as creating new awards to making internal leadership more visible, or simply involving your top performers to share their experiences and best practices during training sessions.

Tailored in-house training

Leadership training isn't one-size-fits-all. It needs to align with your institution’s culture, goals, values, and future strategies. How Davenport tailored their Leadership program to address its specific leadership needs via EmpowerU led directly to their success.

Mentoring and coaching rising talent

One of your greatest assets in leadership development stems directly from your existing leaders. Seek out ways to pair senior leaders with junior faculty or staff members, giving them new opportunities to learn from each other. This meetup can either be structured or informal, like a monthly coffee catch-up (virtual or in-person). The idea here is simple: Tap into your existing leaders to groom your future leaders and rising stars.

Great leadership can steer the ship in the right direction

Higher education institutions need to spend an abundance of time and effort on recognizing and nurturing the leadership potential within their faculty and staff. Aside from being a solid succession planning strategy, it’s also a great way to create cohesion and collaboration across teams — even when separated at different campuses.

The time is now to harness your faculty and staff’s leadership potential. It’s a smart way to boost engagement, satisfaction, and happiness among employees, and it’s simply a better way for your organization to continue growing and driving a positive impact to all stakeholders — especially students — for years to come.

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