New Leadership Program Proves Valuable
Question: What do you get when you put 19 members of WPI’s faculty and staff together in a room for four hours, mix in guest speakers, thought-provoking questions, and honest discussions, and then repeat weekly for six weeks?
Answer: Learning, growth, a blossoming sense of community, and deepening leadership skills.
The Division of Talent and Inclusion tested this recipe, which they’ve named the Leadership Academy, this spring through a pilot program with a cohort of faculty and staff from across the university. Participants were nominated by leadership across campus and represented a diverse mix of longtime WPI faculty and staff who have shown interest in growing into larger roles as well as relatively new hires who have already stood out among their peers.
“This is a group of highly regarded, high-potential leaders who WPI wants to invest in,” says Lauren Turner, senior vice president of talent and inclusion and chief diversity officer. “The Leadership Academy is a new vehicle through which WPI is offering our community’s current and future leaders some valuable resources and tools to grow as professionals and as people.”
James De León, director of employee learning, engagement, and development, organized the leadership program, which featured topics as varied as how to incorporate emotional intelligence into leadership practices; financial literacy; and uncovering one’s own biases. Presenters included members of WPI’s administration, staff, and faculty, as well as distinguished guest speakers from Northeastern University, Boston University, and Brown University. Upon completion of the six-week program, each participant received a certificate in leadership development.
For many of the participants, the fact that faculty and staff went through the learning sessions side by side proved a profound and unexpected source of insight and inspiration.
“This experience opened my eyes beyond my role as a professor to really see what it takes to run this university,” says Jianyu Liang, professor in the Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department. And even though Liang has been at WPI for 19 years, the Leadership Academy sessions “helped me develop a deeper understanding of what WPI values,” such as ensuring that members of the campus community value diverse perspectives, thrive in their jobs, and know how to effectively have difficult conversations with colleagues.
Debra Boucher, assistant dean of undergraduate studies, points out that participating in the Leadership Academy was both a valuable learning opportunity and a refreshing way to mark the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. “The last few years have been so disruptive, but this feels a little like jump-starting the process of starting over,” Boucher says, noting that she really appreciates the practical skills she gained during the sessions.
Echoing that sentiment is Kathleen Head, the new director of WPI’s Global Experience Office, who notes that shortly after the session on managing difficult conversations, she found herself heading into what she knew would be a challenging discussion with a parent of a student. Thanks to what she had recently learned during the Leadership Academy, she felt prepared to ease slowly into the charged topic, which ultimately helped the interaction go more smoothly.
When Turner first described her idea for the pilot program last fall, university leadership immediately understood the benefit of this type of long-term thinking, planning, and investing—for both the WPI community and the individuals who comprise it.
“Investing in employee development is critical to our future and, specifically, this type of leadership development program is critical to building our leadership capacity across academic and administrative divisions,” Turner notes.
Jean King, WPI Peterson Family Dean in the School of Arts and Sciences, was one of those on the Management Council who nominated program participants. “Leadership is something we all can get better at,” King says. “This program is designed to show us all the importance of staying engaged to go beyond. There’s always a beyond.”
That’s a big part of why De León built a mentoring component into the program, with members of the Management Council serving as mentors to the Leadership Academy participants. “We wanted to ensure that this was not just a one-way street,” he says. “Our hope is that this is also a rewarding experience for the mentors, one that expands their skillset, reinforces their knowledge, and provides them with fulfillment by helping others.”
Given the success of this year’s pilot, De León is already planning for the next iteration of the Leadership Academy, which will run in fall 2024. He will spend the 2023–24 academic year reviewing the feedback from this year’s participants and revising the program. The Management Council will call for nominations to the next cohort in spring 2024.
2023 Leadership Academy Graduates
Debra Boucher, assistant dean of undergraduate studies
Hilary Clark, assistant vice president of talent operations
Shawn Copeland, assistant director of residential education
Christina DeVries, executive director of advancement services
Lynne Feraco, assistant vice president of gift planning
Jillian Ferguson, director of marketing
Kathleen Head, director of the Global Experience Office
Adam Heppe, director of facilities operations
Robert Krueger, department head and professor of social science and policy studies
Amanda Laungani, director of the Career Development Center
Eliza Laurent, executive director of enrollment strategy and analytics