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May 2015

Cultivating the next crop of organizational leaders

Illustration by Adam Niklewicz

As a business term, “leadership” gets thrown around so frequently that it’s almost in danger of becoming jargon. But even as a buzzword, there’s a deeper meaning—and definitely a stronger purpose—that should be recognized, believes Mark Lowe, director of the Motor Vehicle Division for the Iowa Department of Transportation and AAMVA Chair of the Board.

“Simply put, leadership is key for any organization, because it creates alignment and common purpose,” he says, adding that people often mistake leadership as a top-down, pyramid-type of structure in which the boss or CEO supplies leadership in any group, and all leadership decisions are up to that person.

But that idea misses the mark, says Lowe. “To think that way will shortchange an organization, because leadership is really defined as many people functioning effectively within their spheres of influence. Everyone is a leader, and that drives change and excellence.”

He adds that bringing these insights into motor vehicle agencies can strengthen engagement throughout a staff, and also set up multi-generational levels of leadership and succession.

Putting Leadership in the Mix

When implementing leadership training, it’s important to emphasize specific skills that can be taught, advises David Delong, president of consulting firm Smart Workforce Strategies. For instance, rather than trying to do a workshop on “communication,” agencies should drill down into skills that impart leadership within that category, such as using communication technologies more effectively to decrease departmental conflicts.

Identifying which types of skills are needed at a certain agency is a good start toward building an effective leadership-training program. At the Texas Department of Public Safety, for example, a change in organizational structure in 2009 created a number of newly appointed supervisors, assistant managers and regional managers who hadn’t been trained in leadership, says JoeAnna Mastracchio, deputy assistant director in the department’s Driver License Division.

The department created the Texas DL Leadership Academy and decided to put its initial focus on customer service and train the entire workforce rather than only the supervisors. Mastracchio says there were many challenges to overcome, including budget resources, scheduling and curriculum development. But fortunately, a high level of buy-in from the agency’s executive director was incredibly helpful.

Now, the academy is four weeks long, with a focus on leadership-themed modules like managing data, earning respect and determining temperament styles. Over 200 people have gone through the courses, and the results are notable, adds Paul Watkins, another deputy assistant director in the Driver License Division. He says that the median wait time in driver license agencies has been reduced by 60 percent across the state, and customer satisfaction levels have increased by huge percentages.

“This has changed the culture of the division, from process-focused to customer-focused,” Watkins says. “We consider it a major success.”

Focus on Millennials

Training is particularly important right now as agencies are managing multi-generational workforces, often with baby boomers and millennials as the “barbells” that make up the majority of employees.

With the millennials coming in quickly, leadership skills need to change to appeal to their interests and strengths, says Delong. For instance, innovation and technology are more likely to be emphasized as ways to improve customer service, make better use of organizational resources and reduce budgets.

“There is tremendous need to invest in millennials for leadership,” Delong notes. “With low unemployment rates, every agency will be facing increased competition from the private sector and nonprofits. Proving that you have a commitment to leadership training is a way to attract much-needed millennials to fill your positions and groom them as long-term leaders.”

With millennials, there tends to be more focus on clarifying the importance of their jobs, because that generation puts great stock in careers that have meaning rather than security. They often require more feedback as well, which can be difficult for Gen X and boomer managers, Delong says.

But despite those differences, the irony is that millennials and boomers have a great deal in common. “Both these generations want a sense of purpose, flexible work schedules and a show of respect,” Delong adds. Drawing on these similarities should help agencies to set up more mentorship between the generations, he advises. This not only builds skills for millennials, but also softens any potential conflict that may crop up because of generation-based misunderstandings.

Succession Planning

A stronger focus on mentorship within an agency provides more than skill-sharing and leadership opportunities; it also helps to set the stage for the next generation of managers and directors. Succession planning is crucial for creating seamless leadership as people retire or leave for other positions, says Joe Cook, director of Government Relations at U-Haul.

Cook experienced the benefits of succession planning firsthand when his superior, Pat Crahan, celebrated 52 years with the company, most recently as vice president of Government Relations. Although at that point Crahan didn’t plan to retire for four years, he knew the transition needed to go smoothly and chose Cook as his successor.

Having worked for U-Haul since 1996, Cook was familiar with multiple facets of the company’s operations, which would prove to be helpful for a shift into government relations. But what he didn’t know were all of the network contacts within that role, as well as specific laws and regulations related to the transportation industry.

Because part of the job involves a fair amount of travel to association meetings, Cook and Crahan became an inseparable pair, with Crahan making crucial introductions and giving Cook insight into the mission of each association, as well as major challenges they were facing. When Crahan stepped aside in 2014, Cook took on the role easily, thanks to years of preparation for the succession.

“Pat’s leadership and his generosity with knowledge of our company and industry have made all the difference,” Cook says. “Also, the endorsement he has given me to his wide network of friends and colleagues has been invaluable. I’m looking forward to continuing the great work he’s done.”

As the transition at U-Haul demonstrates, succession planning is often a years-long process, but it can pay off handsomely. Delong points out that many positions in motor vehicle agencies are complex, and there’s tremendous learning that needs to happen to do them well. If a transition is too abrupt, or no successor has been groomed for the role, the result can be costly, both in terms of operational slowdowns and leadership gaps. “Thoughtful mentoring and succession planning are necessary so you don’t have a jarring change that could affect your whole agency,” Delong says.

Bringing Efforts Together

Putting more training and succession plans into place takes time, energy and buy-in from senior leadership, and budgets usually need to be tweaked for additional resources like consulting help or training materials. But by developing more leadership programs and providing succession-planning options, an agency will be in a much better position to create a staff that’s energized and committed, Lowe says.

“With efforts like these, we’re telling people that they’re worth the investment, and that can do wonders for any workplace,” he notes. “People who feel valued tend to be charged up and engaged. When you emphasize leadership throughout an organization, and develop good succession plans, those efforts can make a big difference.”