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Kathryn Johnson

Kathryn Johnson, director of diversity initiatives at the Carlson School, is applying her leadership skills in service to the U's strategic goals.

The key is inside

U looks to enter top ranks by building leadership skills

By Michael Weinbeck

Brief, Sept. 12, 2007

The University of Minnesota is challenging the conventional wisdom that skilled leadership lies solely in the realm of top administrators. By building a strategy to expand staff leadership skills, the U recognizes that its ability to become a top-three research university will hinge on internal resources.

Kathryn Johnson, director of diversity initiatives at the Carlson School of Management, Twin Cities campus, is an example of someone who has gained from U efforts in leadership development. Johnson is a graduate of the President's Emerging Leadership Program and also participated in the Successful Manager's Leadership Program, which is designed to build the leadership acumen of seasoned managers.

"The class really emphasized the things you need to know to engage members of your team," says Johnson. As part of the Successful Manager's Leadership Program, she was given a 360-degree leadership assessment. Her peers and colleagues were asked to fill out an anonymous survey of her skills as a leader. Johnson used the feedback to understand her strengths and weaknesses.

"I learned a lot of things I wouldn't have known otherwise," Johnson says.

In her case, the assessment helped Johnson understand her approach to confrontation. From her anonymous feedback, she began to see that, while she might perceive herself butting heads with a colleague, her colleague might interpret the same situation as a normal, professional interaction.

"I hadn't understood that we were just working it out," says Johnson. "When you're in those circumstances, you don't always have that clarity of thought."

Johnson took away a deeper understanding of how to build a team that complements her own strengths. She also gained tools for engaging team members.

"What people really need is clear communication," says Johnson. "They need you to be straight with them. I think it's easier to fall into avoidance. But it's important to take on those difficult conversations."

Everyday things and strategy, too

For Shawn Welch, art director at Printing Services, the course showed how to integrate the University's strategic goals into his workplace.

"The class helped me begin thinking strategically as a leader instead of only dealing with the everyday things that come up," he says. "I learned to take the time to come up with a strategic plan. I've been working with my team to look at the U's strategic initiatives and decide how they work for us and how we support them."

That's exactly the type of leadership behaviors the U is hoping to develop, says Corey Bonnema, coordinator of supervisory training programs in the Office of Human Resources, which sponsors the class. Bonnema is part of a human resources team charged with developing leadership programs that support the U's strategic initiatives.

"We're working to become one of world's top-three research universities," says Bonnema. "The key to becoming a leading research institution lies within our own walls. We're working to make sure our staff has all the tools it needs to lead effectively going forward."

In fact, University staff members have asked for a heightened focus on leadership development.

"The annual Pulse survey has shown that staff want us to amp up our focus on their professional development. We're working hard to meet that need."

Tailored for the U

While many of the precepts of good leadership are universal, the Successful Manager's Leadership Program has been tailored to the unique operating needs of the University and its goals.

"The U has a different operating structure than the business world," says Bonnema. "We tend to emphasize collaborative decisions, and we're a complex, multilayered bureaucracy. We need to train our staff to take those differences and use them to their advantage as leaders."

The Successful Manager's Leadership Program is led by U of M faculty and facilitators from Personnel Decisions International. The next session of the course starts October 30.

For both Kathryn Johnson and Shawn Welch, the course provided the tools to thrive as leaders at a university with high aspirations.

"The class was really important for me because it underscored the commitment the U has to the success of its managers," says Johnson. "And that's critical to our goal of being one of the top three."

Michael Weinbeck is a communications project manager in the Office of Human Resources, Twin Cities campus.