Celebrated Program Hones Leadership Skills in Austin

By Kathy Gurchiek Mar 16, 2010
The pipeline of emerging leaders for the Texas-based Austin Human Resource Management Association (AHRMA) was running dry. Precious few qualified volunteer leaders were available to step in and take over for members who were ready to hand over the reins.

“Every year it was a matter of scurrying to find people to serve on the board for the next year,” said 2009 chapter president Ramona Rohrer, SPHR. “A lot of [board vacancies] had to do with Baby Boomers getting older” and retiring. Identifying new board members from chapter volunteers was becoming challenging.

Rohrer credits Marilyn Martin, SPHR, then 2007 chapter president-elect/2008 president, for recognizing the need to identify emerging leaders and diversifying AHRMA’s executive committee. That vision led to the chapter’s creation of a 2009 Pinnacle Award-winning program, “Stepping Stones to Enhanced Leadership.”

It focuses on developing the HR professional as a business executive operating in a team environment, rather than on HR-specific education. Participants receive free, yearlong professional development. During the pilot program, participants could earn up to 20 hours of free recertification credit; that has increased to 24 hours. By the end of the program’s first year in 2008, 60 percent of the chapter’s 2009 executive committee was made up of Stepping Stones graduates or participants. Today, 75 percent of the committee participated in or graduated from the program. The third series starts in May 2010.

Chapter committee leaders use resources, found under “succession planning competencies” from the Volunteer Leaders’ Resource Center on the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) web site, to identify academy participants. Nominees receive a formal invitation to the program.

Instructors are best-in-class subject matter experts from AHRMA membership—including past presidents, a former board member, the 2009 vice president for the chapter’s workforce readiness program—who provide their services on a pro bono basis.

In December 2007, Rohrer, 2008 chapter president-elect, and Cathy Wodarski, 2005 chapter president, began work to design, develop and implement Stepping Stones. The program was ready for rollout in April 2008.

“The concept was to create an innovative succession planning tool, and as we started to develop [the program], we realized it was bigger than just that,” Rohrer said.

It became a three-pronged value proposition benefiting the chapter with better-prepared leaders, benefiting the members by offering high-quality professional development and benefiting members’ employers through improved employee engagement and retention.

“We have a buzz about Stepping Stones. They all want to volunteer now. It’s building our volunteer base,” Rohrer observed, adding, “It has added to their ability to move upward in their organization.”

How It Works

Stepping Stones consists of a series of six four-hour stand-alone modules conducted as breakfast workshops. Workshops are held from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. every two months; people who miss a module may pick it up the next year.

The web-based program covers six competencies modules:

  • Self-discovery using the DiSC assessment tool.
  • Building collaborative teams—collaboration, influencing, developing functional teams.
  • Communication—presentation skills and public speaking, strategic communication, conflict management.
  • Employee engagement—coaching, motivating, mentoring.
  • Planning and organization—time management, goal setting, managing multiple priorities.
  • Leadership—building organizational trust, change management, strategic thinking.

A program manual contains outlines for each module, an overview, the objective, the number of HR Certification Institute recertification credits assigned to each module, and instructor biographies. A workbook contains questions for each module plus assignments and recommended reading. One assignment was to create a PowerPoint presentation, present it to a group and report to the class.

Participants are encouraged to partner with their manager at work or other designated mentor to discuss the workshop topics.

Participants complete a survey on the effectiveness of each module completed. Employers are surveyed at year’s end on the effectiveness.

Each year the chapter reviews the program and makes adjustments. After the pilot program was completed, for example, the presentation skills and public speaking components were developed into a separate four-hour workshop. The module on empathetic communication and conflict management was revamped to focus on strategic communication and HR as a partner in the C-suite.

A Stepping Stones Graduate

Amy Goldenburg, PHR, was among the chapter members who received a formal invitation to the inaugural class. She wrote about her experience on the chapter’s blog.

She joined the chapter and SHRM in 2003 in preparation for obtaining HR certification. Although she served in various leadership roles and participated in strategy sessions, she was petrified about speaking to groups. She recalled her fear in 2002 when, as a member of the chapter’s legislative action committee, she had to stand before AHRMA members in a country club ballroom to announce the upcoming Legislative Action Day.

“I was absolutely petrified,” she said, and, despite many rehearsals, she ended up “with a shaky voice, trembling” and unable to read her notes. “It was a terrifying experience.”

Thanks in part to Stepping Stones and its module dealing with communication, she’s now the poster girl for overcoming fear of public speaking. In May 2009, as the chapter’s vice president of communications, she gave a three-hour presentation before 100 people at the group’s annual conference.

“And I enjoyed it. I don’t think I could have done it without Stepping Stones.”

It’s a “significant honor” to be tapped, Goldenburg said. “The people who are in [Stepping Stones] are really carving out a portion of their lives to contribute to this program,” and nomination to the program is “recognition of the time and energy and effort that you’ve put into” the chapter already.

Employer support is important, she said.

“The program takes a chunk out of the workday—three or four hours, not including travel time. Every other month you’re gone all morning,” Goldenburg pointed out. “A lot of employers, they certainly need to give their buy-in, because that can be a lot of time away from work, depending on how they look at HR.”

Replicating the Program

Employers have been impressed with the program, Rohrer said.

At the pilot program’s conclusion, one employer wrote that it “had a positive effect on our HR director’s professional growth and afforded another opportunity for the two of us to focus onissu3es related to her on-going development as an HR professional.”

Another noted that because of the employer’s limited funds, “the program was a welcome addition to the very modest professional development opportunities already available.”

Comparable programs of this magnitude can cost participants several thousand dollars, according to Rohrer. The chapter’s expenses included facility rental for breakfast meetings and costs related to designing and printing program materials.

Stepping Stones has generated interest among other chapters, Rohrer said.

“It’s a big job to put this together,” she added, and AHRMA is applying to trademark the Stepping Stones to Enhanced Leadership name and logo.

She advises chapters interested in doing something similar that it’s important to work closely with instructors to ensure that participants meet deadlines for recertification and to maintain quality control of material.

It helps to have the president-elect involved and leading the invitation process, Rohrer said.

“It’s a great way to get to know your volunteer constituents” as well as your chapter. “It really has been an honor and privilege and a labor of love to lead this initiative … and to continue to be involved in this program.”

To hear Rohrer in an 18-minute SHRM webinar on the program, and to print out her materials, visit http://www.shrm.org/Communities/VolunteerResources/ResourcesforChapters/Pages/SteppingStonestoEnhancedLeadership.aspx.

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

Related Articles:

Award-Winning Chapter Program Prepares Students for Jobs,HR News, Feb. 2, 2010

HR Reaches Out to Unemployed on Telethon, HR News, Jan. 20, 2010

Pinnacle Award Winners Demonstrate Wide Range of Service, HR News, Nov. 13, 2009

Related Resource:

2009 Pinnacle Award Compendium Now Available, SHRM Communities, Volunteer Resources, Jan.25, 2010


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