A strong leader can make all the difference at a business or organization. The Center for Exceptional Leadership at St. Norbert College in De Pere shapes current and future leaders to ensure they have the right skills to succeed not only on a personal level but an organizational one as well. CEL Executive Director Dean Stewart sat down with Insight to discuss the importance of continuous learning and improvement and why leaders may need it most of all.
Where did the idea for the CEL come from?
Dean Stewart: The Center for Exceptional Leadership was the dream of a number of professionals in Northeast Wisconsin who said, “We want to build a world-class leadership development program for our region.” Under the guidance of Tom Wiltzius and about 40 great professionals, they benchmarked against some of the best leadership programs in the country and came up with the CEL. They approached St. Norbert College to house it … and that’s how we got started in 2016. At its core, the Center for Exceptional Leadership is about creating more visionary, more strategic, more contemplative leaders for our organizations, families and communities.
How do you teach leadership? Instead of taking on a particular model of leadership, we identified 12 facets of leadership that really exemplify exceptional leadership, such as collaboration, respect, diversity and inclusion, and strategic thinking. The program is built around creating self-awareness on where these leaders coming in are in relation to these aspects of leadership. Over 16 months, through a series of assessments and coaching and development days, we work with them on content that we’ve created to address those aspects of leadership. We created all of our content from scratch. It was the combined work of leadership professionals from around the country that helped us put this program together.
When we started the program, its focus was on executive leaders, which are leaders that are already in the C-suite or vice presidents. There is another program for senior leaders, which is for senior managers and those at the director level who may at some point move into a C-suite role. The core curriculum and content are really the same, but the conversations, the depth at which we get into some of the topics, look very different because of the roles that people play within their organization. We are intentional about making sure that we have people slotted into the correct cohort.
How have companies responded? What’s really interesting is that organizations approach us. When I go and work with an organization, I try to understand what their leadership development, process or pipeline looks like. We want to enhance and collaborate with that — enhance their current programming and collaborate with them, versus replace what they’re doing. A good example is working with U.S. Venture. They have a great internal program and we are the capstone to their internal program. After employees have gone through that internal program, they are sent here to go through our senior- or executive-level programs.
We’ve had organizations approach us as well and say their leadership development is somewhat scattered and they need a foundational program for new and emerging leaders. That led to the creation of a foundational leadership program that launched last fall. Rather than a 16-month intensive program, it’s an eight-month program, but we still base all the sessions around those aspects of leadership that define exceptional leadership and what those behaviors look like. In eight sessions, we’re going to start planting the seeds of what exceptional leadership looks like.
Everybody knows they need to develop their skills. It’s an investment in time and making the financial investment in their people, and companies know they need to do that, but they get so busy with all the day-to-day stuff. Life gets in the way and it’s hard sometimes to make that investment that’s required. It’s really a value proposition: If your employee takes this time now, they will become a better leader in the future, which can only help the company.
There’s also a program for nonprofit leaders.
Yes, I was approached one-and-a-half to two years ago by a group of Green Bay area nonprofit leaders who told me they were getting together informally, but they didn’t feel like they were getting what they needed. They exhausted what they had been talking about and were looking for a facilitated program model to further their leadership discussions.
That led to a nonprofit leadership forum at St. Norbert. We meet nine times per year and talk about what’s going well and what may not be going so well. It’s a peer advisory group that operates in what we call a holding environment, which is you’re coming to a safe space to be able to talk about things and what’s said within that space stays within that space. For the second half of the meeting, we’ll bring in a thought leader on a different topic they want to really explore a little bit more. We’ve talked about things like adaptive leadership, confidence, team dynamics, communication … a lot of different areas.
We’ve had so much success that we’re starting a second nonprofit forum (this month). Nonprofit leaders know they need development, but their budgets don’t always allow it. This is our opportunity to give back to the community in a way that allows us to. If we can help make the nonprofit groups even stronger, that’s even better for our community.
How has COVID-19 affected the CEL’s programs? In March when everything really shut down, we stopped programming for a couple of weeks and pulled our team together, and using a quote from Scott Propp, one of our facilitators, we asked ourselves: What can we do even better in this environment than we did previously? Those words really framed our thinking. It wasn’t, what can’t we do? It was, what can we do even better?
We had 11 cohorts at the time and had to move them all to a virtual environment. We had to train our lead facilitators how to be lead facilitators in a virtual environment. We had to figure out which platforms we had to change over. It wasn’t about the content but how the curriculum was delivered since content can look different in a virtual environment. And honestly, I think we have done an outstanding job, because the feedback that we’ve received from the participants has been, “You guys are knocking it out of the park.”