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Leadership training helping state get things done

Leadership training helping state get things done

August 14th, 2019 by Joe Gamm in Local News

Steve Bryant looks to the screen as Brittany Ruess assists him with the smartphone app that creates an instant result on the screen. Bryant works for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Ruess works for the Office of Administration, assisting participants with technical issues if needed.

Photo by Julie Smith /News Tribune.

More than 1,300 state workers in supervisory positions have undergone Missouri Way three-day training since the program's inception a year ago.

The first-of-its-kind program for Missouri's government is making measurable changes to how employees view their jobs and their results, Missouri Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann said.

He shared data with the latest (and ninth) group of top-level managers from all state departments — about 180 in all — during their first day of training Tuesday.

"If I were in your shoes," Erdmann said, "I'd be asking, 'Is it working?' The headline message is: We're moving the needle."

The most important thing leaders gathered in the Harry S. Truman State Office Building could do is give people direction, Erdmann said, and help them understand how they fit in their departments' teams.

He told listeners a workforce survey, done before the program started, showed employees wanted to serve citizens, but didn't know much about their departments' goals.

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More than 35,000 state employees — representing more than 70 percent of the workforce in all 16 executive departments — participated in the survey, he said.

"This was the starting point in the journey," he said about a word cloud that resulted from the survey. Each of the employees was asked for three words that described state government or their organizations. The cloud, made up of the commonly used descriptors, displayed the most common words from the survey in the biggest fonts.

There's a blend of "good, caring and dedicated," combined with "unorganized and underpaid," Erdmann said.

"Each one of your departments has a slightly different feel, but there's this really exciting mix of really awesome things to celebrate — to motivate people to come to work every day," he continued. "We see it across the board. It's this blend of awesome stuff to celebrate and also, we can get better at what we're doing."

When the program started, most departments' team members felt disconnected from their organization's goals (if they knew it) and didn't know what their roles were in promoting the goals.

They saw a bureaucratic lack of focus on citizens.

Leadership was undefinable, if it existed, they said.

Team members did not feel there was accountability for their departments or individuals.

However, there was a strong belief among employees that the government cared about the public. They were honored to work for their neighbors and helped make their lives better.

This year's workforce survey showed significant rises in how workers felt about their teams and their tasks. There was a 9 percent climb in the sense of where employees' organizations were headed and how they would get there; 9 percent rise in motivational factors driving teams; and 7 percent rises in how employees view their leadership and the accountability of individuals, Erdmann said.

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"We're moving the needle on all these things that we're focused on," he said. "I put a lot of emphasis on the idea of communicating direction."

The effectiveness of the efforts will — admittedly — vary by departments, he said. And, it will vary within departments.

"People coming to work in one division (within a department) are having a totally different work experience than people in another division," Erdmann said. "Working shoulder-to-shoulder in the same department. We know there are wide variations."

Unlike before the start of the program, the majority of employees can now say, "Hey, I at least know where my department is headed."

Additionally, he said, all too often, employees perform their tasks the way they do because "that's the way it's always been done." They don't look to improve or change.

They don't aspire to do more.

He showed a photo of Robert Bannister breaking the four-minute mile in 1954. Scientific papers had been written about why the feat was physically impossible.

"If you're told you can't do something, do you even bother trying?" Erdmann said. "Of course not."

In the history of humanity, no one had ever run a mile in less than four minutes.

However, Bannister and a small group of his teammates believed it could be done. And, on May 6, 1954, he broke the barrier.

An Australian runner broke the barrier within six weeks.

"Then, it becomes kind of the norm," Erdmann said. "If that barrier is 'No one can do it,' then no one will do it."

Erdmann encouraged the listeners to identify what the barriers are for their teams.

Darcy Bybee, air pollution control program director, said during a lunch break that she was in the inaugural group of about 130 state employees who received the training.

State employees, she said, who have received the training may return and facilitate — or lead discussions within groups — for people who have not undertaken the training.

"It's really bringing the state team together," said Bybee, who was facilitating for Department of Public Safety on Tuesday. "Getting to hear the things that they have found that work or didn't work in their own work settings — I can learn from them and take it back to my department."

Within her own role as a supervisor, she uses her facilitation skills to get broad groups of people to talk about subjects.

However, she also takes ideas to her own shop, Bybee said.

"The other thing that I've learned is that, even though we are very diverse across state government, we are intertwined in many ways," she said. "Sometimes, I'm working with a group that I have worked with before."

And, she didn't realize there was so much overlap with other departments.

During his lunch break, Erdmann discussed the connections between the Leadership Academy, which is a six-month program intended to develop the next generation of state government leaders; the Missouri Way; and MO Learning, which allows all state employees to have access to more than 7,400 training videos online on a page associated with LinkedIn.com.

The academy has a sort of "hand-off" from one class to the next, he said. One graduates on the day the other begins, and they have a session in which the outgoing class serves as informal mentors for the new class.

"Because we're interested in whether this is all worth it, we do track whether people are getting promoted or moving into new roles," Erdmann said. "And so far, quite a few people have progressed, and their careers have been accelerated because of what they've learned."

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The state wants all of its leaders and managers to have the same basic understanding of why it's doing what it does, he said.

"We're trying to do things across all 16 departments," he added.

The Missouri Way program is planned through the end of 2019. There are some rooms reserved for 2020.

"My expectation is that we will be continuing the Missouri Way into 2020," Erdmann said.

Employees using MO Learning can choose what skills they want to learn, he continued. And Missouri is developing custom courses for the platform. Through the programs, the state is trying to reform management, he said.

"Arguably, the most important part is investing in our people," Erdmann said. "Through the training — through the experience — they're doing things they didn't do before."

Roxy Antonio said she may not necessarily be doing different things, but is certainly doing them differently. As the director of human resources for the state Department of Revenue, Antonio's been a project manager for a long time (she's worked for the state for 13 years) and found she leads by example and does projects well, but she didn't have a platform from which to approach projects.

She didn't know the connections between time, resources and scope of projects.

As a leader, every day when she came to work, all eyes were on her, Antonio said. And she got projects done through will.

Before the training, "I probably did what everybody else does — I flew by the seat of my pants," Antonio said. "And I got it done."

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Now, she more closely knows what she's working with in each project. And, she knows what to ask employees to complete for projects.

One of the projects she recently worked on was MO Learning — and the state LinkedIn page. She helped departments create their own "spin-off" pages.

Within the past year, there has been a shift in how the state gets things done, Antonio said. Departments don't act as independently as they did before.

It's like night and day, she said. If something needed to get done, the team would be required to "call so and so." And, then the team members would have to wait. Now, there's more collaboration, she said.

"There's this urgency to get things done, to get goals accomplished," she said. "To see that what (state employees) do every day benefits, not just the citizens of Missouri, but all of us."