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State employees who were part of the spring 2020 class of the Missouri Leadership Academy had to adapt to historic upheavals just like other students and communities have done this year, but these students' research and proposals for improvement could directly affect how state government is run.

The Missouri Leadership Academy is a program that serves state workers from each of the 16 executive department agencies, and according to a news release from Gov. Mike Parson's office, class members are chosen by senior leadership to participate in the inter-department leadership development program.

Twenty-eight state workers in the spring 2020 class of the program graduated this week — but before graduation, teams of the state employees in the program developed presentations on how to improve aspects of state government, including workforce engagement, wellness and request for proposals development.

A couple groups' work, in particular, took on some unexpected importance this year as the COVID-19 pandemic sent many workers from their offices to work remotely, and later, protests against police brutality and racial injustice erupted across the state and country.

Long before COVID-19 pushed almost 40 percent of the state's workforce to work remotely at one point this spring, Eric Berwanger, Beth Johnson, Elizabeth McDermit, Lisa Sireno, Cecille Swan and Mara Woody were working on a project about remote work — something state agencies have been looking at expanding for years.

The remote work group's members come from the Missouri departments of Agriculture, Corrections, Labor and Industrial Relations, Elementary and Secondary Education, Revenue and Higher Education and Workforce Development, and the Office of Administration.

Three of the group's members said they are working remotely full-time, two are transitioning back into their offices, and Johnson — with DOC — is not working remotely.

The leadership program itself continued remotely for three months, according to the news release from Parson's office, though they were back to meeting in-person, with safety precautions.

Swan said 28 percent of the state workforce continued to work remotely as of July 10.

The pandemic obviously accelerated thoughts about the expansion of remote work, but Berwanger said the focus now is on how to sustain it.

The group's project focused on leadership skills and accountability in remote work.

Swan — who said she had already been managing teams remotely for a while as part of her job — said there's the need to "make sure we get it right."

Woody said there haven't necessarily been issues with remote work, but it's important for managers to be able to know how to use it well — how to help employees have ways to set and meet goals, for example.

Swan said it's important for leaders to know how to be intentional in their communication, because of the lack of physical face-to-face interaction.

However, Johnson said there's "not a one size-fits-all" approach.

Berwanger said the group recommended a hybrid model of remote work and is not proposing one state policy for every department.

Another Leadership Academy's presentation topic on inclusion and diversity also was selected long before the May 25 death of George Floyd, a Black man who pleaded for air as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee against Floyd's neck for several minutes. That officer was charged with murder, and Floyd's death sparked massive protests, including in Jefferson City.

Christopher Kennedy, Courtney Schweder, Dawn Sweazea, Jacob Weston and Ashley Wilson looked at how departments can add diversity to their staff — specifically in race and gender and especially in leadership roles — as well as be inclusive of employees' input, which Sweazea said is most important.

The group's members come from the departments of Conservation, Corrections, Natural Resources and Social Services, and OA.

Kennedy said while departments do keep track of data they report to OA, there haven't necessarily been metrics in place on how to focus recruitment efforts to attract diverse job candidates.

Wilson added it's also important for departments to have a public commitment to value diversity and inclusion they can be held accountable to.

Both groups said their recommendations were well-received, including by top-level department leaders. Parson and cabinet leaders were presented with the Leadership Academy's capstone projects Wednesday.

Missouri Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann said in Parson's news release that the spring's class "demonstrated how to adapt to unforeseen challenges and still deliver impact. The class exemplifies what we expect from our state government leaders — commitment, flexibility, skill and dedication to others."

More information about the Leadership Academy — including on the spring class's members and the nomination process — is available at leadershipacademy.mo.gov/.

Parson also announced the members of the program's fall class. That's available at governor.mo.gov/press-releases/archive/governor-parson-announces-graduation-missouri-leadership-academy-spring-2020.

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