Leadership Development

By Jeff Griffith-Jones

Do these issues sound like those you tackle daily: encouraging staff morale, leading engaging meetings, dealing with a high number of part-time workers and staff turnover, and delivering first-class customer service? However, unlike many non-recreation businesses, we have unique needs, such as staffing in high-risk areas like aquatics and the outdoors, managing a high percentage of young part-time staff, and seeking out a constant stream of enthusiastic and passionate teachers to lead programs. 

One proven strategy for improving in these areas is developing leaders within the organization from bottom to top. Great leadership does many things:

  • Helps build a cohesive staff culture
  • Models the way for how we treat customers and each other
  • Seeks a shared vision among multiple generations of workers
  • Improves the bottom line.

But even with the abundance of leadership-development tools available to professionals these days, the tools tend to be resource-intensive and do not work overnight. Staff development is expensive, and most of us are on a tight budget. We’re also busy—it’s tough to train staff members when we’re running around helping customers, managing risk, trying to grow our profit centers, and balancing a mountain of other daily tasks.

But we need leaders, so lack of development is not an option. New leaders reenergize the organization, help us connect with the youngest staff members, and also fill the holes left by retiring Baby Boomers. So how do we train these new leaders?

My favorite development tool and the one I have been honing with my staff for more than 3 years is what I call Leadership Boot Camp. This is a 10- to 14-week, 1-hour-per-week, hands-on training on leadership. It consists of a group of potential leaders, first-time supervisors, and even experienced managers in a weekly setting to learn, discuss, and practice essential leadership skills.

Compared to more costly options of sending staff members back to college, attending off-site seminars, and paying for a consultant, the boot camp is cheap, convenient, and immediately effective because it revolves around the organization. Even better—it can be FUN! Done right, this can be like a team-building event every week with the top potentials, giving them the opportunity to promote, collaborate, and hone train-the-leader skills.

Here are a few steps to get started:

1.      Generate excitement with staff members.

Staff members should see this as an opportunity to promote from within the organization, a chance to have fun, and a way to learn skills valuable in any work setting. A development program should have a fun name (we call ours the Leadership Boot Camp to give it a feel of short-term intensity) and an application process to join; staff members should be able see and hear about the program through multiple channels (e.g., flyers, emails, meetings, the organization’s internal social-media page).

Once the program starts, post pictures of the interactive highlights of sessions. Publicly praise the staff members who sign up and give kudos to them for taking a proactive step in their professional development. Create a culminating experience of awards and certificates. One of my favorite experiences is having participants stand and speak for a minute or lead an activity. Oftentimes, this is a major source of angst for young staff members, so being able to conquer this fear is meaningful. Put meaning into the certificate by requiring it for certain in-house job openings (e.g., Job Opening: Aquatic Supervisor, Leadership Boot Camp Certificate Required).

2.      Draft an agenda complete with leadership topics, guest speakers, games, and homework, and then pull together resources.

This may sound daunting, but with some concentrated planning, you can lead this part yourself. Try 10, 90-minute weekly sessions for the first program, then adjust based on the needs of the team. With research from leadership blogs, a management book or two, a few colleagues, or maybe some other industry connections, you can create useful content that will give new leaders a model in how to lead. Create a spark in each and every session by using interactive games, ice breakers, and other activities. 

Here is what a typical weekly agenda looks like:

·        Ice breaker. This is fun, interactive, and different every week. Participants start learning how to conduct meeting openers.

·        Reflect on the homework from the week.

·        Main topics and activities (see a few ideas below).

·        Assign homework. This should be simple and totally relevant to what leaders have to do every day: thank someone, praise someone, schedule a one-on-one, show humility, make a suggestion, etc.

·        Closing question.

Here are a few main topics:

·        Types of leaders

·        Dealing with conflict and confrontation

·        Communication strategies across generations

·        Basic human-resources practices.

3.      Make it interactive and fun.

New leaders are going to learn best if they are interacting, experiencing emotions, and are periodically on their feet. Plus, in order to teach leadership, it is always best to model it—in this case, running a series of fun and interactive workshops.

Minimize lectures. Consider group work—answering questions in small groups, tackling case studies, role playing, scavenger hunts, brain teasers, and games. Although new leaders tend to be young, keeping the sessions lively and interactive is just as appropriate for veteran employees.

Keep it novel. Use various meeting sites if possible. Conference rooms are always the standard, but can you run some sessions on a tennis court, in a park, pool side, or even in a fitness studio? Rotate speakers. Provide people with expertise in a relevant topic in your organization: human resources, public speaking, conflict resolution, etc. This is your opportunity to form a collaborative effort to train these new leaders (plus easing the burden of planning a program).

And that’s it! Keep an open mind, be flexible, and have a sense of humor as you conduct your first leadership-development program. The learning experience for you and your participants will be invaluable, and it will be a platform in planning future sessions.

If you want a further challenge, consider a peer-led leadership-development program. Instead of you teaching, participants take turns running a 90-minute session each week. This removes you from the role of designated leader and allows participants to practice their activity-leadership, and to also learn from each other. So what should the topics be? Have the team brainstorm a list of actual issues at your organization, and present solutions—one person per week—in the form of a case study, lecture, collaboration, or other presentation format.

Jeff Griffith-Jones is the General Manager of Operations at the Almaden Valley Athletic Club in San Jose, Calif. Reach him at jgriffithjones@avac.us.