As a lifelong student of leadership, I know the integral role that leadership plays in ensuring both SmithBucklin and our client organizations are vital, value-creating and sustainable. But no playbooks, simple formulas or prescriptions exist for how to become a true leader. However, there are timeless principles and guidelines that can be learned and applied only through a process of personal, active engagement and self-discovery. It was these tenets, among others, that influenced and guided my decision to create the SmithBucklin Leadership Learning Forum.
As CEO, an essential part of my job was to enable the achievement of desired annual results. At SmithBucklin that included client satisfaction and retention, employee engagement and retention, new client acquisition and company performance, among others. But as a CEO who also aspired to be a true leader, my overarching goal was to build a great, enduring company. One of the foundational requirements in the journey toward greatness is to build leadership capacity and performance throughout the company; in other words, grow leaders from within.
Since 2008, I have been thinking about and pondering how best to grow leaders at many levels within SmithBucklin in a way that is purposeful, organized, disciplined, impactful and sustainable. In early 2010, my ideas and thoughts around content, desired outcomes, student selection and other key aspects were sufficiently developed to seriously begin planning. My plan was to build the program's content based on the leadership framework that I have developed over the years. But I also knew that the program had to include a unique instructional design that maximizes high-performing student learning and self-discovery. To help me in this area, I reached out to Dick Dooley, someone I've known for more than 29 years.
Dick Dooley was a senior information technology (IT) executive at two large corporations and has been a teacher at seven universities. Since 1973, he has been providing senior IT executives a broad counseling service around business leadership, management and organizational challenges and opportunities. As an outgrowth of his consulting practice supporting the management teams of his IT executive clients, Dick developed and has run hundreds of learning forums based on a unique, compelling approach and design that helps high-potential people learn and grow. I leveraged Dick's expertise, ideas and wisdom as well as adopted some his methods, tools and exercises in order to create a unique SmithBucklin leadership program.
The SmithBucklin Leadership Learning Forum was officially launched on March 4, 2011. It relies heavily on active facilitation, advance reading, invited guests, homework assignments, lecturettes, exercises and activities. These elements provoke, stimulate, provide context, illuminate ideas and create an environment for reflection, self-discovery, learning and growth via open dialogue, sharing, debate and mutual problem solving. The program is designed to be a gift of great value and lifelong impact to its students. The program's content is based on the leadership framework and underlying principles and concepts that I have been developing over the years. The context is SmithBucklin's business, culture and work environment. There are eight 2-day offsite sessions over 12 months. Students can expect to spend four to eight hours per week on reading, homework and preparation in between sessions. I serve as lead facilitator for all session. SmithBucklin's Chief HR Officer has served as my co-facilitator, and in 2011, Dick Dooley also attended all of them, offering insights and wisdom as well as facilitating several discussions and exercises.
Every fall I invite 18 employees to apply for the program. For each candidate, the application process includes an initial meeting with me, responding in writing to five questions, and a final meeting to review written responses. Potential candidates include a wide range of employees with varying job functions and seniority. Regardless of position, to be considered an individual must consistently and significantly outperform his or her peer groups, demonstrate great potential for an increase in scope of responsibility and impact, show considerable capacity to grow and succeed in his or her career within SmithBucklin, have a strong desire for a career in executive management - either at the SmithBucklin corporate-level or in service to client organizations - and embody SmithBucklin's values. To be accepted into the program, candidates must also assert and demonstrate a deep commitment for personal learning and growth, as well as a willingness to sacrifice personal time to the rigors and demands of the program.
Students, their sponsors and the facilitators overwhelmingly and enthusiastically deemed the program's inaugural year an unparalleled success. These sentiments have continued and grown in subsequent classes. In addition to experiencing meaningful, substantive and observable leadership learning and growth, students have also forged deep, enduring bonds with and among each other.