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A State Department of Transportation’s Journey with Leader Development—a Military Connection

A State Department of Transportation’s Journey with Leader Development—a Military Connection

Article by Tom Rozman

Tom Rozman

A state department of transportation (DOT) was again revisiting its approach and systems to develop its leaders, from the most junior supervisors to executive leadership.   The need had moved from “nice to do” to becoming a “necessity.”  The latter was driven by a combination of factors whose impact was becoming more apparent with each operating day.

Several of the major factors affecting the leader situation are worth considering. Several waves of fiscally austere budgets due to more constrained economic activity in the state had negatively affected revenues.   Administration changes and an aging work force added to the turmoil in the agency’s leadership.  Previous systematic training, education and leadership development systems had atrophied or gone inactive as budgets tightened and staff retired or otherwise left the agency.

The agency had in past years had a developed in-house training and leader development system, organization and capability.  Many leaders in the earlier period had been alumni of the state’s military academy and its polytechnic institute and were well grounded in leadership training and development models of the day and had developed such systems and programs in the department to include well developed registered apprenticeship programs.  But the series of administration changes, austere budgets and internal leadership dynamics had essentially dismantled many of these programs or rendered them inactive or in minimized operation.  Upgrades that embraced new thinking, technology or enhanced capabilities to train staff or develop leaders against agency mission needs had minimally occurred or not at all.

The agency was a large enterprise.  It supported the transportation needs of a state with a 10M population and a significant and, even with the economic downturns, a vibrant economy well situated regionally in the country.  In addition to economic activity, the coastal location with several major government concentrations added to the transportation operations magnitude.  The agency had some 30,000 employees.

In addition to similarities with the 49 state and several other territorial departments, many of the department’s operations in terms of contracting, contract management, internal project management, bridge inspections, snow and ice operations, fleet management, road maintenance, shop operations to name several, paralleled related or similar operations in Army Corps of Engineers organizations and units.  Many of the leaders development needs were same to similar.

The agency recognized that it was approaching a critical mass of leadership development need.  This realization was becoming more apparent by the day.  Seasoned cohort retirements and other leadership personnel losses, the state of the leader development system that had survived the turmoil of the last  two decades, and the increasing reliance on millennials to fill vacating or new leadership positions and roles, were all developments that underscored a reality that something needed to be done.

Several agency leaders, the agency head and the human resources director, began moving in a direction to address the situation.  Several initiatives began to form and get direction.  The approach was to revisit existing programs, upgrade them and pull them together into a more integrated overall program of training and professional development—the leadership program being seen as critical in that effort.

As the initiative moved forward, the agency realized that a “leader” was necessary to form, shape, integrate and implement the program for which the  vision was forming and the elements of which were being identified, integrated, or procured.  Ideally, the leader in mind would have solid developmental experience and skill and hands on program fielding and implementation experience.  As well, the person would have experience in leading large complex organizations.  A plus would be that the candidate would have sound knowledge of systematic career long leader development systems—systems known to work and work well.

The agency after some searching identified the candidate and brought him on staff.  The candidate was a recently retired Army lieutenant colonel with extensive command experience through the battalion level. He had also worked as a staff officer in major formation headquarters and most significantly had been directly involved in the leader training and development program employed with great success by the Army.  And he was a leader who had experienced and was a product of the Army’s leader development system and program.

The candidate met the best of what the agency was looking for—someone who had been developed as a leader through a systematic career long program, had then applied this development as a practicing leader and had as well been a practitioner in the operations of the leader development system.  Also, someone who had experience and knowledge of the array of existing and emerging training and leader development technology that had been used to great effect by the Army, often at significant cost savings—technologies such as distance learning systems, virtual interactive simulation systems, teleconferencing systems, and web based systems.

The candidate was selected and brought on staff and immediately after orientation began a review of the existing system against the agency’s needs.  Within a short time he had, though interaction with all levels of agency leadership, completed a review of stated agency goals and objectives in the training and leader development areas, completed a review of agency assessment of existing programs (where they were on target and where there were shortfalls), and had formed a comprehensive assessment that included recommendations for current operations and staged development of an updated and upgraded system.

The proposals took the existing elements that were effective to mission and supplemented them with doable new elements to bring the total system into the capability the agency needed.  The proposal was entirely mindful of fiscal constraints.

Some programs were retained in current form.  Some were modified and some existing programs were recommended for discontinuation. New programs that were proposed were also provided with cost estimates. The overall program was given an architecture.  The idea of the latter was to give relevance to every element—who and what were to be trained or developed in a fiscal year and why.  In other words–training and development were tied to mission, ideally, essential mission tasks.  The architecture also provided a strategy for training and development of each level of employee/leader through a 20-year or longer career by position.  Again, all projected training and development built a result that was mission oriented.

For leaders the system began to define a five-tier system over a 25-year cycle.  It included a pre leader school, a basic leader school, an advanced leader school, a senior leader school and an executive leader school.  Each of the leader level programs were spaced over a year’s time with several week long resident sessions, several interactive conferencing sessions and distance learning and interactive virtual simulation packages accessed on the net.  An evaluative component was built in but minimally emphasized to encourage and not discourage learning.

The agency conducted several iterative reviews of the proposal and leadership, with few modifications, authorized implementation.  Implementation would be a staged process over two years.   It was understood that adjustments would be made to the overall program as experience was gained during implementation.  A system was formed to capture lessons learned and apply them to the developing system.

A key element of the design was to fit within budget and retain flexibility. For example, all events identified in the strategies built for each element contained a listing of prioritized resource packages from the “Cadillac” package to the “Volkswagen” package depending on funding—but the element would be able to be conducted regardless of the funding available even if the last resource choice had to be used that year because of fiscal constraints.

A necessary aspect of the design of the overall program was emphasis on leadership team building at all levels.  This aspect of the design was seen as a major lever to achieving leaders synergies in tight fiscal climates.

Within three months the agency was executing their upgraded programs.  As anticipated, some changes were necessary moving forward but none that interfered with the effectiveness of the program or its rapid improvement of the leader development situation in the agency.  Two years into the implementation, the program was doing exactly what was intended.  The agency was bringing its leader team at every level forward into an ever-improving level of capability and effectiveness.  The leaders had also been made part of the development process so that their input informed adjustments and offerings—there was buy in.  The focus being mission and leader effectiveness against mission made every element of the program relevant.

>As importantly, all elements of the program if questioned in a budget development or budget cutting situation were tied to mission—these were not “nice to haves.”  Most critically for the agency, the agency was developing in-house its own leaders and to the highest standard of leader development.  The products of the program were leaders that got DOT’s tough mission done at every level to the highest mission standards.