Next up in the NRPA Young Professionals blog series, Aaron Feldman, Landscape Architect and Project Manager for Montgomery County Parks Department in Maryland and NRPA Young Professional Network member, offers personal perspective on taking advantage of leadership development programs for young professionals. These may be programs offered by your own agency or offered by NRPA. Aaron blogs on his personal experience with leadership training and says to those considering it, “why are you not in it?”
"You should think about applying for this program," the email from my boss read. Below that sentence was a description for the Montgomery Parks Leadership Development Program, an intensive six month training course my department was rolling out for the first time in about ten years. Out of more than 600 employees, no more than 25 would be selected to participate in the course.
I had not even been with Montgomery Parks long enough to have my six month review, and here was my boss, suggesting that I apply to take a training course that required me to sacrifice an average of four hours out of my work week for half a year. Having spent the better part of the last decade as a landscape architect for private consulting firms, where the bottom line was all that mattered and every hour I worked had to be billable to a client, I was stunned. Instead of preparing for more public meetings, haranguing consultants about deadlines or reviewing another set of park construction drawings; my boss was actually encouraging me to spend a full ten percent of my time developing my leadership and management skills.
I could think of plenty of reasons not to apply: there are plenty of people significantly more qualified and with more seniority to take this course than me. My time card will look bad, with all that time billed to "professional development." I should be spending my time learning the ins and outs working in Montgomery County. I won't know anyone in the course.
As it turns out, all of those excuses to not apply were actually factors that made me an excellent candidate for the program. The entire program is geared toward young professionals, as the department is seeking to promote from within to replace the significant number of department employees scheduled to retire in the next five to ten years. The people who review my time card each week are the same ones selecting applicants for the program, so they'll know exactly what I'm up to. Finally, this small group setting would introduce me to co-workers from all aspects of the department, giving me great insight into what they do and how the department operates.
Leadership development training can be a fickle thing. A meaningful, thought provoking workshop that changes one person's outlook on management styles can be to someone else the intellectual equivalent of snake oil (a secret elixir in a fancy package that doesn't actually perform any of the miracles promised by the huckster who sold it to you). I had taken a number of one-day and weekend-long leadership development courses in college and afterward, with mixed results. Some drastically altered my outlook on life, while others felt like a complete waste of brain cells.
If I was going to apply - much less, be accepted - to our program, I wanted to make sure I was not acquiring snake oil. So I did my research. I asked the organizers of the program to see a course syllabus: the strategy was to expose us to as many different tools and philosophies as possible in hopes that something would resonate with each participant. I understood that some of the content would make me roll my eyes, but there was a good chance that something in the course could have a major impact on my career.
I looked in to the credentials of the instructor hired to teach the course: his website listed several prominent clients and described a number of the tools that he teaches. He also grew up in Montgomery County and had previous experience with the department, so he would be able to focus his efforts on topics that were directly relevant to us.
Finally, I mentioned to my boss that I was thinking of taking her advice. Coincidentally, she took a similar program when she started out with the department (due to budget cuts, this leadership program had not been offered in the decade between my boss taking it and the current offering). According to her personal account, she would not have had the amount of success she has been credited with had she not taken the program. She also strongly endorsed the instructor of the program based on his credentials and her previous experience with him.
With all the signs telling me to apply, I spent a couple of evenings checking my schedule for conflicts with class times, editing my résumé and answering the application questions. A few weeks later, I received my acceptance letter and some additional words of encouragement from my boss. Approximately two-thirds of the way through the course, all of my assumptions turned out to be true. Some of the tools being taught were completely lost on me; I have spent more than one day thinking, "who on earth would buy into this junk?" However, those days have been far outweighed by the various tools and lenses that have caused me to rethink the way I communicate, manage and lead. I have formed productive working relationships with classmates that would have otherwise taken years to cultivate. And, yes, I have spent some late nights making up for work I've missed while in class, but I have also spent some of that class time learning how to be more efficient, preventing those late nights in the future.
My story is by no means an endorsement to jump into every leadership development training opportunity that finds its way to your inbox. Do as much research as you can into the content, instructor and audience of every course you consider. Talk to people who have taken similar courses, especially if their job description is similar to yours. Make sure you can commit to the time requirements of the course: missing portions of the lesson may end up doing you more harm than good. You may still end up buying snake oil once in awhile, but those experiences should be offset by the career altering skills you learn from a quality leadership development course.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two leadership courses that are most definitely not “snake oil” are NRPA’s Directors School and Supervisors Management School. Both of these two-year programs help park and recreation professionals develop and improve their leadership skills while also building up one's professional network. These schools are being held August 24- 30, 2013 and November 3 - 7, 2013 respectively, at Olgebay Resort and Conference Center, Wheeling, WV. If you are looking for a great opportunity to build your leadership skills consider taking advantage of one of these opportunities - applications are currently being accepted for both schools.
Does your agency offer leadership training opportunities? Have you taken advantage of the opportunities for leadership training? What types of leadership information do you think younger professionals in parks and recreation need? Share your feedback below or tweet us on Twitter with your responses to @NRPA_News and @YoungProf_NRPA. You can also join in on the discussion with the Young Professionals by logging in on NRPA Connect and joining the YPN group.
About the author
Aaron Feldman just celebrated his one year anniversary as a landscape architect and project manager with Montgomery County Parks Department, part of the Maryland - National Capital Park and Planning Commission. Before that, he spent eight years as a landscape architect in the Washington DC area, consulting for several federal, state and local government agencies. He can be reached at Aaron.Feldman@montgomeryparks.org.