A flexible learning program helps leaders build real-world crisis-management skills.
The initial Leadership for a Democratic Society program, launched in 1968 by order of President Lyndon B. Johnson, was designed as an eight-week in-residence educational session for super-grades (GS-16s, GS-17s, and GS-18s). However, because of the competing requirements imposed on governmental executives, the program was truncated to four weeks and opened to GS-15s.
Then, in 1996, the FEI launched its applied learning program—a hybrid educational experience consisting of two weeks of in-residence instruction followed by three months of applied learning in the field, concluding with two subsequent weeks of in-residence wrap up.
More recently, a third, distance-based learning program was conceived to meet the ever-increasing demands of modern government leaders.
Meeting Evolving Needs
"We were starting to see an evolution in our customer demand for a number of reasons," says FEI dean of faculty Greg Gifford. "People were having a hard time committing to four weeks in residence here." The new, mostly remote program offers modern executives the flexibility they need.
Michael Belcher, a Leadership for a Democratic Society faculty member, agrees. He says the distance learning elements of the program help FEI reach more clients. "We saw another venue to be able to offer the Leadership for a Democratic Society program to a wider audience in a new manner that would meet their professional needs as well as their learning styles."
Through a reorganization of the initial programs—in partnership with USA Learning, the FEI's technical arm, which provided tools for building a virtual learning environment—the new blended learning program began to take shape. The 2014 pilot consisted of a two-week in-residence regimen followed by six months of online education consisting of both synchronous and asynchronous activities meant to foster skills related to strategic leadership and crisis management.
According to Belcher, it quickly became clear that the first two weeks in residence were critical for establishing trust, teamwork, and accountability within the cohort. This time not only allows participants to engage with one another and their instructors face-to-face, but also helps establish the foundation upon which transformational learning can occur.
"We learned very early on that if a relationship wasn't established, it became 'we/they' educational environment," says Belcher. "But if we found a way for the instructor to meet [participants] ahead of time . . . and introduce herself or himself to the participants, there was a much more comfortable and richer dialogue going back and forth between them the whole time." He adds, "It's all about relationships."
After the initial two weeks, participants engage in the online portion of the program in which they meet with one another and their instructors virtually—attending online presentations, collaborating to complete assignments, and participating in open dialogue over the following six months.
Belcher makes it clear that the online portion of the program shouldn't be viewed as training; it's an educational experience. The online program "is based on having senior executives with expertise and experience that they leverage in the educational process," he says. "The executives that participate bring their knowledge to the forum though online discussion. Not only do they enhance what the instructors are providing, they take it in new directions, both deeper and broader as they share back and forth within the cohort."
This form of online collaboration and communication can be just as effective as the kind that exists in a physical classroom—and potentially even more so. Gifford says that a properly constructed virtual classroom will promote accountability and participation in unique ways.
"What's interesting is that in the online learning environment, it's hard to hide," Gifford says. "In a [traditional] classroom setting, it's easy for people to walk in, sit in their seat for a day or a week or sometimes a month, and be minimal contributors, if they contribute at all. However, in the online learning environment, we found instructors and peers in those courses were able to hold people accountable to show up and be a contributor, because there really is no place to hide."
The Value of Relationships
Simply making participation mandatory won't ensure the success of an online learning experience. When online participation and engagement with the course material is encouraged through tightly knit relationships, participation is bolstered. Gifford explains that in a traditional training environment, often the only requirement is for a participant to fill a seat. But skilled instructors, like the ones selected for the blended learning program, purposefully forge personal relationships with each of their students to increase participation.
Class size plays an important role in fostering and maintaining relationships. When it comes to participants, "the number 45 has been the sweet spot," Belcher says. "At 45, one or two course instructors can conduct back-and-forth dialogue with the participants. Above that, it becomes a bit overwhelming. You start getting back generic responses."
To further relationship building, Belcher says the cohort is divided into leadership development teams of seven or eight students where participants would feel intimately connected with one another and feel comfortable sharing openly and, at times, critically.
Room for Flexibility
While accountability resulting from tightly bound relationships is critical to the success of an online learning program, flexibility is also important. "We want people to have choices, to be able to chart their own course in terms of their learning, and we want people to feel they are learning about things that best fit their needs," says Gifford. "We needed to have that flexibility in the online environment as well."
Gifford says that in the first iteration of the blended learning program each participant took part in every course. However, that wasn't necessarily the best course of action. "We needed to build in opportunities for people to make selections based on their schedules and their learning goals," says Gifford.
Belcher explains that flexibility does not mean disorganization. Program architects learned early on that providing participants with detailed schedules and outlines of the required workload would help them accomplish tasks on time and completely. "Because their schedules are so congested and their workload so heavy, having up-front checklists guide them through the course … helps them manage their time so they can meet their goals," he says.
Another lesson learned in the program's development was that instruction needed to be immediately applicable to the participants' on-the-job responsibilities, Gifford says. "We were purposeful in ensuring that our instructors were using case studies and other types of methodologies that would help people make the bridge between what might be some otherwise theoretical, academic type of material and the actual practical things that were going on in their offices."
Belcher says offering this immediately actionable information allows participants to quickly integrate the lessons learned into their day-to-day activities. "They begin applying it immediately," he says. "For example, taking a class on collaboration, they're turning around, walking out their door, and being able to apply that collaboration to their work environment."
Gifford and Belcher both cite the example of Dr. Alecia Naugle, chief of the planning section for the National Incident Coordination Group of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Naugle was immediately able to apply lessons from the Crisis Leadership Course, as she was still participating in it, to a real-world emergency.
Naugle built and led a high-performing interagency team to develop a response plan to the 2015 Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza outbreak that infected more than 211 commercial and 21 backyard poultry flocks in 15 states. The crisis was one of the largest animal health emergencies the United States had ever faced and resulted in the depopulation of 50 million birds at a cost of $1 billion.
At the end of each monthlong online course, participants attend one-hour webinars, hosted by notable speakers including Robert Toscano, a delegate of the Virginia General Assembly, and Timothy Longo, the Charlottesville chief of police. These webinars further illustrate real-world applications of the information provided in the online courses.
As an extension of the online learning module, participants are required to undertake a two-part action learning project. The first portion of the project is a leadership challenge in which participants identify and execute a significant change within their organization or agency. In the second portion, participants draw out a personal development plan to identify and execute significant change within themselves.
Naugle says that during the avian flu crisis, she was able to put her action-learning challenge in motion. "This leadership challenge allowed me to practice 'crisis leadership' in a real-time, living laboratory," she says. "I continued to hone my leadership competencies, including political savvy and leading people. I also experienced personal growth in several areas I identified in my personal development plan." Naugle adds, "I have never been prouder to work for the USDA and serve American agriculture than I was during this experience."
Although the program is in its relative infancy, it is already being heralded as a success. Belcher and Gifford agree that there is no lack of anecdotal evidence of the program's positive impacts, and the initial data collected seem to confirm the program's efficacy.
Despite having to contend with the pressures and responsibilities of their work lives, last year only one out of 45 participants was unable to complete the program—resulting in a 98 percent completion rate. "This is unheard of in the distance learning world," says Gifford, adding that most online courses are considered a success with completion rates of 55 to 75 percent.
While Gifford attributes these high completion rates to the quality of instruction, the flexibility provided, and the tremendous oversight work necessary to keep the program running smoothly, he feels ultimately that the personal accountability and the relationships built among participants were the keys to the program's success. "It goes back to that notion of peer-to-peer accountability and peer-to-peer learning that we are able to create in a 45-person cohort, a really powerful and strong network."
For its successes, the blended learning program was recently recognized with an Outstanding Program Award at the Association of Leadership Educators' 2015 international conference. According to association materials: "The Leadership for a Democratic Society Program Crisis Leadership course was redesigned to maximize engagement and interactivity and the response was overwhelmingly positive, with 96 percent of the participants reporting the course was engaging and valuable in aiding them to implement crisis leadership at work."
Blended Learning Certificate (ATD Education Program)
"Blended Learning That Works" (TD at Work)
Chief Talent Development Officer (ATD Magazine)
"Developing Capable Leaders Through Blended Learning" (TD Magazine Article)