Building Up the “Bench”

December 20, 2021

Sara Baxter

Gainesville Leadership Academy graduates from the city's Department of Water Resources with Mayor Danny Dunagan.
Gainesville Leadership Academy graduates from the city's Department of Water Resources with Mayor Danny Dunagan.

Gainesville’s Leadership Academy provides city employees with an opportunity to learn valuable leadership skills, setting them up for success.

When Stephanie Hood, Gainesville–Hall County Meals on Wheels supervisor, is delegating duties among her staff and volunteers, she takes into account each of their personalities before assigning a task. When filling a position, she considers how an applicant would fit into the team as a whole. If a conflict arises anywhere in her department, she is ready to handle it.

Hood honed these management skills by participating in the Gainesville Leadership Academy (GLA), a year-long leadership training program that provides current and future supervisors and managers with the skills they need to be effective leaders.

It’s also solving a problem for the city.

“We were losing employees to attrition and retirement and we didn’t necessarily have people ready to take on supervisory roles,” says Bryan Lackey, Gainesville’s city manager. “We wanted to be able to promote from within, but our bench strength was getting low.”

The solution came in the form of GLA, which is the brainchild of Vikki Fox-Wilson, Gainesville’s human resources manager, and Janeann Allison, administrative services director for the city. They created GLA as a way to improve the leadership skills of current managers and supervisors as well as to groom employees to become future leaders. It was a vision they’d worked on for five years, and were finally able to launch the first class in 2020.

Finding a Partner

Fox-Wilson and Allison knew this type of program wasn’t something they could develop themselves, so they searched for a partner that could provide an onsite leadership training program based on Gainesville’s needs.    

Once a consultant was selected, GLA was introduced in January 2020 with a class of 30 city employees, all nominated by management. Directors were given a certain number of slots based on the number of employees they had.

“Some were already leaders within their departments, but they didn’t necessarily have the skills they needed to be effective, such as handling personnel matters, interacting with the public and working with elected officials,” says Allison. “To help them be successful, we taught them the leadership skills we felt were important to know.”

Members of the inaugural Gainesville Leadership Academy class during their first meeting in 2020.
Members of the inaugural Gainesville Leadership Academy class during their first meeting in 2020.

The class met for two months before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down. Because the interactive nature of GLA was not conducive to online training, they paused the program until August 2020, and picked up where they left off. After that class graduated, a second class started in summer 2021.

As for the structure of the class – which meets monthly – the morning session covers topics that include how to assess personalities, develop and execute strategy, resolve conflict, delegate responsibilities and build trust. Fox-Wilson and Allison coordinate the afternoon sessions, which feature guest speakers from different departments and often a tour to a Gainesville city facility.

A big part of the program is teaching participants how to utilize a DiSK® assessment, which helps determine and identify workers’ personalities and personal attributes, which in turn helps supervisors manage, delegate and resolve conflict.

Hood, who oversees three employees, dozens of volunteers and manages relationships with community partners, says that has been a valuable skill.

“I didn’t realize how important it is to understand different personality types,” she says. “But learning that approach helped me recognize what will motivate each member of my team and the volunteers. I now use their personalities and their strengths to make things work better in my department. It also helps me motivate and encourage them.”

Seeing the Benefits

Results of a survey given after the first class revealed that 96 percent of respondents “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that the class was beneficial. Participants enjoyed the networking opportunities as well as classes in servant leadership and building trust and empowerment, according to the survey.

Hood certainly sees the benefits. “I appreciate that the city is investing in me and taking the time to help me learn and give me the tools to be a better leader,” she says. “I feel appreciated and valued.” 

The city is also benefitting.

“We are getting better, stronger, well-rounded leaders who are trained on the same leadership skills that are in line with the city’s vision,” says Fox-Wilson. “They also get a clearer understanding of how other departments work and how their department fits in with the city’s vision.”

Lackey’s advice to other cities is to not wait to undertake something like this.

“If you see a need to do it, do it now,” he advises. “Especially in the competitive environment we are seeing today. You’re offering a path for employees to move forward and to build loyalty and morale, and show them that they have a future. Find a program that meets your needs and invest in it now.”

About the Author
Sara Baxter is a freelance writer based in Decatur, GA. She specializes in telling stories for nonprofit organizations.

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