One way to increase employee engagement is to help people feel more invested in what happens within their organization.
That is the thrust behind the President’s Leadership Academy at Merced College, where President Chris Vitelli welcomes a diverse set of 12 employees for a year’s worth of leadership training.
Participants report that the academy, now in its second year, is a rousing success.
“Those four hours would fly by,” said Communication Studies professor Matthew Ward, a first-cohort member from 2021-22.
Topics covered in the first year were: Leadership 101; Effective Planning; Diversity, Equity & Inclusion; Communication; Personnel 101; Decisive Leadership; Innovation & Change; and Charting Your Path. The second cohort swapped out Effective Planning for Employee Engagement, which Vitelli chose as the theme for the campus in 2022-23.
Participants read books, articles and case studies to prepare for each session, then meet as a group with Vitelli for activities and Zoom calls with guest speakers, usually one of Vitelli’s colleagues from within the California Community College system.
Vitelli’s goal with the academy is to nurture employees to reach their potential, preparing them to take on bigger leadership roles within the college and influence how the college achieves its mission.
“I’m still a work in progress,” said Raul Alvarez, Associated Students of Merced College Student Support Coordinator and a participant in this year’s academy. “I’m excited about what I’m going to learn and how I’ll implement those things.”
Valerie Albano, Dean of Allied Health, Child Development, Kinesiology & Public Safety, applied for the first cohort to better serve the college in her work with the Greenbriar Project, a local farming initiative that has teamed with the college to study hemp production. It also jumpstarted her work as dean.
“There was a broader set of skills I wanted to cultivate,” she said. “I was lucky to be selected.”
Ward and Albano both said they responded strongly to the Decisive Leadership session, which included a case study on what went wrong when eight people died on a single day in 1996 while climbing Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak.
“We did a case study on people who attempted to scale Mt. Everest, on the roles climbers take when they climb,” Ward said. “It talked about the importance of group cohesion, but also why it’s important to avoid groupthink.”
Their analysis echoed so strongly with a lesson Ward teaches his communication students that he used what he’d learned to improve that class.
Albano appreciated that the exercise expanded how she later worked through a challenge within allied health.
“As a scientist, I was so used to zeroing in on the minutiae,” she said. “I had to think bigger to figure out how to expand the nursing program. One article made a huge difference in how I think.”
Alvarez was struck by a book entitled “Developing the Leader Within You 2.0” by John C. Maxwell. The book outlines five levels of leadership: Position (people follow you because of your job title), Permission (people follow because they want to), Production (people follow because of what you’ve done for the organization), People Development (people follow because of what you’ve done for them), and Pinnacle (people follow because of who you are and what you represent).
“I realized I was already doing some of these things,” he said. “Like staying late to check in with the custodial department, making that sacrifice. The staff sees you there, sees that you want to learn what their daily responsibilities are—and not just within their job description, but their wants and needs.”
Vitelli and his staff did the same, listening intently to mold each academy experience to trainees’ needs. Hearing feedback about structure, coffee and meeting places, they altered sessions, brought in Starbucks and gave everyone Merced College blankets to sit on while outside.
Academy members appreciated the consideration. Then, with the smaller details nailed down, Albano could release the grip she had on her work.
“I can’t be the hero,” she said. “I am here to support students to become who they want to be. That’s leadership. I’m able to help our nursing students, to help our paramedic training program gain accreditation so we can train students for jobs and life. The academy showed me others who are doing the same thing. I don’t have to do it all.”
Alvarez, who balances a busy work and home life with his role as offensive coordinator of Golden Valley High School’s football team, was moved to implement the idea of a whiteboard to remember important but non-urgent activities.
“Usually I’m work, practice, home, work, practice, home,” he said. “I don’t think of the other things I should do like catching a movie with my wife. With the whiteboard, you write down non-job things you can do to improve your wellness. You do them so that when you get back to work, you have a different vigor. You’re not just here grinding.”
Ward had an epiphany after reading the book “Thanks for the Feedback” for the session on communication.
“That was the best book I read through the entire experience,” Ward said. “I finally realized why it’s so hard for us to receive positive feedback. I also used to provide a ton of feedback, and it must have overwhelmed my students. I learned to give just the most important bit.
“Honestly, I wish I’d read the book before I got on the tenure track last year. That process would not have been as stressful as I made it out to be.”
Participants also saw their relationships with Vitelli evolve.
“The funny thing about it is when you spend as much time with your president as we did, you naturally see him as more of a human being,” Ward said. “It can be very powerful.”
Merely completing the academy felt like a breakthrough.
“One of the biggest takeaways was knowing who was out there and what they do and looking at how we all apply ourselves,” Albano said.
Said Ward, “The academy not only gave me an opportunity to be an effective leader, but also to improve as an educator.”
Alvarez said the academy is already a success when it comes to engaging employees.
“As soon as a manager, supervisor or director shows they care, not just about your internal self, but about your growth within your job, you become more excited about your work,” he said. “Even after 16 years here, I now feel it’s never too late to improve. I hope there’s a way to offer the academy experience to even more people.”