Managers at West Virginia University are changing their approach to leadership because of a question the University took to heart.

When Margaret Phillips started as WVU’s vice president of Human Resources in 2006, she met a new supervisor who was eager to do right by her employees.

“Where can I go to learn how to be a really good supervisor here at WVU?” the new employee asked HR.

That question led the University to develop a program focused on its 1,700 supervisors. Already the Mountaineer Leadership Academy, in its second year, has drawn national attention.

“It’s important to the efficient operation of the University to have strong leadership at all levels,” Phillips said. “It leads to good stewardship of human and fiscal resources, helps create a healthy work environment and helps with recruitment and retention of the strongest employees—who themselves become leaders. With the pressures facing the University in the coming years, this becomes even more important if we are to continue along the path to becoming the kind of world renowned institution we all envision.”

Listen to Sara Bishop, who has been in the program two years, discuss how MLA helps departments around WVU to better communicate and recognize each others' contributions to the university.

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KelliJo McNemar, senior training and development specialist, and the staff in Training and Development have built a program that takes supervisors from across all areas of WVU. The academy puts them in a safe environment where they can ask important questions, get feedback, discuss how to handle the challenges of management and leadership, and recognize their own strengths while forming relationships that make the University more connected.

The first year starts with addressing important issues because managers need to know who to call when they have questions.

“I’ve had a lot of managers say to me: ‘Oh, we know this,’” McNemar said. “But when they are finished with the training program, I will overhear them saying to each other, ‘I didn’t know that.’”

Once participants successfully complete a comprehensive assessment that looks at their strengths in the first year, they progress to the second year where they apply their knowledge by building a team to complete a project. After teams are formed from participants with a variety of complementary strengths, they choose a task, such as developing a global citizenship class for students or enhancing the electronic research administration.

At the annual academy graduation in June, Provost Michele Wheatly applauded the participants, their mentors and the trainers for strengthening the University.

“I’m just so glad we have these leadership opportunities to train people,” Wheatly said, “because I think it’s when we start to appreciate others in the workplace and solve some of our workplace problems in the workplace that we don’t have to have a chain of command whereby we have grievances and we have very unhappy individuals because it would really be so much better if we could solve these problems before they escalate.”

The academy is working toward preventing problems before they happen by building relationships and enhancing skills. And it’s training managers to be ready to take positions within the University as nearly 30 percent of its workforce becomes eligible to retire by 2012.

Adam Baus, who just completed his first year in the MLA program, talks about how it has benefited himself, his staff and those he serves.

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Even experienced managers see more clearly the need to match workers’ skills with their tasks to result in worthwhile products and engaged employees.

Sara Bishop, assistant director for enterprise systems development in the Office of Information Technology, just completed her second year in the program.

“I’m making sure I address the differences in my people and learning how to better communicate,” Bishop said. “Maybe I’ve always written things down for somebody, and I find out, no, they need a picture and then that tells them what to do, and they’re much more comfortable with that approach.”

Adam Baus, senior program coordinator in Community Medicine at WVU, said the academy gave him an opportunity to develop his own leadership skills.

“A supervisor could go to MLA and personally benefit the group they’re working with and the folks they’re supervising,” Baus said. “I think you become a better supervisor by going through the program.”

WVU is making an investment in its people through the academy with resources and commitment. The University spends approximately $700 a year on each participant in the first two levels of the academy. The participants’ own supervisors have to be supportive if they are to be involved, and of course, the attendees have to be willing to dedicate their time and energy to succeed in the program. Mentors also give their time to support the professional development of each participant.

Before MLA started, the data showed that University employees spent an average of three hours a year in formal training. During the first level of the academy alone 48 hours of training is offered.

Two years after MLA began, other universities have taken notice. To build the MLA program, McNemar collaborated with Gallup – a consulting and research organization for major corporations, and education, government and nonprofit groups around the world. Through that partnership, she was invited to present key points from MLA at the company’s Strengths in Education conference.

The conference, held in June at Gallup University in Omaha, Neb., included 200 people from 16 schools. McNemar, scheduled to give a 45-minute presentation on MLA, watched in amazement as the topic attracted at least 50 people, prompting attendees to bring in chairs from the hall or sit on the floor after the available seats were taken.

At the end of her session, McNemar asked the attendees to share two ideas they would take back to their organizations.

One woman had her answer ready.

“I’ve already e-mailed our Division of Human Resources and told them to contact you because WVU is doing great work training the supervisors there,” she said.

By Diana Mazzella
Communications Specialist
WVU News and Information



CONTACT: Chelle Adams, Director of Training & Development
304-293-8252 or

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