Leadership Growth Program pivots to innovative new model in the wake of COVID-19

The Leadership Growth Program (LGP) is an annual professional development opportunity for FAS staff to cultivate leadership skills through a curriculum of leadership principles, theory and concepts. With the COVID-19 pandemic shifting university operations, the LGP team found that they also had to pivot their program model in response to the pandemic. Together Director Emil Kresl and the 2020 LGP participants began exploring their options.

In previous years, LGP participants had to complete three deliverables. Their first deliverable required each individual to create a development plan for single leadership competency. The second deliverable was to research a leadership tool and present their findings to the class. The third deliverable was the capstone project and LGP’s claim to fame. The capstone project required participants to identify a problem or opportunity at the university and develop an implementation plan. The entire LGP experience relied heavily upon on-the-job learning.

By April 2020, the capstone projects were well underway. Participants were drafting their proposals and outlining presentations. However, as the realities of the pandemic set in, it became clear to Kresl and LGP participants that they needed to shift their focus to address the new and daunting challenges facing the UT community. His biggest takeaway from this challenge was to accept the change process.

 “Be OK with having to switch gears,” Kresl said. “It is easy to get discouraged in a constantly changing crisis. It is easy to give up.”

Determined to move forward, participants brainstormed ideas and decided to create group projects that would help the UT community and the FAS portfolio in the wake of the pandemic. Kresl explained that they looked at problems currently faced within UT. Much of that information came directly from the LGP participants’ daily work on campus as well as from discussions within FAS leadership meetings. Such issues included lack of budgetary funding, revenue shortfalls and workload imbalances. As a result of their efforts, two projects were then defined: UT Swap and Trees for Treasures.

The UT SWAP concept was based on the popular “Nextdoor” app where communities share resources, needs and availabilities. According to the team, UT SWAP provides a new platform to encourage departments to exchange goods or services within UT. Benefits are two-fold as it allows the university to comply with Texas statutes governing the disposition of surplus property, and it gives departments the ability to reduce operational expenses.

Utilities and Energy Management Strategic Support Manager Isidora Sanchez, commented on what she is most proud of about the UT SWAP project by echoing a statement from UT Interim President Jay Hartzell.

“When facing struggles and uncertainty, we need people who can think creatively, develop workable solutions and solve difficult problems,” he said.

“Our team projects are great examples of this and a call to action for others to follow our lead,” Sanchez said. “During this difficult time, we need to rely on each other’s talents and strengths to continue to develop workable solutions that will help the university community.”

The second group project, Trees for Treasure, focused on using a natural resource, lumber from trees harvested on campus, that might otherwise go to waste. According to the Trees for Treasure report, as new buildings are erected on campus, UT Landscape Services takes the trees and has them milled into lumber. Most of the lumber is stored in a warehouse at Pickle Research Campus. The Trees to Treasure group proposed using this valuable resource in partnership with local craftspeople to create unique, UT-branded gift items.

Campus Environmental Center Coordinator and member of the LGP Trees for Treasure project team Brianna Duran said that she was particularly proud of how the project brought together multiple FAS units to do something innovative. Each of the units made a unique contribution to the project that they would not have been able to carry out on their own.

“I think breaking out of our silos and developing these types of collaborations is key to making positive change for our university, and I’m proud that our project demonstrates this principle,” Duran said.

After the 2020 LGP participants presented the two projects to FAS leadership on August 13, Kresl noted his admiration for LGP participants, past and present.

“Every year I’m in awe,” Kresl said. “It is a testament to the fact that FAS hires well. These people do amazing work for this portfolio, and I think it is important for leadership to listen.”

Their work did not end with the formal presentations. Kresl and the LGP participants continue to explore how to make these important projects a reality.

LGP’s pivot this year not only exemplified its participants’ leadership skills but also showed how adept these future leaders are at modeling FAS’s core values of innovation, teamwork and stewardship.