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Leadership Development Through Group Projects

An unlikely group of colleagues at a Texas community college made a significant contribution to the strategic plan.
University Business, Sep 2006

Professor and Chair of ESL/Developmental Writing and Reading. Continuing Education Program Director. Advisor, International Students. Professor and former Chair of Chemistry. Director of Workforce and Economic Development. Three women and two men. As fellows in the inaugural class of Collin County Community College's Academy for Collegiate Excellence--the internal leadership program for faculty and staff--this unlikely group of colleagues working for the Plano, Texas college, was assigned to the strategic planning project. Our charge was to increase employee involvement in the college strategic planning process, which was only three months away.

We discovered that group projects can be tremendous tools in college leadership development programs that advance leadership skills of all participants. In assigning members to the group, however, organizers should consider diversity of background and area. Depending on the makeup of the group and the nature of the project, the result can be a win-win situation for both the participants and the college.

Ours certainly was an eclectic group with diverse backgrounds, interests and strengths. Our expertise and experience in strategic planning ranged from well versed to no clue. Unbeknownst to us we were embarking on an ideal environment to accomplish the leadership program goals. When a diverse group of people from different areas of the college work together on a common project, as in our case, fertile ground is created for individuals to learn and sharpen vital leadership skills while producing a piece of work that is useful for the college.

Initially, none of the group members saw this project as central to increasing our leadership skills, but at our first meeting we seemed to click. We had a lively discussion of what we each knew from our experiences and started realizing what we had to do. We split up the responsibilities for research, each taking a chunk that related to our area and agreed to meet in two weeks. After the initial meeting, each of us walked away energized and excited about the task at hand. We didn't realize how much we would gain from our endeavor.

Our team gained momentum with weekly meetings, brainstorming sessions, and the knowledge acquired from research and from interviews with key individuals. We found that our objective should not only be to increase employee involvement in the strategic planning process but also to elevate everyone's thinking to a strategic level, even that of senior leadership team members. The process allowed each one to refine their questioning skills and improved their ability to analyze and think more strategically.

Aside from being highly motivated and dynamic individuals, the diversity of our personalities, areas of expertise and talents yielded a very unique situation. It is well documented that diversity within a team affords different individual skills and experiences as well as conflict, all essential components of a productive environment. If conflict is managed constructively, diversity also ensures that team members play off one another and increase the creativity of the group. In resolving conflict there is the development and practice of negotiation skills, ones needed in leadership positions.

We had the opportunity to reach consensus by working through our differences, cope with small failures along the way, rejoice small victories, manage time as we worked under the stress of a quickly approaching deadline, collaborate and communicate efficiently, and respect each other's views and ideas. The culmination of our team's work was the facilitation of discussion on strategic planning among college leaders at the annual administrator's retreat. Additionally, our college president included the research we had done for our project in a presentation he gave to the college board of trustees.

Many individuals do not see a group project as important in building their individual leadership skills. Such an assignment is typically met with disdain. Traditionally in academia, individuals tend to view learning in general as an internal and individualized process. Consequently, there could be a lack of cohesiveness and a high level of conflict within the group. Although the individuals end up learning and developing individually, the outcome of their work may not be as useful or of impact to the college.

Established research on team development by Tuckman (1965) shows there is a progression through four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Typically, in order to reach the performing stage, a group usually goes through the other three stages first. The forming stage is a period of exploration where team members are often cautious and guarded in their interactions. The storming stage is characterized by competition, strained relationships, and varying degrees of conflict between members. Storming deals with issues of power, leadership, and decision making. Norming results in cohesiveness among team members; they discover that they actually have common interests with each other. Teams reach the performing stage as a result of working through the first three stages. By this time, they have learned to work together as a fully functioning team. Progression through the first three stages can take from weeks to several months.

Looking back we realize how odd of a group we were. We didn't take much time to go through the typical phases of team development or group dynamics. We connected from the start. Trust between the group members was established fairly early in our process. Everyone was excited and ready to work. We looked to each other in areas where we didn't have expertise. This may have been due to the individuals all being at about the same ripeness for leadership development, the time constraint and knowing that we hadn't much time, the nature of the project, the combination of our personalities, or possibly a mixture of all of the above. In any case, it was a win-win situation for the fellows and the college. When the college's top management team put their trust in us enough to have us facilitate and lead the administrative retreat session on strategic planning, we knew we had achieved a leadership role within the college.

There is a natural progression from teamwork to individual leadership skill building. Although it is unusually for people from different areas of the college to collaborate in day-to-day work, it proved to be quite valuable in our case. The results were significant not only to the individuals but also for the college.

Amina K. El-Ashmawy is a professor of chemistry and Pyeper Wilkins is director of workforce and economic development for Collin County Community College. Amina K. El-Ashmawy, Collin County Community College District, 2800 E. Spring Creek Pkwy, Plano, TX 7507,

Pyeper Wilkins, Collin County Community College District, 4800 Preston Park Boulevard,

Plano, TX 75093,

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