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Unleash passion and potential

January 1, 2010
by Ann Borders
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An organization's leadership academy is the foundation of its culture

In the olden days, there was a joke in behavioral health: “If you keep a pulse long enough, eventually you'll be promoted to a managerial position.”

Truth is, most organizations take professional development quite seriously and are dedicated to creating career paths for their best and brightest employees. Here in central Indiana, Cummins Behavioral Health Systems is striving to create a learning community that provides employees, persons served, and board members with diverse learning and growth opportunities. We believe that leadership development constitutes the heart and soul of this effort.

Why leadership development?

According to a study of 775 organizations conducted by Bersin and Associates1, companies with the highest leadership development ratings enjoyed a 600 percent increase in business impact and a 570 percent improvement in overall employee retention over organizations doing the least in this area.

At Cummins, leadership development came as a result of strategic planning goals that emphasized organizational learning at many levels. Included within the plan were the establishment of high performance teams (see “From top-down to team-based,” Behavioral Healthcare, April 2008), best practice councils to promote shared learning within four clinical specialty areas, consumer and family learning opportunities, a leadership academy, and a management school.

At the heart of these developmental initiatives is our leadership academy. “In establishing the leadership academy, we wanted to accomplish two goals,” reflects Tom Iles, Vice President for Human Resources. “We wanted to expose current leaders to organizational best practices and promote leadership training and career path advancement for all staff. Unlike many other models, Cummins' approach is to make the leadership academy available to any employee who is interested in attending.”

Participants in the leadership academy at cummins behavioral health system
Photo by Steve Harlan. Participants in the leadership academy at Cummins Behavioral Health System.

The response was overwhelming. Human resources specialist Dawn Stoops notes, “Within three hours of the CEO's e-mail announcement, the first leadership academy class was filled. By the next day, we had enough requests to fill a second class. Our staff is very eager to participate.”

Cummins' leadership academy model consists of four all-day sessions held quarterly over the course of a year. Between sessions, participants work on various projects and assignments. In one year-long assignment, the class studied Cummins' Leadership Principles and determined how they could be revised to reflect established best practices.

Leadership vs. management

Early into curriculum development for the leadership academy, Cummins identified the need for both management training and leadership development. Our experience was reflected in comments by Josh Bersin, president of Bersin and Associates, as he elaborated on his company's research: “We find that most organizations confuse management training with leadership development.” Such was the case at Cummins. As we discussed the leadership academy proposal with our senior managers, they suggested topics such as budgeting, data analysis, legal and regulatory compliance, business development, and similar management issues. As a result, we developed what we call Management School, where training is provided to existing leaders.

One of the primary findings of the Bersin study is that the business impact of leadership development programs is not determined by how much money you spend, but by how the programs are designed and executed. This proved to be true at Cummins. We performed all of the developmental work ourselves, as well as the training itself. The only costs were the time and travel involved, along with minimal direct expenses. The final session was held at a local state park, but even that cost was nominal.


We believe that the benefits have been significant. Course ratings and staff feedback have been extremely positive. While staff notes their appreciation of our investment in their professional development, they seem even more grateful for the organizational recognition that all employees have leadership potential. The academy has also given us an opportunity to identify talent that we otherwise might have overlooked. Within two months of graduation of our first class, three of the 17 participants had been promoted to leadership positions.

As we discussed leadership development with colleagues around the country, critical success factors emerged, with sustainability high on the list. A couple of CEOs mentioned that their organizations had created leadership development programs, but that they had vanished over time. Among the reasons for this drift were the high amount of organizational energy involved, budget cuts, and the loss of leadership development champions. Our goal, therefore, is to have multiple leaders, including leadership academy graduates, serve as faculty for each course session.

Another essential factor for a successful leadership training program is alignment of the course content with the organization's vision, values, and direction. At Cummins, for example, we train using the principles of high performance teams in support of our efforts to build team-based management and decision making.