Learning to be a leader

When Karen Johnson received a letter from Department of Personnel Administration about an upcoming leadership course through Sacramento State University, she was intrigued. Johnson, who was then deputy director at the state Board of Equalization, was unopposed to going back to school if it meant performing her job better.

So she quickly signed up for the first annual “Leadership for the Government Executive” course. And after the opening session in November 2006, she knew she had found something special.

“I really wanted the training,” she said. “I found it very beneficial, relevant and practical.”

Eight months later, Johnson joined 48 other course graduates from many other state departments. But the class didn’t end there. The grads took down their classmates’ phone numbers and e-mail addresses and promised to stay in touch.

“We design (the course) to help leaders network so they can build strong working relationships,” said Carla Vincent, program manager at Sacramento State College of Continuing Education, which runs the program. She called the building of connections “a cost-effective way of resolving issues that face all of state government.”

“So they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they run into a problem,” she said.

David Gilb, DPA director, spoke at the graduation ceremony. In an interview, he called Johnson an “outstanding” participant.

“We were looking to nominate mid-upper management level types who were ready to assume leadership positions,” said Gilb.
Classes typically hold more than 30 students. Three separate “leadership” classes are currently in operation.

The course focuses on setting goals and helping students form a company vision, coach employees and find ways to communicate effectively with clients. It features guest speakers, role playing and homework, from reading business articles to researching case studies.

“One case study was a financial analysis on WD-40,” said Johnson, now the deputy director of the Department of Health Care Services. “We studied how to reinvigorate (the spray) and broaden the product line.”

Group exercises pitted four or five students together to brainstorm different aspects of leadership and then make class presentations. The students were also given long-term assignments.

“Every participant is responsible for working on a program, any issue that is affecting their agency or applies to a statewide, leadership-driven issue,” said Vincent.

The course also touches on implementing information technologies, or IT, into the workplace and translating new computer programs into businesses.

“The course was put together to bring about change in how (state government departments) use technology appropriately,” explained David Gilb.

Chris Sablynsky is a course professor. “(The program) helps leaders manage complexity and deal with change,” he said.

“California’s executive-level state managers have a lot on their plate and need to solve problems effectively.”

Johnson said the majority of her classmates were just as passionate as she was toward the class input. It’s been half a year since she graduated the program, and she credits it with enhancing her leadership skills. She’s also reached out to her former students and plans to meet with them several times a year.

“Two weeks ago we came together along with (university) representatives and talked about our experiences with coaching and mentoring,” she said.

The College of Continuing Education offers several classes in the areas of state government and private industry, and it provides classes for people at various supervisory and management levels.

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