From Office Holder to Thought Leader

August 28, 2014
Jenny Li Fowler

Here’s how you prepare for the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Senior Executives in State and Local Government executive education program:
“Be open to being wrong. Be patient with yourself. Be curious about yourself.”
- David King, faculty chair.
There is a lot about the course that is indicative of such programs — lectures, discussions, group activities, and so on. The sessions have familiar names like “Leadership and Authority,” “Decision Making,” and “Recognizing Public Value.” But at S&L the participating faculty help connect dots that once seemed not only improbable but impossible, and that is when transformation happens.
“From the start I assumed that completing the program would make me more marketable, and I assumed that was the primary benefit of participation,” says Kurt Wilson, city manager from Stockton, California, who earned a Certificate of Completion from the program in July. “Now I see things differently because I am now so driven to fix the organization I'm already with that it is hard to imagine leaving. I am more deeply committed and more well prepared for solving the problems of my organization.”
Darden Rice, a city councilor from St. Petersburg, Florida, also completed the program in July.
“My perspective and insight definitely shifted,” says Rice. “We immersed ourselves in a challenging environment to push ourselves to look at leadership in a new way. In addition to bringing back a whole new perspective and energy to lead.”
“Wow,” is something you hear often during the lectures. It’s like a steady stream of "aha!" moments for three weeks during which time the journey is equally motivating and exhausting for participants.
“I think a lot of people come to the program believing they are more constrained in their work and in their lives than they really are,” says King. “By the end of the second week we can hear people exhaling.”
“The days you come back you’re just spinning,” says Lynn Johnson HKSEE 2013, director of Social Services for Jefferson County, Colorado. “It took me about six months for everything to register and gel. The biggest goal for me was that what I learned from HKS didn’t go into a drawer and gather dust.”
At S&L participants engage in both a safe zone and a danger zone — safe in that they are encouraged to share anything they would like to about themselves without worrying about professional repercussions. But for some, that type of environment is frightening; thus, the topics feel dangerous. Participants may also find themselves directly facing their fears. The results carry much weight with those who take part in the program.
“I've learned to question some of my well-established practices,” says Kurt Wilson. “I now find myself in a state of constant reflection as I apply the strategies and revise my own thought processes to reach a better public policy outcome.”
“Taking smart risks is required, and experiential learning is powerful stuff!” says Larry Wolk HKSEE 2014, executive director and chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Throughout the course participants are reminded that, “we want you to be doing things differently,” says King. “Treat beliefs as hypotheses, and take nothing about yourself as given.”
Beyond Wiener Auditorium
In 2013, an S&L class took on Lynn Johnson’s human trafficking legislation reform work as a group project, resulting in meaningful change for people in the state of Colorado.
Johnson’s class helped address questions around education, awareness and protection tied to human trafficking in Colorado. The ideas and actions developed by the class formed the basis of a new law that took effect on July 1, 2014.
The new law spoke not only to the power of ideas generated in the classroom, but also to the power of executive education alumni networks. Three lead co-sponsors of the bill were previous participants in the State and Local program, including Representative Beth McCann HKSEE 2011, senators Linda Newell HKSEE 2010 and John Kefalas HKSEE 2011.
“It helped us all work together in a really great way,” says Johnson. “We had a drive to do something bigger than ourselves and we had the motivation to do this together. The class helps establish relationships that help gets laws passed.”
Johnson says she is constantly running into program alumni who will mention very specific lessons gleaned from Marty Linsky’s class. Linsky is an adjunct lecturer in public policy who teaches exclusively in executive education programs. His focus is on adaptive leadership and his classes are known to be highly charged, emotional, and at times, raw.
“There are so many program participants in my area, and they wanted to meet with me before and after I attended the program. These are high-level people I can call and bounce ideas off of at any time,” says Johnson. “There is a sense of obligation and accountability that we uphold and expect from one another as state and local alumni — to take what you’ve learned and to put it into action.”
Professional and Personal Impact
Upon leaving, the course participants have been known to come out of the closet, become passionate activists, and make other changes—both large and small— not only in their careers, but in their personal lives.
“We think of the program as a three-week intervention in people’s personal and professional lives because you can’t separate the two,” says David King.
“Even though I preach work-life balance to my staff I have not always followed my own advice,” says Kurt Wilson. “One of the professors keyed in on this topic with one of my classmates and I witnessed the transformation as he connected the dots. Seeing this from a peer and having it reinforced by a Harvard professor somehow added a sense of credibility or a feeling that it was really OK.”
“I’m a better mom, wife, employer, and employee. It was a growth experience,” says Lynn Johnson.
“I value staff and colleagues in a whole new way,” says Darden Rice. “I value my constituents’ feedback on a whole new level. I think about what kind of long-term projects I can sink my teeth into that will require diligence, patience, and courage.”
Those who attend S&L come because of the titles they hold — fire chief, councilmember, city manager. Many leave claiming new titles — delegate, trustee, collaborator, thought leader.

State and Local course in Wiener Auditorium

Shelby Chodos, adjunct lecturer in public policy, lectures on finance to the State and Local course participants in Wiener Auditorium.


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