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NEWS | June 28, 2021

DMA managers participate in inaugural Leader Development Course

By Mike Vrabel, Virginia National Guard Public Affairs Office

Virginia Department of Military Affairs supervisors participated in the inaugural DMA Leader Development Course June 15-17, 2021, at the Virginia National Guard Sergeant Bob Slaughter Headquarters at Defense Supply Center Richmond, Virginia. The course was led by retired Brig. Gen. Walt Mercer, the DMA Chief Operations Officer, and retired Command Sgt. Maj. Tim White, the DMA instructor and trainer. 

Ten current leaders and managers from departments across the DMA participated in group sessions and listened to guest presenters on a variety of topics intended to help them become more effective leaders. 

“This class is another goal we developed in our DMA Strategic Planning process,” said Mercer. “Just as a few years ago we created a Supervisor Course for newer leaders, the Leader Development Course was created this year to build our bench of talent and focus on our more senior leaders, but this course is much more focused on self assessment and reflection on your own leadership style, as well as building on your strengths and making a deliberate plan to get after your gaps as a leader.”

Guest lecturers included Deanna Goldstein from the Virginia Department of Human Resource Management, and Steve Bourgeois, a retired ordnance colonel and retired GS-15 with the Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Virginia. Goldstein led class discussions on creating new communications habits. Bourgeois provided insights on effective time management, best practices for meetings and organizational change and improvement. 

Mercer provided much of the instruction and led group breakout sessions during the course, allowing the participant to engage with and learn from each other. 

“I really enjoyed the break out sections and the opportunity to network with other leaders to gain perspective on how we are received by one another, and having the opportunity to learn how we can improve our working relationships,” said Michelle Claiborne, the Human Resource Manager for the Virginia Army National Guard. 

“It really started with a small group of DMA staff sitting down and helping me to think through what key topics and activities would most benefit our staff in a new course,” said Mercer. “Tim White and I worked on the modules and basically we created the lesson plans and POI from scratch.”

Before the course began, participants began self-assessment and coaching work in preparation for the class. 

“Students who complete this course have done some extensive 360 and self-survey work, to include one-on-one coaching time with a state HR professional coach, before the 3-day class even starts,” said Mercer. “Once we arrive for the three days, each day has a different focus and various activities.”

White said the assessment, which provided honest answers to their performance as managers before the course began, was a key part of their learning experience. It graded each leader in categories such as “inspires a shared vision,” and “values people.”

“The eight-question 360 Leadership Assessment played a key in helping the student leaders attending the course have an honest 360 assessment of their strengths and weaknesses as a leader,” said White. “The assessment was completed prior to the course by subordinates, peers and supervisors of the students.” 

On the final day of the course, Mercer guided the class through creating mission and vision statements for their staff sections to help focus the “why” of what they do, and helped them plan for how to achieve their departmental goals while taking care of their employees. 

“A large focus of this course is on building a team and on creating a positive organization climate built upon trust,” said Mercer. “Graduates have not only done quite a bit of self-reflection and learning about how they lead and communicate, but they have developed a draft mission and vision statement for their departments, and have mapped out a written plan for themselves on how they will improve on their areas of gap or weaknesses they have identified, and also a specific action plan for their own departments or sections that would improve their team.”

“My take away from the course is to be more vigilant to the needs of staff and to ensure that I am providing everyone the time they need one on one,” said Claiborne. “Most importantly, I learned that my focus tends to be on staff outside of HR. It will be a renewed focus to offer my team the time and attention they need, as well as ensuring that I acknowledge them for their hard work and dedication to DMA.”

While this was the inaugural class for the Leader Development Course, the intent is to hold it twice annually. The first group of attendees was hand-picked by DMA leadership, but sections and departments will have the chance to identify and nominate leaders who could benefit from future courses. 

As for the first class, Mercer was pleased that the hard work and planning paid off for the leaders taking the course, and hopes the benefits will be felt across their departments. 

“I would say that it is always a risky endeavor to create a course from scratch, as it is hard to know if it’s hitting the right things and if the lessons and activities are effective and create real growth and learning.  From the feedback from all ten of our first students, I can say with confidence that we got it right,” said Mercer. “If leaders apply these lessons within their own sections, there should be a trickle-down effect for all of our DMA staff, created by better leaders who are focused on improving trust and teamwork.”

“I hope we can continue this course and perhaps be offered a refresher from time to time,” said Claiborne. “I believe that we can learn so much from each other, and that we are always in need of learning how to better ourselves.”

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