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OD in Action

O.D. in Action: Alum Finds Program Fosters Organizational and Personal Change

Story by April Thompson; Photo by Gerald Sampson

Many students go back for a master’s degree in hopes of someday being in Rod Allen’s position: a seasoned human resources leader doing work he loves at a Fortune 100 company. So why would Allen travel from New York to Washington, DC, for a monthly three-day weekend of classes over two years and add hours of schoolwork to the demands of his international job?

Allen, a newly minted graduate of the AU Master’s of Science in Organization Development (OD), was lured back to the classroom for a few reasons.

“Even though I have a fair amount of work experience, I felt the program’s focus on the scholar-practitioner would add breadth and depth to my knowledge base and enhance the quality of my work,” said Allen, international vice president of human resources at New York Life International, a global insurance company based in New York.

SPA’s pioneering organization development program attracts many well-established working professionals like Allen. While students hail from many different types of workplaces, from big corporations to small nonprofits, all graduate ready to grapple with the most challenging element of a changing organization: people.

For that reason, the cohort method of learning, whereby a small group of students begin and finish a program together, was a particular draw for the exec and Northwestern alum.

“It’s an opportunity to observe yourself in a group and observe a group in its development over time. You don’t necessarily get that in a workplace” where there is constant turnover, said Allen.

Another draw was the program’s final practicum project. This experience offers students a chance to apply their education as OD consultants to clients--real organizations--facing real organizational challenges. 

“I wanted to work with a client in the nonprofit sector, as all my work has been in corporate America. I also wanted to work with an organization that would really benefit from the consultation and not just support my learning,” said Allen.

For his practicum, Allen worked with the leadership of a nonprofit health care organization. The master’s candidate facilitated sessions with the leadership team, during which they were able to identify critical threats to the organization’s growth: issues of trust, communication, and collaboration. As a consultant, Allen helped his client create a plan and to begin to take steps toward desired change.

The practicum process also gave Allen insight into the change processes at his own organization, New York Life. There, working in conjunction with an external consultant (the role he played in his practicum), Allen is leading a global effort to define strategic principles and identify work-culture changes required to achieve growth goals for the global insurance company. The process, intense and complex, convenes 40 senior leaders from the seven countries where New York Life operates every six months to address these issues. Having completed the MSOD program, Allen feels much more equipped to handle this daunting leadership challenge.

“I have a lot more resources available to me now. I have ready access to a theory base to support me at each step of the process. I have colleagues and professors I know I can reach out to for reflections or shadow consulting,” he said.

At the end of the day, organizational change is personal, and Allen sees his own role and needs for growth more clearly with the MSOD program in his rearview window.

“My leadership style tends to be collaborative, but in my corporate role there is a strong need for me to set direction, which is often uncomfortable for me. The cohort helped me to recognize that and work on adapting my style,” said Allen. “Having completed the program, I now have a clear picture of where I still want to grow as a leader.”