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Piloting a Program That Betters How AU Works

AU's first supervisors academy aims to build a culture of belonging and thriving.

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The first supervisors academy aims to build a culture of belonging and thriving.

On a mid-May Wednesday morning, Shilpa Das Gupta and 35 other AU supervisors log into Zoom for the first of multiple opportunities to engage with each other through the pilot of a custom leadership training program that helps them better foster a culture of belonging and thriving for their staff.  

Nominated by campus leaders, they are the first class of the American University Supervisor Academy. It’s the culmination of 18 months of research, planning, and refining that the Office of Human Resources Talent Strategies team kicked off by consulting with a variety of stakeholders—including members of Staff Council and Senior Administrative Council—about the competencies managers need to better How AU Works by leading and modeling Inclusive Excellence, says program lead Sheila Way, director of leadership and organizational development. Both are strategic imperatives in AU’s Changemakers for a Changing World strategic plan.  

“In alignment with the strategic goals, the Supervisor Academy provides a connection to support supervisors, so they can have the chance to develop skills to be inclusive and equitable in a very practical way. We wanted that practical layer, so that it’s a broad conversation around what those skills look like in working with people,” Way says. 

Once Talent Strategies had defined and vetted the content to be covered, they collaborated with HR Answerbox and Nonprofit HR’s equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice (EDIJ) practice to build out and facilitate the pilot, Way says. Its focus is developing practical skills managers need personally and professionally to successfully lead teams in the new work environment.  

After a one-hour introduction to the program, the cohort participates in 14 hours of training on the foundations of good people management—seminars on the supervisor’s role, inclusion and belonging, communication and relationship management, conflict resolution, enabling change, and coaching and feedback—with the opportunity to apply what they are learning through case studies and actually using the tools that are shared with them. The training includes a four-hour module on creating an inclusive culture with emphasis on understanding diversity, equity, and inclusion; recognizing microaggressions; and mitigating implicit bias. Cohort members also have the opportunity to discuss their learning, ask questions, and share experiences with each other outside of the seminars by participating in at least one of three office hour sessions or utilizing the Teams site devoted to the academy. 

Now mid-July, Das Gupta, the University Library’s e-learning support services manager, thinks the pilot is “going great” and is “timely” as it acknowledges the changing needs of the workforce caused by COVID-19 including AU’s implementation of remote work options for its employees. “Considering that we are still healing from a long pandemic phase, a lot has changed in terms of work ethics and the professional environment. [The academy] is addressing these changing needs and guiding us in building a cohesive, adaptable work environment. With supervisors and managers of various experience levels participating, it’s a great platform to learn and exchange ideas,” Das Gupta says.  

She says it is helpful to learn from the real-life experiences and challenges of fellow supervisors in the pilot cohort, many of whom have been in supervisory positions for a long time and have led teams of varying sizes. “Getting to hear the issues they have faced and how they have overcome those challenges is not only insightful, but also lives up to the true value of this pilot program,” Das Gupta says.  

Most members of the pilot cohort agree. Eighty-two percent of the cohort responded to a mid-June survey, which revealed that the overall favorable rating for the quality of the facilitation is 92 percent while the participant experience and content come in at 83 percent and 82 percent, respectively, Way reports.  

The cohort’s final meeting is in mid-August, and, in that hour, they will give feedback about the entirety of their Supervisor Academy experience. Coupled with survey data and anecdotal comments collected throughout the pilot, the Talent Strategies team will further refine the program and launch the next Supervisor Academy in October, Way says. The goal: AU’s more than 500 managers participate in the academy within the next 2.5 years.  

“We want to validate our assessment and design [with the pilot]. You only are as good as you think you are until you put it to a road test, and that’s been the consistent approach in practice for any of the learning content we build,” Way says, “We wanted to make sure we get the input from the folks that we want to impact, so that’s what we’re looking for in the pilot. We’ll use that feedback to polish and fine tune.”  

*Garner is a member of the American University Supervisor Academy cohort.