Southwest Leadership Program Celebrates 25 Years of Public Sector Training

Feb. 14, 2018

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Southwest Leadership Program

When it comes to working efficiently, public sector leaders face daily challenges as technology forces them to learn new skills, budget cuts demand more creative solutions to problems and there is increased pressure to cultivate and nurture diversity among their employees.

Some categorize the challenges among public sector leaders as a crisis. A recent Oxford Economics study revealed that only 50 percent of public sector employees said their manager was committed to developing talent, and only 57 percent said their manager was able to inspire and motivate employees. Equally troubling, only 41 percent of reporting employees said their bosses used technology for competitive advantage. 

The good news is that more public sector leaders are learning about the Southwest Leadership Program, a five-day immersive educational program coordinated by the Eller College of Management and Eller Executive Education. More than 50 public servants attended the 25th Annual Southwest Leadership Program in late September 2017 at the Lodge at Ventana Canyon in Tucson.

“Our goal is to help public sector employees develop their leadership arsenal by learning best practices, establish professional networks with colleagues in the Southwestern region and rejuvenate their passion for leading teams to success,” said Paul Melendez, professor of practice in management and organizations and founder of the Center for Leadership Ethics.

The program consists of a combination of classroom instruction, guest lectures, group discussions, case studies and self-directed learning. Hands-on experience applying new skills provides reinforcement of learning concepts and develops competencies beyond typical learning. Participants earn a certificate in management and organizations from the University of Arizona and return to their public sectors with new skills and insights on a broad range of topics, enabling them to lead more effectively right away.

Joe Carella, assistant dean for the Eller Executive Education program, said public sector leaders need to assess their digital readiness and look forward, particularly as the Fourth Industrial Revolution changes the way we live and work.

“Government officials, leaders in non-profit organizations, healthcare executives, law enforcement and emergency response executives and others in the public sector need to anticipate and plan for how digital disruption will impact their organizations. There are some great opportunities for delivering better services for those who are proactive, as well as some fundamental challenges to address for those who lag behind,” Carella said.

Looking Back 25 Years

The Southwest Leadership Program has come a long way since Tanis Salant started it in 1992.

Initially, the program had a different format. Participants attended two days in Tucson in September and two days in Phoenix in December. Melendez, who was invited to lead the program while in the School of Public Administration and Policy with Salant, decided to revamp the program, moving it to Tucson for a week-long session to enhance the experience.

Looking back, Melendez is proud of how the program has evolved. “The Southwest Leadership Program began when George H. W. Bush was in office. Government at the federal, state and local levels over that time has expanded and contracted along with the economy and changes in political leadership. “Through all this, professionals have continued to answer the call to public service. Our role is to support these noble efforts by providing outstanding executive education programs to enhance their leadership capabilities.”

While attendees’ roles are diverse within their organizations, emergency services and law enforcement professionals have always made up the largest cohort of participants. Public organizations that have participated in the program include the City of Tucson, Town of Marana, Pima County, Gila County, Pinal County, Sierra Vista and the Tempe Police Department. Past participants have also traveled from New Mexico, Washington, D.C. and Canada. Arizona Building Officials, a professional association of building officials from throughout the state, has been the program’s longest standing financial supporter.

“Our program is a hybrid in terms of instruction,” Melendez said. “Presenters are consultants and Eller professors. Topics evolve over time. For example, generational analysis, engaging the media, emotional intelligence and innovation weren’t on the radar in 2005.”

Over the years, Melendez has noticed a desire and willingness by public sector leaders to examine and incorporate the best practices and thought leadership from the business sector into their organizations.

“The key to doing this is a sensitivity and recognition that the challenges and constraints are not the same. I’ve also noticed an increased interest in forming public/private sector partnerships in both sectors,” he said.

Several notable leaders credit the Southwest Leadership Program for helping them and their staff deal with unique challenges.

Tucson city manager Michael Ortega is an Eller MBA graduate who went through the program and now sends his staff.

“I’ve been pleased to offer my employees a broad view of leadership through their participation in the Southwest Leadership Program,” Ortega said. “The training has helped to develop the next tier of leaders in our organization, and has also helped my staff become confident enough to implement new processes and technology in a rapidly changing environment. This helps us provide excellent service to the community.”

Another Eller graduate, Gilbert Davidson, recently joined the State of Arizona as chief operating officer after working as Marana town manager for nearly 10 years. His experience with the Southwest Leadership Program dates back to 2006, when he was the city manager of Wilcox, Arizona.

Davidson said the Southwest Leadership Program’s format helps to bring to light real word issues and provides valuable networking opportunities. “Any time you can get away from the day to day bustle of things and take a moment to pause, think and reflect, it’s a good thing,” he said. “Anyone in leadership should encourage others to rest and re-evaluate in order to strengthen the organization.”

Davidson said the program is particularly beneficial to people in supervisory roles: “Just because someone is in a supervisory position, doesn’t mean that they know how to manage, lead and support a team. The program is a good reminder that no matter how large your organization, it is still made up of people. We have to keep striving and invest in people. Leadership training opportunities help to create a long-term culture that is transformative.”

The 2018 Southwest Leadership Program is set to take place September 17-21 at the Lodge at Ventana Canyon in Tucson. Learn more on the Eller Executive Education website.