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Learning Leadership: Faculty Training Supports People Skills

By E. Lauren Chambliss

It's 11 a.m. on a Thursday morning and 14 CALS faculty members have just been confronted with a sticky personnel drama that is a distressingly familiar situation in office politics.

In a team-building exercise, CALS faculty
members try to erect a tent while blindfolded.
Joe Ogrodnick/NYSAES

In a team-building exercise, CALS faculty members try to erect a tent while blindfolded.

As part of a week-long training in leadership skills, the faculty, including economists, plant breeders, and engineers, apply their considerable brainpower to a simulated organizational drama in which a normally high-functioning staff member is suddenly underperforming on the eve of a fictional department's big annual conference.

The faculty divides into small groups and discusses different approaches. Then an associate professor sits down at a desk for a conversation with the distraught "employee," an actress from the Cornell Interactive Theater Ensemble, while colleagues observe and offer suggestions on how best to manage the uncomfortable situation.

This is the stuff of nightmares for many academics, typically hired for their expertise in research, teaching, outreach, and visionary thinking.

But whether it is mentoring students, becoming chair of a department, leading a large grant with multiple researchers, or dealing with stakeholders and constituencies, faculty members are constantly confronted with organizational demands that require a level of personal interaction skills that are not necessarily inherited but learned, says Pam Strausser, MIL '87, senior human resources consultant with Cornell's Office of Organizational Development, and one of three program facilitators.

The leadership program, offered twice a year, is designed to enrich faculty members, understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as personal communicators, conflict managers, team builders, and change leaders. Participants say one of the benefits is engaging in free-flowing conversation and problem solving with peers from different CALS departments, which breaks down the "silo" mentality and opens their eyes to new opportunities and collaborations.