Leadership Program Can Make World of Difference

Published in UT San Diego, October 20, 2014

Rule No. 217: It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that will kill you. Now let’s suppose you subscribe to that rule. Where do you go, and whom do you call? And it’s not Ghostbusters. It is called “leaving the office and taking a class.”

We are willing to argue that the class can be anything from pottery making to stargazing — but to maximize the solution for our nascent CEOs, may we politely suggest a class at the Harvard Business School in Boston.

If your company is a nonprofit, that cost might be prohibitive. But, wait, have we got a deal for you. Ten years ago the Harvard Business School Club of San Diego started providing scholarships to send San Diego nonprofit CEOs and executive directors back to HBS in Cambridge for a one-week program, Strategic Perspectives in Non-Profit Management. So far, 21 San Diegans have attended.

The results can be impressive.

Voices for Children CEO Sharon Lawrence, who attended in 2006, credits her participation to helping the organization develop the strategy and metrics to embark upon their vision, “Serve Every Child.” Voices operates the court appointed special advocate (CASA) program for San Diego County.

“Ultimately the executive director must make decisions in the best interests of the organization. Sometimes we are flying by the seat of our pants even though we do research and make lists of pros and cons. I learned there isn’t one thing that works for every organization,” said Lawrence, who has led the organization since 1997. “When you’re immersed for a week, your brain is on fire.”

During the weeklong program, the 140 participants (leaders in nonprofits from all over the world) live, study, attend class and eat together and with the professors. They utilize the Harvard case study Socratic method to discuss how they would handle/approach key leadership and management issues and challenges that have been faced by other leaders of both for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

When he attended in 2012, John Ohanian, CEO of 2-1-1 San Diego, was grappling with ensuring the sustainability of his organization while managing growth and change. “One of my most important take-aways was the need for leaders to share their challenges with others both to take off pressure and to get perspective. Sometimes when you’re the leader, you feel alone,” he said.

He said that his participation helped him focus on 2-1-1’s mission and not get distracted. The organization is a resource and information hub that connects people throughout San Diego County with community, health and disaster services through a free, 24/7 stigma-free confidential phone service and searchable online database. Fifteen years ago, it was a department within the United Way.

“The program gave me the space and time to reflect, which I couldn’t have done in San Diego or in my own office,” he said, adding that the organization has doubled in size since he joined in 2007.

Both Lawrence and Ohanian said their favorite case was about polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The case examines how Shackleton led his crew to safety after their ship became trapped in ice in the Antarctic in 1914. Shackleton successfully shifted his objectives and responsibilities from completing a historic march to ensuring the survival of all 28 expedition members. How he maintained morale, loyalty and commitment during almost two years in the Antarctic contains lessons for leaders of all organizations.

“We started sending nonprofit leaders to the HBS program as part of living up to our mission, ‘Continuing to educate leaders who make a difference in the world and make San Diego a great place to live and work,’ ” said Edward Hughes, the San Diego club president.

Applications for the program at Harvard Business School are due March 31. The club pays the entire $5,250 program fee and also provides a $750 travel allowance. More information is available on the club website at hbssandiego.org/index.html.

For those non-profit leaders who can’t leave San Diego, the HBS San Diego club offers a nine-week local program where you can do the case study method and catch a bit of crimson without having to brave the winter. A new environment and a fresh perspective are available for $500.

And at the end of the program, you may finally understand the headline — Harvard beats Yale 29-29.

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