Leadership Development: Leaders Are Made, Not Born

While many volunteers have the enthusiasm to guide an organization, they don’t always have the know-how. See how leadership development programs can help instill the skills and confidence it takes to lead.

Virtually no one comes out of the womb equipped to be a good volunteer leader, says Scott Brunner, CAE, executive vice president of the Georgia Pharmacy Association (GPHA). But while few people are ingrained with an innate ability to lead, the skills can be learned.

“Leadership is basically behaviors, and if you do the things that leaders do, there’s a better chance that you’ll be successful,” says Brunner, who, as an architect of several volunteer leadership development programs, has an idea of what he’s talking about.

His first foray into leadership development stems back almost 20 years when he was CEO of the Mississippi Association of Realtors.

“Back around 1996, I was young and full of ideas and had been aboard for a couple of years at MAR, and our leadership recognized that a number of them were coming into leadership roles and were feeling unprepared for the tasks,” Brunner says. “So we set about to create a program that would identify potential future leaders in the organization when they were very early in their leadership careers and put them through a series of retreats that would help equip them to be better leaders, not only at the state association level, but at the local association level and even in their firms and communities.”

The corporate world seems to see the advantages of leadership development. Of the $70 billion U.S. companies spent on corporate training in 2013—a 15 percent increase from the year before—the largest share went toward leadership development, according to the 2014 Corporate Learning Factbook. Viewed from another angle, a recent study from professional services firm Deloitte found that a majority of C-level execs don’t believe their direct reports have the skills to assume greater leadership roles within their organizations, largely stemming from lack of access to leadership training.

While volunteer leaders have different goals and objectives from those at the helm of corporations and other for-profits, the skills and confidence it takes to lead are universal, and having a program devoted to bolstering future leaders can be a win-win for any type of organization.

This was the case for LeadershipMAR, which was created not only to impart the skills and resources volunteer leaders needed to succeed, but also to tap talent and identify future leaders who could later serve the association.

“It was both self-serving and outward-focused at the same time because we were trying to get a better caliber of leader—a leader who at least felt better prepared and more knowledgeable in leadership tasks before them when they came into the role,” Brunner says.

Getting Better Acquainted

Loosely based on a model used by a number of chambers of commerce across the country, LeadershipMAR was designed as an invitation-only program to which MAR members are invited to apply and, if selected, pay to participate in a series of four or five retreats, each focusing on a different aspect of leadership. The program culminates in a high-profile graduation held in conjunction with the association’s convention.

The formats of the retreats, which usually take place in rustic, out-of-the-way locations, vary and are not entirely lecture-based. There are games, discussions about classic films such as The Shawshank Redemption and 12 Angry Men, and white-water rafting trips to help with team building.

Since helping to launch the MAR program, Brunner assisted in setting up the same template at the Virginia Association of Realtors, where he served as CEO from 2005 to 2013. He is now in the process of launching a similar leadership development program at GPHA.

While slightly different in focus, the three programs include a few similar threads, Brunner says. For example, all include an orientation element in which participants become better acquainted not only with the organizations, but with each other and themselves.

In addition to taking a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment, participants attend a session that focuses on skills needed to influence others. There’s also an element of team building and learning both how to lead and how to follow.

When you know about yourself, Brunner says, “you can surround yourself with other people who make up for your deficits and maximize your strengths.”

The three programs also incorporate sessions on practical leadership skills, such as running a meeting and public speaking, as well as the ethics of leadership.

Todd Emerson, president of the Atlanta Board of Realtors. (Ryan Gibson)

Honestly, I didn’t really know how the board worked, but once I got involved and kind of saw all the things it took to make it happen, it piqued my interest.

From Participant to President

It was a similar volunteer leadership development program offered by the Atlanta Board of Realtors that spurred Todd Emerson’s interest in becoming more involved with the organization and eventually serving as its current board president.

“Honestly, I didn’t really know how the board worked, but once I got involved and kind of saw all the things it took to make it happen, it piqued my interest,” Emerson says of ABR’s Leadership Development Program, in which he took part almost a decade ago. “I wouldn’t say it necessarily encouraged me to become president, more that it encouraged me to get involved and stay involved … and by virtue of wanting to stay involved and wanting to donate my time, I became president.”

Participating in the program helped Emerson develop several basic leadership skills he still uses today, including the art of public speaking and talking extemporaneously.

“That’s been invaluable because I’m also a managing broker, so I’m up before my agents on a weekly basis, and as board president this year, I’ve been invited to speak at various events,” he says. “Helping me to hone and develop that skill was valuable.”

Led by a volunteer dean, a member of ABR who preferably has a strong foundation in training and education, each class of the ABR leadership program meets about nine times per year, though the association scaled back to every other year during the downturn in the real estate market over the last several years.

Unlike the programs Brunner helped create, ABR’s curriculum is not retreat-based but involves more classroom-type sessions, including classes on parliamentary procedure, public speaking, and grievance and arbitration.

The program also incorporates some hands-on experiences, such as volunteering at ABR’s annual tradeshow, Showcase, where participants get a firsthand view of the work it takes to put on one of the industry’s largest events in the Southeast and serve as extra sets of helping hands.

The most recent Leadership Development Program class initiated a charity component to the program. Class participants chose to support Real Estate Agents in Need (RAIN), a local nonprofit that helps Georgia agents get back on their feet after experiencing personal hardship. In addition to staffing a booth at Showcase to help promote RAIN to other attendees, program participants took part in RAIN’s annual charity fashion show.

“We try to mix it up and make [the program] not all about real estate, but also give participants some tools that they can apply in other avenues in their personal and business lives,” Emerson says.

We try to mix it up and make [the program] not all about real estate, but also give participants some tools that they can apply in other avenues in their personal and business lives.

Beyond Boards

A similar principle is behind the American Marketing Association’s Leadership Summit, an annual gathering of AMA chapter leaders. While most of the two-and-a-half-day program revolves around running an AMA chapter, the last half day focuses on the types of transferable skills that can be applied to a volunteer position as well as participants’ work lives, says Karen Albritton, AMA Professional Chapters Council president, who has both participated in and presented at the Summit.

“We spend a fair amount of time providing professional development and skills training,” Albritton says. “The sessions have covered everything from crucial conversations and leading without authority to presentation skills and building your personal leadership brand.”

Albritton, a former AMA chapter president, says participating in the Leadership Summit six years ago gave her a better understanding of what was expected of her as a chapter leader and helped familiarize her with AMA.

“If you look at a lot of associations, a lot of nonprofits, they recruit board members and people volunteer, but they don’t always have clear expectations on their roles and responsibilities,” she says. “With the first-time experience there’s always a level of you just don’t know what you don’t know.”

It’s that feeling of uncertainty that these leadership programs are trying to overcome, whatever level of volunteer leader they are aiming to develop. With added know-how and skills, volunteer leaders generally come out of the programs feeling more assured and more aware of the opportunities to serve their organizations, which stand to benefit from better-prepared leaders.

“The idea of the leadership programs that I’ve been a part of is, ‘Let’s equip these people upfront to at least understand the role and understand the behaviors that typify good leadership,’ ” Brunner says. “And if we make that investment in them, then there’s a good chance that it will pay off for better outcomes for the organization.”


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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