Oeishi Bhattacharjee found a warm welcome and the courage to be vulnerable. Jefferson Frisbee found listening to others helped him better understand the challenges his colleagues were facing during the pandemic. And Kristina Sendova felt empowered to help a student in crisis.
All three leaders gained these new skills and perspectives, taking part in the 2020-21 Western Excellence in Leadership program. They were among 155 participants who completed nine or more sessions, earning a certificate of achievement. An additional 118 leaders completed three or more workshops in a particular program area, with all Western leaders welcomed to participate at whatever level they can.
The Excellence in Leadership program supports the success of Western’s academic and administrative leaders. The sessions are delivered by the University’s talent, learning and engagement team and Western subject expert partners, and focus on developing competencies in four areas: self, innovation and change, programs and services, and people and teams.
“This year’s program was quite different from other years in having to shift to a virtual format,” said Andrew Fuller, director, talent, learning and engagement, Western Human Resources. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we weren’t sure how things were going to go.
“We were very pleased with the strong interest by Western’s leaders to continue to develop their skills and learn while navigating the challenges of the pandemic at work and at home and leading their teams in on-site and remote environments.”
In a wrap-up and recognition event June 10, Western President Alan Shepard congratulated the group for investing in their professional and personal development during a challenging time.
“Thank you for having done this in a year you will not forget,” Shepard said. “In my experience, this is the strongest program I’ve seen for professional development for colleagues across campus. As we go forward with Western’s new strategic plan, we acknowledge the importance of continuing to grow our staff and faculty leaders.”
Empowered to respond
Kristina Sendova credits the program’s mental health session for helping her to act decisively when a colleague shared emails showing a student at risk of suicide.
“My discipline is far removed from social science or psychology, and my personal experience in mental health is very limited,” the chair of statistical and actuarial sciences said.
However, having been provided with an overview of symptoms of mental health issues and the support services available, Sendova felt empowered to help the student.
“Because of the information I received in mental health, I didn’t feel helpless in that situation,” Sendova said. “I knew what steps to take immediately to ensure the student wasn’t alone and quickly directed [them] to the supports they needed.”
Cultivating connection and courage
For Oeishi Bhattacharjee, director of operations in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies, the program was crucial in helping her understand how her new role aligned with Western’s culture.
Bhattacharjee started at Western in April 2020, just three weeks after the first provincial shutdown. The sessions offered her a lifeline to learn and connect with other members of the campus community. “As an external hire, I did not work at Western previously and didn’t have any relationships built, so I was grateful for that,” she said.
Bhattacharjee said she will “never forget the sessions on courageous leadership,” and how “incredibly welcoming” Fuller and his colleagues, Jane Parkinson, and Jasmina Serodio were.
“I really appreciate how they supported and guided me. I would stay on after certain sessions, asking questions and they were just so generous with their time, and always offered a structured, thoughtful response.”
Learning from others
Jefferson Frisbee felt very fortunate throughout the pandemic. With steady employment and grown children, the chair of medical biophysics did not have to deal with as many of the personal and professional stressors faced by other colleagues.
Attending the leadership program sessions was “eye-opening” for Frisbee, who appreciated the “opportunity to speak with others and learn about their challenges to gain their perspective.
“It was helpful for me in supporting my own faculty members, in addition to learning how to help them get in touch with groups at Western to help manage their growing stresses and potential burnout.”
The sessions also had Frisbee reflecting on his communication skills and how to read nonverbal cues.
“I have a pretty informal way of communicating and try to speak to others on their level as much as possible, but there are people who don’t respond to that style.”
His biggest takeaway was recognizing there’s always room to improve.
“Even if you are doing well, there is probably an opportunity to clean up some areas and to improve relationships, it’s important to learn how and where you can become better.”
Western Leader Academy
The Western Leader Academy also provided lessons in academic leadership this past year.
The academy, led by professor of Leadership and former Dean Jim Weese, offered 16 faculty members from across campus an “intense and progressive academic leadership/management program.” Designed to develop the next generation of academic leaders, participants attended full-day sessions involving guest speakers, group activities and self-reflection, as well as some small group and individual coaching sessions.
Weese planned and developed the program based on the latest advances in leader development and input from senior leadership and campus experts.
“We wanted to ensure those leaving the program had the skills and confidence to be strong and progressive academic leaders — and feedback shows we delivered,” Weese said. “In this time of rapid change and disruption, we know that institutions that invest in their people will not only survive but thrive. I am proud of Western for investing in this program and our current/future leaders.”
Plans are underway for the 2021-22 program. For more information, campus community members should contact Jim Weese.