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GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

Leadership Academy develops staff and faculty innovators

February 16, 2017

2017 Leadership Academy Members
Julianne Mitchell (top left), Sarah Sweetman (bottom left) and Lara Bruce (top right) were three of fourteen selected for the Leadership Academy. 

Just one month in to the 2017 University of Denver Leadership Academy, Lara Bruce says she's already developing and applying new leadership skills in her job at the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW).

"We were introduced to the Collaborative Way, including the concept of honoring your commitments and shared commitments," says Bruce, MSW '07, a program associate at GSSW's Butler Institute for Families. "It's a helpful approach for leading up and leading down, and I've already started to put it into practice."

Bruce is one of three GSSW faculty and staff members selected for the University of Denver's second Leadership Academy, which includes a total of 14 employees in this year's class. GSSW Clinical Associate Professor Julianne Mitchell and Sarah Poletti Sweetman, director of academic services, also are enrolled in the academy.

Sponsored by the University's Human Resources People Development Team, the six-month Leadership Academy emphasizes developing the leader from within. The program consists of half-day learning modules every three weeks and includes discussions, one-on-one coaching, presentations from national leadership experts, and practical application of leadership principles with an emphasis on self-awareness.

Leadership Academy participants also will work as a group to develop, plan and implement the annual "Fish Out of Water" storytelling event that brings together DU students, faculty and staff to honor inclusive excellence. This project is particularly meaningful to Sweetman, who wrote her undergraduate thesis on the power of storytelling and has an MA in literary studies from DU. Her own story, she says, includes an expanding professional role and new responsibilities within GSSW, and a shifting work–life balance as her children get older. "It feels like it is my time to make a change," she says. "This opportunity for training and development around making that change felt serendipitous."

"Philosophically, we want students to have a good experience while here at DU, and to do that you've got to have faculty and staff who feel appreciated and have opportunities to develop themselves personally and professionally in order to provide the highest level of excellence," says Greg Giesen, manager of People Development at DU, noting that the Leadership Academy reflects Chancellor Rebecca Chopp's commitment to professional development.

That commitment is shared within the Butler Institute and GSSW, Bruce says. "That's been a crux to this process—having the leadership buy in to this process and seeing the value in sending me to do it."

"It's a very enlightening and rewarding experience—beyond expectation," says Mitchell, MSW '02. "I find myself working to push myself outside of my comfort zone to apply the skills we are learning in ways I had not even imagined."

"That's what leadership development work is intended to do," Giesen notes. "Innovation is inherent in leadership development. The more you know yourself and what you're capable of, the more you're inclined to trust your sense of innovation and take risks."

Discovering and leveraging individual strengths is one of the academy's lessons. "I tend to be one of those people who wants consensus and wants everyone to get along," Bruce says. "I want to come up with new strategies to use that—to find the fit with what I'm already naturally good at, which is working with people and making connections."

"Leadership isn't necessarily about being a manager, standing in front of a room and directing a team," Sweetman adds. "It's more collaborative—strategizing together and playing to the strengths of your colleagues. I'd like to develop some strategies for how to work collaboratively and efficiently to change our thinking. How can we reframe the ways that we work—to respond to the strengths of our team and the needs of our students in more creative ways?"

"I'm looking forward to the continued opportunities to make a positive impact at GSSW, DU, and the larger community, especially in relation to inclusive excellence," Mitchell says. "As someone who loves learning and growing both personally and professionally, I am incredibly excited to collaborate with other professionals and disciplines as we work together to harness our collective wisdoms and learn about ourselves and each other."

Learn more about professional development opportunities at DU, including upcoming Professional Development Speaker Series events.