By Sam Hankins, City of Victoria communications specialist
This article originally appeared in the July issue of Texas Town & City, published by the Texas Municipal League.
PHOTO: The City of Victoria hosted its first in-house leadership academy May 30-June 2 and June 13-16 at the Victoria Community Center. The inaugural class, shown here along with staff who conducted the program, consisted of Daryl Barnes, Capt. Robert Bayer, Roger Beikmann, Maria Bell, Eli Briseno, Dennis Dickson, Gina Flores, Steven Gallagher, Brian Haney, Lt. Mark Hayden, Cynthia Inmon, Lauren Meaux (not pictured), Capt. Raymond Mitchell, Gabriel Perez, Katelyn Randall, Gregory Rodriguez, Steven Solis, Lt. Daniel Torres, Brianna Valenzuela, Katrine Villela, Santos Ybarra and Chief Chuck Young.
The City of Victoria has set itself an ongoing goal of being an “employer of choice”—which is no easy task in a job market that allows employees to be choosier than ever.
To help fulfill this mission statement, Human Resources Director Cheryl Marthiljohni and her staff continually review the City’s benefits package to add new incentives and offer employees the best possible value. Recently, her team has been developing a new tool for the kit: in-house leadership training.
“Providing employee and leadership development is one crucial way we express the value we have for our employees,” Marthiljohni said. “In today’s climate, employees need to know they are important. We want to offer development opportunities to add value for them as an employee and express the importance of what they do for our organization and community.”
Adding value helps build a more engaged workforce, making it easier to attract and retain employees. Even before the labor market was upended by the pandemic, Marthiljohni and her staff noticed that employees are drawn to employers who value their contributions and who create an inviting and inclusive workplace culture.
This was even (and especially) true of new employees joining the organization, who want to work in environments where they are respected and their voices are heard, Marthiljohni explained.
“When employees have options available to them, they’re going to look at things like whether they’re valued and whether their work is making an impact,” Marthiljohni said.
Perhaps just as important as retaining employees is training them to be ready to grow into leadership roles as established leaders retire or new leadership positions are created. Many of Victoria’s executive-level employees have 20 or more years of experience, and not all of these positions have a succession plan in place.
“When an experienced employee leaves without a successor, knowledge is walking out the door,” Marthiljohni said. “We want to be sure that we’re developing our employees so that they feel empowered to take on these roles, whether it’s an executive-level role or a first-line supervisor role.”
Through networking, Marthiljohni learned about other cities that have addressed this issue by creating in-house training programs focused on developing the next generation of leaders, and she knew that the City of Victoria could benefit from such a program.
The idea of an in-house leadership academy appealed to City Manager Jesús A. Garza. Garza had experienced the positive impact of well-developed internal training programs when he worked for the City of San Antonio, and he also helped to implement a leadership academy when he was the city manager of Kingsville.
“I’ve always liked the idea of having leadership development for supervisors and mid-level managers, not just executives,” he said. “For those people, it can be difficult to take a step back from the day-to-day and look at the big picture of where we’re headed and their own professional development. By empowering them to be successful leaders and providing tools and resources, we’re investing in ourselves as an organization.”
In late 2021, the City took an important step toward investing in professional development as Human Resources hired its first-ever training and development specialist, Sarah Parsons.
Learning things they didn’t know they needed
Parsons understands that development opportunities don’t just help to build a more educated and capable workforce; they’re an important quality of a good place to work.
“When you invest in your employees, that helps to build loyalty,” Parsons said. “By supporting employees’ professional development, you’re showing them that you’re invested in their success in their current and future roles.”
To this end, Parsons began hosting training sessions based on a different topic each month. The classes generally focus on soft skills and team-building; past topics include “Employee Motivation,” “Habits of High-Performance Teams” and “Unconscious Bias.”
The trainings have taken off: Typically, Parsons hosts two regular monthly sessions that attract about 15 employees each. In addition, supervisors can work with Parsons to schedule training sessions for their teams.
“If it’s a popular topic, I might be doing three or four extra sessions,” Parsons said.
Parsons collects feedback from employees at the end of each training, and she’s noticed a trend: Many employees have commented that the trainings cover topics that they had never thought about or didn’t realize were important.
“Many of our employees haven’t had the opportunity to pursue this kind of training outside the City,” Parsons said. “In-house training is so important because it gives all of our employees access to the same high-quality professional development.”
A different kind of leadership training
PHOTO: In March 2022, City of Victoria Public Works employees participated in “Leaders of Choice,” an in-house leadership training program hosted by Human Resources that served as the pilot for the City of Victoria’s new leadership academy. Shown from left are Distribution and Collection Manager Austin Anderson, Training and Development Specialist Sarah Parsons, Utilities Supervisor Daniel Ferrero, Utilities Supervisor David Mansfield, Public Works Director Ken Gill, Street and Drainage Foreman Miguel Hernandez, Streets Superintendent Jonathon Lopez and Street and Drainage Foreman Bill Easley.
In addition to building the monthly program, Parsons began making plans to host a pilot leadership academy with a small group of employees from Public Works.
Although many things remained to be decided, Parsons and Marthiljohni knew that the program needed to focus on relationship building and emotional intelligence.
Distribution and Collection Manager Austin Anderson, who participated in the pilot program, said he was skeptical at first about the value of this type of leadership training.
A U.S. Army veteran, Anderson was used to a direct model of leadership that emphasizes the importance of following instructions, and he said that many in his department—particularly the older generation—use a similar approach.
“We tend to be very straightforward, but the younger generation is more focused on emotional intelligence and awareness,” Anderson said. “I wasn’t sure if it would be useful, but I went in with an open mind.”
During the one-week training program, Anderson started to see the benefit of being more receptive to other employees’ thoughts and opinions as part of a team.
Anderson said the group especially benefited from an exercise in which they completed a survey to learn about their different leadership styles. The exercise helped them to understand that they all have different ways of doing things, and it doesn’t mean that any one style is right or wrong.
“We all came out a little stronger,” he said.
Anderson said he would recommend the training for anyone in a leadership position, from crew leaders to executives, including those with years of leadership experience.
“If you’ve been in a role for a long time, you run the risk of being stuck in an outdated mindset,” Anderson said. “It’s important to stay up to date with newer ways of thinking.”
Engaged, informed and inspired
PHOTO: The logo for the City of Victoria’s new in-house leadership academy.
As Human Resources continued to fine-tune the curriculum for the leadership academy, the idea of holistic leadership training developed into a three-point approach: Engaged, informed and inspired leadership.
- Engaged leadership refers to building a positive workplace culture with engaged employees. Topics include emotional intelligence, communication and stress management.
- Informed leadership refers to the operational aspects of leadership, such as workflow management.
- Inspired leadership refers to following the example of other successful leaders. For this part of the academy, Human Resources brought in executive staff and other leaders from inside and outside the City to inspire attendees by sharing their stories.
Human Resources worked with the City Manager’s Office to develop the curriculum. One topic that was added at Garza’s request was “Leading Through Difficult Times,” a subject he’s experienced firsthand leading Victoria through the COVID-19 pandemic, Winter Storm Uri and the unexpected death of Mayor Rawley McCoy in 2021.
“Being perseverant is now part of our DNA,” he said.
At the end of the two-week academy, Human Resources hosted a graduation ceremony to solidify the importance of the lessons learned during the academy. Marthiljohni hopes to connect graduates with new employees for mentoring opportunities.
For the first full academy, Human Resources and the City Manager’s Office selected a small cohort of 25 employees for easy networking. Most of them are new managers, supervisors and others who oversee a team in some capacity; others have been identified as potential future leaders.
The first few academies will continue to be invitation-only as the City focuses on training its mid-level leaders who may not have gone through this type of formal program. By Marthiljohni’s count, the City has about 100 employees who fit this description.
After this initial phase, the academy will open to other employees who are interested in professional development.
“If a new employee is building a career path and is interested in being a supervisor, for example, we can help out with training and support,” Marthiljohni said.
Continuing to reach out
PHOTO: The City of Victoria hosted two University of Houston-Victoria interns during the spring. Shown from left are Assistant City Manager Mike Etienne, Assistant City Manager Darrek Ferrell, University of Houston-Victoria student intern Eunice Adu-Gyamfi, University of Houston-Victoria student intern Haley Roberts and City Manager Jesús A. Garza.
Developing a leadership academy is an ongoing task. Now that the first academy has wrapped up, Parsons will collect feedback and use it to make the program better, just as she does with the monthly training sessions.
Meanwhile, she’s also working to grow a new recruitment tool that will help the City attract and cultivate more future leaders: an internship program. Since 2022, the City has partnered with Victoria’s local university, the University of Houston-Victoria, to host student interns who are interested in exploring careers in local government. One of last year’s student interns has already been hired to work full-time.
“This is a great way for us to build relationships with potential future employees,” Parsons said. “Even if our interns don’t apply for full-time employment, we hope that they leave with a positive impression of the City and tell others that it’s a great place to work.”
Ultimately, these training programs help to spread the same message, inside and outside the organization: that the City of Victoria is an employer of choice that invests in its people.