UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A new initiative created by Penn State faculty in the School of Labor and Employment Relations and the Department of Psychology allows Penn State World Campus students to hone their leadership competencies and receive feedback from expert alumni.
The Penn State Online Leadership Development Institute (PSOLDI) provides full-cycle support to help participants evaluate their leadership competencies, plan for change, and sustain change. Participants engage in a series of interviews, simulations and exercises designed to predict how well they will perform in a leadership role.
According to Brian Redmond, teaching professor of organizational leadership and one of the co-creators of the program, PSOLDI is based on a residential program at University Park but was specially adapted for the virtual setting.
“We wanted World Campus students to have access to a similar program,” Redmond said. “The initial pilot was launched in 2020 with three students. After some refinement, the second group of 20 students went through the program this fall and it’s been a huge success.”
Kim Trahan, assistant teaching professor of organizational leadership, and Jason Williams, assistant teaching professor of psychology, are currently the co-directors of PSOLDI.
Williams explained that the program is designed to reflect the day in the life of a leader.
“In a typical assessment center, all of this would be done in one day, but that can be hard for our students to commit to because of their many other obligations,” he said. “We break it up to give students and assessors more flexibility.”
The assessments examine leadership using Bartram’s Great Eight Competency model. This model is rooted in scientific methodology and demonstrates a strong relationship between leadership competencies that can be learned and developed with planning and guidance. Each activity is associated with a particular competency or competencies.
“We focus on these areas because the competencies translate across all leadership situations,” said Trahan.
Participants are evaluated based on four activities: two written assessments and two live interactions. After completing the written assignments and simulations, participants receive a detailed feedback report and spend time with a faculty member to review the results. Trahan estimated students need to commit to a total of three to five hours of work. Most of the time, all assessments are completed in four to six weeks.
Alumni act as assessors to judge participants’ performance and provide constructive feedback. Faculty also provide feedback, and there are opportunities for students to participate in career coaching sessions with faculty after completing the program.
Tana McGhee-Wegner is an alumna of the PSOLDI program. She is working toward a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership with a minor in labor and human resources. She also is employed at Penn State as the assistant financial officer for the Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing. McGhee-Wegner described her experience with the program as fantastic.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat. I wanted to participate because I was looking for detailed feedback on my overall leadership abilities,” she said. “I have a copy of my feedback report saved on my desktop and I use it almost every day.”
McGhee-Wegner said the feedback she received helped her understand her strengths and areas that need improvement. She added that the assessment is a great tool for progressing her career in combination with her degree.
“The report is thorough and very honest,” she said. “I was overwhelmed at first, but the more I dug into it, the more I understood how helpful it was, even if it was hard to hear about the areas I didn’t do as well. If you’re thinking about participating, definitely do it. It can only benefit you.”
There are added benefits for assessors, too.
“Evaluating human interactions is complicated,” Williams said. “We train our assessors to give better feedback, which can help them make their performance evaluations at work more growth-orientated and accurate.”
Trahan added, “We’ve found that our alumni are great assessors. Many work in the field of HR and have the wisdom of someone who’s in the workplace, but they also know what a Penn State student is like because they’ve been one.”
Alumni like Nathan Gallahan are excited to participate in the program. Gallahan graduated from Penn State with a degree in organizational leadership in 2018. He works as the state public affairs specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Washington state.
“For me, participating is about giving back,” Gallahan said. “If you spend your life gaining knowledge, skills and abilities, but don’t share them with others, it’s a waste. I love Penn State and I had a great experience with Dr. Trahan and the rest of the faculty. When they provided the opportunity to be part of the program, I jumped at it.”
Gallahan’s military background also has been helpful in his role as an assessor.
“I was in the military for 21 years, so for me it’s important to not only make an assessment but also to provide a solution,” he said. “I spent decades of my life mentoring, and that’s the part of my service I miss most. These assessments help rekindle those feelings of mentorship.”
For someone looking to participate in the program, Gallahan recommends coming into it with an open mind, open heart and honest intentions of character growth.
“Assessors are people in the industry who are leveraging their education to give back to students. We want them to have the chance to hone their skill sets even before they get into the workforce,” he said.
The PSOLDI program will run in the spring 2022 semester for a limited number of students. It will be open first to labor and human resources and/or organizational leadership students, then to any World Campus student.
According to Trahan, participating in the program allows students to be engaged in leadership development opportunities that are not available in regular classroom curriculum.
“The vast majority of World Campus students are aspiring leaders if they’re not already leaders,” said Redmond. “PSOLDI can be added to your college degree, and it shows you went above and beyond to become a leader.”
Williams added, “As far as leadership is concerned, it gives students an edge. It primes them to get leadership roles and gives insight they couldn’t necessarily get otherwise. It makes them more promotable. And I feel good because they’re going to be leading better — and you can’t put a price tag on that.”