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Creating a 'testing ground' for social-service leaders
Innovative UC Berkeley Extension program gives agency staff a chance to see the big picture

| 18 October 2006

In the fall of 1994, as a middle manager in San Mateo County's Human Services Agency, Madelyn Martin invested her time and talent in an intensive, first-time offering at UC Extension designed to help agencies like her own better serve their clients and communities. If the plunge was an act of faith for Martin, it was equally so for her boss, who not only encouraged her to enroll but arranged for her tuition and coped with her absence for weeks at a time.

Three major promotions later, Martin today is the county's director of community prevention and early intervention, and she gives her Extension experience much of the credit for her advancement. She's also a teacher in the program, which counts her among hundreds of social-service leaders it has trained during its 12 years of operation. The aim, from the beginning, has been to spread a special kind of adult learning throughout the greater Bay Area - one with a ripple effect on intractable social problems ranging from child welfare and homelessness to substance abuse and domestic violence.


Extension's Stan Weisner aims to transfer learning from the classroom to the organization, and beyond. (Deborah Stalford photo)
 

"Baby boomers are moving up and out," says director Stan Weisner, who designed the course, the Executive Development Program in the Human Services, in collaboration with Michael Austin, a professor in Berkeley's School of Social Welfare (SSW), and the Bay Area Social Services Consortium. For that reason, explains Weisner - whose own résumé includes social work in Kenya, consulting in China, and a teaching stint at SSW - social-service agencies are constantly on the lookout for fresh executive-level talent.

Often, as in Martin's case, it's right under their noses, just waiting for the opportunity to learn new skills and see things from a higher perch. Other times, what lower-level managers learn is that they don't want to climb the career ladder after all.

"This is a testing ground," Weisner says. Some students discover that making presentations to a county board of supervisors, for example, or dealing with unions isn't for them.

Most, however, are more like Martin, who says that in addition to the leadership skills she picked up, the course opened doors by connecting her with others in her field, many of whom also subsequently rose through the org chart. And while many have since retired, she says, "Up until a few years ago I used my class connections when I needed a contact in another county."

She not only co-teaches a class in the program today but proclaims herself "a promoter, ambassador, and cheerleader" for what she calls "this amazing opportunity."

The program enrolled 20 to 25 students in its first few years, Weisner says. With ambassadors like Martin, though, it soon became a virtual necessity for many Bay Area counties, some of which send five or six employees every year. Martin's own agency, in fact, makes it mandatory for employees to take the course in order to advance.

A different point of view

"Over what's been 12 years now, you're talking 400 to 500 people who have come through this program and gone back to their counties with additional expertise and, hopefully, a management perspective they didn't have before, looking at themselves from a little different point of view, able to see not just their own narrow program area but the bigger policy picture - things like funding, and how you lead an organization," says Weisner.

What makes the program unique, he believes, is the involvement of agency directors themselves, many of whom belong to the Bay Area Social Services Consortium, or BASSC. "Half the faculty are [the employees'] own directors - we hire them to come teach," Weisner says. "So there's a lot of connection to what's real for these folks in their daily work. Rather than simply taking a course that's out of sync with their world, it's merged with the world of their work. I think that's what's made it stand out.

"If we just brought them to Haviland Hall and put them through some of our courses, they would think, 'That's very theoretical, it doesn't relate to what I do,'" Weisner explains. "These people already have their degrees. They've been out working for 5, 10, 15 years.

"It's not just, 'Tell me so-and-so's theory of change,' it's, 'Wait a minute, I've tried that, it doesn't work.' This is postgraduate, professional-development learning. It's very tailored to their needs."

The course itself comprises three weeklong sessions, or "modules," spaced over the academic year, covering leadership issues, core knowledge and skills, and integration of learning and practice. During the spring semester, students take part in a 15-day internship, during which they work on a case study of a program at another agency in another county, eventually presenting their findings before a panel made up of Austin and a former agency director, and, later, to their own directors. The internships, Weisner says, give participants an opportunity to do substantive policy analysis while sharpening their writing and presentation skills.

"They write up a description of what they've learned and, hopefully, they say this is really something we could do in our county if we did X, Y, and Z. Or maybe they'll say this won't work in our county because we have a more diverse population, or it's too big a county, or due to some other other factor." Either way, the home county benefits from a fresh critique of its own program needs and possible solutions.

Worth the investment

Which helps to explain why social-service agencies, this year including units from Santa Cruz and Sonoma counties as well as the Bay Area proper, are eager to send employees through the program, absorbing the tuition for some - child-welfare workers are covered by federal training funds - and the temporary loss of badly needed staff. "Clearly these directors think the program is worth the investment," says Weisner.

But Weisner, Extension's program director for behavioral and health sciences, notes that the program's benefits transcend improved performance for individual employees, or even the research they bring back to their home agencies. Thanks to what's known as the transfer-of-learning effect, the students themselves become teachers of sorts when they return to work.

"The idea is not just to pluck someone out of their agency, train them for three weeks, and then nothing happens," Weisner explains. "Our hope was to get the agencies to integrate the person's new learning and perspective and have it transferred to others in the organization, so that the organization itself improves."

And that, he observes, is very much in keeping with the mission of UC Berkeley Extension to "meet the needs of the broader community."

"This isn't executive development in the corporate world," he notes. "It's executive development in the public social services. These people deal with human problems every day, and they're trying to learn about ways to better help people."

The program, he adds, "is a campus/community/Extension collaboration. And I think it's that partnership that's been the glue, that's allowed it to be not just sustained, but to be refreshed with new ideas year after year."