City Year’s Staff Development Program Builds Leaders from Within

One size does not fit all when it comes to staff development and training. At City Year, building a skilled bench of senior leaders lies in its executive class program that emphasizes personalized leadership plans and ongoing peer-to-peer coaching.

As a national nonprofit operating in 23 states and two international affiliates in London and Johannesburg, City Year partners with public schools to keep students on track to graduate high school. At the heart of City Year’s work are its Corps Members who provide classroom support and build one on one mentoring relationships with students.

Four years ago in the midst of rapid growth, City Year leaders recognized the need to develop a similar personalized approach to growing staff leaders from within the organization.

“In 2008, we had five executive director positions open with no internal bench and realized that as we continue to grow, we needed to build a program to invest and strengthen our high potential staff’s leadership competencies to develop an executive bench,” says Elaine Mak Gold, Senior Director of Talent Acquisition & Development, at City Year. 

Designed as a year-long training program, the LEAD City Year: Executive Class staff training program starts with identifying and strengthening each participant’s leadership skills and unique professional needs. With support from their manager, staff sponsor, and other LEAD peers, participants custom-design a personal mission statement and individual plan to develop leadership competencies. In addition to learning more about the business and getting exposure to senior leadership, participants attend in-person conferences supplemented by webinar trainings that emphasize personalized plans for growth.

LEAD City Year also emphasizes peer-to-peer coaching and mentoring, a favorite component of the program among participants.

“With peer to peer coaching, staff quickly realize, they’re not alone. Within the group, they identify common challenges and possible solutions, share best practices and build long lasting networks,” says Mak Gold.  Participants are paired up with a senior staff leader and a Lead City Year alum to coach them during the program year, and most continue these mentoring/coaching meetings after the graduation. Participants also rotate facilitating meetings and coaching, giving everyone a chance to lead. “Through this train-the-trainer approach, we see the positives of the program go beyond the actual participants. It’s also about developing and coaching people around you,” she adds.

Mak Gold attributes City Year’s success of hiring 3 Executive Directors and 6 new site Start-Up Directors in recent years from LEAD alum to the strength of the program.

For organizations interested in creating an executive staff-training program, Mak Gold offers the following advice:

  • Prioritize and go for the most bang for your buck. First figure out your highest priority organizational needs for developing your staff, and then find the most cost effective way to do it. Mentoring, peer-to peer networks and coaching are all easy to implement at little to no cost.
  • Create a transparent selection process. Mak Gold acknowledges that in the first year of the program, participants were solely nominated by senior leaders at headquarters, leaving other staff feeling excluded. In response, City Year formed a broad-based selection committee that includes senior execs at headquarters, regional directors and talent development staff. Now interested staff can directly apply and managers make recommendations. The openness breeds more trust.
  • Get the word out. Use marketing and communications resources to promote the program, emphasize transparency, create a buzz and let employees know that they are valued and recognized.

Written by Maria Peralta for Commongood Careers