Ten times a year, for 24 hours, a select group of executives leaves the comforts of career to embark on an experience meant to mold the participants into better leaders.
They gather on Thursday evenings for dinner, bunk overnight at a hotel, and spend the following day listening to the likes of Dennis Perkins, author of “Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition.” Or, they may travel to Saint Meinrad in southern Indiana or Fort Knox in Kentucky to observe Benedictine and military leadership styles.
The curriculum is part of the Hoosier Fellows program that rose from Indiana University’s Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence. A financial contribution from the former CEO of Eli Lilly and Co. launched the center in 2004.
Carol Madison, the center’s director of programs, came aboard a year later. In 2006, Hoosier Fellows graduated its first class, consisting of 14 members. One of those was Jim Pearson, president of locally based Suros Surgical Systems Inc., a medical-device company.
“We got to look at leadership, whether it was [with] a monk or a general,” he said. “It shows you that leadership, in essence, is all the same, no matter what community you’re in.”
There are 24 participating in the program this year and 18 enrolled in 2008. Class size purposely is small and diverse, not necessarily in terms of race and gender but rather by profession. The corporate, education, government and not-for-profit sectors are well represented.
“It’s different than going to Conseco Fieldhouse and being motivated with thousands of people,” Madison said in reference to the mass Zig Zigler assemblies. “We’re taking people who have a proven track record and making them even better.”
Judging from Madison’s office, she’s an understudy as well. Her bookcase is adorned with several autobiographies in which leadership is the central topic. John Wooden’s “On Leadership,” Jack Welch’s “Winning” and Dan Quayle’s “Standing Firm” are among the selections.
Unlike similar programs that promote involvement in community affairs, such as the Stanley K. Lacy Executive Leadership Series, the focus of Hoosier Fellows is confined to the workplace.
Applicants are not subject to an interviewing process but can be rejected based on the program’s efforts to achieve balance. The $10,000 fee supports related expenses. A discount is available to notfor-profits.
Candidates who are accepted undergo a leadership analysis conducted by an industrial organizational psychologist. The assessment measures skills and abilities in areas that are key to leadership. Participants are provided a 10- to 15-page report, based on the results, to help them create a professional development plan.
Follow-up meetings are held at the middle and end of the year, in addition to peermentoring sessions, said Philip Cochran, director of the Tobias Center and associate dean of the IU Kelley School of Business.
“If they’re the only person at that level, there’s no subordinates to talk to,” he said. “There’s a circle of trust. People are quite open with their successes and their failures.”
Pearson at Suros concurred. He said the experience exposed participants to differing views they otherwise would have never considered, enabling them to broaden their perspectives.
Yet the cornerstones of the program are the lectures and trips. It drew Joanne Ciul- la, one of the founding faculty members of the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership, to the Nov. 16 gathering. The Fellows meet January through December, excluding the summer months of July and August.
A trip to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend is part of the annual itinerary. There, participants meet with the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the 90-year-old former university president who shares his knowledge on international leadership. He has held 16 presidential appointments and served four popes. In 2000, he became the first person from higher education to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
But perhaps the most intriguing trek is to Fort Knox. Last year’s visit had Fellows playing the role of Iraqi civilians to help train troops for their deployment to the war-torn country. In the evening, they slept on the ground at a bivouac site until about 5:30 a.m. They then ate their MREs before shuffling off to a leadership course that involved outdoor training exercises.
“This sort of opportunity is fascinating with any group,” said the Rev. Brent Wright of Jamestown United Methodist Church, “but sharing the experience with friends from across the spectrum of fields was particularly rich.”
A trip to Camp Atterbury near Edinburgh had taken Fort Knox’s place this year, until the class convinced Madison to schedule Fort Knox as an extra excursion. Class members had heard so much about the role-playing-so intense that some Fellows complained they should have been warned-that this year’s contingent wanted to see for themselves.
The next group that convenes in January will be exposed to leadership in the arts, and how a corporation isn’t that much different from an opera or orchestra. Specifically, acquisitions often force employees unfamiliar with one another to work together, Madison said, much like what occurs among performers cast in a production.
For Sid Norton, his involvement in Hoosier Fellows could not have come at a more ideal time. He had just transferred from the state Office of Management and Budget to become CFO of the Family and Social Services Administration.
The program gave him the confidence to make the transition and leadership models to apply to the department.
“The whole thing was an impressive experience,” Norton said. “I won’t forget it.”