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  • Leadership and professional development in uncertain times
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Leadership and professional development in uncertain times

June 2nd, 2020 -- Abby Olcese
Why building your professional skillset matters as much as ever
By Abby Olcese

As organizations and businesses try to work with the changing pace of business brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, it might seem like there isn’t much time to devote to professional or leadership development. When considering what matters most amidst changing priorities and altered schedules and budgets, cultivating your team’s professional skills at first glance may appear low in the rankings, especially when compared to an organization’s immediate needs.

It turns out, however, that strengthening leadership skills and communication in the workplace right now is just as important as it’s ever been, if not more. According to the Association for Talent Development, building good leadership now is key to a business staying strong long-term, especially through challenging situations like the one we’re currently facing.

Leigh Forbes-Harper, senior talent development consultant at UMB Financial Services, says professional development has been necessary for her organization as changing client needs and projects have required employees to be flexible and take on new tasks as needed. “We have had people who are learning different areas or jumping over to a new project they may not have worked with in the past,” Forbes-Harper said. “Some of us can take on more responsibilities to make life easier for others and broaden the scope and depth of what we’re willing to do. It’s a good opportunity to really dig into the resources that are out there.”

Forbes-Harper says that the most helpful form of professional development for her has been resources regarding working remotely. She says she’s taking what she’s learned and developing in-house resources to use within the organization.

“It’s been about going out and listening to the needs, its about researching and attending webinars that can help us develop good and relevant content for our associates.”

Forbes-Harper says that UMB motivates their associates to be responsible for their own professional development, supported by their manager. That includes taking initiative during this work from home period, when a good portion of an associate’s schedule and workload may be self-motivated.

“We truly believe that true development rests on the associate, but the manager serves as a conduit, a barrier remover, a coach, a supporter for that associate to get that development,” Forbes-Harper said. “The manager is there to help drive the associate and help them understand what’s available to them, what kind of advancement might be available, but that the associate owns 80 to 85% of that.”

If you’re looking for ways to encourage your employees to further their professional education while working from home, or you’re looking for opportunities yourself, consider these suggestions:

Take advantage of offered resources

Forbes-Harper says that one option she’s been directing UMB associates to is learning resources offered to their organization by consulting companies. “I’ve been forwarding on a lot of emails I’ve gotten from vendors who are offering their content for free,” Forbes-Harper said. “We haven’t had the budget to do some of it in the past, but now we have the opportunity.”

Forbes-Harper says much of the available content she’s seen takes existing leadership training and reconfigures it to account for the current climate. “A lot of it is related to leading through change and leading through crisis or working on projects remotely.”

Seek out experiences that focus on building essential skills

During times of crisis, good communication and emotional intelligence are key to maintaining a healthy team. Essential skills (also called soft skills) help leaders build empathy, communicate expectations and capacity, and understand the personal and professional needs of colleagues and employees. KUEC and KU Professional & Continuing Education offer several webinars, link and learns and online courses related to communication and essential skill development that can serve to grow or refresh your skillset, and help you lead through unprecedented times.

“Building leadership and communication skills is vital in a situation like this,” Lee Stuart, leadership programs manager at the KU Edwards Campus said. “Many of us are used to working in a situation where we can regularly see or interact with our colleagues, but when we’re working from a distance, being able to recognize and address the needs on your team takes on extra importance, and can help address the unique sources of conflict that may arise.”

Schedule time to learn

Once you’ve identified the kinds of training you’re interested in, create dedicated time in your schedule to pursue it, instead of fitting it in whenever things slow down. Consider how what you’re learning will apply to what you’re working on. If it directly impacts a project or leadership opportunity, Forbes-Harper says to consider giving that training extra importance.

“I’ve done four or five webinars in the last four weeks, and they’ve been all over the timeframe,” she said. “I’ve prioritized those so that I could get them done, because it’s learning I can then put into practice.”

Forbes-Harper also suggests checking in with your team to know ahead of time when your colleagues or employees have their own training planned. “It’s good to recognize your schedule and the schedule of those who work around you,” she said. “We’ve encouraged departments to have regular check-ins, and block their calendars so everyone knows what each other’s availability looks like.”


Looking for ways to incorporate quality professional development into your daily work schedule? Join us for Leadership Daily, free “snackable” education sessions you can complete over your lunch hour.


The KU Edwards Campus offers a number of free and low-cost online learning options for professionals hoping to continue their education while working from home. Learn more about what’s available.


Looking for customized professional development for your team?
We can deliver short-format, online education to help you enhance your team’s skills, complete professional development goals for 2020, and improve the way you work and lead in the current environment. To see how we can help, please contact Dean Brush at dbrush@ku.edu or 913-897-8428.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020 - 4:00pm