City Employee ‘Book Club’ Seeks To Improve Leadership Skills, Reduce Turnover Rate

Five employees of the Warsaw Parks and Recreation Department have taken the Warsaw Leadership Class, which was started by Warsaw Human Resource Director Denny Harlan. Pictured (L to R) are Recreation Director Stephanie Schaefer, Superintendent Larry Plummer, Maintenance Director Shaun Gardner, carpenter Mark Mikel, Harlan and supervisor Adam Howard. Photo by David Slone, Times-Union

Affectionally named The Book Club by city employees who have been through it, the Warsaw Leadership Class seeks to improve leadership skills, reduce the city’s employee turnover rate and get everyone on the same page.
Those who have been through the class started by Warsaw Human Resource Director Denny Harlan say it’s working.
Before Harlan became the H.R. director for the city, there was no formal leadership program in place.
“This is kind of a new program for the city, and it’s not just a city thing. We had this problem throughout societies. We always try to find the person who is best at the job and they get promoted. But we don’t give them any training to prepare them to take care of the people,” he said. “That’s what I noticed when I got here, and that’s why we took off with this program – to get our leaders to understand that job No. 1 is taking care of our employees. We know that they can do the task that we ask them to do because they’re good at it. Now, are they able to take care of our employees that we expect them to take care of?”
Harlan first saw the need for the class with the fire department.
“Initially, when I first started here, we’ve been through a few different fire chiefs. One of the things that kept popping in our head is, can we promote from within? And we felt we could, we had some guys that were capable of stepping up, but we weren’t doing a very good job of creating our own pipeline. So that’s kind of the thing that really had us looking into it,” he said.

From The Top Down
When Harlan began putting the leadership class together, he knew he had to have buy-in from the top down. So for the first class, it included just the police and fire department chiefs and their administrative chiefs. After the class was over, they gave Harlan their honest feedback about what they liked and didn’t like about it, as well as what they wanted to see in the city’s future leaders.
Initially, the class met once a month for three hours on a Thursday for six months. For the second class, the days were changed to every other week for three months.
“The one book that has been the best so far is ‘The Way of the Shepherd.’ I was actually introduced to that book by Drew Scholl down at Wildman,” Harlan said. “I just read it and fell in love with it and knew that every leader, or anybody that wants to become a leader, should read that book.”
He said nothing new is coming out about leadership as leadership is leadership.
“It’s the same stuff, it’s just how it is said, not what is said, because everything that is said is the same thing. But that book is just amazing and breaks it down to easily identifiable terms that people can connect with.”
The other book that’s been a constant in the class is “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.
“The thought process is, start on the individual basis – how you take care of your people, and then by the end we’re trying to build that team and understanding what building a team looks like,” he said.
Along the way, he’s thrown in a few other reading materials so that each class has had a different book in the middle, but they’ve all been good books he’s said they’ve taken something out of.
“We’re still trying to identify what that third book is going to be and stick with one,” Harlan stated.

Leadership Philosophy
For the classes after the first one, the city’s department heads make recommendations. There’s usually two to three employees from each department for each class.
“The majority of them have kind of stuck with the top-down philosophy. They’ve sent their supervisors, and now we’re starting to get into the upcoming leaders and be able to get them trained before they step into leadership roles,” Harlan said.
Eventually, it’s hoped that every city employee gets through the class even if they don’t become a leader.
At the end of every class, participants are asked to be “brutally” honest on a survey so Harlan can tweak the class if needed. “We can’t get better if we don’t know what’s wrong, so I’m always seeking that input – good, bad or indifferent – and I think that people trust me enough that they can give me their honest opinion without having to sugarcoat anything. We want it to be the best version of what we as a team need it to be,” he stated.
There are some “awesome” leaders in the city, Harlan said, and it’s been pretty easy to get them on board with the program and help tweak the class.
In between the classes, participants read one of the books. The first half of each class is focused on the book that was read, including a roundtable discussion so everyone can learn from each other. The second half involves Harlan teaching on some type of leadership subject, such as effective communication, conflict resolution or performance management.
While he learned about leadership after 26 years in the military, Harlan said leadership in the Army and the civilian world are not the same. He credits the leaders he worked with at Wildman for helping him see the difference and open his eyes to see that a leader can change to fit the situation they’re in.
So far, there’s been three Warsaw Leadership Classes. Eventually, he’d like to do two classes a year until the city’s department heads tell him they’re good and don’t have anyone else to go through it. Each class is kept to about 20 people.
The books are paid for out of the H.R. training budget and participants get to keep their copies of the books so they can refer to them later as needed.
“To be the best leader possible, you’ve got to continously learn. You learn from others, you learn from yourself. I’m always seeking different avenues,” Harlan said.
At the end of each class, he encourages the participants to find a leadership influencer that they can connect with because “the information is the same, but if you can connect with a speaker, then you will want to listen to that and you will get more out of it.”

Measuring Success
As far as measuring the success of the class, Harlan said it’s not going to be something that can be verified with numbers right away.
“The way that I judge it is by watching how they interact with the people around them. How often am I hearing that somebody doesn’t like them, or that they’re being a bully or something like that? Again, we’ve got great leaders so it’s not something that I feel was bad. It was just that we didn’t have enough in our pipelines, we wanted to grow our pipeline. But, seeing some of the change in some of the leaders at the top has been amazing,” Harlan said.
One way that he can see that the class has helped is that the city’s turnover rate has dropped.
“We were probably in the high teens in turnover rate, and we’re down to about 4% now. Our employees are wanting to stay here because of the culture and environment that we’re creating from the leadership top down,” Harlan stated.
Now that there’s a grasp on the basic stuff with the class, Harlan would like to go back and do a second session where the leadership training is taken up to the next notch.
“I want to make sure that we are always striving to be better. I don’t want us to ever just rest on where we’re at. I see so much potential for the city, and I want us to be out front in every other city in the state. We should be one of the fastest growing cities in the state if we all kind of get together and try to move forward together,” Harlan said.
He’d like to see the program grow, not only with the city employees, but within the whole community and county.

Participants Give Thumbs Up
Montana Gardner, H.R. administrative assistant, has been through 1-1/2 of the classes.
“I really enjoyed it. I liked the books that we read and I felt like it brought up a lot of good points to think about, not just at work in your job but also in life,” she said. “We read this book by Brené Brown called ‘Dare to Lead’ and it wasn’t really a group favorite just because it was a hard read, but it had a lot of good points, and I kept thinking while I was reading it I was relating more to my life in general than to work. So it’s not just leadership for your job, it’s leadership for life.”
She said there’s a lot of room for personal growth through the class, and it was really nice to meet with different people from different departments and see their take on things.
Damian Pass, street department maintenance and garage supervisor, recently completed the leadership class.
“I definitely learned a lot. How people do certain things. I learned to ask them more questions before I judge. One of my biggest faults is delegating. I’m the type of person that it’s just easier to do myself. As a supervisor, it’s been hard for me to learn to delegate more, but I’ve come a long way with that. I also learned that I need to be more clear with my objectives and my goals on projects for the employees so they get a clear understanding of what my expectations are,” Pass said.
He said he thinks every city employee needs to go through the class. “I just think it gets everybody on the same page and maybe helps the newer employees understand why decisions are made with upper management, why we do certain things. I think it helps with communication, too, with employees and helps them buy in better with your objectives and your goals. It makes them feel like they’re more of a team,” Pass said.
Five Parks and Recreation Department employees have taken the class, including Superintendent Larry Plummer, Maintenance Director Shaun Gardner, Recreation Director Stephanie Schaefer, supervisor Adam Howard and carpenter Mark Mikel.
Mikel said his experience with the class was “all positive.” Schaefer said the class “makes you think.”
“I think it’s changed the mentality of our whole department,” Plummer said.
“We’re all leaders, and whether we’re appointed or not, people follow that. When you’ve got a good attitude and you drive forward, people are going to follow you. And, when you put out what we’ve learned in this, it’s just kind of like a natural evolution, people just go with it. It makes sense. It works,” Mikel said.
Schaefer said a person doesn’t have to be a boss to be a leader.
“Absolutely. We have several leaders within our department and you don’t have to be the boss to be a leader. You can be a construction leader. You can be a recreation leader. You can lead at anything. It’s all about getting people around you to commit to the same goal,” Plummer said.
The five of them have started Monday morning talks where a different one of them each week comes up with a topic to discuss. Plummer said it may not always be a “peachy cream” discussion, but they get things out in the open and talk about it.
The class has opened up their communication and accountability with each other, he said. “It’s not about one person coming in and carrying the burden, it’s about all of us carrying the burden,” Plummer said.
Mikel said it has helped them to identify existing problems. Shaun Gardner said by opening up the communication, they’ve been able to talk about the problems.
“Everybody’s on the same page now, working toward the same end goal. Everybody’s informed, and if something does come up, we’re not afraid to talk about it. It’s healthy conflict,” Shaun Gardner said.
Schaefer said, as a department, that really showed in some of their really big events that brought in several thousand people. “It was teamwork, and I think it made the summer a lot different and a lot better,” she said.
Shaun Gardner said this was the smoothest summer since he’s worked at the park and recreation department with everyone being on the same page.
“It was smooth sailing for as much as we had going on, for sure,” he said.
Mikel and Howard agreed they couldn’t get enough of the class because of the discussions that were brought up during it and the opportunity to learn from other leaders from other departments.
“This class doesn’t change anything. It’s the individuals that take the knowledge from the class and implement it,” Plummer said. “If you don’t implement what you learned and don’t practice what you learned, it doesn’t go anywhere. Denny’s given us the tools to do that and we’re taking advantage of that.”