Leading by thinking

In the Brookings Executive Education program, the Olin Business School partners with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., to provide government employees with enhanced capabilities to lead their agencies.

The Olin Business School at Washington University, in partnership with the Brookings Institution, has designed the MS-Leadership degree to develop leaders for service as senior federal executives. Here, Andrew Shatte, founder and president of Phoenix Life Academy, teaches resilience. (Photo: Tamzin B. Smith/Brookings Executive Education)
The Olin Business School at Washington University, in partnership with the Brookings Institution, has designed the MS-Leadership degree to develop leaders for service as senior federal executives. Here, Andrew Shatte, founder and president of Phoenix Life Academy, teaches resilience. (Photo: Tamzin B. Smith/Brookings Executive Education)

The Brookings Executive Education program, created by two institutions with deep ties to the late Robert S. Brookings, aims to deliver on Brookings’ desire to “teach the art of handling problems rather than simply impart accumulated knowledge” to those in and engaged with government.

“We have a particular approach to leadership, and at its center is thinking — active inquiry,” says Jackson Nickerson, the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at Washington University’s Olin Business School as well as associate dean and director of the Brookings Executive Education (BEE) program. The BEE program is a collaborative partnership between Olin and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“We believe that understanding how to engage in inquiry — not only individually but collectively — and figuring out what the real problems are and coming up with real solutions are at the center of leadership,” Nickerson continues. “Our program puts a strong focus on processes for how to recognize and overcome biases. We want people to deeply understand a problem before attempting to solve it.”

With the partnership launching in 2009, the Brookings Executive Education program has trained thousands of government employees in agencies including the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of the Treasury and the National Institutes of Health, among many others. Enrolling more than 3,600 participants each year, the BEE program provides what similar government training programs have lacked: leadership skills from a business perspective.

“In an era where the U.S. government is increasingly involved in business, students have to develop an appreciation for, and a competency to engage with, different facets of the government,” Nickerson explains. “We are on the forefront of providing that sort of knowledge to our students.”

While enormous in scope and diverse in participants, the BEE program is bound by its commitment to help students develop pragmatic skills that can be transferred to any sector of the federal government. Participants can choose from one- or two-day seminars, such as “Inside Congress: Understanding the Legislative Process and Ethics in Action: Leading With Integrity,” as well as the multiyear Master of Science in Leadership degree program, the Legis Congressional Fellowship program and the Women’s Leadership Network.

BEE participants include government executives, MBAs from the Olin School and even undergraduates who come to Brookings for a “semester abroad.” Courses are largely taught in Washington, D.C., on the Brookings campus, although some courses are taught at Washington University as well. Courses are taught by faculty from Olin, as well as a rotating series of lecturers who are experts in their fields.

“We have a set of courses that snap together like a jigsaw puzzle. You can take them in any sequence, and they reinforce each other,” Nickerson explains. “In any particular course, we might have people there for the first time, people returning, people in certificate programs, people in our MS-Leadership program, fellows — all learning together.”

In other words, there is no typical BEE participant, and that is part of the program’s appeal. By strengthening leadership, collaboration and problem-solving skills, graduates learn to better navigate the complex bureaucratic structure of the U.S. government.

“What drew me to the program was the reputation of Washington University and the Brookings Institution overall,” says Timothy Keasling, who has been enrolled in the MS-Leadership program since fall 2015. “I felt at this point in my federal career that I needed to challenge myself and improve my abilities. I wanted to find a program that would sharpen my skills and prepare me for senior executive positions within the government.”

Keasling is no newcomer to the federal government: He has worked for the National Guard Bureau for 36 years. But even after decades of career success, he sought to strengthen his skills, and he says the BEE program helped him do just that.

“You can get in a rut, and the program has helped me look at things in a different way,” he explains. “The seminars and classes allow us to interact with other agencies. In doing so, you find out that you’re not alone and that a lot of the issues you’re focusing on are issues [others are facing] across the government enterprise. You get to see how other agencies are doing things. And building a broader network, I now have a Rolodex of individuals in other agencies I can call if I need help solving a problem.”

BEE’s MS-Leadership degree is distinctive in that students are required to document how they put the skills they have acquired from seminars into practice. In fact, after taking seminars, students spend up to six months implementing BEE’s leadership strategy in their respective departments, and then they produce a paper summarizing how they have used their training to benefit U.S. citizens.

“It’s stunning what participants are doing with what they’re learning here, how they apply it,” says Mary Ellen Joyce, executive director of BEE. Joyce, who has worked at Brookings for nearly 20 years, helped develop the program’s curriculum, and she has been thrilled to see its results play out in practice.

“We had one fellow who is fairly senior at the DOD, and he was given a pretty impossible task,” Joyce recalls. “He had to bring together 33 different organizations, getting them to radically improve their performance on missile ranges. People had tried to solve this problem for years and never succeeded, our MS-Leadership student figured, ‘Well, I might as well try what I learned in Jackson’s class.’”

According to Joyce, the MS-Leadership student worked for 10 months, and along the way his group reached consensus on both the formulation of the problem and the solution they agreed to implement. “That collective solution lowered costs by an estimated $3 billion,” Joyce says.

While some participants enroll in BEE to sharpen practical skills in their own departments, others enter the program to apply their skills to completely different sectors. Michael Wolfe, who received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Washington University in 1999, works as a senior program analyst at the Environmental Protection Agency. He has also completed BEE’s Legis Congressional Fellowship program, which provides federal employees with an in-depth, firsthand understanding of the inner workings of Congress. Wolfe worked for Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, assisting him with legislation development, hearing preparation, briefings, speeches, talking points and other constituent meetings.

“The experience gave me greater insight into the challenges and internal workings of Congress,” Wolfe recalls. “It’s helped demystify it for me. When you work for an agency, interacting with Congress, it is often an intimidating experience. The Legis Fellowship program gave me a deeper appreciation of the political pressures that Congress faces and a better understanding of how to communicate more effectively with the Hill. And I also made some great new connections.”

During his tenure as a Legis Fellow, Wolfe concentrated on environmental issues, collaborating with different stakeholders through the complicated process of legislation development, including drafting actual language, building support and preparing for hearings and floor speeches. These efforts ultimately led to several provisions being included in legislation to improve the nation’s drinking water infrastructure.

“He also helped develop an amendment to an appropriation bill that would enhance protection of fish and wildlife, and he worked with the Senate parliamentarian to ensure that the legislative language conformed to the rules of the Senate. “Sen. Cardin’s legislative director got a vote on the amendment on the Senate floor, which is difficult to do,” Wolfe says. “Somehow he managed to get an agreement in place to have the vote. I wrote Sen. Cardin’s talking points, watched him deliver the remarks on the Senate floor and then watched the vote. It was a personally gratifying and very surreal experience.

“The amendment failed,” he adds with a laugh, “but it was very educational to go through the process. I’m very interested in how policy is developed into legislation, and this program definitely helped me understand that better.”

Though alumni and current students uniformly praise the benefits of the program, managing BEE has not been without its own challenges. Launched shortly after the 2008 global financial collapse, BEE had to deal with a number of bureaucratic crises, most notably the government shutdown and sequestration in 2013.

“Those crises had a substantial impact on BEE’s programs and its growth,” Nickerson recalls. “During the sequester, the first thing the government cut was leadership development and travel funds. We’ve had to adjust to some shocks, but BEE adapted very well.”

The ability to adjust under pressure is not only a virtue of the program, but a skill taught to course participants. Keasling says the BEE program has helped him cope with working in a department facing budgetary restrictions.

“I’ve had to manage many complex fiscal challenges for my agency,” he says. “In the executive seminars, I learned the resiliency skills that my employees needed to cope with the pressures they face. I’ve been able to help them develop these coping skills in this austere fiscal environment. Often when you go to training, you’re not able to apply what you learn. But the coping skills and the mentoring skills I learned at BEE have helped me both professionally and personally.”

In addition to helping government workers manage a difficult economic environment, the BEE program also educates them on how to adapt to shifting political climates — an important skill as the U.S. faces an electoral face-off between two radically different candidates.

“Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump leads the next administration, leadership will be important,” Nickerson says when asked how BEE will be impacted by the presidential election. “BEE’s goal is to provide participants with skills that cultivate leadership, so that they can tackle the wicked problem typically reserved for government to resolve in order to more effectively benefit American citizens.”

Nickerson is the author of a new book called Leading in Government: Practical advice to leadership questions from the front lines, which lays out his philosophy, drawing from his experience in both the bureaucratic and business worlds. He hopes to share that philosophy, and the broader pedagogy of BEE, over the coming years with students outside BEE’s D.C. base.

“Since 2009, and except during sequestration, BEE’s program has been expanding,” he says, “and there is great growth potential. We have something called ‘BEE with YOU,’ where we can take our programming anywhere in the world. There aren’t many programs like that. We’ve taken programs to NASA, to the Department of the Interior in New Mexico and the Department of the Interior in West Virginia.

“Right now we are trying to make programming available to states, counties and cities,” he continues. “We’re exploring the possibility of doing so in Missouri and are developing a collaboration with Westminster College in Fulton. We want to train other faculty around the U.S. to deliver this content. If that idea is  successful, BEE’s impact on government will grow exponentially.”

Nickerson notes that the BEE program has been a financial success, increasing financial resources for the Olin Business School, Washington University and the Brookings Institution. After seven years in operation, federal agencies recognize the value of the program and often pay for their employees to enroll, guaranteeing a steady stream of participants. But money is not what matters most to the BEE staff.

“Any program needs to be financially successful to continue,” Nickerson says. “What is more important, however, is that thousands of people are going through BEE’s program each year, using what they have learned to help the citizens of this country. They can do things now that they weren’t able to do otherwise before attending.”

Joyce agrees. “They’re not only solving the toughest problems in their agencies, they’re rising in their careers because they’re mastering the competencies the federal government deems essential in being a leader,” she says.

“I’ve been at Brookings a long time,” she continues, “and I’m so proud and pleased by what we are able to contribute to those who serve. It is such an honor to be able to support the men and women who serve this country. We do that on a daily basis, and there is nothing more invigorating.”

Sarah Kendzior, PhD ’12, is an anthropologist and freelance writer on politics, the economy and digital media. Author of The View From Flyover Country, she is based in St. Louis.

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