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Training Leaders to Train Leaders to Train Leaders

by Marie Clark

If you think learning communities are only for the public at large, think again: they also have a lot to offer community leaders. The Montreal-based training program Soutien au leadership rassembleur [support for community leaders], funded by the United Way, is a great example. It is a genuine gift for managers of community organizations, as well as for the organizations themselves and for the communities they serve, because when one person learns something, they teach it to another, and so on, and so on.

According to France Brochu, director of the Centre 1, 2, 3 GO!, which offers this leadershiptraining program in Montreal, this program serves as a place where community leaders can recharge their batteries and return to work with a fresh outlook. A bit of an energy boost, as it were, to help them overcome obstacles and isolation.

Why is such a program needed? Because the work of managing community organizations is changing. Organization managers must deal with increasingly complex issues. They must recruit stakeholders from various sectors to work together, and they must engage in more and more political activity as well. All of these demands require skills that these managers may not necessarily have developed before. As a result, they get discouraged and quit their jobs. As France Brochu explains, “We think that when people stay in their positions longer, everybody wins. We want this program to help organizations retain their best experts. In these kinds of jobs, there are times when you feel all alone, and very small, and you think there is no way out. This program teaches you that there is always a solution.”

The mission of the Centre 1, 2, 3 GO! is to promote skills development and knowledge transfer. In designing this training program to meet the new needs being expressed by community leaders, the Centre chose a cutting-edge instructional approach based on peer-learning groups, confident that when people are brought together and apply learning-community principles, a “collective intelligence” will emerge. As Ms. Brochu explains, “We work very organically, by trying to respond to the needs expressed by our participants. We want to keep very close to the people in the field and serve as their partners, because the greatest experts in local development are the people who actually do this kind of work.”

But that doesn’t mean that this program is undemanding. It consists of four 5-day sessions delivered over the course of one year, or about one session per calendar quarter. And all of the sessions are held out of town, to take the participants out of their day-to-day environment so that they canrecentre themselves. As Ms. Brochu puts it, “They have to be ready to make a commitment and to get out of their comfort zones.”

From small groups to entire communities

Every cohort that goes through this program consists of 18 members, divided into three professional co-development groups with six members each. The participants meet about once per month and provide collective guidance to one another. So for example, one member of a group can report a problem that he or she is experiencing at work, and then receive support from the entire group in looking for a solution that fits the situation.

These professional co-development groups then quickly branch out to form extensive networks. As France Brochu describes, “The 18 members of each cohort are a learning community in themselves. And what we’re betting is that the 54 people in the three cohorts that we have trained to date will also become a learning community. Our second bet is that these participants will want to share what they have learned with their own organizations and their own communities, thus expanding the learning community even further.”

For the three cohorts that havealready completed their training, this year the Centre will start to provide continuing education, consisting of meetings in small and large training groups to continue to learn, network, transfer knowledge, and so on.

According to Ms. Brochu, who took this training herself before she became director of the Centre, “What the program does that’s spectacular is that it gets you moving: it makes you want to continue to learn, to go deeper, to get to know the people from the other cohorts, to network, to share information, and so on.” The Centre fosters such exchanges and encourages best practices.

Impacts

The participants evaluate this leadershipprogram twice: immediately after their training, and one year later. “Because it’s a kind of training that stirs things up,” says Ms. Brochu, “the participants have to reposition a lot of things in their organizations over the year that follows. They also have to take the time to assimilate what they have learned.” But the participants’ comments to date show that the program has already produced some tangible results. All of the participants say that they feel that they are playing their roles more effectively and are better equipped to deal with both conflicts and challenges.

France Brochu offers her own evaluation: “We think that people are staying in their jobs longer and carrying them out more forcefully and vigorously, because they have developed this learning network. The participants know one another and recognize one another. They are no longer alone.”

It is true that community organizations, and perhaps especially those involved in the fight against poverty, have traditionally tended to operate in isolation from other sectors. But for some years now, these organizations have begun recognizing the importance of working in multi-sector teams, with various networks, if they want to achieve more lasting results. “When every organization around the table has its own particular interests and its own action plan,” Ms. Brochu explains, “it’s not easy to work together. But if you want your efforts to be effective, all of the parties involved have to agree on a shared, common vision and set the priorities for their community together. It takes leaders to bring something like that about. At the Centre 1, 2, 3 GO!, we don’t want to train divas, we want to train people who will commit to shared leadership, because we believe this approach is decisive. It is important to take an accurate read on your neighbourhood, your city, and your region if you are going to take the right steps to bring about change.”

Developing “antennas”

For the moment, the Soutien au leadership rassembleur program is offered free of charge to community leaders in the metropolitan Montreal area by Centraide of Greater Montreal. This independent agency supports 360 organizations and mutual aid projects carried out by people who are active in their communities. It provides assistance to over 500 000 people. Now the Centre 1, 2, 3 GO! wants to offer this training to community leaders in other regions of Quebec. But the Centre still has to find the necessary funding, because it very much wants this training to remain free.

The Centre’s director also dreams of making this training accessible to other kinds of leaders, in the institutional sector, the school system, municipal governments, health and social services agencies, local health and social service centres, and so on.

Lastly, the Centre is also trying to diversify the training programs that it offers. “This fall,” says France Brochu, “in partnership with HEC Montréal (the renowned Montreal postsecondary school of business), we will be offering a training program on what a learning community is and how to bring one into being. If this program works and meets people’s needs, we will develop other training programs with HEC after that.”

In other words, it looks as if a learning community is a model that can be applied and yield good results in all sorts of fields!