First Cohort Graduates from CMUA’s New Next-Level Leadership Program
Thursday, October 19, 2023
by: Justine Brown

Section: CMUA News

CMUA’s inaugural Next-Level Leadership professional development program wrapped up in mid-October, with 16 current and ascending leaders from our member utilities completing the course. The program, tailored specifically to CMUA members’ needs, is designed to further strengthen leadership skills and readiness, and foster improved communications, teamwork, engagement, retention, and effectiveness.
The Next-Level Leadership course was initiated as CMUA began to emphasize workforce development as one of the association’s strategic focus areas for 2023 and beyond. CMUA Executive Director Barry Moline began looking for an educational opportunity that could help CMUA leaders better prepare for what lies ahead in bigger, more complex roles and create resilient organizations with current succession plans. However, he had difficulty finding a course that fit the bill. “There are a lot of leadership programs out there, but most are very expensive,” Moline said. “The challenge was finding a program that was customizable to our unique audience and offered a virtual experience at a reasonable cost.”
After an extensive search, Moline found the Leading with Courage Network, which offers virtual leadership courses. Initially, Danielle Blacet-Hyden, CMUA’s Deputy Executive Director, participated in the network’s existing cohort meetings. She found the monthly interactions helpful for introducing her to new colleagues and leadership perspectives. After a successful year in the program, Moline decided to build off their current offerings and customize a program for CMUA members.

“Ultimately, we were able to create a syllabus that made sense,” Moline said. “We brought it to the CMUA Board of Governors, and they liked it.”
The year-long program focused on topics such as decision-making and delegation skills, strategic networking and effective use of LinkedIn, influence and effective advocacy, dealing with difficult people, managing up, succession planning processes and tools, performance management, giving and receiving feedback, emotional intelligence, active listening, and improving employee engagement. “There are elements of leadership that are important at different times. The program's purpose is to talk about many different facets of leadership,” Moline said. “Then when students are presented with situations that require the use of these tools, they have experience and can be better leaders as a result.”
Program participant Nick Dominguez, business manager for the Lassen Municipal Utility District, said he liked that the program was well-rounded and explored many different aspects of leadership training. “I was able to hone in on things, and if I wanted to learn more about a topic, I could take that opportunity on my own,” Dominguez said. “But if I hadn’t been introduced to it in this program, I would’ve never known to look into it.”
“We all tend to gravitate to our comfort areas,” said program participant Aileen Ma, chief financial and administrative officer at the Southern California Public Power Authority. “The program brought awareness to areas I’m not as comfortable with, but I need to work on if I’m to progress in leadership. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have to be good in all areas. Sometimes it's about finding other folks with those qualities to make a successful team.”
The 16 participants of the inaugural course attended monthly Zoom sessions and two in-person meetings facilitated by subject matter experts from the electric/water industries and leadership coaches. The program emphasized collaboration and engagement throughout. It wasn’t just about lectures; it was an avenue to talk about what’s going on in the utilities, facing problems and solutions, and trading ideas on how to address them. 
Participants also completed several self-assessments to enable them to learn more about their leadership styles. One test revealed that these leaders, as a whole, tended to solve problems independently rather than through collaboration. “That was elucidating because we realized maybe that’s not always the best strategy,” Moline said. “Maybe we need to learn how to bring people together before making a decision. A better leader gathers ideas first and has an open mind, and then hopefully makes better decisions as a result.”
Lee Eisenstaedt, the program facilitator, used the results of that assessment to focus on ways to help CMUA leaders build more trusted, collaborative relationships. “The assessment showed that this group tends to work in silos,” Eisenstaedt said. “One of the objectives was to break down those silos and get participants to interact with each other.”
The opportunity to interact with other leaders in the industry was beneficial. “When you’re a leader, and you’re responsible for a lot of staff, it’s often difficult to find somebody you can confide in,” Dominguez said. “The networking opportunity was great, especially in an environment where you are among peers from California municipal utilities who understand the problems and issues you face. It’s a lot easier to have those discussions with them because you don’t have to lay the groundwork and explain how everything works before starting that conversation.” 
For Dominguez, those new relationships have already proven valuable beyond the classroom. “There are a few members of the program that I’ve reached out to and asked questions and leaned on as resources,” he said. “That wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for this program.”

CMUA is currently working on plans for a 2024 leadership training program.  Let us know if personnel from your organization are interested in enrolling in next year’s program.