A case study in transformational leadership: Glenn Feltham

Dr. Glenn Feltham’s style of leadership may strike some as unconventional – so much so that two University of Alberta communications students recently turned an analytical eye to the president’s practices during his first year in office.

Feltham caught their attention for several reasons. Amongst the most significant was a program he called Project President. Almost immediately upon joining NAIT in March 2011, Feltham began a tour of roughly 40 NAIT programs. For nine weeks, he spent at least half his time participating in hands-on demonstrations. He shared these experiences on the institute’s internal website.

To complement what he learned in classrooms and labs, Feltham held dozens of meetings with students and staff, intending to gauge the current culture of the institute, but also start charting its future. To draft a visioning document, he commissioned more than 50 additional events that involved more than 2,500 participants.

And in his spare moments, he wandered the halls, chatting with staff members and students he’d meet to glean even more information about his new environment, going so far as to purchase steel-toed shoes so he could safely drop by institute workshops.

Teresa Sturgess, instructor of Business Administration – Marketing, and communications consultant Judith Dyck, both masters in communications technology students, recognized Feltham’s style as transformational leadership, which analysts and theorists identify as having the power to inspire and motivate, and move an organization toward its goals.

The U of A classmates made a case study of Feltham’s first year for an organizational communications course, documenting it in a paper (that earned a grade of A+) entitled Transformational Leadership in a Post-Secondary Environment. Originally, the project was conceived as a communications audit. After meeting the president, Sturgess realized its full potential.

“I thought about culture. Really, who sets the culture of your organization?” says Sturgess (Business Administration – Marketing ’83). “I thought, we’ve got to look at this guy.”

Here are a few hallmarks of transformational leadership from the researchers’ look at Feltham’s efforts to rally staff and students around making NAIT one of the world's leading polytechnics.

Set the example. Feltham’s efforts to get to know NAIT – particularly his ground-level tour – modelled a culture of communication, say the authors, based on commitment to students, passion for the organization and willingness to learn.

Inspire trust. During Feltham’s first year, he initiated an annual employee survey to identify ways to improve the institute. The main concerns – along with the rest of the report – were posted with a promise of action to an internal webpage created for it and future survey results.

Be persistent. The president accepted that staff might be unsure of his methods, say the authors, but he resolved not to stray from his approach. In fact, he reinforced it by increasing communication through his own internal blog, often typing entries into his Blackberry while walking around the institute.

Demonstrate vision. Based on what he learned, along with insight from staff and students, Feltham began making a plan to guide NAIT’s development, capturing it in a vision document. He “made it clear that employee input … would affect the outcomes and final product,” say the authors. But “once a decision is made,” said the president, “engagement is over.” After that, communicating the decision is his priority.

Recognize and nurture. “Feltham says leaders also empower people and that success is measured in good part by how many leaders are created during their tenure.” That only happens, he adds, if people are allowed to make decisions – even if different from his own.

Be present. “We also learned that transformational leadership is hard work,” say the authors. Feltham holds town halls, attends Ooks athletics games, and is a fixture at family-oriented employee events, “even donning a swimsuit and tackling the pool’s new climbing wall at the family pool day.” In short, they say, “He doesn’t hide behind his desk or his title.”

Sturgess and Dyck see Feltham’s first year as very promising for NAIT. Going forward, however, the researchers see two challenges, which all leaders in post-secondary, and perhaps in any large organization, face.

First, such organizations tend to be conservative. They may not resist change, but they’re not often quick to evolve. Any leader of one should expect to invest significant amounts of time and energy when trying to effect change.

That relates to the second potential issue: “Feltham’s challenge will be sustaining the strong start he has made,” say the authors.

“Time will tell,” says Sturgess, if the president will be able to maintain his momentum. As a NAIT employee, she adds, “I’d put my bets on him.” In the meantime, he remains, at the very least, in motion. As the authors report, “Feltham continues to roam the halls talking to people.”

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