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Leaders of tomorrow

A partnership between a university and major provider has brought many benefits for staff with management potential

For Lisa Robinson, the opportunity to learn, be challenged and develop professionally is extremely important.

Little wonder then that the senior case manager of the carer support program at Villa Maria recently completed the organisation’s Diploma in Management program.

The Victorian provider of residential, community and disability services partnered with RMIT University last year to develop the qualification, which focuses on management and leadership skills but in the context of applying these in aged care.

“Twenty managers, including myself, recently completed the one-year course. Not only did I find better ways to work and manage from perspectives across our organisation, I learned from other organisations too,” Robinson says.

Fellow graduate, community services team leader Leonie Mills, echoes that sentiment.

“I look back on the opportunity as one that not only enhanced my education and career within the organisation, but gave me the change to network and form friendships with others who I may not otherwise have met,” she says.

Darren Mannix, HR manager, says the course is part of the organisation’s strategic plan to develop its leadership and management.

Acknowledging the importance staff place on educational opportunities, the course also feeds into Villa Maria’s staff retention and career pathways plan.

“It providers a pathway for our future leaders and adds value to the skills of our first level managers, team leaders and supervisors. While the program is appropriate for people with management experience, it is particularly relevant for those who are new to a management role or for staff aspiring to these roles and demonstrating high potential to do so,” he says.

There is an encouraging cross section of staff undertaking this course. Much like the student make-up last year, the 18 staff undertaking this year’s course come from the organisation’s residential, community care and disability services, he says.

Tony Graham, manager of community services at RMIT University, collaborated with Mannix in developing the course.

He says the eight units of competency cover the range of areas managers need to be skilled and knowledgeable in.

“These include managing self, a team, operations, systems, projects, risk, continuous improvement and a safe workplace. While it is a generic national qualification, we have worked with Villa Maria to contextualise the information.

“Therefore, when talking about continuous improvement, for example, we discuss the generic skills and knowledge necessary. But we use Villa Maria as a backdrop. We encourage the students to reflect on the organisation’s continuous improvement culture and how they fit into that.”

The course consists of four stages, Graham says.

“First is enrolment, which involves self assessment, so the student reflects on their current skill set and where the gaps are. Next are the workshops across the eight themes. Then there are projects and assessment tasks. Finally, we finalise the assessments and award the diploma,” he says.

The workshops provide an opportunity for discussion and reflection on a range of topics, while the work-based projects enable students to apply concepts and theory to develop solutions to a real work problem. There is also a website forum for students to discuss issues and themes and disseminate their projects to colleagues across the organisation.

For Graham, the projects, which the students build, monitor and review, are the value proposition for the organisation.

“While they are investing time and funding in their staff development, and in return getting employees who are able to validate their skills against a national qualification, they are also benefiting from the students’ projects which go about improving systems,” he says.

Projects from last year’s students included setting up a recreation program for people with disabilities, a men’s shed, a review of current reporting systems and a formalised induction program for new staff at a remote site.

“The workplace projects are negotiated between the student, their manager and the course coordinator,” says Mannix. “It’s usually covering an issue or area they have identified is lacking or needs attention in the area they manage.”

An unforseen benefit of the program has been the peer-support aspect, which is ongoing.

“We didn’t realise how positive that would be. Informal support and information sharing continues among the graduates of last year’s course,” says Mannix.

“We’ve also encouraged this year’s students to engage the graduates from last year,” says Graham. “They’ve been there, they’ve gone through the program, developed the projects. It’s another aspect of the peer support. The other side has been the students self assessment in the enrolment stage. We encourage them to undertake this with their line manager and a positive outcome of that has been informed workplace support practice.”

While the course is relatively new, Mannix says he already sees the benefits for staff, reporting a reduction in calls for HR advice from last year’s graduates.

Graham also cites a 100 per cent completion rate for last year, higher than state and national averages.

“RMIT and Villa Maria have a good relationship and we are keen to investigate further education and research opportunities. From our perspective, our business is about building the capacity of community. This is a great example of a community services organisation critically evaluating itself and being proactive about building its skill set and knowledge in order to offer the best service to the community,” says Graham.

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