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Monday, March 2, 2015

How the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is Developing Future Leaders

Discovery Learning, Inc. has had the privilege of partnering with many higher education institutions over the years. One of the relationships that we are particularly proud of is Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In this installment of our Ask the Expert series I had the opportunity to speak with Michael McCormack, Deputy Director for the Public Health Leadership and Director of Practice, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  Michael has the unique challenge of designing a program to develop leaders in the public health sector in a rapidly changing public health landscape.



N: Hi Michael thanks for agreeing to talk about the Leadership Concentration at the Harvard T.H. Chang School of Public Health. Perhaps we could start with you providing an overview to our readers about what the Leadership Concentration is and how it came about?

M: “Let me put this in the context of public health and the fact that very few people know what public health is. Most people only think about public health when something significant occurs.  So recent examples are West Nile virus, and swine flu, or now Ebola.  During a time of crisis suddenly everyone thinks about public health.  The Harvard School of Public Health has several different departments that one can get a masters of public health degree. These include epidemiology, bio statistics as well as health policy management and environmental health.  We saw a strong need for graduates of the Harvard School of Public Health to see themselves as collaborative leaders because if you are going to work in public health you really have to be able to interact with the community and community leaders, as well as be an expert in your own field of public health.  So what we wanted to do was design a program that was somewhat flexible to accommodate the unique needs of each of those departments and at the same time give people some insights about their own leadership.  So the leadership concentration tries to help students see themselves as leaders by:

1)      Doing a series of self-assessment instruments including the Discovery Leadership Profile.
2)      The school requires that students have a minimum of ten credit hours of leadership courses.
3)      Students in the concentration need to work internally with a coach which is different than an academic advisor. The purpose of the coach is really to try to be a sounding board for the student about what they are learning about themselves and about leadership during their time in the concentration.
4)       Students are also required to document what they are doing through an electronic portfolio. The portfolio provides the students a way to assess at the beginning of the year what they see as their strengths and what they are trying to accomplish and where they are at the year’s ends.
5)      The last component is that we ask the students to do is something that’s about teaching the leadership community something about health, public health or leadership. The idea behind this is giving something back to the community. People have done some very nice things with that work and so that was the last goal of the leadership concentration.”

N: You mentioned that one of the components of the program is coaching for the students.  Do you tie coaching back to the feedback that they’re getting from the 360 survey?

M: “Yes, quite often that does happen. What we do with self-assessment is have four to five sessions each year in the fall, and we give students a series of instruments that they can take to get snapshots of their style. Typically we use Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument and sometimes the Myers Briggs type indicator.  We always use the 360 from Discovery Learning and we are very happy with it and the students like it a lot.  Students go through the battery of instruments. We always do this as a group, we have about forty people broken into two groups that meet on different nights.  The group that students work with remains intact and the intent of that is that they should feel free to have conversations about what are they learning about themselves from each of the instruments. The idea is not just to get the data but to feel comfortable talking about the implications of the snapshot with a group of peers.  I think that by making people talk about it, at first it feels a little risky, but in fact what it does is kind of normalize whatever the data is. People no longer feel like they are a good or bad person based on the results of their assessments.  They get to hear other people wrestling with the same questions. That really helps them feel ok about their data. They may not like some of it, but it makes the experience much more about learning and being able to set up a learning community. “

N: Does the Harvard School of Public Health focus on leadership competencies? How do you define the competencies for a great public health leader?

M:” That was something we really struggled with because there’s such a wide array of skills and competencies that we could focus on. But eventually we were able to distill it down into six or seven key principles including: change management, leadership diversity and inclusion, decision making and risk analysis, operations management, developing people. There was probably a couple more, but I think those were the key things that our research found that people tend to focus on and pay the most attention to. “

N: How did you develop a curriculum around those competencies? With any one of the focus areas it seems one could spend a lifetime mastering the leadership skills and traits associated with those different competencies. How do focus in on what’s critical for students in the limited time that you have them?

M: “That was a big dilemma that we struggled with. Not only do we have limited time, but not all students see a need for all of those competencies. What we have asked people to do, is to do a gap analysis of themselves and to think about what are the two maybe three competencies they’re going to focus on. We are trying to get a framework so that people can pick some meaningful things for their own personal development.  Because, as you noted, in a year, you can only do so much.

One of our key challenges is to help these students see themselves as leaders. If you don’t see yourself as a leader, if you don’t have the internal resource for that, then you’re not going to be as effective because you are going to be hesitant to act. You’re not going to know how to look for resources and ask for help. If you really see yourself as a leader, you have fewer qualms about saying I don’t know the answer to this but I know how to find it out and I know people I can talk to. So that’s the reason why we felt like if you pick a couple of competencies and you get the larger framework then you should be effective at what you set out in the world to do. The other thing I’d say about that is Dean Frank, the head of the school, talks a lot about the changing face of public health. He says what you really need in the world, as it’s becoming more global, are people who not only know public health but can convey their ideas effectively so that people are actually willing to change and try new things. “

N: What are some challenges that are relatively constant in public health? What are some things that you see emerging that public health leaders need to be focusing on?

M: “So the kind of common challenges these people face whether you are the head of the public health department or the head of the CDC in Atlanta is constrained resources. You never have enough staff, funding , or time.  If you are in the community as head of the public health department you run a spectrum of things from restaurant inspections and controlling rats to clean air and clean water, emergency preparedness, and infectious diseases that are occurring. So it’s a very wide spectrum of knowledge that you are supposed to have. The challenge is staying current with that, being able to lobby the legislators at whatever level is relevant. So how do you get those resources? Generally people don’t want to spend money on public health, if you don’t understand it; you’ll think I don’t need to do that. When it goes wrong, then you’ll want someone who is really good at it but you haven’t given them money to do anything with.

But I think beyond that, the thing that’s happening now is really the globalization of the issues around health. It used to be that communicable diseases were really the problem of smaller, developing nations. But now they’re being seen all over the globe. That has a lot to do with how quickly someone who is sick can go from “wherever” to the United States or to Canada or to anyplace else and bring a disease with them on a plane. While they were on that 8 or 24 hour flight the disease was incubating and it doesn't show up until they’re actually in the public in whatever country they were going to. So that’s a big challenge.  

Another big challenge is as people emulate the west more and more, the diets are changing around the world. So now you are seeing much more of the chronic ailments that people have around obesity and heart disease that you wouldn't have seen two or three decades ago. It’s interesting to note that in the 1900’s the average lifespan of a human was about 49 years of age. Today it’s 66.7. In 2000, for the first time ever, older people outnumbered younger people on the face of the planet. So who gets sick and what illnesses they’re facing and what systems you have in place for good health are changing dramatically. It is critical today to have people who are very good at leading and challenging the status quo, but in a way that it gets heard and actually acted upon.  I think it’s’ becoming much more critical for people to be successful in the role of public health.”

We would love to talk to you about how Discovery 360 Leadership Profile can empower the development of your organizations leaders. 

Click Here to Learn More About DLI's Discovery Leadership Profile




Michael McCormack is the Deputy Director for the Public Health Leadership and Director of Practice, at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  He is also the Director of the Massachusetts Institute for Community Health Leadership, which he created for the Blue Cross Foundation in 2005.

Michael received his M.S. in Organization Development from American University. He has been at HSPH since the fall of 2008.

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