Recognizing the benefits of developing rather than recruiting leaders, Leo A Daly spent two years creating a program to identify and mentor the firm’s up-and-comers for future senior roles.

Recognizing the benefits of developing rather than recruiting leaders, Leo A Daly spent two years creating a program to identify and mentor the firm’s up-and-comers for future senior roles.

On Aug. 1, 2008, Leo A Daly launched its first formal leadership development program. The Leo A Daly Leadership Institute was established to address the ongoing need to build sustainable corporate leadership for the global architecture and engineering firm’s 26 domestic and six international offices. This spring, the first 10 graduates attended the firm’s annual management meeting and were honored by Leo A. Daly III, the firm’s chairman and chief executive officer.

Recognizing that developing existing staff rather than recruiting new staff was a superior approach to creating an enduring culture, the firm’s executives spent two years creating a comprehensive curriculum to help mentor future leaders. In parallel, the executive team began a transition program that would in part identify future leaders for key senior roles who would benefit from participation in the new leadership development program.

Program Development and Launch

The idea for the institute was conceived by Executive Vice President Charles Dalluge. As he looked to fill senior positions in the fast-growing firm, he became frustrated by having to hire new employees rather than promote from within as often as he would have liked. Dalluge knew the program could address the skills, strengths, and experience required for leadership positions in addition to communicating the importance of the culture and history of the nearly 100-year-old firm.

Program development was spearheaded by Chief Operations Officer and Vice President Deborah M. DeBernard and Director of Human Resources Duke Vair. They solicited recommendations from executive staff, conducted independent research on other leadership programs, and solicited input from Tammy Moerer, Ph.D., director of the graduate leadership program at The College of St. Mary in Omaha, Neb. The outcome was an outline for a curriculum delivered in quarterly segments beginning in August 2008 and concluding in April 2009.

The program was promoted to all employees with at least two years of service in the firm through a series of e-mails and meetings describing the program’s purpose, content, and benefits.

A qualification-based selection process, an application, and a scoring matrix were developed to rate potential candidates. The application process was intended to give candidates an opportunity to demonstrate leadership qualities and potential. Successful applicants showed they were:

• Searching out challenging opportunities to change, grow, innovate, and improve

• Experimenting, taking risks, and learning from accompanying mistakes

• Envisioning an uplifting and enabling future

• Enlisting others in a common vision by appealing to their values, interests, hopes, and dreams

• Fostering collaboration by promoting cooperative goals and building trust

• Strengthening people through empowerment, providing choice, developing competence, assigning critical tasks, and offering visible support

• Setting the example by behaving in ways that are consistent with shared values

• Achieving consistent progress and building commitments

• Recognizing individual contributions to the success of every project

• Celebrating team accomplishments regularly

Applicants submitted two written references as endorsements of their candidacy along with the application outlining:

Professional employment. A description of professional experience, current and prior responsibilities, providing information on professional or business organizations to which they belong and leadership roles held. Applicants described how their responsibilities had grown during their career, their greatest leadership contribution to date, and any awards or honors they had received.       

Community involvement and leadership. Information about their community-oriented volunteer service, leadership roles, awards or honors received, and how their community involvement had a positive impact on their career.

Education. A description of their field of study, degrees awarded, awards received, and educational accomplishments.

Goals. Candidates answered several key questions that addressed why they wanted to participate in the program, what they hoped they could change in the organization, their commitment to the company (i.e., willingness to relocate if needed), and the primary reason they should be selected for the program.  

From these submissions, candidates were evaluated and ranked based on their merits and the strength of their applications. No quota or formula of office location or discipline was imposed. The program development team reviewed the numerous applications and selected 10 candidates to inaugurate the program.

Four two-day programs were held on Fridays and Saturdays at the company’s corporate headquarters in Omaha. This was done to signal a partnership between the firm and each candidate for dedicating the personal time and effort required for the program. Each session was preceded by multiple reading assignments, personal assessments, videos, or group discussion that prepared participants for the intense two-day meeting.

Each quarterly class was led by separate pairs of senior staff session champions who acted as facilitators for the learning objectives of that component of the program. Session champions were drawn from the Leo A Daly leadership and included managing principals, operations directors, and corporate market sector leaders. The session champions drew on internal and external subject matter experts to deliver course content in interactive modules that ranged from one to two hours. Each program featured dinners and casual interactions among students and members of the corporate leadership team to further facilitate communication and mentor/protégé relationships.

The Content

Within the framework of the curriculum, the details of the session were developed collaboratively by the program development team, session champions, and subject matter experts. Emphasis was placed on ensuring that participants used individual and team exercises to reinforce the material being presented.

The four sessions covered all aspects of the organizational structure and practice of the firm, including culture, vision, business, and people, with a consistent focus on leadership qualities and development as they relate to creating an enduring company. Each session began with an icebreaker designed to inform students about themselves and fellow classmates and to help them gain insight into the personalities of the session champions.

Session one provided an introduction by the firm’s chairman and CEO, Leo A. Daly III, to the history and culture of the firm founded by his grandfather in 1915 and subsequently led by his father and himself. The balance of the session focused on definitions, qualities, and characteristics of leadership as defined by industry leaders and traditional assessment tools such as the Myers-Briggs, DISC, and Keirsey Q models to help students understand their strengths, communication preferences, and conflict resolution styles.

Session two discussed the strategic vision of the firm, how it was developed, and how it has evolved. Instructors engaged students in developing alterative views of the current vision, mission, and goals of the firm and provided a set of metrics for analysis of results. Students also reviewed the fiscal year business plans that were under development, offering insight and advice to better achieve the firm’s goals.

Session three covered different aspects of the business, including strategic planning, marketing and business development, finance, contracts, ideation, information technology management, and human resources. These topics were chosen to show the interrelationship of support disciplines in the firm and the importance of all members of the company.

Session four provided a summation of the learning from the previous sessions with a focus on leading people. The session concluded with the students completing a leadership plan, selecting mentors for their continued development, and making a commitment to each other to strengthen the bonds initiated from the program.

Graduation was held at the firm’s annual management meeting, where the class donated a tree and plaque to the corporate office. According to class spokesperson Michael Huffstetler, “Our class gift is just a small symbol of the beginning of our commitment. And as the tree will grow strong and eventually cast a large shadow, we believe so too will the energy and impact of this program. … The Institute’s influence will be felt across the company in many tangible, positive ways.” The new graduates were honored by CEO Daly and presented with graduation certificates during the luncheon program.


Participants in the inaugural Leo A Daly Leadership Institute, including facilitators, instructors, subject matter experts, and students came away satisfied that the program had hit the mark. When asked their reaction to the year-long process, graduates responded enthusiastically:

•    “My expectations were exceeded. I had not expected the friendships, emotions, experience, and close-up exposure to the firm’s senior corporate leaders that came from the program.”

•    “I am inspired to make a difference with the company.”

•    “As a result of participating in the program, my fellow employees now see me as a sounding board for their issues — someone to take their ideas to management.”

•    “The Leadership Institute has been a truly rewarding experience beyond my expectations. I learned a lot about myself and how to focus and build on my strengths.”

•    “I am using what I learned from this program to aid in making my team more cohesive and to help them grow as leaders as well.”

•    “Knowing what is valued and expected from leaders in the firm makes it easier to chart a course and develop myself.”

•    “I applied to the program to prove a point, thinking I would not be selected and I would have an excuse to quit. That backfired. I now know more about the company, the people, and myself. I can see a ladder to the future and am more committed to the company than ever.”

•    “There is no other comparable forum in or out of the company.”

•    “The Leadership Institute changed my thinking about what leadership is and how it can be developed.”

The corporate leadership team had an equally positive reaction to the initial program.

“The experiences at the 2008-09 Leadership Institute provided our recent graduates with improved skills, insight and confidence to accept more demanding and more rewarding roles within the firm. Even though the class completed their year-long studies just a few weeks ago, we are already involving them in new roles as they work towards becoming leaders in their discipline, market sector, or team. It is gratifying to see these next-generation leaders taking on such responsibilities even as they explore how they can help the next Leo A Daly Leadership Institute class of 2009-10,” said DeBernard.

Vair noted, “The Leo A Daly Leadership Institute will prepare our employees to become effective leaders, ready to take on important roles within our organization or to work collaboratively as skilled contributors. The Leadership Institute was designed to promote healthy, just and sustainable human capital by educating our employees to live and lead with integrity.”

Moerer added, “In The Leadership Challenge, Kouzes and Posner state, ‘The opportunities for leadership are available to all of us every day. The question is: Are we up to the task?’ Leo A Daly affirmatively answered that question this past year. Embedded in the Leadership Institute are fundamental practices that focus on leader enhancement — fostering change and dynamic growth, inspiring others to contribute, collaborating within groups, and envisioning a better and more profitable future. Not only will these emerging leaders contribute to our changing world and the needs of the company at a higher level, but we believe that their energy will be contagious within each of the Leo A Daly offices.”

Dalluge said, “When I conceived of this program I had hoped it would not only help develop the next generation of leaders at Leo A Daly but also be a venue to share the stories, culture, and history that is so important to who we are today. The results of the first class of the Leo A Daly Leadership Institute exceeded my expectations.”

Daly concluded, “I am very proud of this first class of Institute graduates. Their commitment of the time and effort to the Institute shows they have all the potential to become future leaders of the firm, which is exactly what we had hoped for from the program.”

The firm is now mentoring its second class of leaders, who began the program in August. This iteration is building on lessons from the first year of the Leo A Daly Leadership Institute, but the vision of developing future leaders will remain the primary goal for years to come.


Craig Park is vice president and chief marketing officer for Leo A Daly, based in Omaha, Neb. Park has worked in the building industry for more than 35 years, holding roles in design, project management, operations, and marketing. He is a past president and a fellow of the Society for Marketing Professional Services.