LeadingAge Magazine · March/April 2016 • Volume 06 • Number 02

Academy Study Circle Emphasizes Process Over Outcomes

March 11, 2016 | by Kendra Urdzik and Julie Thorson

Members of the Larry Minnix Leadership Academy explain how they used a study circle to learn more about their own priorities, growth areas and strengths as leaders.

For the Fellows of the Larry Minnix Leadership Academy, a part of the curriculum is to participate in a study circle. The purpose of a study circle is to collectively examine a timely issue relevant to not-for-profit aging services providers. These discussions are meant to provide a vehicle for ongoing, structured dialogue, deliberation and shared problem solving.

The 2015 Academy was unique because it had more Fellows than ever before. The 47 Fellows were divided into 2 groups, yellow and blue. Each group consisted of three teams that worked together on the study circle.

Comparing these 2 groups’ experiences proved exciting. Although they had little to do with each other, they were able connect in a transformational way through the process of the study circle and their passion for the field of aging services.

This year’s Study Circle honed in on issues and problems that are no secret to individuals working in the field. By design, the Fellows didn’t uncover mind-changing research or discover information that will solve problems. The purpose, instead, was for Fellows to identify and coalesce around what they see as the most striking gaps between the needs of older adults and our field’s ability to meet them. By recognizing and looking at these gaps through different angles and expanding their own perspectives, Fellows begin thinking about how they can impact significant change within the field of aging.

The 2015 Fellows focused on these gaps:

  • Lack of understanding and attention to mental health and memory support
  • The need for more advocacy and well-being for caregivers
  • Lack of purpose for some older adults as they age
  • The need to recognize the power of our own personal stories
  • Misperceptions of aging, long-term care and community living

The two groups, perhaps more importantly, uncovered some truths about themselves and about the world in which they have chosen to work.

The 2015 Academy collaborated across states, roles and visions by connecting their core values. The Leadership Academy leaders designed a process that allows Fellows to unify through the why, forcing them to put aside roles, insecurities and egos.

Each team was charged with identifying a gap in our field and then presenting to the larger blue or yellow group. The blue group didn’t know about the yellow group’s presentations and vice versa. While the gaps were unique to each group, there were distinct common threads: purpose, education and advocacy. Although identifying gaps was at the core of this work, it was more about the process, allowing Fellows to peel back and access their own vulnerabilities to discover their true passions.

This year-long leadership program offers aging services professionals at all levels an opportunity to broaden their perspective by developing an understanding of the leadership issues facing our field, learning from providers across a variety of care and service settings and expanding their capacity to embrace change and facilitate innovation in their organizations.

The program has recently been expanded to include more LeadingAge members—financial support is also available. Learn more and apply today!

Because this was the first year in which the Academy worked in two groups, we will talk about our experiences in the form of a conversation. Representing the yellow team is Kendra Urdzik. Julie Thorson represents the blue team.

Kendra Urdzik: Julie, what big surprises did the blue group uncover?

Julie Thorson: The experience of our team coming together with 7 strangers and coalescing around one gap in our world and then presenting in a creative way was daunting. Just imagine 8 type-A’s, all leaders in our respective communities, forced together and expected to present. We needed to agree to a topic, research and understand it better, and then create and present in a matter of weeks, all while continuing to be leaders in our organizations.

Julie Thorson: Kendra, did the yellow team experience “a-ha moments” in this process?

Kendra Urdzik: Oh yes! We found there is truth that urgency provides us with an ability to “dig deep” and “be real.” The first team to present its study circle findings immediately put aside whatever fears were holding its members back, and jumped in. The team’s humor kept things spirited, and all discovered they had the ability to laugh at themselves, driven by the quirks others noticed.

The connection wasn’t immediate for everyone. With a mix of introverted and extroverted, highly driven individuals, we had to find a balance during our meetings and conference calls to really listen to each other, being open to varying ideas.

We were all grateful and amazed at the diverse level of experience and accomplishment in all of the teams, and especially as I got to know the members of our team. It felt as if we each came to the circle with an open curiosity about what had brought us into aging services, and a willingness to share and listen to each other’s passions, gaining an understanding of why each individual chose aging services.

Kendra Urdzik: What did your team learn about each other in this process?

Julie Thorson: We all learned a lot about ourselves. Each of us, with our own insecurities, thought we knew how and what the study circle might uncover. We were a bit anxious to be heard. Some of us had stronger voices and weren’t afraid to be heard. Others sat back and observed and attempted to offer perspective. It wasn’t until we truly listened to each other that our project came together. We quickly learned where each other’s strengths and weaknesses were. This creative dance started to unfold. It wasn’t so much about the gap we were discussing but more about what the discussion was teaching us about ourselves and our leadership styles. We had to quickly offer criticism to each other in a thoughtful way to achieve a better result. At the end of the year we realized that by forming our study circle and presenting early on, our team found a dynamic that was healthy, encouraging and inspiring—a dynamic that remains long after the program is over.

Julie Thorson: What did the teams in the yellow group find out about each other? How did you identify your gaps?

Kendra Urdzik: The gap our team identified—mental health and memory support—was not just personal, it was something that we all recognized in our field and began to think through how we can present in a way that reflected our own unique personalities, while engaging our other yellow teammates.

All team members had been touched by family members with mental illness or Alzheimer’s disease, and we learned that there is discomfort and lack of understanding about those issues.

During our team presentation we tested each other in a game similar to Jeopardy to prove that even professionals in the field have a lot to learn. Video testimonials from family members and experts proved to be an effective way to hear from those affected each day. The yellow group was sent back to their organizations with a pledge card (see below), committing each individual to bring awareness, provide compassionate care and to continue lifelong learning in the area of mental health and dementia care.

The other yellow group members discovered the common thread of advocacy for caregivers, but all came from their own perspectives. Frontline caregivers provide some of the most crucial services in our organizations, but as a nation, and as employers, our actions do not support their role. We all decided to form into pairs and to research and find words for the pieces of caregiver well-being that we each felt passionate about.

Surveys and videos were used to demonstrate the importance of caregivers and the role they play in enriching the lives of those they serve. One example is this dynamic video Be Proud: Omar Cain, the Rapping CNA:

Kendra Urdzik: What were the themes that arose from the process for the blue group?

Julie Thorson: Our gap, interestingly enough, was on maintaining purpose throughout one’s life and how there are times when seniors we serve lose their purpose. The other blue teams’ gaps were similar. One even took a different approach to its presentation. The members individually presented personal stories to demonstrate the power of personal stories. That group called itself Team Raymond after a video that was shared during in the process:

The third team called itself Team Passion Fruit and also used personal stories to identify its gap. The members each picked an issue and based their themes around the notion that the perception of aging, long-term care and community living is simply misunderstood.

Julie Thorson: The individual presentations were interesting but the process was where the real learning happened. Would you agree?

Kendra Urdzik: Yes. The Academy challenged each one of us through readings, skill development and reflection, but the personal discussions late at night, which bled into deep philosophical discussions about our life and work were just as important. Where in our lives have we allowed ourselves to deeply reflect on what this work means to us?

These discussions are not facilitated in large groups. They happen in smaller spontaneous moments of clarity with a few people after all the “regular” stuff comes out.

One of the interesting things about the Academy is that each team, each year, takes on its own personality. The level of passion is perhaps never the same, and the level of commitment no doubt varies, but one thing about the Academy we have quickly picked up on is that all Fellows are connected … for life. Maintaining and exploring the themes from this past year’s gaps amongst new friends and peers across the country will sustain our field and keep it moving forward during this very uncertain financial and regulatory time. These discussions give participants the ability to put aside egos and listen, to take risks and be vulnerable, and to see partnerships and connect ideas for the greater good of our field.

LeadingAge Thrive provides resources to help members better serve seniors and their communities. The 7 major topic areas in Thrive include questions designed to stimulate discussion among your leadership team and board of directors. Thrive also includes resources such as white papers, articles, tools, presentations and business intelligence.


Under the “Workforce and Leadership Development” section of Thrive, see the resources connected to these questions:

  • Do we have the right leadership in place for future success?
  • Does the leadership work collaboratively toward the goals and priorities of the organization?
  • Do we have a comprehensive orientation program for new employees across all staff levels and settings?
  • Do we provide ongoing state-of-the-art training for administrators, midlevel managers, clinical staff and frontline providers across all departments and settings?
  • Do we conduct employee satisfaction and engagement surveys, provide employee feedback, and use the data to make organizational decisions?
  • Do we periodically assess the level of investment in human capital to ensure that resources are being used appropriately and effectively?
  • Do we use evidence-based management best practices (e.g., supervisory training, open communication, empowerment of frontline staff, self-managed work teams, peer mentoring and support) to set organizational priorities, solve problems, improve the working conditions and the quality of the job and minimize turnover and instability in the workplace?
  • Do we provide specific opportunities to develop the leadership skills and core competencies of staff for future success?
  • Do we provide mentoring and peer support initiatives to enhance frontline supervisors’ and workers’ self-image and encourage them to grow in their job?
  • Do we have a comprehensive cultural competence strategy to support healthy staff-to-staff and staff-to-resident/client relationships and quality service delivery?
  • Are your leaders fully engaged in the mission of the organization?

Thrive is a LeadingAge member benefit, and access is limited to members. Use the MyLeadingAge login page to log in or create an account.

Visit the Thrive main page.