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Building Leadership Capacity: Urban Pilots Leadership Program


Over the last year, we have been piloting a custom-built leadership program called Building Leadership Capacity, or BLC. The program has three streams (Applied Leadership, Leadership Basics, and Leadership Thinkers) and was developed in house just for our employees.

The last time there was a truly targeted focus on leadership development was back in 2006, when the company was much smaller. At that time, the program was delivered by an outside consultant and well received. When the 2008 worldwide financial crisis hit, leadership training was rolled back.

But in 2012, with company numbers up and new interest in training arising, people started discussing leadership development options again. There was a consensus that it was time to develop something tailor made for Urban Systems rather than use a training program right off the shelf. The overarching goal was to build a healthy, vibrant and adaptable leadership community and our own Shannon McQuillan took the lead on this project with help from Theresa Foley, a People Development Specialist and Gord Peterson, one of our founding partners.

Made to Measure
When you read about leadership, you’ll encounter millions of articles and perspectives. No two people seem to define the concept the same way or have the same idea about how to pursue it.

Shannon McQuillan
Shannon says that her first instinct when developing material unique to Urban was to talk to people in all areas of the company.

“My pet peeve is simplistic solutions to something that’s actually quite complex. When we asked our people what leadership meant to them, we found there was no common definition, but themes emerged and they were very enlightening.”

Shannon and her team did focus groups around the company, asking a few key questions to get to the heart of what would be valuable in terms of leadership training at Urban. She says that key things learned during this process helped shape the program.

Quiet Leaders

One of the important things uncovered during this discovery process was that at Urban, leadership comes in all forms. Here there are many “quiet” leaders—those who lead from the back and may not fit the traditional mold of an extroverted leader, but are nonetheless very effective.

“When we learned that, we really wanted to reach all different types of leaders with this training. The traditional leaders yes, but also those who are very effective but maybe under the radar. These people are motivated and smart, but may not naturally be cherry picked as up and comers, and may not rise to the surface in traditional ways. We felt it was important to develop an approach that provided options so that all of our people could access the leadership development opportunities that uniquely fit with them.”

A Running Start

Although the new leadership programs are still in their infancy, this first year has gone well based on feedback from participants. Shannon looks at the past year as an experiment of sorts, a time to test out the training material and look for ways to improve and refine it.

“It has just been such a positive experience from my perspective,” she says. “I’m proud of our participants. Not for a second was anyone there with crossed arms in judgement saying ‘prove this is worth my time’. Everyone was giving it their all. There was a real openness that made it work. We know we have more to do but it’s exciting to be creating something that is so very unique to us.”

Head and Heart

Shannon is reflective about the deeper meaning of the BLC program, and how it connects to the values at Urban Systems.

“When I think about it, these leadership programs are really about tending to the heart of Urban. And that is truly one of our great strengths—at our best, we are not just about finding solutions with our heads, we also think with our hearts.”

The next cohorts will be starting up in September, and all employees are encouraged to participate. “This next year is going to be really exciting. We now have the luxury of a framework that works and we can now do lots of fine tuning. It’s so satisfying.”

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