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Promising Better Service To Residents, Missouri's Government Fast-Tracks Manager Training

A Missouri state employee attempts a handstand during the first day of a Missouri Way training in March.
Samuel King
KCUR 89.3
A Missouri state employee attempts a handstand during the first day of a Missouri Way training in March.

In baseball circles, the St. Louis Cardinals organization is known for its so-called “The Cardinal Way,” a manualof sorts that players and managers adhere to in the quest for consistency. 

Since August 2018, Missouri state government has been teaching “The Missouri Way,” a leadership training program that’s already indoctrinated more than 1,000 employees from the 16 executive departments. Statewide-elected officials like the secretary of state, auditor and attorney general are not required to take the training, and neither is their staff. 

Missouri has spent about $248,000 on the trainings since they began the three-day sessions in August, according to the Office of Administration. 

Held in Jefferson City, the program is touted by Gov. Mike Parson’s office as a key effort to get state managers on the same page when it comes to approaches, help with transparency, improve “government performance” — both internally and for “customer experience” — and provide professional development. 

The emphasis on training is coming at a time Missouri agencies are struggling to retain employees due to low pay. Missouri ranks last among all 50 states and the state pays about 10 percent less than what people in the private sector earn.

At the helm of the Missouri Way is Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann, whose position was created during Gov. Eric Greitens’ tenure. Erdmann spent about three months coming up with the curriculum (no consultants were used) and told KCUR that he drew from his experience as an executive with global consultant McKinsey & Company. 

The training curriculum, obtained by KCUR through a public records request, shows an emphasis on management styles and ways to change processes within departments. 

The idea isn’t unusual: Many states have training programs, and Erdmann even pointed to Illinois, Iowa and Colorado as places he consulted in building Missouri’s. Leadership training is permeating the public and private spheres across the U.S., one expert said, because many managers are put in roles and “simply … don’t know how to lead.” 

‘Change … in a lasting way’ 

But the scope and speed with which the state of Missouri has trained its managers appears to stand out. 

Missouri Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann goes through the beginning of the Missouri Way prorgram in March.
Credit Samuel King / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Missouri Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann goes through the beginning of the Missouri Way prorgram in March.

“To the best of my knowledge, there isn't something on this scale and this pace in other state governments,” Erdmann told KCUR in March, adding that the state is trying to “change institutions in a lasting way.” 

“If you look at comparable institutions, you've got to remember that the 16 executive departments in the state of Missouri: that's close to 50,000 employees,” he said. “Think of any other organization that scale, and you say, well, you don't invest in your leaders, how can you have a good performing organization?”

The state would not provide a list of names of the people who’ve participated in the sessions, saying the records were closed because they are a personnel matter. However, 15 of the 16 Cabinet members have gone through the training, with the Department of Transportation’s Patrick McKenna scheduled for one in November, according to Office of Administration spokeswoman Brittany Ruess. 

She also noted that statewide elected officials don't have to go through the training because the offices don't "directly report to the governor," though the state would "consider offering the training" if those offices are interested.

Darcy Bybee, the Department of Natural Resources’ Air Pollution Control Program Director, told KCUR in March at a Missouri Way training that she feels supported to “move forward and not just do things the way that we’ve always done them.” 

“I've been here almost 15 years, and in 15 years, I've never seen anything like this nor had the ability to be a part of it,” Bybee said.

The cost of the three-day sessions covers lunch (the February and May sessions also included hotels for some attendees), as well as bringing in the University of Missouri-based Novak Leadership Institute during the second day to discuss self-awareness and management styles. 

Other management training programs can run from hundreds to thousands of dollars per person, such as an $800 one-day class with the Lean Enterprise Institute or a $1,650 three-day training with Dale Carnegie Training. The state of Missouri’s expenditure per attendee per day ranged from about $43 to $142, depending on whether lodging was needed.

The curriculum

As with many training programs, there are moments of joy meant to inject a bit of energy into the situation, like a Black Eyed Peas video or Erdmann asking someone to do a cartwheel or handstand on stage. But for the most part, the Missouri Way is a framework for thinking about management of employees and on projects. 

KCUR obtained the curriculum for the August 2018 training, so some of it may have changed as the state incorporates feedback from the people who’ve gone through it.

Missouri state employees work on breakout sessions during Missouri Way training in March.
Credit Samuel King / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Missouri state employees work on breakout sessions during Missouri Way training in March.

Day One’s curriculum introduces where the state is headed, how to “shift mindsets” and communicate with employees. Day Two helps the supervisors figure out their management style and how best to talk with their direct reports.

And Day Three is all about project management and providing examples of how state agencies, like the Department of Revenue, have improved their “citizen experience.” 

“We have some specific elements of the curriculum such as on project management or LEAN and continuous improvement or citizen experience that are just absolutely core to what we need to do in Missouri state government,” Erdmann said. “And, candidly, those have not been invested enough and we need to make sure our leaders can do those because otherwise you just can't get the mission done.”

Kerry Goyette is the founder of Columbia-based Aperio Consulting Group, which helps private companies as well as cities, states and the federal government with leadership programs. She said companies and governments are looking to teach “an operational piece” and “soft-skill building.” 

That is to say, they’re focusing on “emotional intelligence,” “leadership competencies,” skills needed in three to five years and what processes need to adapt to that timeline, she said. She also noted that companies are no longer retaining managers based on pure performance.

“The trend that I've seen over the past two years, I've seen a lot of really seasoned leaders, actually get fired because they are not able to retain this younger generation,” said Goyette, who is affiliate faculty with the Novak Leadership Institute. Though Goyette has presented for the institute at some Missouri Way sessions, she said it has not been to all of them and spoke to KCUR only about her experiences with her own company. 

Erdmann said the state is seeing proof that the Missouri Way is working, pointing to some of the examples used in the training. But he did not provide specifics during the March interview. 

“And I will use the real-life example of the kinds of changes that we're seeing … the transformation, for example, of some of our call centers in terms of their level of performance in the last year,” Erdmann said. “Many of our call centers are dramatically improved by the introduction of many of these back-to-basics management principles.”

Chris Wieberg, the Department of Natural Resources’ director of water protection program, said changing “government for the better is something that should have been done long ago.”

This story has been corrected to show that the maximum spent per person per day on the Missouri Way training is $142, not $293. 

Erica Hunzinger is an editor with KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter at @ehunzinger or email her at erica (at) kcur dot org. 

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Erica Hunzinger brings several years of editing experience to the politics and education team. Before landing in St. Louis, Erica spent five years on The Associated Press' Central Region desk, handling a wide variety of topics with special emphasis on state government and agriculture and food supply. She also has been a sports copy editor at The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and an assistant news editor at The News Journal in Delaware. Erica holds a master's degree in humanities from the University of Chicago (poetry) and bachelor's in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. If you can't find her, try looking at Busch Stadium — or any other ball diamond in the region.
Erica Hunzinger
Erica Hunzinger is the editor of Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR.
Samuel covers Missouri government and politics for KCUR. He comes to KCUR from the world of local television news, where he worked for 14 years in markets like Minneapolis, New York City and Montgomery. Samuel has extensive experience covering elections and state government in states across the country. He has won Associated Press awards for spot news coverage and investigative reporting. A native of Queens, New York, Samuel also spent time growing up in Alabama. He is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Intergrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.