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Davenport Strengths Institute  

Davenport, Iowa 

Corrin Spiegel, ICMA-CM, City Administrator

Competition for top talent has become increasingly fierce over the past decade, and municipalities have not been immune to the challenges of recruitment. In addition, in a mobile world, employers have been challenged to engage and retain existing talent in their organizations. Davenport, Iowa, a mid-sized city in the Midwest, found itself unable to recruit qualified candidates for positions that are key to the organizational success of the city.

City leaders recognized that to build a strong and talented workforce, they could not rely solely on external recruiting but would need to develop existing employees for promotion from within. They also recognized that while employees had ample access to training in their own technical areas, they seldom had broader leadership development opportunities that create well-rounded employees who can respond to complex situations as they arise.

In response, the city launched the Davenport Strengths Institute (DSI) in 2018 to provide city staff with leadership development training while at the same time fostering working relationships across the organization. Employees must apply to participate, and a new cohort starts every six months. The ninth cohort began in January 2021, and to date 122 employees have completed the program.

The DSI curriculum is heavily based on Gallup’s materials for managers and teams, plus training on workplace appreciation, the growth mindset, unconscious bias, and leading positive change in the workplace. The curriculum evolves with changing organizational needs. Cohorts meet monthly for four hours, and as “capstones,” small groups collaborate on a project revolving around Patrick Lencioni’s Leadership Fables. The city made an initial investment of $5,000 to certify a staff member as a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach.

Cohorts have approximately 15 employees from across the organization with diverse backgrounds in tenure and position. This purposeful selection of participants enables employees to build working relationships outside of their departments and has broken down “silos” that once existed. Here’s an example. In 2018 an alderman expressed concern about illicit massage parlors in the city. A team consisting of the assistant to the city administrator, a criminal investigations division lieutenant, and the fire marshal convened to address the issue. All three had been in the first DSI cohort, and the relationships they had built led to a solution that included the creation of a new ordinance requiring registration of massage therapy businesses, undercover enforcement operations, regular business checks, and connecting women found in these locations with appropriate resources.

The Strengths Institute has been a critical tool in achieving the city administrator’s goal of organizational and talent development. Since its start, 16 of the 122 participants have been promoted. Employee retention has also been extremely high for DSI participants; 97 percent have remained with the city.  In 2020 Davenport dealt with unprecedented disasters—COVID 19, civil unrest, and a destructive derecho. Having strong employee leadership and the ability to work seamlessly across departments was vital to the city’s ability to respond effectively and efficiently.

The DSI has also proved that city employees have a strong appetite for professional development and will seek out opportunities when they are available. In fact, the city has a waiting list for employees who want to participate. DSI has spurred many participants to consider a career in city management and participate in further training through ICMA. For example, one graduate is a member of the Leadership ICMA class of 2022. Two additional graduates have participated in other ICMA training opportunities, and one has enrolled in an MPA program with the goal of becoming a city administrator. By tapping the potential of the city’s employees, the Davenport Strengths Institute is creating the next generation of municipal leaders who will be well-rounded and prepared to respond to the challenges cities will face in the future.

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