Expanding Your Edge

on September 10 | in Featured | by

Alex Herring with Paul Higgins

BLI certificate holder Alex Herring ’11 parlayed an internship with UBS into a full-time job with Trinity Wealth Management Group of UBS Financial Services after graduation. Her boss, Paul Higgins (right), is a fan of the training students receive through BLI.

The Batten Leadership Institute began ten years ago with just twelve students. Today, roughly 150 students each year engage in BLI’s challenging curriculum, learning skills most people don’t get until much later in their careers, if ever.

By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11

Step into Batten Leadership Institute Executive Director Abrina Schnurman-Crook’s cozy office in Bradley Hall and you’ll notice a card on her bookshelf that reads, “Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone.”

The quote from author Neale Donald Walsch may at first appear out of place in such a warm and inviting atmosphere. But look closely at the success of the Batten Leadership Institute and the philosophy and goals that underscore its mission, and those seemingly mixed messages aren’t contradictory at all.

For ten years, the past five as a curricular program, Batten has differentiated itself from hundreds of other college and university leadership programs nationally and internationally. With an experiential emphasis, the theory the BLI faculty aim to teach uses the dynamics at play in the classroom as fodder for learning.

“We help students expand their edge of what they are able to do as leaders and how they are able to lead their lives,” explains Schnurman-Crook. “When students accept our invitation to enter the program, they agree to give us permission to push and challenge them in an incredibly supportive environment. We think of it as a little tough love with a lot of positive, unconditional regard that everyone has the capacity to move somewhere.”

To this end, Batten Assistant Director Jen Brothers says the institute takes a “very counter-cultural” approach. “We try to get students to accept they don’t need to be perfect. We want them to take risks and we want them to fail because we want them to learn. Letting go of the need to get the answer right all the time enables them to be more curious about themselves and each other and what makes them tick. Curiosity is a hallmark of the program.”

Batten is an integral part of Hollins’ twenty-credit Certificate in Leadership Studies, which complements all fields of study offered at the university. The certificate includes introductory and advanced leadership seminars from business and economics, gender and women’s studies, history, and other disciplines across the curriculum. Students pursuing the Certificate in Leadership Studies complete two seminars plus four required Batten courses over their time at Hollins. The BLI senior capstone course takes place over an entire year and incorporates supervision practice as they mentor two semesters of new students in videotaped leadership labs outside of class. That intensive interclass connection is just one of the key reasons BLI students boast an impressive retention rate. On average, 75 to 80 percent of students who are eligible move forward beyond the 100-level BLI course. Ninety-eight percent of students who choose to take a 200-level BLI course wind up completing the entire three-year program.

If there’s a clear answer and pattern of what to do, that’s management. We want students to become leaders who can identify a situation where it’s hard to tell where to go and the right thing to do. —Jen Brothers

From day one of the Leadership Skills course, Schnurman-Crook, Brothers, and Associate Director Jill Hufnagel immerse students in Batten’s core principles. “We don’t equate leadership with a title or position,” Schnurman-Crook notes. “Leadership is leadership. It doesn’t matter whether it’s in a career, at home, or in volunteer work.”

The institute’s theoretical foundation is adaptive leadership, which Brothers describes as “leadership in murky situations. If there’s a clear answer and pattern of what to do, that’s management. We want students to become leaders who can identify a situation where it’s hard to tell where to go and the right thing to do. We want them to accept responsibility for that and figure out how to use their resources, hold people together, and make sure they don’t alienate the people they really need to move with them because they can’t do it by themselves.”

According to Brothers, this means abandoning many preconceived notions. “Often, students come into Leadership Skills with the idea that a leader is someone who takes charge and gets the job done. That’s not where we’re pointing them because it isn’t sustainable. In fact, many of the students have tried that and they’re burned out by the time they get here. They’ve stood in the leadership gap, done everything for everybody else, and haven’t really mobilized their resources.”

Instead, BLI faculty have created a culture within Batten that combines self and system diagnoses to achieve a better perspective of what’s happening in a particular environment, a process that requires much work and can be one of the most difficult tasks some students have ever undertaken. Brothers notes, “Students must be willing to let go and trust the process.”

“Batten isn’t a fit for everyone,” Schnurman-Crook readily admits. “Time and again they hear, ‘There is no growth in the comfort zone and no comfort in the growth zone.’ Not everyone wants to strive for the pinnacle of discomfort in service of something bigger. There are many other wonderful leadership opportunities at Hollins to explore beyond BLI. But if students can truly drop the barriers, if they can find those moments of vulnerability and are willing to accept hard feedback from the Batten faculty and peers, they can move. And once they move they are forever primed to keep moving.”

Batten leaders

Leading the way: Jen Brothers, Abrina Schnurman-Crook, and Jill Huffnagel.

Schnurman-Crook, Brothers, and Hufnagel are adamant they don’t ask students to do something they, the faculty, can’t do. “When you’re passionate about the work and believe in it with your whole heart, you have to live it,” Brothers asserts. “Some of our students talk about how they really learned our culture because they saw us practicing it with each other,” says Schnurman-Crook. “We don’t leave things unspoken; rather, we’ll disagree out in the open. They see we are okay with that. It makes a real difference.”

In addition to the expertise provided by the Batten faculty, the institute brings in representatives from businesses and organizations to work with students on negotiation and leadership skills. Paul Higgins, a vice president with the Trinity Wealth Management Group of UBS Financial Services in Roanoke, was invited to speak on interviewing techniques. “There are a lot of impressive young women there, and they are able to accept change very quickly. They’re able to observe their environment and adapt to it. When change happens, they’re able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and say, ‘Okay, next.’ That’s very important because you can stop in your tracks and fall into self-pity, and that’s not what I’ve observed in Batten. Instead, they say, ‘That’s a learning experience, what are we going to do next?’ In most industries you have to have that and I think they have great careers ahead of them. Batten is preparing students for life.”

It’s a place that’s going to challenge you to make goals, widen your lens, look at things with a different point of view, relax and breathe, and yet throw yourself into the fire to see where it goes. —Alex Herring

At his first opportunity, Higgins hired an intern who was enrolled in Batten. Alex Herring ’11, a mathematics major and dance minor, had completed a competitive internship with Holly Hendrix ’75 at UBS in New York during Short Term of her senior year. Upon returning to Roanoke, she approached Higgins and his partner, John Saunders, about furthering her UBS experience and interning with the Trinity Wealth Management Group in the spring.

“We go through a bit of a rigorous interviewing process and we discovered Alex had the traits that were going to make her successful: task-oriented, goal-oriented, self-motivated,” Higgins recalls. “For her internship I came up with a very detailed agenda and had every minute of the day organized for her. By the third day, she asked that I please quit spoon-feeding her. She just wanted to be put in a situation where she could find things to expand her capabilities, which I thought was wonderful.”

“Batten grew me as a person,” Herring says. “It’s a place that’s going to challenge you to make goals, widen your lens, look at things with a different point of view, relax and breathe, and yet throw yourself into the fire to see where it goes.”

The Trinity Wealth Management Group hired Herring as a full-time branch service associate after she graduated in 2011. Within a year, she had risen to become a client service associate. “She’s technically our business manager, so she’s handling day-to-day operations for a $250 million a year business,” Higgins says. “It’s very unusual for someone with that kind of tenure, but that’s a testament to Batten and to Hollins.”

Herring’s achievement isn’t an isolated case. Says Schnurman-Crook, “I’ve had Batten alumnae in both graduate school and the professional sector comment about how they have a different kind of insight than it seems their peers do who didn’t have this kind of intense training. I think we’re adding another important component to the already strong graduates Hollins is producing, so much so that employers approach us looking for Batten graduates for open positions. This model we’ve created has teeth in the world.”

As the Batten Leadership Institute’s second decade gets under way, the BLI faculty are understandably proud of the initiative that began with just twelve students under the guidance of founding director Katherine Walker and now enrolls 150 or more a year, all of whom join the program by choice. “What Batten is doing is not just unique across the nation; there’s no one else in the world doing it,” Schnurman-Crook says. “The original vision for BLI was to be the flagship leadership program in the nation for women who were serious about leadership development, particularly at the undergraduate level. And programmatically, the quality is there. Even so, we are more dedicated than ever to the work we are doing and honing and refining our model.”

Brothers adds simply, “We want to be better and better and better all the time.”

Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.

Photo credit: Olivia Body ’08

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