2 Building a Successful Leadership Program

Aleta Rudeen Weller; Diana H. Wall; and Nancy Baron

Aleta Rudeen Weller, Senior Researcher and Engagement Officer, School of Global Environmental Sustainability, Colorado State University
Dianna H. Wall, Director, School of Global Environmental Sustainability, Professor, Department of Biology, University Distinguished Professor, Colorado State University
Nancy Baron, Director of Science Outreach for COMPASS

Why Fellows, Why Now?

The Sustainability Leadership Fellows (SLF) program is run by Colorado State University’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES). The program draws upon sustainability-oriented students from across campus and disciplines. It is designed to help Ph.D. students and postdocs become articulate, thoughtful leaders in their field. The year-long fellowship provides early career scientists with training to effectively communicate science to the media and public, professional development skills and techniques, and strategies to build meaningful careers that incorporate engagement and interdisciplinarity. Through this program, we help the scientists who will be solving tomorrow’s grand challenges of sustainability have a greater impact, reach broader audiences, and think more expansively about their work and its role in the world.

The Program

The SLF program has been running since 2011 and accepts 20 advanced Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars from across campus each year. The application process is competitive, with fewer than half of the well-qualified applicants making it into the program. Fellows are required to commit to time requisites including the orientation and workshop and their advisors or mentors must also approve their application. Both internal and external reviewers evaluate and rank applications using a quantitative ranking of 1-5 for each of five criteria including the applicant’s level of interest in communicating science, their interest in building leadership and professional development skills, the relevance of their research to sustainability science, the applicability of the training to their long-term career plans, and the overall quality of the proposal. Reviewers also give an overall recommendation that is converted into a weighted numeric score. A panel meets to discuss all the reviews and provide a final ranking. Favor is given to applicants conducting innovative and cross-disciplinary work and who have a strong motivation to improve their communication and leadership skills. The program also considers diversity across departments and colleges at the university and repeat applicants who demonstrate strong motivation to participate.

Over the program’s eight years, there has been a minimum of five of the eight CSU colleges represented by fellows in any given year. Seventeen percent of fellows have been early career postdocs, a group that often lacks access to many campus resources and professional development opportunities. Fourteen percent of fellows have been non-U.S. citizens which adds another layer of diversity and perspective to each cohort.

Today, the SLF program has developed into its own comprehensive and competitive program. It has evolved over the years to be a highly sought after and well-recognized fellowship at Colorado State. The SLF program will embark on its ninth cohort of fellows in Fall 2019. To date, the highly successful program has trained 140 sustainability science-oriented Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellows in leadership and communication. Each cohort of fellows begins the year with an orientation followed by an intensive two-day science communication training workshop run by COMPASS, a group of people who are pioneers in working with environmental scientists. Fellows then participate in six formal, two-hour training sessions led by local and university experts on a range of topics including time management and workload optimization, interacting with policymakers, data visualization, talking science with skeptical audiences, and storytelling. Fellows also take part in additional skill-building and networking opportunities throughout the year including practicing giving their elevator speeches to the university provost and writing and peer-reviewing for the SoGES blog.

“…I’ve been impressed by the scientific sophistication of the students and by their unmitigated enthusiasm for learning communication skills. I knew Diana Wall had an outstanding reputation as a scientist, but she also seems to have a knack for finding and motivating the sharpest young minds in the country. If my own kids asked where they should go to become articulate environmental scientists, I’d send them to her” – Christopher Joyce, Science Correspondent, National Public Radio, serves as one of the journalist trainers for the SLF Science Communication Workshop with COMPASS.

Why Communication?

The SLF program is built on the premise that communication and leadership are intrinsically linked (see Baron, 2016). This is particularly true for scientists earning terminal degrees in their disciplines and entering sustainability-relevant fields, where research findings have real-world applicability and relevance and institutional incentives for communicating outside the establishment are often minimal. While the SLF program integrates training focused on other leadership skills including time management, working on cross-disciplinary teams, interacting with policymakers, and data visualization, the primary emphasis is placed on science communication. We believe that one of the greatest needs in sustainability science is leaders with the ability to articulately and thoughtfully speak to, connect with, and listen to diverse audiences and stakeholders. Through this program, we are creating effective science leaders who can present research findings to relevant audiences using an accurate and compelling narrative. They are also able to relate to and understand stakeholder expertise and research needs and think about how their research can help.

A recent, great example of fellows improving their science communication as a result of the SLF program was sent to us from a young Columbian researcher who was a fellow in the 2017-2018 cohort. In the year following her fellowship, she won the Top Scholar Award for University-wide Graduate Programs at the CSU Graduate Student Showcase, was an invited speaker at the Fort Collins Speaks Ciencia event organized by the 500 Women Scientists organization and won the 2018 Best Student Talk in Aquatic Ecology at the Ecological Society of America meeting. She used skills from her SLF training, including her ‘message box,’ one of the COMPASS tools, used in the Science Communication Workshop, to prepare and organize thoughts for different audiences and attributes her success in effective communication to her fellowship. This was a major boost to her confidence as a scientist and leader and reflected well on our program too.

“One of the biggest pieces that the training gave me was the … understanding that it was, in fact, okay to put a piece [of] me in my science. The training, and each one of the sessions, exercises, pitches, mock interviews, and engagements gave me a new perspective on the fact that linking my science to me as a person makes the research more interesting and relatable. This is one of the best ways for the public to relate to scientists. The stories behind the reasons why people become scientists … are one of the best ways to connect the public to science and to engage them in caring and participating. Sometimes, in the process of becoming scientists, we focus more on creating great science, but disengage [from] the wonder and motivations that got us into it; with that, we lose a great potential to communicate our science, to make it go from theory and paper to actions. Humans can transform the world, and science is a great way to do that, but it becomes less effective if we are not able to communicate it to everybody who can act! The training gave me this insight, and with that, I started opening [up] to speaking about the pieces of me that make my science what it is. People wanted to hear about how me being a mom and a first-generation student from a developing country motivates and drives the way I do science. In turn, I get the chance to spread the word about bugs, streams, and women in science!”

At the end of the program, fellows are able to elegantly deconstruct, define, and communicate their research within the framework of broader global environmental sustainability challenges using cross-disciplinary and integrative thinking.

Background and History

The SLF program was instigated by Professor Diana Wall, the school’s founding director, and initially modeled after her training in the Leopold Leadership Program. Diana, a soil ecologist and established leader in the scientific community (e.g., former president of the Ecological Society of America, winner of the 2013 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences), had her own fears about communicating science. While she enjoyed talking with her peers, talking to journalists and policymakers felt like dangerous ground. Through her experience as a Leopold Fellow, Diana realized the benefits of training, overcame her misgivings, and was convinced of the importance of environmental scientists communicating to see their science have an impact. She became a co-lead of the Leopold Leadership Program for a couple of years. From the beginning, The Leopold program was aimed at tenured faculty because, at the time, communicating one’s science was still considered risky and controversial. The question Diana, COMPASS, and others often had to answer was, “Why should we?”

Over time, the academic culture has shifted away from why scientists should communicate across audiences to instead how to communicate well. Diana increasingly felt as if starting sooner and offering these opportunities to early career scientists were critically important and that leadership for graduate students and postdocs was the key.

An important piece of what makes the SoGES program so successful is the leadership and commitment of Professor Diana Wall and Aleta Weller, who was brought on to head all the research and engagement programs at the school, including SLF, in its second year. Bringing on a motivated, dedicated individual to run the program early in its design has had multiple benefits. Weller’s commitment and continuity have enabled the program – and the fellows – to evolve and flourish. Aleta brought a Master of Science background, a familiarity with CSU’s campus and community, and expertise in collaborative process and facilitation. She developed the metrics for program analysis, was influential in much of its early design, and brings institutional knowledge and consistency to the program.

Any leadership program requires consistent leadership and a long-term investment. While this might seem self-evident, often the leadership programs that thrive and survive have a senior scientist or scientist to provide vision, direction, and mentorship – as well as to help secure funding. A committed staff person is essential to provide continuity, direction, and day-to-day guidance. Successful programs mean that someone wakes up thinking about how to achieve excellence. Leadership programs that are thought of as side projects are less likely to succeed.

We believe that shared strategic decision-making throughout the year and commitment from the program leader and school’s director are powerful approaches to keeping the SLF program at the forefront of leadership and communication training. In order to get a long-term institutional commitment for a program like SLF, it requires there to be a knowledgeable point person responsible for its execution.

Over the past decade, we have learned a lot about what works and equally, what does not, in building a leadership program at the graduate and postdoc level. In our experience, there are five principles, or building blocks, that have contributed to the program’s success and could be replicated by universities with similar goals. These are: 1) Establishing expectations at the outset, 2) Use of a cohort model, 3) Evolution built on data and feedback, 4) Competitive and prestigious design, and 5) Ongoing mentorship, leadership, and investment.


Five Building Blocks visualized
Figure 1: The five building blocks of a successful leadership program.

The building blocks (see Figure 1) outlined below are what we believe to be central to our program’s success. As program organizers, we are sharing our observations to explain why the SoGES SLF program succeeds where others may fail. Specifically, we are focusing on the five building blocks that aided in the structure and design of the program. These building blocks helped overcome common barriers that appear at similar trainings including establishing trust, overcoming participation barriers for graduate students, selecting and retaining engaged students, and setting the stage for productive meetings and events.

Building Block #1: Create Clear Expectations of Program Commitments and Time Requirements

Leadership and science communication training are particularly timely for Ph.D. students nearing the end of their degree and early-stage postdoctoral fellows. These skills empower them as they embark on their careers and provide valuable perspective and direction so that they can have a greater impact as scientists. However, most graduate students are under considerable stress. They are managing tight deadlines and are, in general, overcommitted. Even the most honorable of intentions, to participate in supplemental training, can be difficult for this group to accomplish.

Based on discussions with programs at other universities, lack of participation can be a fairly common issue for training aimed at graduate students. Providing useful and compelling content is one obvious solution. However, these students’ attention and time are so strained and divided at this stage in their careers that we have found content alone is an insufficient draw, no matter how captivating, and no matter how true their intentions are to participate.

The SLF program clearly establishes expectations and mandatory attendance before fellows are selected. We set required dates early and include them in the call for applications, so applicants are aware of the commitment they are making. We also require that all applicants be on campus over the course of the academic year and Ph.D. student applicants must be finished with coursework to avoid timing conflicts with classes. Applicants that cannot agree to these parameters are removed from the applicant pool. Once selected, when sending letters of acceptance, applicants must reconfirm full participation in the program before they are added to the cohort.
While the overall time requirement, roughly 40 hours over the course of the year, is fairly minimal compared to the value of the training provided, the up-front and transparent requirement helps fellows mentally prepare for, and commit to, the program. It also helps them follow through with those commitments when regular stresses of the year become a reality. As with nearly anything worthwhile, we believe fellows will get out of the program what they put in. The explicit expectation helps them make space in their own schedule while also not allowing anyone to displace another applicant that would have made full use of the program.

Building Block #2: Build a Cohort

Use of a cohort model that spans a year – where a set number of fellows are accepted into and undergo the curriculum together – allows the SLF program to be more time efficient and builds social capital and trust among the fellows. The group is able to start finding synergies amongst themselves and build trust at the very beginning. These relationships continue to develop throughout the year and often spur new collaborations and a network of supportive relationships that may last far after the year-end. The cohort model means that each training session can be jumped right in to, without taking much time to build rapport with the group, and can cover more content in a shorter period.

Cohorts Build Trust and Save Time

Use of a cohort model allows fellows the opportunity to get to know one another and build trust throughout the year. Both the orientation and the September, two-day Science Communication Workshop, which happens early in the program, are particularly effective at beginning to break down barriers and build camaraderie in the group because they push participants outside their comfort zone at the outset and encourage them to help each other improve. The workshop uses fellow peer review in its approach to applying new skills and building competencies in science communication. The result is not only rapid, collective learning but also many new individual connections and a shared sense of satisfaction as they observe themselves, and each other, improve at communicating their science.

The initial investment in building social capital in the group means that, for the rest of the year, our cohort is cultivating, and building on, rapport that is already established with one another rather than starting from scratch each time they meet. We find that the network has its own momentum after the initial orientation and intensive training. While we provide ongoing opportunities for engagement and check-ins at each gathering, less is required at the beginning of each meeting to get the group comfortable working on the topic together. As a result, trainers can dive more quickly and deeply into their content. This also allows each session to build from previous training. We carefully provide trainers with an overview of everything that has been covered to-date and discuss the previous training content. This helps avoid redundancy and also capitalizes on similar themes where appropriate, so each training builds on the foundations established at the outset.

Trust Helps Explore Uncomfortable Topics

In a group setting, developing some of the soft skills needed to become an articulate, thoughtful communicator and leader can be daunting and nerve-wracking. Often the fellows may feel apprehension, fear, or embarrassment. This can be particularly true for scientists, who are measured by their expertise and comprehension in their subject areas and who aspire to excellence in all they do. Learning these skills often requires students to go well outside their comfort zone to practice unfamiliar skills and techniques, expose themselves where they lack knowledge, and be willing to reveal scientific weaknesses in order to better understand and refine their ability to convey messages and articulate information.

It is nearly impossible to engage fellows in these areas without first building trust within the group. This allows these areas of discomfort and possible exposure to be explored safely and allows the participants to be fully invested and involved and willing to ask questions and try new methods. Using a cohort model helps because some level of trust and interpersonal expectation has already been established for the group. Fellows are more willing to truly engage with the topic and content in this safe space.

A Cohort Model Builds an Enduring Network of Support

Finally, the use of a cohort model yields a network of fellows that has ongoing connections. Fellows generally feel a sense of belonging with their cohort and, in their end-of-year surveys, frequently report benefits to building their community over the course of the year. It is also helpful that the cohort is made up of sustainability-oriented fellows from across campus and disciplines. The cross-disciplinary nature of the fellowship allows for a robust, dynamic group that is able to share and learn from one another throughout the year and into the future.

Building Block #3: Use of Survey Data to Inform Program Design

The SLF program began sending a comprehensive end-of-year survey to fellows its second year (2012-2013). We have had a 100% response rate from fellows over the past six years and have heavily utilized these data to inform and refine the program’s content and design. We also use survey data from the Science Communication Workshop and responses to their original applications as data points to analyze the program.

Use of data has helped us ensure that our perceptions are balanced, accurate accounts of the most effective ways to inform and enhance the fellowship program. Importantly, the data helps us curb our perceptions, that may be based on vocal or charismatic participants, by analyzing responses from the group as a whole. This strategy has been increasingly important over the years, especially when repetition sets in and program leaders have heard or discussed the same topics over multiple years. Surveys can also help corroborate or contradict perceptions based on body language, attention, or mood of the group.

Survey data have informed the time of year we hold the Science Communication Workshop and is the reason we started holding a more focused, and recently, even further revised orientation at the beginning of the year. These data have helped us identify programmatic components such as adding blog posts and peer review and altering the timing and flow of events including alternating which days of the week events are held and times of the year to avoid. Other elements identified include providing more social mixer and networking opportunities and ways to help fellows build a productive group. One of the most useful applications of survey data has been using it to refine and improve training content for the next year’s program.

Survey Data. Survey questions range from feedback on specific training and content to broader impacts on career, communications, leadership, and other skills. The majority of our survey questions are open-ended and include asking how fellows felt they benefited from the program, how they have applied the program knowledge to their work, whether the program has caused them to rethink their career objectives, etc. We ask fellows to give feedback on each training and select the most and least favorite training, as well as give ideas on topics for future cohorts. We also ask for their suggestions about program improvement and several questions related to how the program met or did not meet their expectations. Survey questions have evolved to include quantitative components; however, we have retained the original wording of the open-ended questions in order to continue to collect longitudinal data for the program. We recommend surveys include both closed and open-ended questions.

Surveys to Refine Content of Training

Survey data for the six, two-hour training sessions serve two primary purposes: determining which training to repeat the subsequent year and knowing how to refine the trainings that are repeated. In advance of each cohort year, program leaders assess all the data to identify the coming year’s training schedule and compare those with previous data to ascertain whether the changes that were made accomplished the intended outcome. Early in the program’s evolution, the least favorite training was often either dropped from the subsequent year schedule because it failed to adequately meet the needs of the cohort in some way or it was significantly modified to more appropriately fit with the training goals and audience. Now we have evolved to the point where the ‘least favorite’ training has less to do with a mismatch and more to do with the least favorite of all the generally well-liked events over the course of the year. In recent years, it is more common to use the least favorite training data to further refine a session than to drop it from the program.

Most importantly, we use survey data to select the most appropriate and useful training and alter content or presenters to have a greater impact. While, to some extent, every year fluctuates regarding what training is held based on a number of factors including trainer availability, attempting to work the schedule with other events and opportunities, and maximizing guest speakers, it is particularly helpful to use surveys to strategize around those factors and give feedback to trainers. When we reach out to prospective trainers for each year, whether or not they were the person to host that training the year prior, we give feedback to that individual about what went well and what can be improved upon. This helps the program continue to hone and provide ever-improving content to fellows.

Example of survey data used to refine training. We ran a new training in science and policy in the 2016-2017 year. In the end-of-year survey, only three of the 20 fellows selected this training as one of their two most favorite from the year, which is a pretty low rating for a training session. Feedback from the fellows included that it needed to be more interactive and that the information was overwhelming and focused on policy at too high a level, where they were unlikely to interact:

“I liked [the trainer’s] policy session but I felt it could be improved with more tangible and specific ways to engage in the policy process. His session provided a nice overview of what policy engagement looks like at a national level, but it was hard for me to understand specifically how I could engage in that area. A more practical focus that also includes state and local level engagement would be really helpful.” – 2016-2017 Fellow

We provided feedback to the trainer that included comments from fellows, refinements that could be made, and information about what fellows really liked and should be retained. The trainer adjusted the session according to the feedback from the group, including adding more interactive components and details about engaging with policy at local levels. In the subsequent 2017-2018 year, 11 of the 20 fellows selected it as one of their two most favorite trainings and it received a lot of positive feedback from the cohort in their surveys:

“The policy workshop with [the trainer] was excellent. It has given me a new perspective on how science and technology advocacy and funding works. The training session demystified this realm of science for me, and I look forward to using my knowledge to take part in the system.” – 2017-2018 Fellow.

Another fellow also mentioned how much they enjoyed the interactive nature of the revised training:

“Eliciting a response of the fellows and starting a discussion was a dynamic way to teach science policy.” – 2017-2018 Fellow

Survey Data for Programmatic Adjustments

Based on surveys, we changed the Science Communication Workshop from the spring before the fellowship year to the fall right at the beginning of the year. We found that the workshop energized and inspired fellows and that it was far more effective for the workshop to be right at the beginning of the program. This way it helped launch the cohort and build the network and it kept building momentum and appetite for the additional training pieces. Fellows now leave the workshop revved up and eager to continue. When the workshop was held in the spring, learning from it was affected by a summer lull that took over before the fellowship year. The fellows felt somewhat let down during the summer before things picked up again.

Using this information, right after new fellows are announced in the spring, we now host an elective welcome mixer with past cohorts of fellows. This allows us to still welcome in the new cohort, have an orientation in August at the start of the semester to ground and network our cohort, and then conduct the Science Communication Workshop in September which gets everyone excited and working together early in the start of their fellowship year.

Based on surveys, we learned to always run our time management and writing productivity sessions early in the fall because fellows felt that the tools learned were highly effective and could be put into practice for the rest of the year, particularly when they were checking back in with the group. We also learned to avoid heavy or slightly depressing topics at the very end of the year because fellows found they left, what was an otherwise inspiring year, feeling discouraged. For example, one year we held a grant and proposal writing training at the end of the fellowship, which covered how much more competitive research grants have become. This felt like a demoralizing note to end on. It is better to end the program focusing on the connections made, the community of support, the bigger sustainability issues, and finding ways to applaud what has happened and can continue to happen.

Building Block #4: Competitive, Well-promoted, and Celebrated Program

Each year, SoGES makes a concerted effort to promote and celebrate the incoming and outgoing cohorts of SLF. It is a priority of the school to regularly and actively recognize and communicate the commitment and effort of these fellows to becoming better leaders and communicators in sustainability science. Externally-focused acknowledgment helps elevate the fellows and the program.

In late spring, we announce the incoming cohort of 20 fellows through university press releases and stories, through the school’s email list, and by featuring them on the website and on social media platforms. We send letters individually to the CSU president, provost, and the vice president for research that includes a full list of fellows and their advisors, listed by college, that have completed the program and those incoming. We also send letters to each college dean that individually lists fellows and advisors in their college. Fellows also receive a certificate of completion at the end of the year.

Perhaps more important than the specific announcements is the ongoing effort, on the part of the school, to highlight the program with the rest of the school’s engagement activities. We are sure to mention SLF during meetings with our committees and advisory boards and talk about the program regularly when discussing the school and its mission. The program is well-known and recognized at the university and we celebrate and promote the successes of fellows.

Building Block #5: Ongoing Involvement, Support, and Mentorship

A less obvious, but important, piece of the SLF program’s success is SoGES’s high level of investment and dedication to prioritizing the program and help fellows succeed beyond the curriculum itself. The school’s Director, Professor Diana Wall, attends every SLF event, sits through nearly every training, and makes a concerted effort to get to know and remember each fellow. She and other SoGES leadership make themselves available to meet with fellows, discuss career options, lend advice, and write occasional letters of recommendation.

Additionally, in May, when the current-year fellows are wrapping up and the incoming cohort for the following year has been announced, all fellows are invited to the SoGES end-of-year open house and, more importantly, to an SLF mixer at Diana Wall’s home. The mixer is fully catered and hosted and sets a welcoming and warm atmosphere with the group. The event is a strategic opportunity to welcome incoming fellows and allow all fellows that still live locally to connect with one another annually. It also sets a tone of decorum and sends the message that the program and our fellows are highly valued and that we treat the program as something more than business-as-usual curricula.

“…this Fellowship truly stands out above all others because of the passion of our organizers. As a fellow, I consistently felt that I was everyone’s top priority; I knew that I could depend on any member of the SoGES team to provide me support and honest advice at a moment’s notice. Thanks to each of you for making this such a rewarding and life-changing experience!” – 2016-2017 Fellow

While the training, programmatic components, and design elements are important to the success of the SLF program, the personal touches should not be discounted. We provide meals or refreshments at every training, the director personally knows and cares about the fellows coming through the program, each year the program leader communicates with and accounts for fellows’ needs and interests during the designing of the program, and we ask fellows for ideas about panels or other school events. Collectively, this all adds up to something deeper and more in-depth than the status quo. We allow fellows to use SoGES conference rooms free of charge and encourage them to tap into other school resources just like any faculty member would. While most fellows do not make full use of the available services, the invitation is meaningful and conveys that they are important.

While these gestures are all small, they help cultivate investment in both directions and set a tone for the program that is meaningful and has a long-lasting impact on the fellows’ careers.


As the global population and demand on resources increase, sustainability challenges will only become more pressing, divisive, multifaceted, and intricate. The SoGES SLF program has built a program that helps early career scientists become the leaders and communicators we need to have to address these issues. We believe the program’s explicit expectations, use of a cohort model, use of survey data to inform program design, acknowledgment and elevation of the program, and attention to detail from the highest level of SoGES and university leadership are the most important keys to the success of this program. While it may seem self-evident, leadership’s critical investment in leading the program cannot be overemphasized.

Sustainability’s grand challenges are entrenched and complex and will affect everyone on Earth to varying degrees, both directly and indirectly. Questions of how to sustain livelihoods on a planet with finite resources require brilliant minds, thinking critically and collaboratively from many angles, to derive creative and innovative solutions. We believe that preparing the up-and-coming innovators and informed leaders in sustainability science with the tools, skills, and network to have a meaningful impact is some of the most influential and important work we can do. The impact is magnified through all of the fellows who have completed and benefited from the program and incorporated its lessons into their careers. This is an investment in the future.


Baron, N. (2016). So you want to change the world? Nature, 540 (7634), 517.


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Building a Successful Leadership Program Copyright © 2019 by Aleta Rudeen Weller; Diana H. Wall; and Nancy Baron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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