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As Leadership Academy students graduate, they've learned how to better work with employees

Liz Kitchens, left, of Mitchell and Marty Kleinsasser, of Sioux Falls, were among nine students to graduate Thursday from the South Dakota Leadership Academy at Mitchell Technical Institute. (Mark Andersen / Republic)

Nine people graduated Thursday from the South Dakota Leadership Academy, completing the program's third year at Mitchell Technical Institute.

The course is based on real-life business experiences, said academy director Connie Schroeder. A lot of excellent leadership curriculums have been developed by the military, but sometimes they don't translate well to industry. Two new graduates sat down ahead of Thursday's ceremonies to share how the program helped them grow professionally.

Liz Kitchens, of Mitchell, works in human resources at Mitchell Technical Institute and does not currently hold a leadership position. Marty Kleinsasser, of Sioux Falls, works at Renew Energy Maintenance constructing wind turbines, where he oversees 78 direct employees.

Neither Kleinsasser nor Kitchens entered the course with preconceived ideas. Kleinsasser said managers at his company asked him to take the course and see if it would be a good fit for the company going forward. Kitchens said school leadership chooses one employee each year to take the course.

Leadership classes began Sept. 17. The students have met in person for a full day twice monthly since, plus two times each month by Skype.

"It improved the ideas that I had and gave me other good ideas," Kleinsasser said. "I learned how to better present myself to employees and open myself to customers."

They've learned how to work with different personality styles, Kitchens said, and how to hold difficult conversations.

"I've learned to recognize everybody has a story and a reason why they do things, and it's my job to help them grow in their story, and grow in becoming the person they want to become," Kitchens said.

Kleinsasser said the course led him to give his employees more responsibility.

"Call if you have questions, but if you make a mistake, it's your job to fix it," he said.

In the past, he said, "I tried to have my hands on everything." He liked having things done his way, but his growing responsibilities made that difficult.

Most employees prefer additional responsibilities, Kleinsasser said.

"They don't want to bother me with a problem." If a problem results, Kleinsasser said, they no longer worry about delivering bad news.

"It happened. Let's fix it," he added.

His transition wasn't sudden, he said. He was growing into his leadership role before taking the course and he'll continue growing. The course he said, gives a person confidence about the likely paths which flow from a particular management choice.

As Kleinsasser has become more likely to involve employees in discussions, Kitchens has become more confident in discussing ideas with upper management. Graduation won't be the end of her journey, she said.

"I feel we've just started to climb up a mountain, and we'll continue the climb," Kitchens said.

"Even if it is complicated, we'll be able to handle it," Kleinsasser said.

Was the course fun?

"Yes," they said in unison.

Schroeder said students have ranged in age from 24 into their 60s. Most are employed full-time in industry.

Two things with MTI's program make it stand out, she said. Students practice the skills they are learning, and a mentor at their workplace shares internal information, such as how their company may have managed change.

The 24 credits earned over two semesters can be applied to earning a bachelor or masters degree under agreements with the University of South Dakota and Dakota Wesleyan University. MTI is currently finalizing another agreement with South Dakota State University. The eight-month course costs $6,000 per student, plus lodging and meals.