In the spring of 2019, Texas Christian University (TCU) launched the Professional Leadership Rotation (PLR) program. Developed and overseen by the TCU HR department, the PLR program is open to any full-time campus employee and is designed to provide the opportunity for career exploration and skill development through a professional intern placement in a partnering campus office.
The creation of the PLR program was a direct response to feedback received during employee focus groups led by the HR team in 2018. Results from those focus groups clearly showed that TCU employees were seeking guidance in areas like career exploration, career-path planning, networking, and an overall desire to learn more about TCU operations beyond their home departments. The focus group results reflect the general need in higher education for professionals to have a wide variety of skills and experiences, including advanced professional development. It was also during this time that TCU was in the midst of unveiling an updated strategic plan with a focused initiative to strengthen the workforce. With both direct employee feedback and administrative focus in alignment, the PLR program was crafted.
An Individualized Experience
The PLR program is a six-month program running May through October each year. This timeframe includes a three-month campus internship placement during the summer months and ongoing professional development sessions throughout. The small, cohort-based program is designed to ensure all participants have a holistic experience that includes completing three to five hours per week in their placement office, attending monthly cohort education sessions, submitting monthly reflections, and completing an end-of-program presentation.
The small, cohort-based program is designed to ensure all participants have a holistic experience that includes completing three to five hours per week in their placement office, attending monthly cohort education sessions, submitting monthly reflections, and completing an end-of-program presentation.
Each PLR cohort generally has between 12 and 15 interns, which allows for a more personalized experience and the ability for the department sponsors and HR team members to be agile and flexible in crafting experiences that meet the needs of each individual participant. This agility helps to meet our employees where they are in terms of their own professional development needs.
Across the first three PLR cohorts, our interns have reflected the diversity of employee specialties across campus, as we have had participants employed as both exempt and non-exempt staff, employed in both academic affairs and student affairs, and across all professional levels from tenured faculty to administrative assistants. The PLR program provides space for employees, regardless of their current roles, to thrive.
Building Skills and Expanding Networks
A key focus of the PLR program is that all placements include a variety of skill-building opportunities that support the sponsoring departments’ needs and grow the skills of the PLR interns. While the experiences vary by department need and university scope, placement experiences might consist of producing a new project, managing a departmental program, offering administrative support, or attending team meetings and events. An ideal placement experience is one where the intern can make immediate connections between the work they do in their daily campus role and the new opportunity their PLR placement provides them.
To ensure a well-rounded experience, the HR team conducts marketing and recruitment efforts simultaneously for both PLR interns and sponsoring departments, using a combination of campus-wide outreach and strategic invitations to participate. Open, virtual information sessions are hosted for both target audiences, while direct invitations to participate are often the most effective in securing sponsoring departments. Supervising departments and interested interns must submit applications, and all must participate in the program’s placement-matching event. This process, which consists of interview rounds that allow each department and each intern a chance to connect, is meant to provide an opportunity to practice interview skills and expand networks while also providing an equitable opportunity for potential placements. After these interviews, all participants rank their preferred placement office or intern and a mutual matching process is used to assign placements.
Once placements are assigned, crafting the internship experience becomes the responsibility of the sponsoring department and the PLR intern. This partnership model empowers both parties to think critically about what they can accomplish together. One participant in the 2022 PLR cohort explained their placement as “ … [giving] me space to flex professional muscles I hadn’t had the opportunity to use since graduate school. It carved out designated time to meet and understand a new office on campus and to create connections I wouldn’t have otherwise had the time to invest in.”
Once placements are assigned, crafting the internship experience becomes the responsibility of the sponsoring department and the PLR intern. This partnership model empowers both parties to think critically about what they can accomplish together.
In order to ensure successful placements, monthly assessments are given to both the interns and intern supervisors throughout the program. The short surveys, delivered via an online system, inquire about progress on current projects and updates on new skills learned, and offer the opportunity to request additional support or guidance that our human resources team can provide. Since our interns and sponsoring departments are in consistent communication with the human resources team through this process, it makes it easier and more effective to address any challenges that arise and provide specific support as swiftly as possible.
Monthly Professional Development Sessions
An important component of the PLR program includes professional development sessions for the interns, which serve as a supplemental way to support the learning happening in each individual placement. These sessions provide opportunities for discussion-based learning, skill development and personal reflection tied to a variety of topical areas. Each two-hour session, held monthly, is led by a combination of human resources staff and campus and community partners. Topical highlights include professional presence, delivering and receiving feedback, and using your strengths. A three-part series in design thinking, facilitated in partnership with TCU faculty, has had a particularly significant impact on PLR participants. A member of the 2022 cohort shared, “The ‘Design Your Work’ sessions have boosted my confidence in moving forward into the next stage of my career and having the ability to carve out meaning in my work.” These sessions offer a secondary benefit of serving as a connection point for our cohort members. Each monthly session includes time to reflect on their internship placements and build community within the cohort.
Garnering Sponsoring Department Support
While it’s clear that the PLR program would not be successful without outstanding interns, it’s also important to recognize that a key element of strengthening our workforce is our ability to build professional skills for potential managers and supervisors within our sponsoring departments. The role of the sponsoring departments and their intern supervisors requires a commitment to supporting the holistic professional development approach for their interns during their three-month summer placement, which is critical to PLR’s success. The role of intern placement supervisor has become a great training ground for campus professionals who do not currently supervise or who have a desire for a short project-management opportunity within their department. PLR sponsoring-department expectations include direct supervision of an intern working in their functional area, providing mentorship and consistent developmental feedback, and general oversight during this exploration of a new professional area.
There is also the expectation that the intern will contribute in a positive and often substantial way to the sponsoring department’s overall success. Many departments choose to partner with the PLR program because it provides additional support they might not otherwise receive and support from a professional peer, which carries with it a different level of expectation for success than a student intern might provide. Having graduated its third cohort in the fall of 2022, the PLR program has had 27 PLR interns and partnered with a total 14 sponsoring campus departments, a number of which are repeat partnerships. One of these partners is Dr. Zoranna Jones, assistant dean of student support in the TCU College of Science and Engineering. Dr. Jones shares, “I’ve worked with the program the last two years. Both interns were able to help me implement new programs and initiatives. I believe in the goal of the program and hope to provide access and experiences for those who may have an interest in the areas I oversee.” The PLR program continues to thrive and grow, year after year, as a direct result of these types of partnerships.
Many departments choose to partner with the PLR program because it provides additional support they might not otherwise receive and support from a professional peer, which carries with it a different level of expectation for success than a student intern might provide.
One of Dr. Jones’ PLR interns, Cole Polley, participated in the program while in his second year serving as a TCU College Advising Corps campus advisor. When asked why he decided to participate in the PLR program, Polley said, “I [wanted] the chance to soak in knowledge from professionals in another department and knew I would gain new perspective and improve as a professional as a result.” Polley worked with Dr. Jones to provide support for the TCU University Life program by planning training opportunities and leading presentations to promote the course to first-year students and their parents during new-student orientation. After successfully completing his PLR placement, Polley applied for a position in the TCU Office of Admissions, where he was hired as admissions counselor. “I feel like it was such a valuable experience to work with Dr. Jones and foster relationships throughout campus,” says Polley. “It really bolstered my resume and gave me that much more confidence throughout the process of applying.”
It’s productive partnerships like the one between Dr. Jones and Polley that exemplify why this program meets several needs for our campus professionals. Sponsoring departments receive high quality, professional contributions which often allow projects to be completed that might otherwise not be because of limited resources, staff or time. Our interns find valuable, transferable skills that enhance their networks and encourage their professional development. Like Polley, many of our interns have received promotions or transferred to new roles within our campus as a direct result of PLR participation. After three cohorts, the results confirm that the PLR program is meeting our goal to strengthen our workforce and strategically enhance our professional talent pipeline.
As we look to the next iteration of the PLR program at TCU, we are inspired by the feedback from our program graduates and partners. At the conclusion of our most recent program, 100 percent of our polled interns shared that they were satisfied with their PLR placement, including their increased knowledge in a new functional area and their broadened understanding of careers in higher education. Feedback from our 2022 supervisors also reflected success. One supervisor shared, “Our intern did an excellent job providing us with great new insight on a project that we did not otherwise have the bandwidth to tackle.” While another supervisor said, “Our intern’s work is commendable. [Their] research, analysis and work are significantly useful to our office. I am thankful for the work that [they] produced.”
While our satisfaction rate is high, we continue to focus on growth for the program and intentional development for participants and sponsoring departments. With the most recent cohort, for example, we successfully piloted providing multiple interns to a sponsoring department to meet their project needs. This is a slight shift from our original model of one intern per sponsoring department, but our program flexibility provided us the ability to scale our matching process, which will allow us to grow the program while ensuring our key goals continue to be met. Another opportunity we plan to use to expand professional development for PLR interns is to provide on-demand learning using LinkedIn Learning Pathways. TCU provides free access to the LinkedIn learning platform to all employees, and our hope is that through PLR we can draw more interaction to that platform, while offering a virtual education option to allow more flexibility during the summer months for consistent education when many interns work remote schedules.
The success of the PLR program serves as an excellent example of what is possible when members of the campus community collaborate with a clear, shared vision in mind. Through the leadership and guidance of the human resources team, committed campus partnerships, and eager employees, there is no limit to the positive impact resulting from the PLR program. Any institution that is looking for a way to focus on career pathing and a strong talent pipeline could see similar success on their campus with a similar program scaled to meet their needs. After all, a strong workforce benefits the entire campus community.
About the author: Ebony R. Rose, M.A., CCDP, is senior learning and development consultant at Texas Christian University.
©2023 Ebony Rose. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.