Foundations of a Forestry Leadership Program

a mountain lake

Business Case

Effective leadership is an essential component of organizational success. Employees today have access to a wide variety of leadership development tools and resources, ranging from college courses to full graduate degrees to countless books and videos, each claiming to hold the secret to effective leadership. While organizations should certainly encourage their employees to take advantage of these resources, it’s important to recognize the challenges and limitations of relying on external resources alone for leadership development. Employees are often constrained by a lack of time and the cost of pursuing such external opportunities. Similarly, generic coursework and other external resources may have limited applicability to an organization’s unique culture and operating environment. For these and other reasons, many organizations invest in internal leadership programs designed to train target employees on a common and consistent set of leadership skills, which enables the company to create a shared understanding of effective leadership.

In my experience, the most impactful programs combine classroom training with team-based, hands on activities such as business-specific case studies and role plays. These programs are typically spread over a period of time so participants can adequately absorb and retain the information and immediately apply it in their daily work environment. Many successful leadership development programs also include a mentorship program that pairs more seasoned leaders with an organization’s emerging leaders, in order to provide additional reinforcement and knowledge transfer opportunities.

Program Overview

My recommendation for any company would be a classroom-based 24-month training program consisting of four core modules: Communications; Negotiations; Business Acumen; and Employee Engagement. Target participants should include current managers and above, as well as any junior employees identified as emerging talent. Participants would be split into two cohorts, with each cohort containing a diverse mix of ages, experience and functional expertise. Facilitators should include a mix of training/leadership development experts as well as leaders from within the business.

a spreadsheet showing modules and their seasons

Training Module Description

1. Communications – Successful leaders must be able to communicate effectively to a broad range of audiences and across a variety of topics. This module should cover the following topics:

  • Presentation Skills – structuring a presentation to achieve a desired outcome; effective use of visual aids; successful delivery techniques; and audience engagement.
  • Executive Communications – development and delivery of high-impact messages; non-verbal communication techniques (e.g., presence, body language); communicating complex or sensitive topics.

Potential resources

2. Negotiations – Negotiations are a part of daily life, whether you’re pursuing something as complex as a fiber supply contract or large timberland acquisition or as simple as where to vacation with your family. Successful leaders have a solid grasp of negotiating strategy and techniques, including considerations related to timing, leverage, available tools, and contingencies such as the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Outcome (BATNA). This module should consist of two components:

  • Basics of Negotiations understanding the parties’ goals, priorities and agendas; pre-negotiation preparation; effective communication styles; managing a negotiating team; converting competitors into partners through mutually beneficial outcomes; dealing with a difficult or irrational counterparty.
  • Advanced Negotiations – negotiating across cultures; use of new information for maximum effect; negotiations involving more than one counterparty; navigating ethical dilemmas; techniques for orchestrating a complex negotiation.

Potential resources

  • Jim Doescher is a Panama City-based corporate forester with experience as a state lobbyist and training consultant. He led various negotiations training sessions for the Georgia Pacific procurement team while I worked there.
  • The American Management Association offers useful classes on negotiating to win. I recently completed such a class and would consider incorporating it into a leadership training program.

3. Business Acumen – One of a business leader’s most important responsibilities is to grow, preserve and protect shareholder or investor value. This value almost always hinges on decisions related to capital allocation – how a management team utilizes excess capital. The management team must then quantify and measure the impact of these decisions, and report on the company’s performance in a meaningful and transparent fashion. To this end, a successful leader need not be a finance or operations expert, but he or she should – at the very least – have a sound working knowledge of financial reporting and the capital allocation decision-making process. The Business Acumen module should consist of the following components:

  • Finance for Non-Finance Managers – how to read and analyze a Balance Sheet; how to read and analyze an Income Statement to assess company performance and operating efficiency; how to read and analyze a Cash Flow Statement to determine company health and viability; understanding and managing drivers of profitability.
  • Asset Valuation and Capital Allocation in the Forestry Sector – Four steps of capital budgeting; Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) valuation for land purchases and capital projects; ROI calculation for asset purchases.
  • Forest Industry Dynamics – stumpage market trends and outlook; stand management profitability analysis; uses and limitations of market data; forest finance sensitivity analysis.
  • Introduction to Risk Management – understanding the tools of risk management (e.g., internal controls, compliance, employee code of conduct, internal audits, etc.); identification and management of enterprise risk; identification and management of reputational risk; embedding risk management into organizational structure and operating rhythm.

Potential resources

  • Dr. Steve Bullard (Provost/Vice President for Academic Affairs, Stephen F. Austin State University) and Dr. Tom Straka (Professor of Forestry, Clemson University) are terrific resources for teaching forestry asset valuation and capital allocation and co-authored a book on the same topic, available for download at this link.
  • Dr. Brooks Mendell (President and CEO, Forisk Consulting) or faculty from the University of Georgia’s Harley Langdale Center for Forest Business could teach a class on forest industry dynamics.

4. Employee Engagement – Employee engagement is one of the most pressing challenges facing any organization. Poor employee engagement will undoubtedly result in high turnover and reduced productivity, ultimately leading to a negative impact on business results. Conversely, high engagement can spur innovation, improve collaboration among teams, and promote a workplace culture that attracts and retains top talent. As a result, employee engagement is one of the most important – yet difficult – responsibilities of a successful leader. This module should cover the key elements of an effective employee engagement strategy, including:

  • Understanding of Leadership Style– this module should begin with a standardized personality assessment. Among the most popular assessment tools are DiSC and Myers-Briggs. These assessments offer participants a baseline understanding of their personality traits including how those traits translate into individual leadership styles, and ultimately create a self-awareness that can lead to the ability to flex one’s personal style to meet others’ needs.
  • Goal Setting and Performance Management – how to set meaningful and achievable goals; ongoing performance management including feedback and coaching; managing top talent and low performers.
  • Recognition and Rewards – how to motivate, recognize and reward top performers, based on personal motivations and career aspirations
  • Problem-Solving – provide training on problem-solving techniques that encourage critical thinking and promote efficient, effective collaboration between a leader and his or her peers or subordinates.

Potential Resources

  • I highly recommend any of the courses that have been developed and taught by the Center for Creative Leadership. They have a world class platform and training facilities and really challenge students that want to hone in and advance their leadership skills and style.
  • I also recommend incorporating “Precision Questioning” into the Problem-Solving training block. Vervago offers customized on-site training on this technique, and I have used their services many times in the past to train my teams.
  • Kaye, Beverly and Sharon Jordan-Evans. Love ‘em or Lose ‘em: Getting Good People to Stay. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, 2008.


A leadership development program built upon these four modules will provide your employees with a core set of practical skills and knowledge that can improve both their individual performance as leaders and the overall performance of your company. As with any leadership program, it is imperative that all participants have the support and reinforcement of their direct manager and ideally, an assigned mentor. This proposed program may appear time and resource-intensive, but the investment is one that will pay off for many years to come. At the same time, however, it’s important to note that this is simply a foundational training program, and it is unlikely to satisfy all of the specific leadership development needs of your organization. In the future, your organization may choose to invest in a more tailored program for a targeted audience, which would begin with a training needs analysis conducted by an outside training specialist.