Online cohorts team up in professional world

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Salina, Kans., and Mountain View, Calif., are more than 1,700 miles and two time zones apart. But in the virtual world of an online graduate program, distance and time were not a barrier to two men - one at the beginning of his career and the other a retired NFL defensive guard, now vice-president of a Silicon Valley company.

Jordan Redmond, 24, was working at St. John's Military School in Kansas, and John Choma, 53, was in northern California heading up employee learning for Omnicell, a company that provides computer systems and software to health care facilities, when they found themselves cohorts in Norwich University's online Master of Science in Organizational Leadership program in 2006.

A cohort is a group of 12-16 students that go through the program's seminars together.

By the time they came to Norwich's Northfield, Vt., campus for Residency and graduation in June 2008, Redmond had relocated to the West Coast to work for Choma, developing and implementing Omnicell's employee leadership training program.

C.S. Lewis's 1943 essay, "The Abolition of Man," laid the foundation for a bond between the cohorts. Choma mentioned the essay in an online discussion post, and was impressed when Redmond knew of it.

"For him, at his young age, to know about C.S. Lewis and this particular type of writing was special," Choma said. "I thought this was a pretty interesting individual."

In their first seminar, Choma and Redmond were paired to work on a project in which they were tasked with identifying the personality type of Sir Ernest Shackleton, the leader of an Antarctic exploration gone wrong, based on the 16 types available in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This had them talking on the phone throughout the process and engaging in online discussions.

A program that flourishes on self-analysis and individuals' effects on the people and processes around them, Organizational Leadership students thrive on critical feedback from cohorts, prompting rich discussions of leadership styles, perceptions, beliefs and challenges.

"We really had a lot of time to bounce ideas off each other and get to know each other's values," Redmond said.

Responsible for organization development and employee learning and development, Choma applied much of his Organizational Leadership learning to the mission at Omnicell. He said the final three seminars, which focus on self-actualization, were particularly relevant.

"I was in an updraft, getting more able to think in a very visionary way about things we were trying to accomplish at Omnicell," he said.

Redmond visited his future boss in person in July 2007, when he traveled to California for work and went out to dinner with Choma and his family.

Toward the end of the organizational leadership program, Redmond was looking for a new job, and Choma was percolating plans to launch Omnicell's new employee leadership development program; he just needed a dynamic person to develop and implement it..

Redmond said that within a few weeks Choma's mention of his ideas for Omnicell turned into a job offer.

"It went from not even looking at California to ‘here's the idea, and here's the job offer,'" Redmond said.

In January 2008, Redmond started at Omnicell as a consultant developing the employee leadership program, and was hired as an employee in May to run it. Drawing on lessons and textbooks from the organizational leadership program, Redmond created a three-tiered program called Explore, Quest and Forum based on the idea of creating leaders at all levels.

Explore and Quest are self-guided studies from books. Forum is a nine-month program that brings employees from different departments together for reading, discussion and tasks. Redmond said it is a good way for employees to learn more about other departments and facilitates a deeper understanding of Omnicell, which employs about 850 people.

"They apply what they learned to their work and get feedback, kind of like a cohort," Redmond said.

For Choma, the organizational leadership program not only led him to a stellar employee, but also proved to be the culmination of lessons he learned as a professional athlete and his work as a leader at Omnicell.

Choma said his NFL career with the San Francisco 49ers, when he made a famous defensive goal tackle for the winning 1982 Super Bowl team, has resonated throughout his professional life. Since retiring from sports, he has been interested in the dynamics of that championship season and recreating it for companies.

"If you were to take a close look at each individual on that team — you had young Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott and grisly old veterans and a couple other guys who had been cut from more successful teams — how did this amalgam of players who were not very good if you put it on a spreadsheet … produce a championship team?" Choma said.

Organizational Leadership provided the answers he was seeking.

"There are dynamics of that that were captured within the organizational leadership program that are truths about how people respond to critical situations … to resolve in both a useful and impactful way, to make positive things happen. I found this dynamic backed up in the (program) literature."