Guide for Managers of Adult Education Programs




Earlier sections of this guide describe the varied functions of a program manager: staffing, partnering, program planning, maintaining accountability, budgeting, and using technology. All of these functions are critical in the day-to-day operation of an education program. One trait that is often overlooked is the value of leadership. More than management, leadership denotes a role of visionary, advocate, motivator, entrepreneur, communicator, and continuous improvement.


A vision or mission statement can mobilize and energize a staff and help create an organizational identity within a community. The responsibility for setting the vision or mission for the program rests with the program manager or the governing board. The vision or mission should be clear, powerful, and create a compelling future for the organization. This vision will serve as the compass for the organization's future growth. As the organization's leader, it is the program manager's responsibility to advocate and ensure that resources, program planning, and staffing are consistent with the vision and mission.


The program manager is also an advocate - for the learners, for the staff, for the organization, for partners, and for the community. Within any organization or community, there are multiple priorities and, too often, adult education is not a "hot" topic. The program manager must promote the importance, relevance, and benefits of investing in adult education efforts.


The program manager is responsible for recruiting, hiring, and managing staff. The program manager as leader is challenged to create an environment that enables all staff to do their best work. It is the program manager's responsibility to delegate responsibility and authority to each member of the team, as appropriate, and provide the necessary support to them. This delegation will energize the staff since they will have a greater stake in the program and will free up the program manager's time to engage in other activities.


Management may be viewed as maintenance of a program in existence. Leaders, however, take the existing program and ensure that it is positioned well now and for the future. A leader capitalizes on the past accomplishments of the program to open doors to new endeavors.


A leader is responsible for working with a variety of people and groups - from adult learners to other community service providers, from advisory boards to government officials. To be effective in this role, the leader must be a strong communicator and problem solver. The leader must be able to listen to the concerns and interests of all parties and develop strategies that effectively meet divergent interests. Having a collaborative leadership style is essential when trying to balance the needs of many stakeholders.

Continuous Improvement

An important characteristic of a good leader is a focus on continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is small incremental steps building upon existing strengths and overcoming deficiencies. By focusing gently on continuous improvement, a program can regularly reinvent itself to address changing demands without overloading the staff with massive changes and disruptions.

One key to successful continuous improvement is the acceptance of some degree of risk. Unsuccessful actions are inevitable in the experimentation process. However, the leader needs to set the tone that failures and mistakes are opportunities for learning, not actions to be punished. By helping the staff analyze small failures, solutions for moving the program forward will surface.

Maintaining a Balance

Probably one of the most difficult aspects of a leader is maintaining a balance between the role of program manager and leader. The leader needs to stay focused on the big picture, looking at the overall program operation and productivity, while juggling lots of details. The program manager, meanwhile, needs to keep a close eye on the budget, on student outcomes and student satisfaction, on changes in the funding arena or regulations, on staff morale, and on the concerns of other stakeholders. This involves a great deal of careful listening, careful observation, and analysis. It is very difficult to stay in touch with the details while maintaining a leadership role that focuses on the big picture goals.

One solution to this challenge is to set clear outcomes and hold staff accountable for achieving the outcomes. The manager's job is to monitor the program's results, praising people who achieve them and coaching those who don't. If the manager becomes too enmeshed in accomplishing the detailed work, s/he will not be available to fulfill the responsibilities of a leader.

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Hudson River Center for Program Development, Inc.