The University of Alberta’s Inside Job

Jay Spark, vice provost and associate vice president of human resources on developing internal leaders through its game-changing Gold College program

In 2013, a physician in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry wanted to implement electronic health records but wasn’t sure how to launch the system in an academic setting. Another doctor hoped to improve patient experience in his hospital’s heart program. Both eventually discovered a unique leadership and professional development program that helped get both projects off the ground.

The program, known as Gold College, is the University of Alberta’s signature leadership program for academic staff. Jay Spark, vice provost and associate vice president of human resources, says the program was created to help faculty develop processes and skills needed to become successful university leaders. The values-based, experiential program includes 10 learning modules totaling more than 90 hours and lasts an entire academic year. “It’s hands on,” Spark explains. “We invite each participant to design a project they can take back and apply in their own faculty or department.”

Spark started his HR career about 35 years ago and joined the University of Alberta in 2010. Upon making the move, he realized that leadership often takes on a different look in the world of academia. “People who lead in academic settings often find themselves thrust into leadership positions without previous experience or preparation. It’s different from the corporate world, and we recognized that we could do more to develop and empower our people to become successful leaders,” he says. With 18 faculties and 75 departments, the University has more than 100 people in leadership roles.

While traditional leadership-development programs attract individuals who participate in short workshops, Spark’s team wanted to create something more significant. “We wanted to give our leaders a chance to develop a customized approach to leadership that fits their own values and will succeed in their unique work environment,” he says. They worked to create the year-long intensive program that resonates with analytical and driven intellectual minds.

In early sessions, Gold College facilitators coach participants in understanding how their values drive their leadership behavior. They administer assessment tools and guide each person to discover his or her own values in their personal and professional lives. “You become a better leader if you are true to your own values in leadership,” says Spark. Modules include building effective teams, managing human resources, financial planning, coaching, leading change, and conflict management.

Gold College’s creators designed the sequential learning program around the three areas of “self, teams, and systems.” Highlighted outcomes include:

  1. Creating a personal leadership narrative to inspire and engage others
  2. Leveraging personal values to align behaviours
  3. Honouring personality preferences and generational differences to maximize performance
  4. Aligning organizational priorities through strategic planning
  5. Employing facilitative practices to engage people
  6. Creating conditions for innovation
  7. Evaluating and enhancing leadership strengths based on 360-degree feedback


As most publically funded colleges and universities in North America find it increasingly difficult to provide excellent programs with limited resources, programs like Gold College become critical. “We need leaders who inspire and motivate peers and students to do more with limited resources,” Spark says. “Universities often recruit talented external leaders who don’t understand academic culture. We should be putting the same effort into developing our own leaders.”

To find those leaders, Spark and other University of Alberta HR professionals work with deans to identify rising stars who take on service and leadership roles or excel in collaborative spaces. Then they recruit those individuals into Gold College while asking previous graduates to refer others. Each faculty and department leader completes an assessment of the program so Spark and others can make adjustments to improve each module. Spark says early feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. A recent participant said Gold College “changed me as a leader and as a person.” Other nearby institutions have inquired about sending their leaders through the curriculum. After three years with 24 participants in each learning cohort the Provost’s office agreed to support up to 73 Gold College participants in 2016.

As the program gains momentum, Spark is pivoting to address associated change management issues. With an additional 73 people coming out of Gold College in the spring of 2016, his teams will shift into overdrive to help those faculty members implement their projects. As they do, each University of Alberta faculty, department, and student will reap the rewards.