Southern Research’s Head of Learning: Coaching Power Hours - Senior Executive

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10 min

Southern Research’s Head of Learning Talks Separating L&D from HR and Introducing Coaching Power Hours

Rhonda Anderson shares her L&D goals for 2024, including implementing employee resource groups, and discusses the research institution’s newest training event, Southern Research Live.

by Zee Johnson on November 17, 2023

Rhonda Anderson

Rhonda Anderson

Head of Talent Development
Southern Research


  • Rhonda Anderson, head of talent development at Southern Research, joined the company in early 2023 as the organization’s first learning leader.

  • Southern Research has several leadership development programs, one of which is reserved for scientists and another for employees in mid and upper management.

  • Through collaborations with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Anderson is strengthening Southern Research’s leadership pipeline.

Southern Research (SR), a nonprofit scientific research organization, has been in business for more than eight decades and recently garnered much attention for its exploration into treatments and cures for COVID-19, cancer, diabetes, and other global health-related issues. When Rhonda Anderson, Senior Executive L&D Think Tank member and head of talent development joined the organization in early 2023, it became her immediate mission to instill learning and development processes that could expand the career paths of all employees.

Senior Executive L&D spoke with Anderson, who details prominent learning and development challenges she’s addressing, three leadership development programs that Southern Research offers employees, and the objectives she has in store for 2024.

Senior Executive Media: What are some of the biggest challenges you’re facing?

Rhonda Anderson: It’s challenging for our staff members to be more prevalent in the community, and that’s the driving force for talent development for us right now. Talent development used to be housed in HR. Southern Research saw the need to separate the talent development function from HR, because learning and development became a core business priority that needed consistent, focused attention in order for us to attract and retain talent. The separation keeps talent development at the forefront of our organization. That’s what we’re working on right now — being intentional about developing a [strong] L&D culture.

We’re trying to equip our leaders and encourage them to be more vocal about their research and what they’re doing — even the leaders who are nonresearch-focused, such as myself. We’re offering training that teaches them the art of storytelling, how to advocate for themselves and for resources, and how to present their research to scientific and nonscientific audiences.

“Talent development used to be housed in HR. Southern Research saw the need to separate the talent development function from HR, because learning and development became a core business priority that needed consistent, focused attention in order for us to attract and retain talent.”

Headshot of Rhonda Anderson

– Rhonda Anderson, Head of Talent Development at Southern Research


Senior Executive Media: To empower employees and leaders within the company, what leadership development programs does Southern Research offer?

Rhonda Anderson: This year, I had the opportunity to implement changes for one of the programs that we offer called Service. Opportunity. Action. Results (S.O.A.R)…our three-year-old, application-based leadership development program that is for all employees. Whether you have a scientific background or not, you can [apply] for that program. S.O.A.R will give you a big picture view of Southern Research and all the different departments that we offer. It helps employees figure [out their way]. They can ask themselves, ‘Do I like people and community, or do I like business and commercialization?’ It helps people find their focus and what they like. Then, we’ll figure out ways to get them into [their desired] pathway once an opportunity is available. We focus on developing the people side of leadership because leadership is more relational. 

We do two-day retreats that are experiential learning. Program participants don’t touch a book, an assessment, nothing. It’s all activity based. In those activities, they can glean some things to implement once they get back to their jobs. It’s about showing gratitude to your team, allowing others to speak, not thinking that your idea is the best idea, and allowing other people to share their ideas. The program also has that rotational learning piece where some of our department heads and VPs will come in, educate the group on what we do, and then the group ends up having a capstone project in the end. 

We also have the Inspiring Growth and Nurturing Innovative Talent for Excellence in Science (I.G.N.I.T.E) program, which launched in October of this year. It’s a new [development] program that I’m super excited about and is strictly for our scientists. It’s application-based and has other requirements such as tenure, projects led, position, accomplishments in that position, and research performed. They also must submit a video [as part of the application] and answer a couple of essay questions. Then, a committee decides who gets in.

I.G.N.I.T.E ultimately teaches our scientists how to do things [such as becoming] better proposal writers and finding grant money, for instance. It also teaches them the differences in communicating their research to a scientific audience versus people who don’t have a scientific background at all. We want our scientists to be able to speak in layman’s terms to the general population. They’re also going to get leadership development in that they’re going to learn not only those communication skills, but how to storytell. They, too, have a capstone project in the end.

The third leadership development program that we offer is Southern’s Team Effectively Executing Leadership (S.T.E.E.L) for our middle and upper management leaders and executives. We do this program twice a year and it’s based on manager recommendations. It’s a group holding leaders accountable for delivering top-level management people skills to their teams at all times. We wanted to have a place for those people who are classified as managers, directors, and heads of, who are leading teams of 20, 30, 60 or more people.

Senior Executive Media: Are the two-day retreats mandatory for the S.O.A.R and I.G.N.I.T.E leadership development programs? 

Rhonda Anderson: Yes, the two-day retreats are a mandatory part of the leadership development programs, because that’s the time we use to recalibrate their thinking. It gets you to really commit to the process. The [last] S.O.A.R two-day retreat was overnight, and we stayed at the 4-H [conference] center in Columbiana, Alabama. For I.G.N.I.T.E, we chose to do a two-day off-site retreat, but we didn’t stay overnight; we came back to the campus both days. 

Senior Executive Media: What are capstone projects for the S.O.A.R and I.G.N.I.T.E programs based on? 

Rhonda Anderson: We want S.O.A.R participants to find a real-world problem that they can possibly pitch to the organization and solve. It has to be a necessary need that makes sense and that is viable. This year’s group just did the brainstorming for their projects earlier this month. Some of them came up with [topics such as] improving our wellness programs, wellness initiatives, and cross-training for our scientists in one of the labs. These can be done in groups.

One project that stuck out to me was the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) members who wanted to improve their parking situation because parking is a huge issue for their nurses and doctors. It’s about trying to figure out how we can make things better. We’re trying to be more proactive when it comes to developing our leaders and getting them ready for the future of Southern Research. 

I.G.N.I.T.E members [on the other hand] have individual projects. Their projects can be based on their research or a hot topic and are presented in a poster presentation.

Senior Executive Media: What’s ahead for these leadership development programs?

Rhonda Anderson: Next year, we’re looking to offer coaching and will be implementing coaching power hours. Our S.O.A.R and I.G.N.I.T.E leadership development programs will act as a pilot, and we’ll have coaching power hours on a quarterly basis. These hour-long sessions will act as development and accountability sessions. They’ll also create a space for graduates to share openly about their wins or challenges. I will be leading the sessions and will bring in guest coaches when needed. I [want] participants to find the sessions beneficial as they progress in their leadership journeys and deepen relationships between cohort graduates.

Cohorts that have already completed [our leadership development] programs wanted more engagement, but there’s no other engagement, and I feel this is a missed opportunity for us to keep them together and accountable. So, that’s the goal — to give them another place to come and share their thoughts and do more development. 

Senior Executive Media: What new L&D initiatives have you implemented?

Rhonda Anderson: We’ve recently launched Southern Research LIVE (SR LIVE) on our campus. It’s live professional development on our campus on the fourth Wednesday of each month that offers courses throughout the day. It’s a full day of training. You can come and go, come to all of them, or come to whatever your schedule will allow. 

SR LIVE is one of those initiatives where employees are the subject matter experts, and they present on a particular topic or their department. All employees are given an opportunity to share their expertise, and they do not have to be a manager to present. We also utilize outside vendors to provide training when necessary. Sometimes, I’ll contact different employees who have the [knowledge] I am looking for to present, or employees will meet with me to discuss training topics they would like to present.

It’s twofold for us, because we have certain programs and systems that we need our new hires to know and learn about, so we offer courses through SR LIVE, such as SR Financial, which teaches them how to do their timesheets, how to do expense reports, and how to apply for their travel and P card. We also have courses [that answer organizational] questions such as what does the marketing team do here, how do I look for certain publications, what’s our brand toolkit and where is it? 

Other courses go over SharePoint. SharePoint is how we communicate with our employees internally, and it teaches people how to create webpages, find points of contact, and more. It teaches new employees things that they need to know, but it’s also an opportunity for existing employees to get their questions answered. We also have soft skills and management development skills courses that cover psychological safety, navigating harmony, managing conflict, remaining compliant, how to interview candidates, and more. Those courses give people another level of understanding, and it equips them to do their day-to-day jobs. 

All in all, SR LIVE is one way we educate our employees, and how we also loop our new hires in the process as well. I have people who come up to me and say, ‘I love SR LIVE,’ and ‘I’ve been at Southern Research for a very long time, and now I know more about the company than I’ve ever known.’

Senior Executive Media: What goals are you looking to tackle in 2024?

We are also in the process of building employee resource groups (ERGs). I’ll be partnering with the head of strategic recruiting on that in 2024.

[Here], I’ve had to build everything from the ground up and really change an entire culture’s mindset on learning and development… I’ve given our employees several opportunities to speak up about what it is that they need out of their development. It takes a lot…to build something from scratch, but it gives you another view of programming. You get an opportunity to really create something special when you’re the author.

We [are looking to implement] ERGs for our employees very soon. I will assess who’s in our population by working with the head of strategic recruiting to launch surveys and focus groups that assess employee needs. [We want to] make sure we have an ERG for each group so that they can come in and feel comfortable sharing their ideas. ERGs will echo the importance of learning for Southern Research. 

Looking for more insights from top learning and development leaders? Read these exclusive interviews by Senior Executive L&D.

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