REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala.--Leadership in the workplace might involve technical knowledge, system know-how and group management. But the real key to successful leadership is the relationships that leaders build with the employees they lead.

"I've learned that there are certain things that are important as you go up through leadership training. But the most important thing I've learned is about building relationships," Sue Engelhardt, the director of human resources for the Corps of Engineers, said at a Civilian Education System basic leadership course offered by the Army Management Staff College at the Tom Bevill Conference Center on the University of Alabama-Huntsville campus.

Engelhardt, appointed to the senior executive service in May 2009, is responsible for the staff direction and administration of a comprehensive human resources management and family readiness program for 35,000 civilians and 500 servicemembers.

The executive told the 34 basic leadership students, who work either at a Redstone Arsenal organization or for the Corps of Engineers in Huntsville, that development of employee leadership skills is essential to the Army's and the Corps of Engineers' missions, and that formal education is part of that development.

"The Civilian Education System is a very, very important part of the development of our employees," she said. "Managers will say 'I can't just afford to let my employees go to class.' I tell them 'You can't afford not to let them go to class.'"

Information -- gleaned from class lessons, projects and exercises -- combined with networking opportunities provided by formal education create employee leaders who understand the leadership process, the styles of leadership, the interactions and collaborations of teams, and the ways to motivate and understand co-workers and subordinates.

Engelhardt, herself, has benefited from formal leadership education. In 1998, she was selected for the Defense Leadership and Management Program, which is a competitive, systematic program of "joint" civilian leadership training, education and development with the Department of Defense. Under that program, Engelhardt completed numerous graduate courses toward her master's in business administration. Additionally, Engelhardt was competitively selected for the DISA Executive Leadership and Development Program. She has received numerous achievement and honorary awards throughout her federal career, including the Federal Aviation Administration Office of Human Resource Management's Executive of the Year.

While formal classes offered by the Civilian Education System is the first step toward understanding and developing leadership, Engelhardt also said federal employees who want to be promoted into leadership positions should also seek out development assignments, participate in mentoring activities, and practice lifelong learning.

"Working in development assignments gives you experiences in working in other places, and they broaden your horizons," she said.

Development assignments stretch and grow technical and leadership competences, cause an employee to consider different organizational levels and functional areas, and show that an employee can take calculated risks and work outside their comfort zone.

By description, mentoring should be a voluntary relationship between two people, causing Engelhardt to question whether formal mentoring programs actually work. But, whether they are formal or voluntary, mentoring is worthwhile, even for leaders, she said.

"I learn more from the people I mentor than they can possibly learn from me," she said. "Forced mentoring is not beneficial. It should be that mentoring is just in the culture, that you want to mentor. There are pros and cons of formal mentoring programs. I think you should find your own mentors and also find those you can mentor because it's so important to give back."

Mentoring enhances career development, promotes opportunities for success and encourages building the Army's bench of leaders. Engelhardt added that today's younger generation expects to have mentoring relationships in the workplace, and that they look toward these relationships to help them learn from the experience of more mature employees.

"But mentoring is not going to help you with a promotion. It's to broaden your perspective on things," she said.

Fourth, lifelong learning should include individual development plans that reflect the employee's -- the future leader's -- desires to grow professionally and personally.

"The IDP should be on you. It should answer questions 'Where do I want to go?' and 'Where do I want to be when I grow up?' You need to think about where you want to be in your future," Engelhardt said.

Employees who have their own ideas about their individual development plans show they have initiative and ownership over their future, and, in the end, makes the supervisor's management responsibility easier to accomplish.

"Supervisors are busy people just like we all are," Engelhardt said. "They are going to need all the help they can get when you come in to talk about your IDP."

Before talking to supervisors about their individual development plan, employees should do their own self-assessment of their goals and aspirations, and review resources and opportunities for growth.

"It's really about what you are going to find for yourself," she said. "If you don't try, no one else is going to do it for you."

In her own career progression, Engelhardt, who has more than 25 years of experience in the human resources profession with the federal government that includes positions with the Navy, Army, Defense Logistics Agency, Defense Information Systems Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration, has had to develop from a human resources employee working on the operational/tactical level to a human resources leader who thinks strategically.

"I'm a strong doer. I believe in getting stuff done. I want to check off that to-do list," she said, adding that she has had to learn how to balance her "doer" side to being a leader who communicates a vision and provides a strategic path for employees.

"I think as leaders, as you move up in the organization, you're going to find that you will do more with relationships than with anything else," she said. "When you become a supervisor, you give up some of the technical. It's less technical and more about relationships and mentoring."

Some of the strategic issues that Engelhardt faces in her job include determining how to recruit smartly and how to retain employees, deciding how to operate amid budget and environment turbulence, working on ways to measure return on investment in employees, and deciding what actions need to be taken to engage employees and keep them motivated in the work environment.

Although managing people is a lot more challenging than managing projects, Engelhardt said it's "also the most rewarding thing, too, if you can make a difference and see others growing in leadership … I want to make more of a difference."