Orchestrate the strategy

I still remember it like it was yesterday. I am standing on a chair, surrounded by 200 strangers, all singing “Happy Birthday” to me at the top of their lungs! Not how I envisioned my day when I woke up on April 1st over 15 years ago. I was out of town at a leadership development conference. I did not know a soul, and as an introvert, that was fine with me. It was my birthday but I had no plans to celebrate until I returned home. Yet I ended up celebrating with a roomful!

How did it happen and how does this relate to strategy, you ask? A conductor is the answer to both. conductorI heard Robert Eichenger speak this week. Eichenger is co-founder of Lominger Consulting, vice chairman of the Korn/Ferry Institute on Leadership, and the co-creator of the Leadership Architect competency tool, and he believes that the first overall responsibility of a leader is to orchestrate a strategy for change. He uses orchestrate to clarify that leaders on their own don’t create or implement the strategy. They pull together the diverse talents on their team and draw out a strategy that leverages each person and delivers on the overall group or institution’s vision. Leaders are the conductors of strategy, not the creators.

It was also a conductor who orchestrated an unexpected birthday celebration for me and a leadership lesson for orchestrating a successful strategy for change. Benjamin Zander, world renowned conductor for the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, was the morning keynote speaker at the conference I was attending many years ago. Zander believes that leaders can become transformative conductors and help teams reach new, unknown, levels of performance  if they follow three simple rules when orchestrating the strategy for change, outlined in a FastCompany interview.

  1. The conductor doesn’t make a sound. Focus on what you can do to help your team “sound better.”
  2. Everybody gets an A. Help your people operate from their talents, where they get A’s.
  3. Play the contribution game, not the success game. Transform the conversation and the strategy to focus on how each person can make a contribution.

In less than 10 minutes Zander had a sleepy group of strangers all singing, in harmony, with smiles on their faces and me standing on a chair. A magnificent performance that none of us knew we were capable of achieving. A successful change.

This isn’t a video of my birthday song but in this TEDTalk you can watch Zander help people realize their untapped love for new possibilities. As one of the comments states, “Be that guy!”

Todd Thorsgaard


Chunks – good for chocolate, and for goals too!

While it’s great to have an ambitious goal to aim for, if you spend too much time contemplating the huge distance between where you stand now and where you want to get to, there’s a pretty good risk that you’ll never get started on it.
–Hannah Martin and Kary Fisher

chunk brownies free to useThere’s nothing like biting into a nice gooey brownie and tasting a big chunk of chocolate! For me, that makes the treat even more enjoyable.

The idea of chunks is important in goal-setting too.  A nice “gooey” goal can be inspiring, but it can also be overwhelming if the task seems too big to accomplish. One way to be sure the goal is do-able is to chunk it into smaller pieces.

There is a great deal of online advice about chunking goals. It is an important consideration for everyone from book authors to project managers to working  mothers. Here are some helpful suggestions (check out the links below for even more advice).

  • Start with your end goal.  Focus on the big picture and identify the key things that need to happen.  Keep breaking these down into smaller sub-goals until you can create timelines and action steps. Pat Brans called these chunks “CRUMBBs” -  “Clearly Recognizable Units that are Meaningful Building Blocks” toward the overall goal.
  • Visualize the goals.  Draw a picture or a mind map of your goal and what you want to accomplish.  Allow yourself to be creative when thinking of options and looking for patterns.
  • Plan your strategy.  What do you need to learn in order to accomplish your goal?  What data do you need? Share your goal with trusted friends or colleagues – or with others who have successfully accomplished a similar goal – and gather advice about how to chunk it down.
  • Build a timeline and set milestones.  What needs to happen, in what order?  How much time will each step take? Are there any preliminary steps you need to take before getting started? Set achievable milestones, and don’t forget to reward yourself when you achieve them.
  • Focus on the next step.  Don’t become overwhelmed by huge goals that seem far away and intimidating. Think about what you have accomplished so far and what you can do next.

Creating smaller steps can help you remain confident about meeting your goal and prevent you from being overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done. Dive into that “gooey” goal and enjoy the chunks!

Dee Anne Bonebright

Read more:

Pat Brans, Pearson Que – Cutting a Monster Project Down to a Manageable Size

Lewis Howes, Forbes – Why Thinking Small is the Secret to Big Success

Hannah Martin and Kary Fisher, the Talented Ladies Club – How to Chunk Big Goals Down into Achievable Steps


Managing continuity and change

“If there is any one “secret” to an enduring great company, it is the ability to manage continuity and change—a discipline that must be consciously practiced, even by the most visionary of companies.” –Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last

Sometimes in setting strategy for change efforts, it is easy to forget about what we need to do to actively manage continuity in our colleges and universities. In their classic 2004 publication of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Collins and Porras, identified great companies as those who had the ability to “preserve the core” by staying true to their core values and core purpose, and at the same time “stimulate progress” through cultural and operating practices and setting specific goals and strategies.

But how do we actively manage continuity, while leading change? Collins and Porras suggest that instead of asking ourselves “How should we change?,” we should be asking “What do we stand for and why do we exist?” and then feel free to change everything else.

035Last Friday, I was able to witness a university community that has clearly answered the question, “What do we stand for?” Throughout the inauguration ceremony for Dr. Connie Gores, the ninth president of Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU), I heard story after story from alumni, students, faculty, and staff about the value and impact that SMSU has had on transforming lives. Born on the prairie, as a result of people who envisioned the possibilities of having a college in southwest Minnesota, SMSU has a clear identity and core purpose that was easily understood and communicated and provided a sense of pride for the community. In her inauguration speech, Dr. Gores honored the people and the accomplishments of the past by highlighting what SMSU is best known for and how it will continue to maintain continuity. At the same time, she positioned the institution for future progress through increased collaboration among institutions and partnerships with business, by focusing on possibilities. The inspirational theme for the inauguration: The People. The Prairie. The Possibilities., clearly captured this important balance of preserving the core and stimulating progress.

Here are a couple questions to consider when actively managing both continuity and change. After clarifying your core values and purpose, ask your team:

  1. How do our operating practices align with and support our core values and purpose?
  2. What new methods, new strategies, new directions would propel us forward?

What have you done to actively manage both continuity and change in your institution?

Anita Rios

Taking the next step

The path to wisdom does indeed begin with a single step. Where people go wrong is in ignoring all the other thousands of steps that come after it. They take the single step of deciding to become one with the universe and for some reason forget to take the next logical step – of living for 70 years on a mountain and a daily bowl of rice and yak-butter tea – that would give it any kind of meaning.
— Terry Pratchett

You never know where leadership lessons are going to come from. I’ve been listening to an audiobook on the way to work, and this passage popped out at me. I’ve never tasted yak-butter tea, but I like the point that achieving our visions requires taking the next step to do things differently.  The actions are what gives meaning and reality to the vision. Here are a couple of examples from higher education:

1)  In Charting the Future, Chancellor Rosenstone articulated a compelling vision in which MnSCU “provides an opportunity for all Minnesotans to create a better future for themselves, for their families, and for their communities.”  In order to accomplish this, the report lays out the goals we need to meet.  That was an important first step. To move forward, the Chancellor has created implementation teams to focus on the action steps that we’ll need to take in order to reach those goals.

2) The American Association of Community Colleges has been working for several years to identify challenges and opportunities in the 21st century.  Their initial report, Reclaiming the American Dream, laid out a vision of institutional transformation.  Just this month, they published a follow-up report, Empowering Community Colleges to Build the Nation’s Future: An Implementation Guide, that breaks the vision down into goals and action steps.

As leaders, we can learn from these examples. Once people understand our vision, we need to broadly involve them in setting goals and associated action steps.  A tried and true method is to create SMART goals, ones that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Results-oriented
  • Set in a Time Frame

The Charting the Future implementation teams will identify SMART goals to help make the vision a reality.  AACC did the same thing in the two years between the first report and the implementation plan.  For example, their first recommendation is to “increase completion rates by 50% by 2020.”  The implementation guide includes specific action steps, a measurable target, examples of accomplishments that have already been achieved, and the results that could occur as the goal is implemented.  In addition, it includes a timeline with actions and milestones.

yak butter tea free to useTo paraphrase Terry Pratchett, without a compelling vision, people will not see the need to live on a mountain or drink yak-butter tea. At the same time, a high-level vision with no goals or action steps has little meaning.

Dee Anne Bonebright



Avoid a dead end strategy!

Bilingual-Caution-Dead-End-Sign-K-9245Do you remember the last time you and your family or friends drove to a city you had not visited before? You were probably excited to find new adventures or at least your hotel.  What if every street you turned down was a dead end? No way to get to your hotel, no new sites, no museums, no shops and no new adventures. Sounds frustrating, demoralizing and even likely to cause tension and conflict!

The same thing can happen when we use strategies that send our change efforts down dead end roads. Yet we often do this as leaders without being aware of it. One common strategy tool is SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats).  A study by Harold E. Klein and Mark D’ Esposito published in 2008 suggests that SWOT analysis and planning actually brings change to a screeching halt at “mental dead ends.” The creativity and complexity involved in successful change requires a different type of strategy and thinking than SWOT analyses create. Their work, and other research in neurocognition and neuroleadership, indicates that we need to use strategy tools that evoke richer mental imagery, more expansive thinking, and fewer either-or choices than a traditional SWOT activity.

Last October Anita shared a strategy tool in her post, Let your vision SOAR, that we use in our work. The open-ended questions used in creating strategy with SOAR (Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations and Results) engage people and help them create rich mental images of future opportunities, aspirations and results. Using SOAR to develop your change strategy leverages how our brains actually work and can help you avoid dead ends in your change efforts.

Todd Thorsgaard



Want support for change? Involve your stakeholders!

lots-of-thumbs-ups“In an age where everything and everyone is linked through networks of glass and air, no one – no business, organization, government agency, country–is an island. We need to do right by all our stakeholders, and that’s how you create value….” –Don Tapscott, author

In my early 20s, I learned an important lesson about stakeholders. I had just graduated from college and was invited to serve on a Board of Directors for a community-based theater company. My undergraduate degree was in Fine Arts and Theater, so I thought I was well-prepared for the role and could bring a lot of value to the organization. At the time, the board was discussing how to make a greater impact in the area. As I began studying the community theater company, I surmised that it could be much more successful, if we expanded the number of plays produced and included an educational program for children. So in my first months on the board, I wrote a proposal for discussion. It was a well-crafted plan with a clear rationale and achievable budget. The proposal represented significant change to the community theater company, in that it would involve bringing in another director to supplement the efforts of the already overtaxed artistic director.

When it came time to present my proposal at the board meeting, I was completely floored when it was met with hostility by the artistic director, vascillating support from a few members, and multiple reasons why the plan would not work. Thinking over what I did wrong, I realized that I had not consulted with or understood all the stakeholder needs involved in such a change effort. Certainly, I had underestimated the artistic director’s need to have artistic control over every production. It was a valuable lesson for me and one that I won’t forget.

Understanding and managing stakeholders is a key part of strategy setting in any change effort. Yet, it is often overlooked or undermanaged. Just as I neglected to consult with stakeholders when proposing a change to a community theater’s operation, it can be enticing to just get started with a change effort, without the necessary step of conducting a stakeholder analysis. Stakeholders in higher education include students, employees (faculty, staff, and administrators), government, community and business members. Anyone who has an interest in our colleges and universities ability to educate students and deliver and sustain the enterprise into the future can be a stakeholder.

Involving and consulting with stakeholders as you develop your change strategy can increase the likelihood that your change effort is both successful and sustainable. To get started, I recommend conducting a stakeholder analysis to:

  • Identify critical stakeholders
  • Understand their short- and long-term interests
  • Analyze stakeholder influence on your change strategy
  • Assess the impact of change on multiple stakeholders

There are many good stakeholder analysis tools available today, including matrix grids and spider web diagrams. I’d recommend the following link, if you’re looking for a place to get started: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newPPM_07.htm

How have you successfully consulted with or  involved stakeholders in change efforts?

Anita Rios

Linking strategy to your values

speechLast week, I had the honor of accepting an award recognizing the leadership development work we do within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. While it seemed a daunting task to craft a 15-minute, formal speech to share with 400 conference attendees,  it ended up being a wonderful exercise that reminded me of why I do this work everyday.  It also gave me an opportunity to share a couple personal stories that illustrate  my core values.  And it made me reflect, once again, how important it is for leaders to share stories that communicate their values. Sharing those values in an open, authentic way makes us more human and accessible to others. And linking them to your strategy can be a powerful inspiration to those you lead.

Here is a short excerpt from my speech that illustrates two of the core values I shared with the audience last week:

I am deeply honored and humbled by this award. I was asked to talk a little about my leadership journey…which has not always been a very predictable, straight path, but has been one that has blessed me with wonderful people who have influenced me, valuable lessons that I’ve learned along the way, and some core values that guide the work I do in leadership development today.

Some of those values I learned at a very young age. When I was about 6 years old….I remember sitting with my dad in the living room. We were watching Richard Nixon on a small, snowy, black and white TV screen. It was just before the 1968 presidential election and Nixon was holding a TV conference. I didn’t really understand what was being discussed on the television, I just knew that it had to do with something called “politics.”  Most importantly,  I wanted to be near my dad. While we were sitting there together, my dad turned to me and said, “wow, you’re growing up so fast….before you know it, you’ll be going to college.”

That one statement had a profound impact on my life. It became a matter of fact, an expectation that I would go to college. I’m not sure that I knew exactly what college was at 6 years old, but I knew it was important and it was something that my dad expected of me. As I grew older, I learned that my parents faced barriers that prevented them from going to college. In fact, my mother had received a full scholarship to attend Hamline University, but couldn’t attend, because she needed to work to support herself right out of high school. So as the oldest of 5 kids in our family, I felt very much a pioneer as I marched off to St. Olaf College after high school.

While my dad may not remember that comment he made in our small living room in 1968, I do…. and it has laid the foundation for two core values I hold dear:

1)    Education has the power to transform our lives

2)    Seeing possibilities for growth in others and encouraging them is a gift we give to our children, to our students, to our colleagues, and to our employees.

These two core values undergird our strategy in leadership development everyday. The leadership development programs we provide do transform lives. They support the success of leaders throughout our system as they learn to lead more effectively. It is so gratifying  to observe our leaders who are inspired, challenged, and transformed by what they learn….. to see the lightbulb go off when they make a new connection to a concept, idea, or gain deeper understanding about themselves and those that they lead.

Seeing the possibilities for growth in others at a systemic level, has helped us build our talent pipeline by identifying talent and giving individuals growth opportunities through new assignments, coaching, and accelerated development programs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard mid-level leaders in our MnSCU system express surprise at being identified by their presidents as having potential for senior leadership positions. Much like when my dad said to me, “before you know it, you’ll be going to college,” it sets them on a path that they hadn’t anticipated, but that they grow in to and often excel at.

Which of your core values can help you communicate your strategy?

Anita Rios