Monthly Archives: January 2013

What motivates people?

That is the question we are addressing in the class I started last week. It also is the question that has vexed leaders for all of recorded history. We all know what it feels like to be motivated and we all know what a motivated team can accomplish. But, how can we, as leaders, develop motivation in other people?

As I listen to conversations at work it appears that many leaders believe motivation is out of their direct control.  We assume that some people are just motivated and others are not, or that organizational pay systems and contracts are responsible for how motivated our people are. Others focus on the job mobility in their organizations or the most recent publicity, good or bad, as the driver of motivation. I have to admit that many of the headlines in the news encourage this type of thinking.

Yet, there is hope for us as leaders. Daniel Pink, author of Drive, describes in this Tedtalk, how many of our assumptions are wrong and gives us some straight-forward ideas on motivation. Leaders that encourage a sense of autonomy, provide an opportunity to develop mastery, and highlight the purpose of the work greatly enhance the motivation of the people they lead. These actions are all within our control as leaders! Even better, it appears that small consistent actions have a definite impact on motivation. We do not need to take on imposing initiatives but can focus on the day-to-day interactions we have with the people on our teams.

I had a chance to see this recently. As I was preparing for a large training program, many unexpected challenges popped up. This required extra work for one member of my team and potentially could have been de-motivating. As we worked together I made sure that I highlighted how her work was directly related to the success of the overall program, I forwarded several emails from participants that described how helpful the program was for them and I passed along updates of how well the program was going after it kicked off. Later she shared how much she appreciated that. I believe it was because it demonstrated the meaningfulness of her extra work.

What small actions can you take to fuel the motivation of the people you lead?

Todd Thorsgaard


The value of good coaching

A few years ago, I got myself into a tricky situation. When I was leaving work, I entered the parking garage and realized it was going to be impossible to enter my car. There was less than an inch between my minivan and the neighboring cars, both on the driver and passenger side. I had parked in a hurry that morning, and as a result, not well.

I managed to enter the van through the tailgate and climbed ungraciously over the rows of seats toward the front. But the real trouble started when I tried to back out of the stall. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t back out without fear of denting both my car and the neighboring cars. Panic started to set in as I envisioned explaining to my spouse why our van had an enormous scrape along its side and explaining to the owner of one of the neighboring cars, why there was a matching scrape on their car.

At that moment, when I was stuck contemplating my options―none of which seemed good―a kind person appeared in the parking garage and asked me if I would like some help. Patiently, she guided me out of the stall, letting me know how far I could turn my wheel to exit at the perfect angle, and when to straighten the car out, so that I could back out of the space. I thanked her profusely.

I also left work that day thinking about how valuable her coaching had been to me and how we all need help from a coach at some point in our work lives. 

Coaching can be useful in many situations.

In a jam or a difficult situation, expert coaching can give us an outside perspective. Sometimes we’re too close to a situation or our perspective is clouded by emotion or past baggage. A coach can help us reframe a situation and think of appropriate responses. (Without the outside perspective of my coach in the parking garage, I might not have gotten out of that jam unscathed.)

If we’re doing something new, like starting a new job or learning a new task, a coach can provide critical support. They can connect us with valuable resources, provide guidance in practicing new skills, build our confidence by reminding us of our strengths, and provide a much-needed sounding board.

When we’re wanting to improve an existing skill, coaches can provide important feedback about our performance and suggest steps that will help us be the best we can be.

 How do you find a good coach?

Many of us find good coaches in our managers and supervisors. They are invested in our good performance and are often able to help us succeed. We can also find coaches in our colleagues. We can connect with peers by:

  • Joining a networking group or professional organization in our discipline
  • Meeting with someone who does our job in another institution or organization
  • Searching out coworkers who have a certain skill we want to learn or information that we need

More and more, in the workplace today, professional coaches are also being used to help employees succeed, especially during times of transition into leadership positions.

Coaching is an excellent tool to increase your self awareness and leadership effectiveness. If you’ve used a coach before, I encourage you to share what have you learned as a result. If you haven’t, what areas of your work or life might benefit from some coaching?

Anita Rios

Call me, maybe

You need to update a coworker on a joint project. Thtwo people on the phonee information isn’t particularly urgent, but there’s a fair amount of detail.  Do you send an e-mail message?  Make a phone call?  Or would you drop by the office and talk in person?  Does your answer change if you need a reply by tomorrow morning?

When I joined MnSCU a year ago, it wasn’t the big things that caught me off guard, it was the little day-to-day realities of functioning in a new place.  I was moving from one institution of higher education to another, and much of the organizational culture was the same.  But people in MnSCU call each other on the phone all the time!  At my previous workplace, email was the preferred communication vehicle.  People would even email each other to set up phone appointments.  In my new workplace a phone call is much more effective.  I still have a hard time picking up the phone and calling someone out of the blue, but I’m learning.

Understanding the cultural context in which the work is happening is another aspect of this month’s leadership competency, knowing oneself and others.  It allows us as leaders to communicate effectively, and also provides an opportunity to help others be successful.  I recently met with an employee who was new to higher education.  She asked me to describe three aspects of higher ed culture that she should be aware of. That was a challenging question, and the resulting conversation was valuable to both of us.  Even so, upon reflection I realized that I still hadn’t gone deep enough to surface some of the hidden assumptions that drive our work.

Understanding what it means to be part of the local culture is also important.  Our workplace is located in Minnesota.  If one of our blog readers from Japan, India, or the United Kingdom ever visited in person, they would undoubtedly find cultural differences, both big and small.  My friend Jerilyn had that experience when she moved here from the East Coast, and my friend Corey helped her talk through it.  Together, they’ve created a fun and useful web site about Minnesota Nice.  Check it out.  You may find it a valuable resource next time you work with a transplant to this area.

How can knowing your organizational and community culture help you be a better leader?  What steps can you take to learn more?

Dee Anne Bonebright

“The cobbler’s children have no shoes”

As a leader ancobblers-children-have-no-shoes-viralexplosions-comd leadership development professional, I find it so much easier to focus my efforts on the performance of others. My preference is to help those on my team, those leaders I work with directly, and our higher education system overall improve and develop! Yet, as the quote above suggests, we need to focus on our own performance and our own development. An important piece of knowing oneself, the leadership competency we are focusing on this month, is to take action, even when it feels uncomfortable.

So far this month we have talked about asking questions, using assessments and self-reflection to better understand ourselves. Self-knowledge is great, but it is just a starting point! For knowledge to improve our leadership we need to take action. Wait, you say, I take action all day! I am a busy leader responsible for a team, a department, a function, an organization. That is certainly how I feel; yet, an important part of self-knowledge is challenging ourselves to take action in spite of barriers. Some barriers are logistical and can be tackled through time-management. I believe that the barriers that inspired the quote in the title are more challenging and require a deeper self-assessment. Even asking, “What makes me uncomfortable about taking action on myself?”

For me, the answer to that question reminded me how much I value competence. This value of mine can get in my way when I need to take actions that challenge my competence and require me to risk being successful. Each of us has our own unique barriers to taking action. Yet to continue strengthening our own leadership performance we need to take that action!

My action starts tonight –  I will be moving from the front of the room to a seat in the room. I am going back to school and my first class starts tonight. It is a risk, and I am not sure how successful I will be, but I know that it is the action I need to take to continue on my leadership journey. I am sure you will hear more about what I am learning and stories that my fellow learners are sharing.

What can you do to break through a barrier, take action and “make your own shoes”?

Todd Thorsgaard

Leadership lessons from Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK“The ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy.”                

        –Martin Luther King, Jr.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day today, it seems appropriate to share a quote from his treasure trove of wisdom.

What significance does this quote have for you? When you think about your own leadership, where have you been tested by moments of challenge or controversy? How did you respond to the challenge? What did you do in the moment of controversy? What have you learned as a result?

I encourage you to share your stories here to enrich our learning community of leaders.

Anita Rios

What would you tell your younger self?

I once coached a young leader who was from the East Coast. She told me that her core values included open and direct communication and that her Minnesota team members should just get over their negative reaction to her directness. She said if she changed she wouldn’t be true to herself.  She couldn’t see that modifying her direct communication style wouldn’t be inauthentic – it would help her expand her communication skills.

As I was thinking about this, I saw a blog from Harvard Business Review.  The author said that being authentic to one’s values requires being flexible to other people’s needs and perceptions.

One of my core values is about collaboration. Gathering feedback and insights from others is so important to me that I can have difficulty putting closure on decisions that I really need to make myself. What I see as collaboration might be perceived by others as lack of ownership or responsiveness, which is the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve.

A related core value, which I’m just now beginning to explore, is about creating a safe space for myself and others to work together.  Looking back over my career, I can see many times when this value helped me to be a good leader, team member, and mentor. However, it also led me to be risk-averse in ways that were unconscious and not helpful.  I wish I could talk to my younger self as I tried to talk to the young East Coast leader.  I would tell her to take more risks. Opening up the safe space to allow forgiveness for good attempts that didn’t work – giving myself and others permission to not be perfect – will help me stay true to my values in the long run.

Knowing yourself as a leader means being aware of your core values and consistently acting from that center.  However, there’s an interesting balance between being consistent and being rigid. How have your core values helped you be a better leader?  Have there been times when you could have expressed them more effectively by being more flexible?

Dee Anne Bonebright

“Driving me crazy”

That was the thought that often popped into my mind early in my career (well, perhaps even later than I care to admit) when my colleagues and I worked together. Yes, I valued diversity and respected others but I was frustrated by those certain personalities or work styles that I just thought were “wrong” and certainly not effective at work! In fact, I remember during a strategic planning session I was leading how frustrated I was getting with the behaviors of a team member. She kept interrupting others, would cut people off when they asked questions. She was rolling her eyes and shaking her head as we discussed goals. Despite my frustration I utilized a strategy that I have found effective as a leader. I asked myself, “I wonder why she is behaving like that?,” instead of jumping to a conclusion. As the meeting went on, I focused on listening to understand her point of view. Through careful listening what I discovered was that she was extremely passionate about the goals. She wasn’t trying to be difficult or derail the meeting I had planned for our team. Behaviors that I perceived as aggravating were actually her demonstrating her commitment and confidence in our team.

The leadership competency we are focusing on in January is “Understand Self and Others”. This means all others, not just those work personalities and styles I like or make sense to me! As leaders, our biggest challenges often occur with those people whose style or behaviors just don’t make sense to us. That is where we need to stretch ourselves and work hardest to understand others. An “ah-ha” moment that has helped me understand others was when a wise person said “they are not doing it to drive you crazy.” People do what makes sense to them from their own perspective, just like you do.

This insight has helped me as a leader better understand others by refocusing my attention to seeking information. I ask myself “I wonder why” that makes sense to that person? This simple question refocuses my energy and opens me up to understand others. Instead of feeling frustrated or angry I am able to approach them from a sense of wonder. I can ask questions or listen differently or look for other information that helps me better understand them and appreciate the differences between us.

As a leader what behaviors or styles tend to drive you crazy and how can you move to a sense of wonder to better understand those that you lead?

Todd Thorsgaard

How well do you know yourself?

Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. – Tao Te Ching

How do you truly know yourself and your impact on those you lead?  In her last blog, Dee Anne talked about using various assessments to increase your self-awareness. I’ve found that seeking feedback from colleagues is also a powerful tool to increasing your leadership effectiveness and can provide a helpful complement to information you learn from assessments.

I often ask direct reports: “What can I do to support your success?”  or colleagues, “What can I do to make sure our working relationship goes smoothly?” Or bosses, “How did that (meeting, presentation, fill in the blank)  go and how can I improve?”

What I’ve learned as a result has been both helpful and humbling. Several years ago, I took an online 360 survey developed by Stephen M.R. Covey on how adept I am at building trust with others. You can find it at:

After asking several colleagues to take the survey and reviewing my results, I went to each colleague and thanked them for their feedback. I also asked for further feedback by saying, “I appreciate our working relationship and want to know how I can increase your trust and confidence in me.”  One brave colleague shared that he appreciated working with me, but that he had heard that I had spoken negatively about his team’s performance in a meeting. It had hurt him. He said that he expected that I would discuss something like that with him before speaking with others. Ouch!  That was hard to hear.  It took me a few moments to breathe, gather my thoughts, and apologize. It also was helpful feedback that made me reflect and examine how I might be eroding trust with others. You can be sure that I worked hard to regain his trust.

When seeking feedback, I’ve learned to invite candid responses, listen attentively, do everything I can to reduce my natural defenses, and be open to seeing from another perspective. It’s not easy, and I think I’m still learning.

Seeking feedback can make you feel vulnerable and expose weaknesses you weren’t aware of; it can also affirm strengths that you have and give you signals about what you are doing that is working well.

What advice do you have for others when seeking feedback?

Anita Rios

Making the most of assessments

If you’ve been part of a leadership development program, you’ve probably taken some sort of assessment designed to increase your self-awareness and help you relate more effectively to others.  There are hundreds of assessments to hedoglp you learn about communication styles, learning styles, approaches to conflict, and strengths.  They range from complex instruments backed by scholarly research to icebreaker-type “get to know you” quizzes.  I even found over a dozen that predict what sort of dog breed someone would be.  (Consensus is that I’m a Labrador Retriever.)

Here are two “do’s” and one “don’t” to help you get the most from these assessments.

  1. Do analyze your reactions.  They can give useful insights into your leadership strengths and potential blind spots.  Which results seem intuitive and obvious?  Which seem completely wrong?  I’ve found that I often react more strongly to items that have a grain of truth than I do to ones that are completely off the mark.  Consider asking a trusted colleague to review the results with you – it can be very informative.
  2. Do look for themes.  Any given assessment may or may not ring true for you, but if the same message keeps repeating, it’s worth consideration.  A few years ago I took several assessments in a row and they all described me as a big-picture person with a tendency to be impatient with details.  This wasn’t news, and it’s not completely accurate.  I love the big picture, and I like details too – in the right place and time.  My first reaction was to ignore the development tips, but instead I took it as an opportunity to pay attention to my behavior in project teams.  Sure enough, I could feel myself getting frustrated with people who, in my mind, were moving too quickly into the process details without exploring all the alternatives. Stepping back, taking a deep breath, and then exploring their viewpoints helped me to be a better leader and team member.
  3. Don’t use the results as an excuse to avoid doing hard development work.  It’s a good idea to focus on your strengths and abilities when making development plans.  However, results of assessments shouldn’t be used to get off the behavioral hook.  For example, I usually score as an introvert on style assessments.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have to do networking.  It means I need to build connections in more introvert-friendly ways.  As a new employee, I had a lot of one-on-one appointments and coffee breaks to get to know my new colleagues.  And when I’m going to be involved in a day-long meeting, I plan some down time afterwards.

Have you taken any assessments that helped you develop as a leader?  What insights did you gain from them?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Blind spots

Has this happened to you? You are a good driver, you have the best intentions, and you are paying attention and following all the rules, yet when you signal your lane change and start to move – suddenly you hear a horn honking! Next comes screeching brakes or a crunching sound and an impact. What happened? There was a car in your blind spot.

As leaders, we also have blind spots. Have you ever been surprised by how people on your team react to something you have said or done? Are there times when the pep talk you gave to help motivate someone or the wise piece of advice that you knew was exactly what your team member needed didn’t have the effect you intended?

I still remember the reaction I got from teammates in one of my first jobs after graduate school. My boss called me into her office for my 30 day check-in. I was meeting all my initial goals and I was providing good consulting resources, but my colleagues had shared that they did not think I valued their experience and they didn’t like my “attitude.” I was crushed! I respected them and was so happy to be working on a high performing committed team. What was going on? It was a blind spot. I had just spent a period of time in graduate school where we were expected to always ask critical and probing questions, on every idea raised by anyone. I thought I was demonstrating respect and letting my colleagues know how much I valued their experience and insight by asking questions and seeking to better understand what they were sharing. What they were feeling was that I was challenging their ideas and didn’t trust their experience!

Leadership is a two-way street filled with people. As Anita described in her last post, successful leaders need to understand how their actions impact others.  The Johari Window, a tool created by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955, highlights that we need feedback to better understand ourselves and to minimize our blind spots. (click on image to enlarge)


Increased self-understanding leads to greater effectiveness in leading others.  I needed to ask my boss in that new job what was happening, why were people reacting the way they were? I was unaware that when I immediately responded with a question to a colleague’s idea they felt like I didn’t value their expertise. It felt attacking. I was destroying trust while I blindly thought I was engaging in a spirited debate. Now, as a leader, my natural style is to focus on facts and reasons and I can be blind to how that feels to people on my team. I have learned that I need to continually seek feedback from others on the impact of my actions. Luckily I also have a trusted relationship with my current manager and I am able to ask about my blind spots and the impact they have on my leadership.

What leadership blind spots have you discovered in yourself? How can you invite feedback from others or gain more self-awareness?

Todd Thorsgaard