Monthly Archives: October 2013

Strength and flexibility

I have been practicing yoga for several years now. The most challenging poses often are those that require both strength and flexibility, like the crane pose. 2 person crane pose

Leaders in higher education face challenges that also require strength and flexibility, including changing student demographics, ever-changing technology and demands for accountability and demonstrated outcomes. Additional challenges include financial and funding shifts and decreases, increasing competition, and a workforce composed of four generations, all with differing expectations of their employer and manager! To succeed, leaders need to challenge themselves and their institution to take on new and often uncomfortable roles while remaining focused on their mission and vision. In yoga we focus on our drishti, or focal point to stay balanced as we try new poses.

This month’s leadership competency of “Articulates Vision and Mission” includes both the clear focus of a strong purpose and the flexibility required to “lead and encourage adjustments in institutional roles.” In this context, flexibility is not being inconsistent or indecisive. Amazing leaders know how to combine their passions, their strengths, and their productivity to create a strength of purpose. Jim Collins calls this a hedgehog belief, as described in the following video – Hedgehog Concept. When combined with flexibility and nimbleness, that strength provides provides the direction and vision needed to make changes, even tough ones involving traditional roles, long-held views, processes that worked in the past and most difficult of all, your own leadership style and approach!

At Minnesota State Colleges and Universities we are drafting a strategy called “Charting the Future” that clearly defines our strength of purpose as a system of colleges and universities and the need for change. We are being challenged to  forge deeper collaborations and leverage our collective strengths. This will require new governance structures, new roles and responsibilities, new ways of communicating and new ways of leading. Successful leaders will have to demonstrate flexibility and make changes while staying focused on our strategic framework. Hard work for the institution and for each leader.

What are some examples of changes you have made to your leadership style based your hedgehog belief or institutional vision?

Todd Thorsgaard


Let your vision SOAR

eagleAs we wrap up our conversation on strategies leaders can use to articulate vision and mission, I think we would be remiss not to mention a helpful planning tool that can be used to build stakeholder engagement and in many ways, do what DeeAnne mentioned in her last blog, “go slow to go fast.”  Most leaders are familiar with the time-tested method of conducting a SWOT analysis to begin planning efforts and set a vision and mission for their organizations. It’s been around for more than 50 years and has helped leaders identify Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.

However, research and recent experience shows us that focusing on the strengths of individuals and organizations is often more powerful and effective than dwelling on deficiencies.  A newer approach to strategic planning, based in Appreciative Inquiry, is called SOAR.  SOAR stands for Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results. The SOAR approach to strategic planning starts with a strategic inquiry phase, and includes discovery and exploration of the organization’s strengths and opportunities. Participants then share and generate their aspirations and co-create a shared vision for the future, along with identifying measurable results that can serve as agreed-upon milestones.

Here are some questions that are asked in the SOAR process:

  • What are our greatest strengths?
  • What are our best opportunities?
  • What is our preferred future?
  • What are the measurable results that’ll tell us we’ve achieved that preferred future?

One primary advantage to using SOAR is that it involves many stakeholders at different levels throughout an organization. SWOT analyses have traditionally involved only senior-level leaders in strategic planning. The idea behind SOAR is to get an all-inclusive view to the strategic planning process that aligns strengths with opportunities, aspirations and desired results. Resistance to change is often minimized, through broad involvement and buy-in. With greater ownership among stakeholders, there’s an increased commitment to turn the goals into action.

While SWOT spends half of its focus on what might go wrong, SOAR spends 100% of the focus on creating future positive outcomes. The shift from problem solving to opportunity finding is a subtle one, but can have dramatic positive results for an organization and its people. For more on SOAR consider the Thin Book of SOAR and for more on appreciative inquiry consider the Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. 

For those of you who have used the SOAR process, what has been your experience?

Anita Rios

Go slow to go fast

This week I had a chance to attend a professional conference and had an enjoyable time getting to know some of my colleagues in academic and student affairs across the MnSCU system.  While there I attended an interesting keynote session on organizational change.

go slow free to useThe speaker discussed the importance of setting a vision and plan for change, but he also stressed the critical need for spending enough time to build the relationships necessary to help the change move forward. He called this “going slow to go fast.”

A recent blog post from Partnering Resources made the same point. The consultant talked about the long-term problems caused by short-term activity that doesn’t identify the core issues or create stakeholder engagement. The post identified two types of pain:

  1. Back-end pain such as political difficulties, false starts, and putting out fires, often caused by too-quick rush to implementation.
  2. Front-end pain caused by impatience to stop all the talking and get moving.

While it can be frustrating, taking time to carefully identify the issues and build strong coalitions can lead to quicker success down the line. Working through the pain on the front end can often eliminate a lot of difficulties later.

What strategies do you use to slow down so you can go fast?

Dee Anne Bonebright

We are all human

Sometimes, the more we learn about people, the more we learn that classic ideas still hold true. In her post Anita shared some of the current research into how our brains react to change and the growing field of neuroleadership.  By studying the brain we have learned that we react to social and emotional stimuli the same way we react to actual physical stimuli. As humans, we all perceive a change as a potential loss or a threat in the same way as a potential physical threat or loss.

This is thetransitions concept that William Bridges shared in his groundbreaking 1991 work Managing Transitions. Bridges suggested that all of us, even people who love change or are leaders of change, go through a psychological transition adjusting to the loss of the known when we are faced with a change. People are not resisting the change or need convincing on the value or need for change.  Paradoxically, you need to start with the endings your people are experiencing to have the dialogue necessary for buy-in and engagement.  Bridges highlights that the  communication they need from you at first must:

  • acknowledge the loss they are feeling
  • clarify what is ending and what is staying the same
  • provide information that helps rebuild stability
  • clearly marks a break from the past

Respecting the past and honoring the losses people are experiencing creates the foundation for a robust future. What losses are your people experiencing as a result of changes? How can you recognize the threats they feel and use that awareness to guide your leadership efforts?

Todd Thorsgaard

Communicating for buy-in

communicatingLast week during a leadership development program I was leading, one of the discussion topics revolved around how most people view change as loss. This is true, even if it is a very positive change. Think about that from your own experience in leading or being a part of change efforts. Have you ever heard people express concerns, like:

  • “We’re already doing our best, how can we do more?”
  • “What are those people thinking? They’re not on the front-line with students!”
  • “If I just ignore this, it will go away.”
  • “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
  • “What will happen to my job?”‘

According to John Kotter, author and world-renowned expert on leadership at the Harvard Business School, the goal of communicating a vision and mission for change efforts  is to “get as many people as possible acting to make the vision a reality.”

To do that, he argues that effective communication is more than just data transfer. Communicating for buy-in requires addressing people’s anxieties, accepting their anger, and appealing to their emotions on a gut level.

Here’s what Kotter suggests works to communicate change visions and strategies effectively:

  • Keep communication simple and heartfelt, not complex or technocratic
  • Do your homework before communicating, especially to understand what people are feeling
  • Speak to anxieties, confusion, anger, and distrust
  • Rid communication channels of junk so that important messages can go through
  • Use technologies to help people see the vision (intranet, video, ITV, etc.) and to enhance in-person communication

In addition, to communicate for buy-in, I recommend having real dialogue with those affected. Not just an information session, with a brief Q&A, but a real live discussion, where people can get their concerns, anxieties, and fears out on the table and work toward common goals. It may seem scary at first to engage in a dialogue like this, but it is the fastest route for building buy-in in any change effort.

What Kotter says doesn’t work is:

  • Undercommunicating (which happens all the time)
  • Speaking as though you are only transferring information
  • Accidentally fostering cynicism by not walking the talk

In your experience, what has worked best to communicate for buy-in and engage people in making the vision a reality?

Anita Rios

Communicating a mission and vision: Who should I tell?

This month we’ve been talking about what it means for a leader to articulate a mission and vision for the organization.  This has two parts. To be effective, a leader not only sets a mission and vision, but also makes sure that the right people know about it.

communicationOne of our leadership competencies at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is “Communicates and explains the changing institutional vision and mission effectively to constituencies.”  For me, that means making sure stakeholders know what direction the organization is going and understand their role in helping us get there.

Over time, I’ve developed three questions that help me to be sure I’m communicating with the right stakeholders.

  1. Who cares a lot?  Listening to the passionate voices can help me quickly identify some of my key stakeholders. These are the people who can become allies and help move things forward. They have a lot of energy, positive or negative, that can be channeled into the mission and vision. But I also need to remind myself that this is not the same question as “who is at the table?”  Often it takes effort to seek out stakeholders who may be impacted but are not in power positions or clearly visible.
  2. Who doesn’t know, but I wish they did?  Another group of stakeholders consists of people who could be potential allies, but who are not aware of the mission and vision, or don’t particularly care. This can include a range of people, from leaders who are busy with other things to peers who don’t yet realize that the new vision will include them. Strategic communication plans identify these people and include strategies for reaching out.
  3. Who shouldn’t be surprised?  Some people are stakeholders by nature of their organizational role or work responsibilities.  They should never be blindsided by lack of information.  If your activities will require activities or responses from others, make sure they are kept in the loop.

In addition to these informal questions, it is also helpful to use formal stakeholder analysis tools.  If you aren’t yet familiar with the MindTools website, I encourage you to visit  This site contains stakeholder analysisa wealth of information on leadership and management, including a set of stakeholder analysis resources.  These include descriptions of how to do a more structured analysis of key stakeholders based on their level of interest and ability to influence the outcomes.

Communicating a mission and vision can be one of the most challenging parts of the process. For me, it’s also where the energy and resources exist that can lead to success.

Dee Anne Bonebright

Dig deep


Last week I listened to two amazing college and university presidents share their insights with a group of new administrators. Both of these presidents are recognized as forward thinking, innovative leaders who are helping move our system forward despite the chaotic future we face in higher education. As they talked about innovative changes, they both highlighted the importance of understanding the history of their institutions and demonstrating a deep respect for the accomplishments of the past! They also talked about the culture of their institution.  Focusing on past history may sound counter-intuitive, but it makes sense if we dig a little deeper.

Innovation requires change. Change requires new ideas, new processes, and new behaviors. All of these things require your people to do things differently. Despite how clear and compelling the reasons leading to change are communicated, we all experience a feeling of loss when we have to give up a piece of our past in order to move forward.

Successful, innovative leaders recognize the importance of the past and are able to honor it and include it in the vision of the future. This is what came through loud and clear in the stories that these two presidents shared with new administrators. They knew they had to truly understand the history of their institutions. More importantly, they know how proud people are of that history and where they fit into it. One president described herself as a social anthropologist working to understand the past before moving forward. To do that she actively seeks out the stories of her people and recognizes the pride in the work that built her institution. 

That feeling of pride and commitment to the institution is a strong foundation to build on. Taking the time to listen to your people and understand the culture from their perspective will help you engage and involve them in creating a future that you will all be proud of!

Todd Thorsgaard    

Create a compelling story

 “People change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings.” – John Kotter

As leaders, we can increase our effectiveness in communicating our organization’s vision and mission, by remembering that we must appeal to people’s emotions first. As John Kotter describes in his book, The Heart of Change, people choose to follow a leader or make a behavior change first based on what they feel, and then on what they think.  In fact, we know from recent neuroscience research that emotion is the fast lane to the brain.

wpid-whats-your-storyTo help people engage with your message and remember it, it needs to be combined with imagery and emotion.  As I’ve learned over time, the easiest and most effective way to create imagery and emotion is through stories. Stories engage people’s hearts and minds. Stories create emotional responses. And stories stick!

Last summer I bumped into someone who had attended a seminar I led about two years ago on Leading Change, she told me she still remembered the Whitewater Rafting story I told as a metaphor for Kotter’s 8-step change model. While, she didn’t remember all 8-steps of the model, the central idea for leading change stayed with her due to the story.  I was amazed!

To take this idea one step further, consider that storytelling can be a strategic activity for a leader. According to storytelling expert David Hutchens , you can create alignment, engagement, and action by telling four core stories about your organization or your part of it.

  • Who we are stories mobilize people around your identity and culture. Remind people “what it means to be us,” and create passion to move forward!
  • Vision stories paint a vivid picture of the future that you desire. When you present the vision as a story, it comes to live and invites people to engage.
  • Stories of Values in action. So your college or university values access and excellence? That’s fine. But to keep the words from ringing hollow, tie those values to credible stories. When brought to life with stories, your values become a differentiator.
  • Stories of Change and Learning are an often-neglected category of organizational story. It’s a risk to appear vulnerable. But if you wish to create a culture of learning and continual improvement, share these stories with a spirit of transparency, humility, and authenticity.

Storytelling is not an activity that comes naturally to me, so I’ve had to work hard to create stories that have the key messages I want to convey, along with emotional triggers that help people engage with the message. (An emotional trigger is any stimulus that activates an emotional response in the listener.)

As Hutchens says, “If you’re a leader, you’re the narrator.” What stories are you telling that communicate your vision and mission to those you lead?

Anita Rios

Describing the dream

Articulating vision and mission is a critical skill for leaders. It’s hard for people to follow someone when they don’t know where they’re going. It’s even harder if no one – not even the leader – has a clear idea of where the organization should end up!

For leaders in MnSCU, the challenge is to create a student-focused mission that clearly explains the direction to our many stakeholders. What does that look like?

Achieving_word_cloud_1200x1000 (1)The Lumina Foundation’s Achieving the Dream network provides an example of mission, vision, and values that are clear and student-focused:

Achieving the Dream

Mission:  Achieving the Dream is a national reform network dedicated to community college student success and completion; focused primarily on helping low-income students and students of color complete their education and obtain market-valued credentials.
Vision:  To lead the most comprehensive, evidence-based reform movement for community college student success in higher education history, resulting in significantly improved lives and greater global economic competitiveness for the United States.
Values:  Evidence-based, student centered, and built on the values of equity and excellence, Achieving the Dream, Inc. embraces continuous improvement, fosters creativity and innovation, and operates with transparency and respect.

This example gives the reader a clear idea of the mission (what kind of work the organization is doing); the vision (what the work looks like when it’s done well); and the values (how decisions are made). They can help everyone in the organization to move forward strategically.

Does your organization have clear mission, vision, and values?  Would everyone be able to explain them?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Predicting the future

“Anticipates change” almost sounds like code for predicting the future. That is a tough requirement to be innovative.  Leaders need to predict the future! If only the Magic 8 Ball ( really worked as a leadership tool.magic8ball

What does it mean to anticipate needed changes, to build capacity for the future, to be prepared and able to respond as new realities appear? The world of higher education is no longer predictable yet leaders are asked to see into the future to be successful. While we still do not have the ability to “see the future” (at least most of us), leaders do have a Magic 8 Ball at their disposal that can help them take action in the present to be successful in the future.

Michael Watkins, in The First 90 Days, Updated and Expanded: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter (2013), describes a process of horizontal and vertical conversations for leaders in transition. Given the continuous changes occurring in higher education, leaders are now always in transition. Conducting these conversations  on a regular basis with a wide variety of stakeholders will help you expand your vision and be able to better identify, anticipate and prepare for the unpredictable future you and your team face. They are your Magic 8 Ball for innovative leadership!

Watkins provides great detail in his book but the process involves leaders proactively holding regular conversations with stakeholders from all areas of their institution, at the same leadership level, with more senior leaders, less senior leaders and all levels of front-line staff and faculty. The conversations are primarily listening events with questions focused on better understanding, from their perspective, what challenges, opportunities and issues they believe your institution is facing and why.

By actively seeking out and listening to a wide variety of stakeholders outside of your day-to-day colleagues, and assimilating what you hear, you can move from a “hazy” view of the future to a clear path to success!


Todd Thorsgaard