Monthly Archives: November 2013

Living our thanks

“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963);
35th Us President

As we take some time off to remember the things we are thankful for, I find that this quote by President John F. Kennedy is a useful reminder. As a leader within higher education, I have much to appreciate:

  • Challenging work
  • Stimulating colleagues
  • Collaborative partnerships
  • A chance to make a difference

I plan to come back to work refreshed and ready to behave as if I appreciate my colleagues and the work we are doing together.

What would be on your appreciation list?

Dee Anne Bonebright



I was listening to a podcast on NPR’s  All Things Considered this week that got me thinking about the Thanksgiving holiday, hectic travel,  family and friend get-togethers  (or at least my family and friends!) and our blog. Passengers at George Bush Intercontinental airport crowd ter

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, shared his “collision” theory of collaboration and innovation. He describes it as “bringing the spirit of a party” to work.  By encouraging random collisions between people new ideas are generated, productivity goes up and an innovative culture is fostered. Taking action as a leader to promote serendipity and almost random networking opportunities between people, within and outside of your institution, is a way to  “institutionalize return on luck.” (Forbes article) Bumping into your distant uncle at the Thanksgiving table or a stranger at the airport or a neighbor at the gas station may just spark a conversation that leads to a new idea next Monday at work!

Hsieh has removed a skyway between two buildings to get his people outside and walking on the public sidewalks so they bump into more people, other organizations have added trivia games to elevator doors to spark random conversations, and National Public Radio hosts “serendipity days” where groups of employees randomly come together to work on projects. (Wall Street Journal – online)

At your campus or in your organization where can you find places for people to bump into each other and perhaps make a connection? Given the opportunity people can find new ideas in the strangest places. Who knows, in addition to catching up on medical conditions and getting some new recipe’s I may get an idea for my next blog at dinner tomorrow!

Have a peaceful Thanksgiving.

Todd Thorsgaard

The power of vulnerability

How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness?  This is a pretty heady question that has been rumbling around in my brain ever since I watched a compelling TED talk by Brené Brown last week. It is also a question that is incredibly important for leaders to consider when they think about how to lead authentically. Embracing vulnerability takes incredible emotional intelligence, requiring self awareness, skill in expressing emotions, and an ability to communicate those emotions to others that you lead.

I’d encourage you to take a few minutes from your day to do what 12 million other people have done and view her TED talk    You’ll be glad you did.

BreneBrené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past ten years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She spent the first five years of her decade-long study focusing on shame and empathy, and is now using that work to explore a concept that she calls Wholeheartedness.

Anita Rios

Finding opportunities for new thinking

As a child growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis the Mississippi River was a giant, deep, fast flowing river that we crossed on a large bridge going to grandma’s house. It seemed impossible to swim it or cross it on foot.  The future challenges we face in higher education are as turbulent as the fast flowing river I knew growing up and as daunting to overcome. Yet, as the picture of me crossing the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca demonstrates, the unimaginable can be accomplished if we open ourselves up to innovative thinkers from outside our usual sphere of influence.  Itasca 73_2

The ITASCAproject – Higher Education Partnerships for Prosperity  initiative is an example of collaboration across educational and governmental boundaries that provides leaders in higher education access to a wider network of innovative thinkers. The Itasca Project is an employer-led civic alliance that recognizes the future challenges we face in higher education are beyond the scope and capabilities of any one group and any single jurisdiction. And that we can make the progress we need only through active cooperation among the public, nonprofit and business sectors.  12 executive leaders from business, non-profits and higher education are guided by the input of over 40 business, community and higher education thought leaders.  The report identifies 4 overall strategies:

  1. Align academic offerings with workforce needs
  2. Foster an ecosystem of research and innovation
  3. Form new collaborations across higher education to optimize intellectual assets and efficiency
  4. Graduate more students

The commitment, new ideas and new approaches that wider collaborations, like the Itasca Project, provide to leaders in higher education are the rocks that can help us innovate our way across the turbulent river of higher education in the United States!

Where do you find your new ideas?

Todd Thorsgaard

Lessons from evolutionary biology

biology“There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.”  – Jeff Lawrence

This statement really rings true. Our organizations are made up of shared values, structures, cultural and behavioral norms. These have contributed to the organization’s success and have made it survive in the past. But what can you do as a leader if the current values, culture, behavioral norms, and structures only reinforce the status quo and don’t  support building organizational capacity to meet future challenges?

That’s where leadership expert and author Ron Heifetz says that we need to practice adaptive leadership, “the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”  The challenges we face in higher education today are indeed tough — from funding and demographic shifts, to changes in how we deliver education — and will require a different approach than the one that has made colleges and universities successful in the past. To illustrate this concept of adaptive leadership, Heifetz draws lessons from evolutionary biology, where he says successful adaptation has three characteristics:*

  1. It preserves the DNA essential for the species’ continued survival
  2. It discards (reregulates or rearranges) the DNA that no longer serves the species’ current needs
  3. It creates DNA arrangements that give the species the ability to flourish in new ways and in more challenging environments

Drawing from these three characteristics, Heifetz gives leaders the following helpful insights.  I’ve added some corresponding questions that you might consider as you mobilize people to tackle tough challenges:

  • Adaptive leadership is about CHANGE that enables the capacity to thrive. As in evolution, new combinations and variations can help organizations thrive under challenging circumstances.  Ask: What can be done differently to address a challenge?
  • Successful adaptive changes build on the PAST rather than jettison it.  Ask: What should you preserve from the past and what is expendable?
  • Organizational adaptation occurs through experimentation.  Ask: What can you try or pilot in order to meet a complex challenge?
  • Adaptation relies on diversity. The secret of evolution is variation. Ask: How can you include diverse views into your decision-making processes?
  • New adaptations significantly displace, reregulate, and rearrange some old DNA.  Ask: How will you prepare people for loss that might occur with change?
  • Adaptation takes time.  Significant change is the product of incremental experiments that build up over time. Ask: How will you stay in the game for the long-term?

Anita Rios

*(Source: Heifetz, Ronald; Grashow, Alexander; Linsky, Marty. (2009) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press)

Building your professional network

networking2 safe-to-useI really enjoy my job. I am not in the job market. I spend time nurturing my professional networks.

For some people, one of these things is not like the others. They have the mistaken impression that networking is something you do when you are looking for a new job, or for some other work-related favor.

For me, building and nurturing professional networks has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Looking back, I can see how my professional development has been enhanced by involvement in academic and human resources organizations. In addition, I can identify at least four groups where I was able to learn new things and make long-term professional friendships (shout-out to Communicators Forum, Women’s Leadership Institute, Project and Change Management Collaborators, and Art of Hosting mates).  These were participant-driven organizations where people worked together to support each other and make a difference in their organizations and the wider community.

For example, I formerly was an HR consultant at the University of Minnesota and worked with many groups that were experiencing change. Other colleagues worked with change-related projects from the IT and Facilities viewpoints. We were all seeing part of the picture, and there was a lot of wasted energy and rework. A few initial conversations eventually led to a vibrant group that still meets monthly to share ideas about leading change, develop common project management tools, and collaborate on overlapping projects. This new way of working together proved very effective.

A recent article in Forbes listed some of the reasons why this type of networking is beneficial:

  • It helps you hone your ideas and test your executive presence
  • It challenges you to commit to something that is not always easy
  • It allows you to reach out beyond titles and hierarchy
  • It promotes peer learning
  • It helps you look outside of your current position toward future career opportunities

I understand why our MnSCU leadership competencies include “networks with innovative thinkers, developers, and donors.” Reaching outside of our normal circles can provide new insights, as well as build the foundations for mutually beneficial collaboration.

What have you done recently to build and nurture your professional networks?

–Dee Anne Bonebright

Barriers, what barriers?

If innovation was easy, we would all be doing it!

Ok, I just made that quote up but it captures the essence of a leader needing to proactively identify and remove barriers to innovation. Some barriers are easy to see, like access to needed information or expertise, and you can take quick action to remedy the situation. Other barriers are much harder to see. In fact, some may not even be present anymore but still stop your people in their tracks!

underwater-photo-big-pike-eso-32739506As a lake-cabin-owning Minnesotan the following blog caught my eye this summer (Blanchard LeaderChat). Dick Ruhe describes an experiment called the “Pike Syndrome” which suggests that even unseen barriers or historical barriers can stop your people from taking the risks, collaborating and trying the new ideas that are required for innovation.

Before you can remove barriers, large or small, present or past, you must be able to recognize them. Sarah Bridges, Ph.D.,  a psychologist and leadership consultant, has introduced a concept called Environmental IQ that can help you identify important barriers that your people face. Sarah Bridges Whitepaper  Environmental IQ highlights the overall importance of situational, or environmental, factors in success at work.

  • Demographics
  • Technology
  • Financial
  • Resources
  • Geography/Proximity
  •  Regulations
  • Internal Politics
  • Competition
  • Community

These same environmental factors may also be barriers to innovation for your people. By using Dr. Bridges’ checklist, that we modified for higher education, you can initiate conversations and identify barriers that your people are currently facing, or have faced in the past, that are stopping them from taking action to innovate. Situational Awareness Worksheet – MnSCU version  Knowing what the actual barrier is gives you a better chance to take action to help your people overcome it or to remove it from their environment.

What are some of the barriers your people face when they need to be innovative and how have you helped them get past the barriers?

Todd Thorsgaard

Happy Veterans Day!

vetToday we celebrate the service of all United States military veterans and say thank you.

As leaders in higher education, we are especially proud of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ long history of providing education and training to veterans, members of the Minnesota National Guard, and service members on active duty. As veterans have sought to learn new skills, enhance existing skills or translate skills learned in the military for use in the civilian world, they have been able to enroll in one of our 31 institutions.*

Meeting the needs of veterans returning to a campus is a complex undertaking. Some veterans face personal, relationship, education and employment issues on completing military duty. Veterans’ families also may need help while their loved ones serve overseas and when they return home. Working with the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs and the Minnesota National Guard, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system office has provided additional training to counselors, student affairs staff, faculty and administrators on assisting veterans. 

In addition, recent legislation has provided assistance and resources for developing veterans-friendly colleges and universities. The Minnesota GI Bill’s “last dollar in” program provides additional benefits to veterans after other benefits have been exhausted. For information on the MnSCU educational resources available to veterans and admissions information, please see:

Anita Rios

*(source: MnSCU Veterans Programs and Services Fact Sheet 2013, thanks to Gina Sobania)

Finding ideas everywhere!

Systems designed to be innovative. . . change by being open to trying new and different things, by acknowledging constraints and opportunities popping up all around, and by committing to adaptive responses. They change by consciously creating space where willing people can demonstrate different approaches.
–Center for Policy Studies

A 2012 Center for Policy Studies report, From Lagging to Leading, clearly documents the future challenges facing higher education in Minnesota and in the United States. It concludes that our current system is not sustainable without disruptive change – a level of change that will require us to lead the kind of innovative systems described above.

As leaders, we are being asked to recognize what is working in the present, keep it going, carry forward what will work in the future, AND build capacity to succeed in the future through innovation and new ideas. One way leaders can become more innovative is to actively step outside of their own area of expertise and learn from the work being done in other disciplines.  Today I want to step over to the biology field and share some recent work I found that focuses on how to create the space needed for people to find new ideas.

Janet Crawford, an environmental scientist and consultant who applies neuroscience research to leadership and organizational culture, was recently interviewed in Forbes magazine.  Over three articles she provides an overview of how understanding human biology can help organizations improve.  The ideas that caught my eye were her four practical tips, based on brain research, to increase innovative thinking.

  1. Nurture the biological aspects of the brain that have been shown to relate to innovation.
    • adequate sleep
    • healthy diet
    • social connection and interaction
    • manage stress levels
  2. Develop a large pool of available inputs by exposing the brain to:
    • new and different ideas
    • new and different cultures
    • new and different disciplines
    • new and different people and environments
  3. Open the brain to recognizing new ideas as an opportunity instead of a threat by reducing social and emotional threats with a safe and inclusive work environment.
  4. Allow the brain to try out new ideas by creating forums where people can play, prototype, take risks and fail.

Leaders in higher education can use these tips from biology to enhance their own innovative thinking and to support innovation across their institutions.

What leadership ideas have you learned when you stepped outside of your own network, discipline or usual circle of reading?

Todd Thorsgaard

Collaborating across boundaries

bridgeAs leaders, we are often more comfortable working within familiar frameworks and with familiar stakeholders. While the work isn’t always easy, it is at least somewhat predictable and we have an idea about the conversations that need to occur.  But what does it look like when we move into new ways of collaborating?

In order to address the challenges facing our system, we are going to have to look at collaborations across institutions, with government agencies, local and regional business partners, other public K-12 and higher education systems, and many varieties of nonprofit agencies.  While many of our leaders are skilled at building these relationships, we are all going to have to learn more about crossing boundaries.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to take a course through the University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrative Leadership. For a lot of reasons, it was eye-opening and significant in my development as a leader. Much of what I learned applies directly to our MnSCU leadership competency of collaborating across boundaries.

The Center for Integrative Leadership defines integrative leadership as leading across  sectoral, cultural, and national boundaries to advance the common good. This quote from the Center’s website proposes six ideas that help frame their efforts:

  1. Leadership is fundamental to making progress on long term grand challenges and addressing issues of the common good;
  2. Often leadership is most needed at the places where conflicting world views, beliefs, and knowledge intersect;
  3. The most powerful acts of leadership are those empowering others to make positive change;
  4. Building broad capacity for acts of integrative leadership may have greater global impact than exclusively working with individuals in positions of formal authority;
  5. Acts of leadership flow from person to person.  When viewed this way, acts of leadership that address grand challenges become everyone’s responsibility and everyone’s opportunity.
  6. Fostering collective action is a skill that can be learned.

Based on these propositions, integrative leadership is everyone’s responsibility. In your leadership role, which boundaries are most challenging? What are steps you can take to reach across them?

Dee Anne Bonebright