Monthly Archives: December 2014

What do (did) we face in 2014?

Best of 2014, first published on January 29, 2014.
Happy New Year’s Eve! Before you set your resolutions and goals for 2015 take time to look back, reflect and learn from what happened in 2014. How did you react to change, what worked well, what didn’t work as well? What do you want to continue to do in 2015? What do you want to do differently? Through reflection leaders can grow and not just repeat experiences — Todd Thorsgaard

Successful leaders are vigilant and pay attention to factors, large and small, that will have an impact on their people and themselves. It is almost impossible to not be awafuture signsre of the key issues that exist in higher education that will be driving change over the next year. Yet as leaders it is also important to be continually scanning the entire environment and using that information to help you lead your people during change.

In conjunction with leadership consultant Sarah Bridges, we have created a Situational Awareness Worksheet that can be used to help you conduct an “environmental scan” to identify external factors that will need to be a part of your overall change leadership strategy. One factor when leading change is an awareness of the workplace culture. Each institution and each work team has its own culture but a recent article from the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologists provides a Top 10 List Workplace Trends for 2014 that can be used as a starting point when you scan your environment.

Trend #6, Integrating Technology into the Workplace, is one that will be very important in my work leading change over the next year. I have discovered that new technology often feels like a threat and that reaction can derail change efforts. What I view as a tech enhancement and a positive change is viewed as a condemnation of past practice and stops collaboration and change! Including that knowledge into the change plan ensures that it is not overlooked and the concerns addresses.

What trends will be most important for you as you lead change in 2014?

Todd Thorsgaard


Culture comes last

Best of 2014, first published on October 13, 2014
Oftentimes we get so hung up about the ways that our workplace culture needs to change in order for transformation to occur that it can feel immobilizing. At those times, I find it helpful to remind myself that culture comes last, not first.
–Anita Rios

Transformational change by its very nature requires culture change.  In fact, most of us have heard the phrase: “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Right? In other words, we can have the most logical, well-thought-out change strategy, but unless the culture (i.e., underlying norms and values) shifts in an organization to support a new way of operating and working together, the change will fail.

Popular wisdom often focuses on shifting culture first in an organization, but according to change guru and author John Kotter, “In a change effort, culture comes last, not first.”  He says that culture truly changes only when a new way of operating has been shown to succeed over time.

sysyphusTrying to shift the norms and values before creating the new way of operating does not work. In fact, it will result in useless efforts and unending frustration. It can often feel like Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, who was sentenced to endlessly roll an enormous boulder up a steep hill only to watch it roll back down again.

So how can leaders avoid unending frustration and implement strategies that reinforce the new way of operating over time? Here are a few concrete ideas that Kotter shares from his book, The Heart of Change:

  • Use new employee orientation to show what the organization really cares about (values)
  • Promote people who act according to the new norms into influential and visible positions
  • Tell vivid stories over and over about the new organization, what it does and why it succeeds

Kotter adds that “you can create new behaviors that reflect a desired culture. But those behaviors will not become norms, will not take hold, until the very end of the process.”

For me, understanding this fundamental aspect of organizational change that culture comes last, not first, is rather freeing. It helps me focus on what is doable to sustain change, rather than feeling immobilized by thinking that I have to implement culture change first. What do you think?

Anita Rios


Holding groups accountable

Best of 2014, first published on June 6, 2014
At the end of the year, we often take time to thank our colleagues for the good work we’ve done together.  This post gives tips for thanking groups as well as individuals.

–Dee Anne Bonebright

teamwork1 free to useWhen leaders think about building accountability and commitment, many common strategies are focused on individuals.  With so much of our work focused on collaboration, how can we reward teams?

A recent blog by the Harvard Business Review provided some good suggestions.

  1. Make sure the team knows what you expect, and then check in regularly.  Acknowledge good work, celebrate milestones, and provide timely feedback on problems.
  2. Be creative with non-monetary rewards.  A pizza lunch can be fun, but many teams would rather have a chance to present their report to a senior leader.
  3. Talk in terms of teamwork.  Modeling collaborative behavior will reinforce the importance you place on the team’s efforts.
  4. Emphasize team accomplishments.  Where appropriate, consider doing a formal team evaluation and/or including team performance in individual evaluations.

Even more than in the past, our success going forward will depend on successfully building commitment for groups of people to work together collaboratively toward a common goal.  How might you need to adjust your leadership strategies to build group accountability and commitment as well as that of individual team members?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Not again!

Best of 2014, first published on February 19, 2014.
Yes, every year the holiday season sneaks up on me and I scramble to pack in all the fun, festivities and craziness before the year ends! In a similar manner, the transformational changes you are leading in higher education also will continue to reappear. Not because something is wrong but because leaders face adaptive, complex and ever-changing changes!  — Todd Thorsgaard


How often does this thought run through your mind, “I thought that last change had solved our problem, I can’t believe I have to deal with it again!” Ryan-Gander-Oh-No-Not-Aga-005

It seems like many of the changes that vex leaders are related to recurring issues that keep popping up, again and again. Does that mean we are making mistakes in our change leadership? Have the wrong solution or the wrong people on the team? I believe not! A more accurate assessment of your current state may be that you are dealing with an adaptive challenge.

Adaptive problems require a longer term change strategy to ensure success than technical problems do, as described by Dr. Ronald Heifetz in the following video. Heifitz, the founder of the Center for Public Leadership and a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Affairs, describes the differences between adaptive challenges and so-called technical problems and highlights adaptive challenges as requiring a “sustained period of disequilibrium.” The nature of adaptive challenges means that any resulting changes will evolve and shift over time and not be able to be implemented and done with. Your change management efforts will need to support “a productive zone of disturbance and discomfort” over a long period of time  Dr. Ronald Heifetz video

Learning to recognize the differences between adaptive challenges and technical problems will help you as you assess your current state and develop your change strategy. It may also help you feel less stressed as “problems” resurface, like the critters in “whack a mole!” whack a mole

Todd Thorsgaard

What stories are you telling?

Best of 2014, first published on October 20, 2014.
Over the year, we’ve discussed how important it is for leaders to create an emotional connection with their followers through effective storytelling.  Stories engage people’s hearts and can mobilize them to support change efforts, where pure logic falls short. — Anita Rios

“Stories are the single most powerful tool in a leader’s toolkit.” – Howard Gardner

This month we have been discussing ways of reinforcing the new normal after implementing a change. One important method is to focus on the stories you are telling about your organization, its values, and the new way of doing things.

According to Howard Gardner, when you tell a story, you are appealing to multiple intelligences to open up more parts of the brain, that allow people to better absorb information and retain it. You are also creating a pathway for people to connect emotionally with your organization and feel a part of the change. But if you’re not a natural storyteller, how do you get started?

  • First think about what you want to communicate.
  • Then, think about what you want your listeners to do as a result.
  • Then, work backward from that.

Sounds easy. Right?….. Wrong. Good storytelling is hard work, but can be a strategic activity for a leader and well worth the effort. It may help to begin collecting stories about what early successes have occurred with the change. Begin sharing those stories and highlight how the change has impacted students, employees, your institution, the larger society, and you.

grad manHere’s a story I’d like to share with you. I have worked in higher education for more than 28 years now and I stay in higher education, because I believe in its ability to transform lives. A couple of years ago, I met a student at one of our community colleges who was absolutely inspirational. He had attended his local college during his last two years of high school and was graduating from high school with his A.A. degree. At the ripe age of  18, he was able to enroll in a university as a junior, with two years of college completed and paid for. He told me how he enjoyed college, the campus environment and his professors who took time to mentor him. He shared how college had transformed his life, giving him options for his future. Yes, he was motivated, and an exemplary student, but without our community college in his rural area, he would have been marking time in his local high school. Providing post-secondary options for high school students is one of the ways my organization provides value to our students, our state, and our society.

People look for meaning in their work. Stories can inspire and engage people in the new way of doing things. And the sharing of stories can create collective meaning in an organization.

What stories are you telling?

Anita Rios

Painter’s tape for change initiatives

Best of 2014, first published on September 26, 2014
This was one of my favorite learning moments from last year. I’ve told the story in several courses and everyone can relate.  FYI – the walls did get painted eventually!

–Dee Anne Bonebright

My daugpainter tape 1hter recently purchased her first house with her new husband. The two of them were very excited to get in there and start updating things, particularly the wall paint.  They agonized over samples, settled on a scheme, and arrived in the garage with a dozen cans of paint.

Then they spent the next week not painting.  As much as they were eager to start using the new brushes and rollers, there were a lot of steps that had to be done first. The walls had to be scrubbed and the edges had to be taped. Nails had to be removed and holes filled in. Outlet covers needed to be removed. It took a long time before any walls actually changed color.

Leading change initiatives can be like that.  We’ve identified a clear goal, obtained the needed resources, and are ready to see things happen.  The project team is anxious to start checking outcomes off the list. All that stuff about building the team, communicating with stakeholders, and assessing the change climate can feel very time-consuming and frustrating.

painter tape 2However, any experienced leader can tell you that without the proper preparation, the change initiative won’t be successful.  Just like painting the wall, if it’s not prepped properly, the new paint won’t stick. Scrubbing and taping is a lot of work up front, but it makes the overall process much easier. It’s a great feeling to finally remove the tape and see the new, fresh walls – drip free and ready to go.

One of the best tools for the preparation process is a project charter. While a charter is essential for any large change project, it can also be useful for smaller efforts. Creating the charter forces a leader to think through the goals, timelines, and assumptions for the change initiative. It also helps to identify the key stakeholders and what their roles should be.

There are many online resources for creating charters. Here are a couple of places to start:

– Bright Hub project management. What is a project charter?

– MindTools. Project charters

How have project charters helped with your change initiatives?

— Dee Anne Bonebright

Code blue – save that change!

Best of 2014, first published on June 11, 2014
Leadership provides many opportunities to serve our students and the people on your team. It also requires much from you, particularly when there is conflict or concerns about needed changes. Inspirational leaders find a way to “go first” and demonstrate with their own actions what must be done. Even when it is hard.  –Todd Thorsgaard

aedEach morning I notice the AED defibrillator when I exit the stairwell on my way to my office. If I am running late I may be slightly out of breath from running up the stairs but I have never needed the defibrillator, thank goodness! Yet, I am glad that the leaders in our organization don’t just talk about healthy employees but take accountability and are committed to the health of their people. They purchased and put AED devices on each floor and provided training on how to use them. I am trained and it is a good feeling to know that we have resources available and I know what to do in the event of a health emergency.

Change leaders have a similar responsibility to align their own behaviors and take accountability for their role in building accountability for change in the overall institution. The Implementation Institute uses the acronym CPR to help leaders build accountability for actual behavior change and execution in change initiatives.

C – Communicate: Clearly define, articulate and share the specific behaviors, performance and actions that are a part of the change.

P – Practice: Clearly determine what behaviors you need to personally demonstrate to show your commitment to the change. “Practice what you preach”

R– Reinforce: Create an infrastructure, policies and practices that reinforce the desired behaviors, successful and initially unsuccessful attempts at the new behaviors, and other activities that support the change.

Leaders who understand the importance of change CPR and actively communicate, practice and reinforce the desired behaviors necessary for a change to succeed will build accountability and commitment through their higher education institutions or any type of organization.

Todd Thorsgaard



Managing continuity and change

Best of 2014, first published on April 14, 2014
Understanding how paradox or polarities work in organizational life is critical to effectively leading change. One paradox that I’m especially fond of is “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Put another way, a leader must actively manage BOTH change and continuity in order to be effective with any change effort. Here is a blog post from April that highlights how this paradox or polarity works. –Anita Rios

“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

Dancing with change, and watching the dance

Best of 2014, first published on February 7, 2014
“The  view from the balcony” continues to be one of the most useful leadership ideas for participants in our leader training programs. Balancing big-picture strategy with day-to-day details is an ongoing challenge for academic leaders.

–Dee Anne Bonebright

ballroom-dancing free to use

One of the first elements in leading change is to assess the current state. When we’re busy leading day-to-day efforts,  it can be easy to lose the sense of the big picture. We can forget to take time to think about where we are now, and where we want to go.

Ron Heifetz is one of my favorite authors on change. His concept of “getting on the balcony” has been useful to me and to participants in our leadership development programs.  Here’s how he describes it in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers.

Rather than maintain perspective on the events that surround and involve us, we often get swept up by them. Consider the experience of dancing on a dance floor in contrast with standing on a balcony and watching other people dance. Engaged in the dance, it is nearly impossible to get a sense of the patterns made by everyone on the floor. Motion makes observation difficult. Indeed, we often get carried away by the dance. Our attention is captured by the music, our partner, and the need to sense the dancing space of others nearby to stay off their toes. To discern the larger patterns on the dance floor – to see who is dancing with whom, in what groups, in what location, and who is sitting out which kind of dance – we have to stop and get to the balcony.

What helps you to step back occasionally and take a look from the balcony?

Dee Anne Bonebright

What do you need to give up?

Best of 2014, first published on January 22, 2014
Change is a bumpy and twisty road. Each of us will experience some sort of loss as we work together to reach our goals. I like to keep that in mind as a reality check whenever I get frustrated with the slow pace of change. This post highlights what leaders have to give up as you step forward and lead our system into our future.
–Todd Thorsgaard

Change is exciting. Who can argue with  new ideas, innovation, continued success, and the mission of higher education to deliver knowledge and learning to our students? Certainly not me! As Anita reminded us, Dare to Dream. We have a compelling future in front of us and it is exciting. Yet, deep down, something about the future and change seems to evoke hesitancy, debate and even the dreaded word, resistance.  In fact, leaders often struggle with their own development because of this hesitancy and the challenge they face acknowledging it.  weighingyour

Ram Charan, in the Leadership Pipeline, describes the hesitancy as a part of the transition that leaders face as they develop and change to meet new challenges and new expectations. Each transition presents you with an exciting future and new possibilities as a leader but it also demands that you give up a piece of your past leadership role. You must lose a part of yourself to develop as a leader that can succeed in the turbulent higher education environment we face today.

Specifically, leadership transitions require changes in:

  • your time horizon
  • your priorities
  • your relationships
  • your leadership skills or style

Successful leaders take on larger and more complex priorities, and a greater time frame, but to do that need to give up priorities, change relationships, delegate tasks and stop doing things that they are very skilled at doing and value. These losses lead to hesitancy and not acknowledging and accepting the required losses can derail the development leaders need to change and succeed.

How will your role need to grow to help you lead your team through change? What will you need to give up to succeed?

Todd Thorsgaard