Monthly Archives: December 2015

Snow storms, bumper cars and highly effective teams?

Best of 2015, first published on February 15, 2015
We just had our first “biggest blizzard in years” yesterday. While it ended up with a modest total amount of snow it did create traffic snarls and many accidents for those working this week. I had the luxury of time off and was able to enjoy the beauty of the snow falling and look forward to skiing. That reminded me of this post that highlighted the value of messiness and collisions! Enjoy.  –Todd Thorsgaard



And the answer is?? Planned accidental collisions!

We had a freezing rain and snow “event” yesterday and cars were slipping and sliding into each other by the hundreds. Not a pretty sight but actually a great metaphor for building effective teams. In fact both urban planners and highly successful leaders have been promoting the idea that density and unplanned interactions, or “collisions” can spark creativity and help build an engaged culture at work.

The main idea is that “running” into other people, sharing ideas, asking questions, and listening to what they are working on stimulates our brains and opens us up to more possibilities.

Leaders can make changes in the physical work space and the processes a team uses to facilitate these creative accidental collisions. The department I work in has created an informal work space. Several times while I was using it a colleague has ask me what I was working on and then shared some ideas I had not thought of.

Other ideas you can try to foster “accidental collisions” include:

  • scheduling work and share times where people talk about their projects and others are encouraged to share ideas
  • rotating project team members on a regular basis
  • encouraging people to participate in cross-functional projects
  • inviting representatives from other departments to participate on project teams
  • support participation in professional organizations and interest groups

Creating safe opportunities for people and ideas to collide will help your team succeed over the long run, and they will have more fun!  bumper cars

Todd Thorsgaar


The power of affirmation

Best of 2015, first published on June 15, 2015
Thinking over the last year and some of the most powerful talks I’ve heard, I kept coming back to Sugata Mitra and his “Hole in the Wall” research. His work reinforces over and over again how important affirmation is in supporting the success of others. When you show appreciation for your team members and other colleagues, it lays the groundwork for a productive work environment and let’s face it, it just feels good. What can you do to affirm others?  –Anita Rios

sugataLast month, I was reminded of the incredible power of affirmation to turbo-charge performance by Sugata Mitra, who was speaking at the ATD International Conference. You may have heard of Mitra as the “Hole in the Wall” professor from India. While Mitra’s research focuses on children and how they learn, I think his findings have relevance for how adults learn and perform in the workplace.

If you haven’t heard of Dr. Mitra, I’d encourage you to listen to his TED talk. Through his research, he has discovered that groups of unsupervised children can learn just about anything if they have access to the internet. After winning the million dollar TED Prize in 2013, Mitra was able to fund and create five self organized learning environments (SOLE)  in England and India to further test his theories about education and literacy.

He wanted to see if affirmation would further children’s learning in the SOLEs, so Mitra recruited retired teachers and other interested adults to volunteer their time one hour a week to beam into the classrooms via Skype. He dubbed these volunteers the “Granny Cloud.” Their sole job was to demonstrate interest in what the children are learning and doing, ask good questions, and provide positive affirmation. What Mitra learned was that:

  • Children react well to encouragement
  • Children exceed targets if encouraged
  • Children like to show off to a friendly adult

In my experience, I’ve found that adults behave similarly in the workplace. We react well to encouragement and often exceed performance targets when encouraged.  While I know I am an internally motivated person, I have often worked harder for a boss who is appreciative and encouraging.  And I can honestly say that the teams I’ve led do better when I am actively engaged, interested in their work, and providing positive affirmation.

Does this ring true for you? What has been your experience with positive affirmation and performance?

Anita Rios

Don’t read this post – at least not today!

Best of 2015, first published on July 3, 2015
This holiday advice works as well in December as it did last July. I hope that you are able to rest and recharge over our winter break. And yes, I did take that vacation in August and I did disconnect. It felt great!

–Dee Anne Bonebright

Assuming WordPress works as it’s supposed to, this post will come out on July 3, which is a holiday for MnSCU. I’m writing it beforehand and setting it to automatically post, but I’m also planning to log in on Friday to make sure it worked. And while I’m there, I’ll probably check my email. And maybe do a couple of things to be sure I’m ready for the following week…

iphone at lunchDoes that sound familiar? Technology can be a great benefit for leaders, but it also means work can follow you 24/7.  Foresters, a global financial services firm, researched the impact of technology on personal lives and found that 43% of participants thought electronic devices make it impossible to truly “leave work at work” and be fully present for their families. Almost half thought that technology was ruining the family vacation.

Foresters started a Tech Time Out challenge that encourages families to take a break from technology.  Check out this short video introduction and visit their website for ideas.

Here are some other tips about how to disconnect on your next vacation, whether it’s a couple of hours, a day, or even longer:

  1. picard readingLeave the laptop at home. Don’t tempt yourself by bringing work on vacation.  If you want to read for pleasure, bring a Kindle or follow Captain Picard’s advice and try a hard-copy book.
  2. Delete work email from your phone. Set up a vacation notification and give your number to someone who can contact you if there’s a real emergency.
  3. Disable notifications from all your social media sites.
  4. Get away from it all. Consider an unplugged vacation to somewhere with no access to TV, wifi, or phone connections.

The tech site recommends figuring out what will work for you and setting up a plan in advance. Vacations are supposed to be a time to relax and re-charge, so identify what technology will support that and what won’t. Decide how you want to use tech while you’re away from the office, and then stick to it.

I’m still planning to log in on Friday, but I’m taking a real vacation in August and will follow the tips above. What can you do this summer to disconnect and refresh?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Are you losing air?

Best of 2015, first published on January, 2015
The holiday season can be exhilarating and fulfilling as we take time to connect with family and friends. On the other hand we can also end up feeling drained and overextended. This post reminds me of the importance of assessing where I am and where I want to be as we wrap up 2015. –Todd Thorsgaard

It is one of the most depressing feelings while biking. I can be riding along; happy, outdoors, feeling strong and having fun. Everything is in synch and flowing until I feel myself slowing down and I can tell I am riding on a flat tire. I may hear a loud pop and a fast “whoosh” as all the air escapes at once or a soft, almost evil, hiss as my tire gradually goes flat. Or I may hear nothing at all and just have a soft tire. Either way it means I need to stop what I am doing, assess the situation, and take the appropriate action to refill my tire so I can get back to riding.

Bike flat largeSometimes I have just gone too long without pumping up my tires and I  need to use my CO2 cartridge and add air, other times I have hit an unexpected bump in the road or run over a small sharp object and need to patch a hole before adding air. Occasionally my inner-tube has been neglected and ruptured in multiple places and I need to completely replace it with a new one before I can add air.

We go flat in our lives when we lose our work and life balance. How you refill yourself depends on the type of leak you are experiencing. Paul Blatz, founder and president of Good Leadership Enterprises, encourages leaders to utilize his 7Fs Wheel to understand where they may be leaking energy or if they have a major rupture to repair! The seven Fs that help us stay positive and moving forward as leaders are:

  • Future
  • Fun
  • Friends
  • Fitness
  • Finances
  • Family
  • Faith (spiritual)

Over time we can get distracted by the regular demands at work and lose track of our daily choices that keep us fulfilled in all seven areas. Then we may just need to take some small actions that “refill” all seven. Other times we hit a major bump and need to focus on one area that is losing air fast. When I travel for work I tend to ignore my extended family relationships and I need to remind myself to take the time to call my mom and check-in with her.

The Seven Fs Wheel (Seven Fs Tool) is an easy tool to carry with you and use to keep yourself “pumped up” and rolling along as a leader. TT and Ellie bike

Todd Thorsgaard

Happiness fuels success?

Best of 2015, first published on June 22, 2015
Last week I was on the phone with a colleague helping her with an organization development consult. Near the end of the conversation,  I told her how much I appreciated her positivity. Her enthusiasm nearly bubbled through the phone and was contagious. We continued talking and agreed that it is so much easier to work with others when they are optimistic and cheerful. The wisdom we shared is that you can actually CHOOSE to be happy. That conversation reminded me of this blog post from June. Enjoy and smile! –Anita Rios

happinessAccording to Harvard researcher and author Shawn Achor, most of us have the formula for success backwards. We think if we work hard, we will be successful and that our success will lead to happiness. Think about it. Have you ever thought happiness would follow after getting that next great job or promotion? Maybe it did briefly, but was it really lasting?

Recent discoveries in neuroscience,  positive psychology, and management studies actually prove the opposite to be true. Our happiness fuels success. When we are happy, we are more productive and successful. In fact, being happy increases the levels of dopamine in our brains. And dopamine makes our brains 30% more efficient. So what does this have to do with driving performance, both our own and the performance of our teams? Quite a bit actually.

Achor explains in his 2011 Ted Talk, that only 25% of job success is predicted by IQ. The remaining 75% of job success is predicted by three key factors:

  • Optimism levels
  • Social Support
  • Ability to see stress as a challenge, rather than a threat

So knowing that optimism levels (aka happiness) fuels success, what can you do to increase the optimism levels of your team? Achor suggests that everyone needs to start with themselves first, saying that positivity and happiness can be contagious. He outlines several practices that can help you rewire your brain’s ability to see things positively.

  1. 3 Gratitudes – every day for 21 days, write down 3 new things you are grateful for
  2. Journaling – every day write down one positive experience you’ve had in the last 24 hours (this helps your brain re-live the experience)
  3. Exercise – choose something you like to do each day (exercise boosts mood and performance)
  4. Meditation – spend just 5 minutes a day meditating, praying, or just listening to yourself breathe in and out  (this helps your brain to focus)
  5. Conscious Acts of Kindness – write and send one positive email to a colleague each day (doing something good for someone else increases your own positivity)

This week I’m committing myself to the 3 Gratitudes and a Conscious Act of Kindness each day to increase my happiness and boost my performance. I’ll let you know if my team notices the difference and it begins to spread.  I challenge you to join me!  Go ahead, choose one or two strategies to increase your happiness and see what happens.

Anita Rios

Building communication bridges

Best of 2015, first published on September 11, 2015
I was at another meeting this week where we talked about ways to communicate across functional units within the system office. The challenge of working together across silos is critical for our success as a system. Here are some tips from last fall.

–Dee Anne Bonebright

siloI just searched for “communicating across silos” and got back about 1,800,000 results, (according to Google–I didn’t count them all). And as near as I could tell, none of them dealt with farm buildings.

Clearly, there’s a lot of agreement that this is an important leadership challenge. Author Brent Gleeson noted that, unlike what he called “trendy management terms,” people are still talking about “silos” 30 years after the topic was first discussed.

After sampling the search results, a couple of themes emerged. First, silos can be a problem for any size of organization. I read numerous examples of costly rework, loss of customer goodwill, and leadership frustration caused by lack of communication among people doing various aspects of the same work.

Second, breaking down silos is a leadership task. We are the ones who can set up the structures and model behavior that encourages collaboration across all sorts of barriers.

Third, it needs to be addressed as an ongoing strategy.  Many authors recommended setting up a cross-functional team to focus on major communication efforts and ensure everyone is kept informed. This is not a task for the professional communications unit, which can become as siloed as everyone else. Rather, it should represent a spectrum of stakeholders coming together to discuss their day-to-day challenges and work together on common issues.I was a part of a team like this about 10 years ago and it still ranks as one of my most formative leadership activities.

The Leadership Excellence blog had some good tips for building this kind of coalition. Here are some of my other favorite tips and quotes:

  1. Remember that silos can be vertical or horizontal – sometimes the biggest barriers are between upper leadership and the people doing the actual work. (Forbes/Leadership)
  2. “The goal in breaking down silos is not to destroy a department’s autonomy, but rather to eliminate the issues that caused conflicting priorities, lack of information flow, and duplication of efforts and resources.” (Kevin Wilhelm, Pearson)
  3. “What we are really talking about is creating effective ways to relate to others in different circumstances… Silos are gaps we may need to bridge with agreements for how, when, and why to communicate..” (Laurie Ford, The Four Conversations)

What strategies have you used to communicate across silos?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Speak to the heart

Best of 2015, first published on September 9, 2015
Over the past weekend I attended the holiday show, Tales from the Charred Underbelly of the Yule Log, by the master storyteller, Kevin Kling. Kling is able to make a universal connection as he weaves his tales. I know I experienced both tears and joy as he reached out to each one of us in the audience. During this time of world-wide chaos and local uncertainty your team needs you to speak to their hearts.
–Todd Thorsgaard


If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela,

This may sound like a paradox but I am going to suggest that the way to a person’s heart is through their brain. At least when it involves communication!

A powerful way for you to communicate through the distractions and noise at work is to share your message in a way that goes to the heart of your people and engages their passion around the work they do. Yet for the message to get to the heart it needs to be recognized by the brain. Or as Nelson Mandela said, “in their own language.” The problem is that each of us have our own brain and our own language! Our brains influence our individual thinking preferences which then drives how  people “hear” or “don’t hear” what you are saying.

I have found an approach that is powerful and easily recognized by all brains called the Whole Brain model. Based on over thirty years of research it identifies four thinking styles and describes communication preferences related to each style:

  • Analytical style leads to communication preferences:
    • Facts only, no fluff
    • Accuracy
    • Brief
  • Experimental style leads to communication preferences:
    • Metaphors
    • Overviews
    • Conceptual
  • Relational style leads to communication preferences:
    • Informal
    • Expressive
    • Conversational
  • Practical style leads to communication preferences:
    • Detailed
    • Step by step
    • Thorough

When your message is delivered in a style that your people prefer they will better hear you and take your messages to heart. This basic model opens up a world of strategies for you to increase your communication effectiveness. A few to start with include:

  1. Step back and self-assess what style you prefer and begin to utilize the other styles in your messages.
  2. Listen to your team members and the styles they use for clues to their preferences – then mirror their style in your 1-1 communications.
  3. Share important messages multiple times utilizing multiple styles.
  4. Incorporate multiple styles into each message.

Todd Thorsgaard

Each one, reach one

 Best of 2015, first published on May 4, 2015
I spent most of the weekend shopping to get that “perfect” gift for friends, family, and co-workers. It’s the holiday season. The season where many of us are expressing our appreciation and care for friends and family through gift giving. It made me reflect that one of the most perfect gifts we can give another person is to be a mentor and provide a listening ear and sound advice. Is there someone in your workplace who could benefit from your mentoring? I challenge you to add just one more gift to your giving list this season – the gift of mentoring.
–Anita Rios

mentor 2“Mentoring brings us together – across generation, class, and often race – in a manner that forces us to acknowledge our interdependence, to appreciate, in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, that ‘we are caught in an inescapable  network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny.’ In this way, mentoring enables us to participate in the essential but unfinished drama of reinventing community, while reaffirming that there is an important role for each of us in it.” – Marc Freedman

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been involved in several conversations about the value of mentoring in helping underrepresented faculty, staff, and students feel included and welcome in our campus communities. Not surprisingly, good mentoring helps ALL employees feel supported and valued and promotes their success. I was reminded of this very fact when I met with my mentor last week to discuss recent challenges I’ve faced in my work and strategies for moving forward. Not only did I walk away from that meeting with better perspective and some concrete next steps I could take, but I left feeling more supported and valued.

In talking with colleagues, I’ve been able to identify some successful mentoring efforts happening at a few of our colleges, like a faculty mentoring program or teaching circles that help new faculty build relationships while learning from each other. Or a buddy program that pairs new employees with experienced employees to help introduce them to the campus, its culture, and people they should know.

Most colleagues, however, talked about the challenges of starting and maintaining mentoring programs.  Colleagues who have started formal matched mentoring programs, experience about a 50% or lower success rate, in terms of mentors-mentee pairs who continue to meet and find value from the relationship over time. Probably more troubling, was a colleague who mentioned that with his campus mentoring program there are far more people who want to be mentored, than there are those who are willing to be mentors.

It made me think about what would happen if we began fostering a mentoring culture on our campuses. Much like the “each one, teach one” literacy campaigns around the nation to help k-12 students, why couldn’t we begin an “each one, reach one” campaign, where every employee reaches out to mentor someone else?

Perhaps this is a pie in the sky idea. But given the benefits that could result from mentoring, like making all faculty, staff, and students feel included and welcomed, and supporting their success, wouldn’t it be worth a try?

Anita Rios

Why respect matters

Best of 2015, first published on October 30, 2015
As I’m writing this I can see the NPR news crawl out of my office window. It’s filled with stories about people talking disrespectfully about other people and other groups. Showing respect continues to be an important way for us  as leaders to reach out to our students, faculty, staff, and community.

–Dee Anne Bonebright

respect effectAs you read this I’ll be at the Academic and Student Affairs leadership conference. One of the breakout sessions that Todd and I are leading is loosely based on The Respect Effect by Paul Meshanko.

Respect and its opposites, bullying and incivility, have been a hot topic in higher education for the past 10 years or so. What is it about respect that’s so important to shaping organizational culture?

First, as we pointed out in the breakout session, a culture of respect is more inclusive and allows people with different backgrounds and viewpoints to bring their best.

Second, students and staff who feel respected are more engaged. They are more likely to share their ideas, contribute their thoughts, and work collaboratively.

In addition, Meshanko’s research has shown that people have different cognitive responses to respect and to incivility. Those who show respect are viewed as potential collaborative partners, while those who display incivility or bullying are viewed, naturally enough, as threats.

Meshanko provides 12 rules for demonstrating respect.  Those that are especially important for academic leaders include:

  • Develop a curiosity about the perspective of others
  • Assume everyone is smart about something
  • Look for opportunities to connect with and support others
  • When you disagree, explain why
  • Balance the time you spend talking and the time you spend listening

These actions seem common-sense, but I have found that they can be improved with time and attention.  What other ways have you developed to show respect?

Dee Anne Bonebright

The never ending debate?

Best of 2015, first published on March 4, 2015
As the title suggests this dilemma cannot be vanquished but only revisited and managed – not solved!
–Todd Thorsgaard

disagreeEver since we could argue it seems as if people have been debating the merits of working for the common good or working for individual success and survival. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, wrote in 1651 that we needed government to enforce behaviors that support the common good. The economist Adam Smith argued in 1776 that we must establish a free economic market to ensure that the common good wins. Otherwise the power of individual success will win.

The Selfish GeneI first got involved in this debate as a behavioral biology student in 1976 when Richard Dawkins published one of my favorite books, The Selfish Gene. At the time it was described as “the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned. It’s breathtaking.” Dawkins continued the scientific debate that is occurring today: is it better to act for the common good or is it better to act for the good of the individual?

While this debate has fueled many wonderful conversations and arguments on college campuses, during long car trips, or at the local bar it highlights a dilemma that all leaders face. Do I focus on the success of my team and our services or do I focus on the success of the larger organization, even if it hurts my team or my success?

What if there isn’t a “right” answer and instead it is actually a polarity that you can leverage? In her 2014 post, Leveraging polarities,  Anita introduced the concept of polarity thinking as a tool for leaders to use when facing these types of ongoing dilemmas. A recent article from the Polarity Partnership Group highlights the need to recognize the benefits of supporting the common good AND supporting your team while also acknowledging and acting on the downside of the common good AND the downside of team-focused success.

Over the next month we will be sharing tips and tools you can use to reap the benefits of focusing on the common good in your organization. Yet, in today’s complex environment we must also follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice and “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t a debate between the common good and the good of your team, it is a polarity of the common good and the good of your team.

Todd Thorsgaard