Monthly Archives: January 2016

Feeling grateful

I am in the middle of a three day leadership program with 34 leaders from across the Minnesota State College and Universities system and I am feeling grateful for the people I 2016_01_27_08_24_00_Wordle_Createget to work with. We asked them to describe what energized them about being a leader and one group created this wordle.


A second group wrote this as their leadership mission statement: “…collaborative learning and sharing best practices while networking and building new relationships.  Through fun activities, where we are able to laugh together, will fuel our creative and innovative thought.”

And as we wrapped up today one leader shared this, “I am so grateful for the generosity of my colleagues. They trust me and have granted me the freedom to make mistakes and grow in my role while giving me the benefit of doubt.”

As leaders we have the opportunity to get to know ourselves better by being open to the wisdom and the insight of those we work with.

What have you learned from those you work with?

Todd Thorsgaard


Uncovering our blind spots

Blind-Corner-Proceed-Traffic-Sign-K-4409I made one of my periodic Big Public Mistakes a while ago. Not the kind that are about trying new things – the other kind where you just say or do something that you know better and would love to have a re-do. But here’s the challenging thing: I still don’t know exactly what it was.

We’ve talked about blind spots before. It’s a natural concern when thinking about understanding ourselves. How can we understand something we don’t know we’re doing?

During the meeting in question, I caught myself stepping outside of my assigned role. I apologized and did my best to get back on track for the remaining time. Event over, lesson learned, right? Apparently not. It kept coming up over the next couple of days. I decided to dig a little deeper and eventually someone told me that what I said came across as harsh. That’s so far from my usual way of communicating that it caught people off guard.

Like many introverts I have an internal observer and critic. I can pretty much repeat what happened in a meeting – what I said, how people reacted, what kind of nonverbals were going on, etc.  In this case the editor was completely off line. I can’t pull up what I said and completely missed other people’s reactions.

That’s a blind spot.

I did some self-reflection about the experience and came up with a game plan to address things differently next time. I hope it helps to make this particular blind spot a little smaller. We’ll see how it goes.

It’s hard to uncover blind spots. People can be justifiably reluctant to tell leaders things that they may not want to hear. I learned that seeking feedback from others can be an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and grow as leaders.

How have you uncovered your blind spots?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Know your why!

golden circle“It all starts with clarity. You have to know WHY you do WHAT you do… people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it, so it follows that if you don’t know WHY you do WHAT you do, how will anyone else?”  – Simon Sinek, Start With Why

Do you follow what Simon says in the quote above? It’s actually pretty powerful stuff! Knowing why we do what we do is critical to inspire others and have them willingly follow our leadership. Last week we held our second executive leader development seminar for aspiring presidents in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. One of the assignments was for participants was to deliver a very brief 200-300 word inaugural speech that communicated the value of their institution and most importantly helped people understand their “why.”

Several of the participants delivered their speeches to the entire cohort and it was awe-inspiring to hear their “why.” They told personal stories about their own experiences and relayed how college had changed their lives in truly amazing ways. Their stories were from the heart and compelled the listeners to want to follow them as leaders.

Let me tell you about my “why.”

When I was about 6 years old, I remember sitting with my dad in the living room. We were watching Richard Nixon on a small, snowy, black and white TV screen. It was just before the 1968 presidential election and Nixon was holding a TV conference. While we were sitting there, my dad turned to me and said, “Wow, you’re growing up so fast!  Before you know it, you’ll be going to college.”

That one statement had a profound impact on my life. It became a matter of fact…an expectation that I would go to college. I’m not sure that I knew exactly what college was at 6 years old.  But I knew it was important! I knew it was something that my dad expected of me.

As I grew older, I learned that my parents faced barriers that prevented them from going to college. In fact, my mother had received a full scholarship to attend Hamline University, but couldn’t attend. She needed to work to support herself right out of high school. So as the oldest of 5 kids in our family, I felt very much a pioneer as I marched off to St. Olaf College after high school.

While my dad may not remember that comment he made in our small living room in 1968….I do.  It has laid the foundation for two core values I hold dear:

  1. Education has the power to transform our lives
  2. Seeing possibilities for growth in others and encouraging them is a gift we give to our children, to our students, to our colleagues, and to our employees.

My work in supporting the development of leaders in our colleges and universities springs directly from these values. It gives me the deepest satisfaction, because what I do every day supports my “why.”

Have you thought about your “why” recently? If not, I encourage you to do that. Why is it that you do what you do? If you have thought about it, have you told others about your “why?” If not, do that too! It will reconfirm your own commitment to the values that drive what you do each day. And, you might be surprised at how it inspires others.

Anita Rios

Hearing each other’s stories

MLKOne of the keys to understanding others is to learn how to listen and learn from each other’s stories. As leaders, it is dangerous to make assumptions about where other people have been and what they might do next. Understanding their stories can help make a personal connection the helps build relationships and move the work forward.

This week we’ve been celebrating the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. That always reminds me of a lesson I learned about hearing other people’s stories. I had an acquaintance that I’d known for a long time. Some years ago we were traveling together and getting to know each other better. The person was a retired professor from a local seminary and I made some wrong assumptions about what his political experience might be.

We had an opportunity to go swimming and I saw his legs for the first time when he wasn’t wearing long pants. One of his legs was scarred with what looked like bite marks. As we talked, I learned that he had been with Martin Luther King, Jr. on the courthouse steps in Alabama. The bites occurred when police turned dogs loose to break up the event. He’d been part of history and I never knew it.

On another occasion I was looking at the reviews posted in the window of a local community theater. Someone came up to me and I thought, “here’s another homeless person asking for a handout.” As it turned out, the person told me about an opportunity when the theater sells tickets very inexpensively to local residents. We had a nice talk about plays we had both seen.

When I work with project teams, I’m teaching myself to ask questions before giving my opinions. Tell me more about why you want to do it that way? What happened that makes you so frustrated? How can it be improved to make your life easier? Providing an opportunity for colleagues to share their stories helps build trust and I’ve learned a lot that I wouldn’t have known any other way.

Have you had experiences where hearing someone else’s story helped you to understand yourself and the other person in a new way?

Dee Anne Bonebright

I wonder why?

wonderland-gate-1When I am getting frustrated, confused or angry I go to wonderland…..” I can still see the leader who made this comment in a program I was facilitating.

Her statement was cited by many participants as one of the key take-aways at the end of the three day program and I still use it today to help me better understand those I work with. She encouraged us to “wonder why” someone was acting the way they were, rather than judge them or assume you know their reasons. A powerful aspect of the first leadership competency, Leader of Self, is to know yourself AND others.

Beverly Kaye, an expert on employee engagement, and Marshall Goldsmith, named the number 1 leadership thinker in 2015, have both identified the practice of asking questions and developing curiosity as a crucial component of leadership success.

In “The Art of Asking Questions,” Goldsmith recommends the following specific techniques to learn how to ask questions that deepen understanding:

  1. Start with a setup statement that sets the context for the dialogue and why you want to better understand someone.
  2. Ask questions that require higher-level thinking. Your purpose is to gain insight and understanding, not just exchange facts.
  3. Avoid specific questions that feel judgmental. You are going to wonderland but limit questions that start with “why did you do that?”
  4. Use your own curiosity to stimulate more curiosity. Be authentic in seeking to understand and demonstrate genuine enthusiasm as you learn more about your people.

Beverly Kaye, in “The Inclusion-Curiosity Connection” provides a quiz that you can use to understand your own curiosity. Using a scale of 1 – 7, Never – Always, read the statements below and ask yourself, How frequently do you make an effort to…


  • Give yourself time to ponder issues and outcomes?
  • Wonder how things work?
  • Engage in self-initiated research?


  • Ask questions of others?
  • Try to understand how others think, feel and behave?
  • Explore “what ifs” with others?


  • Seek out different points of view?
  • Experiment and try novel approaches?
  • Stretch yourself with challenging experiences?

Where did you score high? Low? What did you learn about yourself? Most importantly, what can you continue to do or start doing to become more curious and better understand your people?

It's lateIt’s late and I need to get this posted!

Todd Thorsgaard




Doing and saying

MLK16“One of the great tragedies of life is that men seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying…. On the one hand, we proudly profess certain sublime and noble principles, but on the other hand, we sadly practice the very antithesis of these principles. How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds!”  – Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love

While this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. may not be the most repeated of his work, I find it to be thought-provoking and worthy of self reflection.

When you think about your own leadership, it can be helpful to explore that gap between doing and saying. Are there certain principles that you value, but have difficulty practicing? Are there times when you say one thing, but do another? Think about it and be honest with yourself.

As human beings I think we all have incongruencies between what we say and do. What areas of your leadership could be strengthened by bridging the gulf between what you profess and what you practice?

Anita Rios

Adapting our communication styles

I once had a conversation with a leader who was struggling in her role. One comment stuck with me – she said “I am who I am and people can take it or leave it. Changing my communication style would make me untrue to myself.” Given that her communication style was often harsh and abrupt, this approach was not working well.

So how can we change our communication styles without being inauthentic? While searching for tips and suggestions I came across some advice on wikiHow. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t aimed at academic leaders, but it still seems useful.

Adapting your communication style

  1. Assess the situation. How will the context influence your engagement with others? A joke that you  might tell to a close friend could be inappropriate for a department meeting. Hosting a visiting college president might require more formal communication than meeting with day-to-day colleagues.
  2. Identify the goal. The setting and approach you choose should match your goals for the communication. Do you want to build relationships? Then you might meet informally over coffee. Do you need a team to agree on process steps? Then you might want a formal meeting with an agenda and follow-up notes.
  3. Understand the audience. What is your relationship to the people who will hear your message? What do you know about their communication styles and preferences? For large presentations, consider doing an audience analysis to learn more about who will receive your message and the best way to reach them.
  4. Choose the best method. Your communication style depends on the method of communication, which in turn depends on the situation. Are you giving a one-way presentation before a large group? Are you meeting one-on-one with a trusted colleague? Or are you promoting the institution via social media?  Each of these would require a different tone and level of formality.
  5. Be intentional with words and body language. Pay attention to how you come across, both verbally and non-verbally. One key reminder from the article – use technical jargon only if you’re sure the audience will understand.
  6. Monitor audience feedback. People offer feedback in a variety of ways. They might ask questions or give nonverbal reactions through facial expressions and tone of voice. You may need to adjust your style to be sure they understand your points.

With practice, I’ve found it easier to adjust my communication style to the needs of the audience without losing my authentic voice. Have you seen leaders who do this well? What did you learn from observing them?

Dee Anne Bonebright

It takes courage!

I had the chance to really get to know myself better this morning in a Privilege Walk activity.

“Take a stepPrivilege walk forward if either of your parents graduated from college”

“Take a step forward if there were more than 50 books in your house when you were growing up”

“Take a step back if either of your parents were laid off or unemployed not by their choice”

“Take a step back if you have been divorced or impacted by divorce”

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System Office Inclusion Council kicked off their Intercultural Passport Program event with a Privilege Walk. Privilege walks are designed to help people recognize and understand how privilege influences who they are. I know for me, and for others based on their comments, many of the questions were about things we “took for granted” or assumed were common for everyone. However, by being open and responding to each question by moving forward or back, I learned a lot about myself! Having the courage to look at where I was in the room and where others were helped open my eyes.

As leaders I want to suggest there is an additional question that needs to be added to a Privilege Walk.

“Take a step forward if you are in a leadership position”

An important part of the leadership competency, “Understand Yourself and Others” is to have the courage to acknowledge that being a leader is a privilege. A leadership role, by itself, influences how you perceive the world and affects how people treat you. It is a part of who you are! It is not good or bad but it is important to recognize.

If you want to learn more about self-awareness and privilege walks you can click here to watch a video. And this link contains the actual questions.

Got privilegeYes, we all have privilege and it takes courage to dig deep in search of self-understanding.

Todd Thorsgaard

Leading Ourselves First

Lao Tzu

As Anita said last week, this year we’re revisiting the MnSCU leadership competencies. The list is posted on the Higher Edge site, and you can see that it’s categorized into Leader of Self, Leader as Relationship Builder, Leader as Manager, and Leader as Innovator.

It’s not an accident that the first topic is Leader of Self. I was recently talking with a colleague and we agreed that it’s been a long time since either of us saw a leadership development program that didn’t begin with some sort of self-assessment. Helping participants understand their own styles, strengths, and preferences is a building block to other skills such as communicating effectively, leading teams, and managing conflict.

A few years ago I taught an undergraduate course on team development. We started with the StrengthFinder assessment, and also looked at communication preferences and conflict styles. It was interesting to see their reactions. In the final evaluations I heard several comments along the lines of “at first I couldn’t see what my individual strengths had to do with teamwork, but now I understand how my style and preferences helps me work with others.”

I’ve found that self-assessment, especially combined with self-reflection, is a key part of leading myself. It helps me know how to repeat successes and to anticipate where I might struggle. Based on that my new year’s resolution, which has been the same for several years, is to talk less and listen more. It’s a work in progress!

What goals do you have for leading yourself first?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Who are you?

broken mirror“That’s not me!”

I recently spent a week in the hospital recovering from surgery and those were my words when I looked in the mirror and saw how others were seeing me. A sick person in a hospital gown and connected to an IV! Yet after a few days that is how I started to feel and act.

Steven Covey calls this the social mirror.  In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he says,  “If the only vision we have of ourselves comes from the social mirror, our view of ourselves is like the reflection in the crazy mirror room at the carnival.”  As leaders we can lose track of who we really are when we rely on our social mirror. Instead of truly understanding ourselves we limit ourselves to an incomplete or inaccurate understanding.

To truly understand ourselves requires purposeful inner reflection along with listening to what others say. It starts by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What do I truly believe about leadership?
  2. Where won’t I compromise as a leader?
  3. What is most important to me as a leader?
  4. How do I want others to describe me as a leader?
  5. What do I value most in myself?
  6. What concerns or fears do I need to acknowledge as a leader?
  7. How can I make the biggest difference as a leader?
  8. Where do I need to flex or adjust as a leader to help others succeed?

Taking the time to answer these types of questions is the first step to understanding who you are as a leader and becoming the leader you want to be!

I asked myself a few similar questions in the hospital and my answers reminded me that I am a healthy, active and competitive person – and I made sure that I got out of bed and moving around, even connected to my IV, each day!

Todd Thorsgaard