Monthly Archives: November 2017

Your best laid plans

Strategic plans, work plans, goals, action items, tactics, timelines… these are all fantastic tools for strategic leaders. They are important, and even necessary, to help leverage people’s work efforts and accomplish organizational mission. But we all know that our best laid plans can be disrupted by problems and opportunities during the year.

In those cases, what is a strategic leader to do? Abandon all hope of strategic planning and just go with the flow? Dump your plan and stay in reactive mode? I think not!

One strategy my team used to plan for unexpected problems or opportunities was a priority-setting brainstorm session. We identified criteria that should be used in prioritizing the activities we already have in our work plan as well as any new work that might emerge during the year. Some of the questions we explored included:

  • How should we set priorities?
  • What criteria do strategies or activities need to meet in order to be included in our work plan?
  • What goals and guiding principles should we be consistently supporting as a unit?
  • Does new work need to meet ALL priority-setting criteria or just some?

It was a fruitful discussion that helped us anchor our work plan and work priorities in overarching goals for our division and the system. We discussed the impact of our work, our customer’s needs, and the environment in which we work. We also had a useful conversation about how we want to work together as a team, and we agreed upon our own set of operating principles.

Since that conversation, I’ve noticed some of my team members have been more mindful of high-level priorities and have increased confidence in setting boundaries with other colleagues. In fact, just today I was copied on an email one of my team members sent to a colleague, explaining that a particular project would need to sit on the back burner until her higher priority work was completed. Now that’s leading and working strategically.

Anita Rios

 

 

Balancing strategy and purpose

“Most companies have articulated their purpose–the reason they exist. But very few have made that purpose a reality for their organizations.” — L. Chevreux, J. Lopez, and X. Mesnard

The quote above is from a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. The authors made some excellent points that apply to higher education as much as the business world. They described many examples where organizations got caught up in strategy, lost sight of their purpose, and eventually failed.

Strategies are time-bound and target-specific results. In contrast, the article said that purpose is “what makes an organization durably relevant to the world.” Climate assessment surveys, online curriculum development, and even transfer pathways are important strategies for Minnesota State. But they are not, in themselves, the reason that anyone will care whether we exist twenty years from now.

Our interim chancellor, Devinder Malhotra, has clearly defined three three areas of strategic focus:  Student success, diversity and inclusion, and financial sustainability. As we work toward these goals, the article gave three tips for ensuring that we can keep focused on purpose:

Create personal connections to purpose:  We need to understand how providing educational resources can make people’s lives better. Effective leaders in higher education believe in what we provide, not just at a surface level but as a deeply held value.

Don’t compromise on purpose:  As leaders, we are often pulled between conflicting extremes. Another recent HBR post identified some of these strategic tensions. Do we need strong leadership, or broad empowerment? Do we need to develop capacity or generate quick results? As we examine these tensions, we need to focus on getting the best from both sides.

Walk the talk.  As leaders, we set the tone for our organizations. We need to model the importance of purpose and show how to use effective strategies to get there.

Dee Anne Bonebright

 

A strategic leader pop quiz – are you ready??

The dreaded pop quiz. I can still remember how I felt when hearing those words when I was in school. If I had done my homework, I didn’t flinch. But if I wasn’t prepared, my heart would start pounding!

Yes, I have a strategic leader pop quiz for you today, but first let’s study what will be on the test.

Research conducted by the Wharton School of Business and the consulting firm Decision Strategies International, Inc. (DSI) on over 20,000 leaders identified six “essential skills” that can be assessed and developed to become an adaptive strategic leader.

Anticipate – the ability to recognize subtle or ambiguous threats and opportunities before they affect your team or organization. Strategic leaders take action to “scan the horizon” by:

  • continually talking and listening to all stakeholders
  • gathering market research and utilizing scenario planning
  • interacting with people and organizations in other fields

Challenge – closely examining the current situation, assumptions being made and the popular point of view. Strategic leaders focus on reflection and examination from multiple points of view by:

  • searching for root causes and underlying issues not just the surface indicators
  • identifying and examining assumptions
  • actively seeking out alternative perspectives and encouraging debate

Interpret – the ability to accept and synthesize diverse and conflicting input and information. Strategic leaders seek new insights by:

  • identifying multiple explanations for observations, issues and results
  • actively seeking out and listening to diverse perspectives when analyzing information
  • using both observational and analytical analysis
  • taking a break and providing space for uncluttered analysis

Decide – use a disciplined process to make decisions, even when lacking information or time. Strategic leaders take responsibility for making decisions and using a robust process by:

  • rejecting either-or scenarios and asking “what other options do we have?”
  • identifying unexpected consequences
  • keeping stakeholders informed on the status of the decision
  • utilizing pilots and staged decisions

Align – discover common ground and buy-in among diverse perspectives and multiple stakeholders. Strategic leaders proactively build the trust needed to facilitate alignment between divergent points of view by:

  • over communicating (early, often, 8 ways, 8 times, etc.)
  • identifying and acknowledging concerns and issues in advance
  • reaching out to resisters and listening before explaining
  • recognizing when and where team members and stakeholders are willing to support the overall purpose or values of the organization

Learn – facilitate continuous organizational learning. Strategic leaders promote a culture of inquiry and learning lessons, both from success and failures, by:

  • conducting after-action reviews and lessons learned sessions
  • transparently sharing and communicating the information from the reviews and learning sessions
  • recognizing and rewarding people who take action and utilize lessons learned

Strategic leadership requires a mix of all six essential elements but the good news is that leaders can develop them.

Are you ready for a short pop quiz to help you identify where you shine and where you may want to take action to become a more strategic leader? Here is a link to a short assessment developed by the Wharton School and DSI on the six essential elements of strategic leadership.

Todd Thorsgaard

 

Increasing your learning agility

Innovative, continually learning and adapting, ready to take risk, able to deal with complexity. Those are of some of the attributes of strategic leadership. Combined together, these attributes can also be referred to as learning agility.

In their white paper Learning About Learning Agility, Adam Mitchinson and Robert Morris report that researchers define learning agility as being “continually able to jettison skills, perspectives and ideas that are no longer relevant, and learn new ones that are.” Given the complexity of our environment in higher education, this has never been more important. In fact, research over the last 20 years shows that the most successful leaders are those who are comfortable with uncertainty and sudden change and have the ability to learn and adapt.

Easily said, right? But how can you break down learning agility into concrete behaviors that are easy to employ?

Mitchinson and Morris do just that. They write about research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) and Teachers College, Columbia University, where researchers identified four behaviors that enable learning agility and one that derails it.

They describe the four learning-agility “enablers” as:

Innovating: Questioning the status quo and challenging long-held assumptions with the goal of discovering new and unique ways of doing things. Learning-agile individuals generate new ideas through their ability to view issues from multiple angles.

Performing: Learning from experience occurs most often when overcoming an unfamiliar challenge. To learn from challenges, an individual must remain present and engaged, handle the stress brought on by ambiguity and adapt quickly in order to perform. This requires observation and listening skills, and the ability to process data quickly.

Reflecting:  Learning-agile people look for feedback and eagerly process information to better understand their own assumptions and behavior. As a result they are insightful about themselves, others and problems.

Risking: Learning-agile people are pioneers–they venture into unknown territory and put themselves “out there” to try new things. They take “progressive risk” –not thrill-seeking, but risk that leads to opportunity. They volunteer for jobs and roles where success is not guaranteed, where failure is a possibility. They stretch themselves outside their comfort zones.

The learning-agility “derailer” is:

Defending. Individuals who remain closed or defensive when challenged or given critical feedback tend to be low in learning agility. By contrast, high learning-agile individuals seek feedback, process it and adapt based on their newfound understanding of themselves, situations and problems.

So given these enablers and derailer, what can you do to increase your learning agility? Mitchinson and Morris recommend some helpful strategies below:

Innovating. Seek out new solutions. Repeatedly ask yourself, “What else?” “What are 10 more ways I could approach this?” “What are several radical things I could try here?”

Performing.  Seek to identify patterns in complex situations. Find the similarities between current and past projects.  Cultivate calm through meditation and other techniques. Enhance your listening skills – listen instead of simply (and immediately) reacting.

Reflecting. Regularly seek out real input. Ask, “What are three or four things I or we could have done better here?”  Make sure the questions are still open-ended – that will encourage colleagues to speak up.

Risking. Look for “stretch assignments,” where the probability of success isn’t a given.

Avoid defending. Acknowledge your failures (perhaps from those stretch assignments) and capture the lessons you’ve learned from them

Over this next week I challenge you to explore how you can increase your own learning agility. Pick one thing to focus on and see what happens. For my part, I’m going to focus on listening more intently before reacting. What about you?

Anita Rios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strategic influence

Part of strategic leadership and partnership is the ability to influence others. Whether advocating for their own positions, representing a group of stakeholders, or explaining the priorities of a work unit, strategic leaders need to communicate in a way that helps others understand and support their viewpoints.

Quite a while ago I was given a little book called The Power of Ethical Persuasion, by Tom Rusk.  I appreciated his argument that influence can be more than trying to get people to do things your way. He defined ethical persuasion as communicating with respect, understanding, and fairness in order to build stronger connections and shared goals.

Rusk provides a three-step process which has worked for me over the years.

Step 1: Explore the other person’s viewpoint

  1. Focus on mutual understanding, not problem solving.
  2. Ask the other person to help you understand their thoughts and feelings.
  3. Listen without defending or disagreeing. Refer to your position only as needed to keep the conversation going.
  4. Repeat the other person’s position in your own words.
  5. Repeat the steps above until the other person agrees that you understand their position.

Step 2: Explain your viewpoint

  1. Ask for a fair hearing in return.
  2. Explain how the other person’s thoughts and feelings affect you. Avoid blaming and defensiveness as much as possible.
  3. Explain your thoughts and feelings as your truth, not the truth.
  4. Ask the other person to restate your position, and correct any factual inaccuracies as necessary.
  5. Repeat until you both can understand and explain each other’s positions.

Step 3: Create resolutions

  1. Review each other’s positions and identify any mutual goals and shared values.
  2. Brainstorm multiple options without analysis and criticism.
  3. Review the options and determine whether there is a mutually agreeable solution.
  4. If not, consider any of the following:
    – Taking a time out and then reconsider the options
    – Compromise by meeting each side’s strongly held goals and meeting in the middle on others
    – Agree to the other person’s position, as long as you believe your position has been completely and respectfully considered
    – Seek help from a third party mediator or counselor
    – If no solution is needed in order to maintain collaboration, agree to disagree and still respect each other

It’s amazing how often positions that at first seemed mutually exclusive are actually based on similar values and goals. For example, we may disagree strongly on the campus budget, but we can respect that we are both seeking what’s best for the students. I’ve found that starting from that point and working toward mutual understanding can be much more persuasive than continuing to re-state the reasons why my side is correct.

Dee Anne Bonebright

 

Walking the slackline

Nimble, agile, focused, adaptable, relying on others, willing to take a risk, moving forward, and getting up after you fall. That is how I describe my slackliner friends. It is also describes a leader who is strategic and works as a partner.

During November we will be sharing stories, ideas and resources focused on being a strategic leader and partner. In a recent HBR article, Paul Schoemaker, Steve Krupp and Samatha Howland say that leaders can make the biggest difference for their people and their organizations when the work environment is most uncertain–if they are adaptive, strategic leaders. In their words, this means “Someone who is both resolute and flexible, persistent in the face of setbacks but also able to react strategically to environmental shifts.”

Certainly the higher education work environment is uncertain. The national and global economy is going through rapid changes and most leaders I talk with point out that their industry is in the midst of epic transformations. So, we all have a great opportunity to make a difference as leaders now. But it takes work and skill development to be strategic leader and partner.

Are you ready to try walking the slackline?

Todd Thorsgaard