Monthly Archives: December 2017

Focus on strengths!

Best of HigherEDge, first published on December 12, 2012.

I am kicking off a leadership program today. I am looking forward to another engaging discussion about how we can help our team members fully develop their strengths. Todd Thorsgaard

What is right about me? What is right about the people on my team?

These are the questions that led to a very energetic conversation during the three day leadership development program I just finished facilitating with a group of higher education leaders. We were discussing the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment and their individual strengths profiles. (Rath, Tom. StrengthsFinder 2.0. Gallop Press. 2007.)  The work of Donald Clifton and Tom Rath encourages us to embrace our strengths and use our natural talents to enhance our leadership by focusing on “what is right about me!”  I was struck, once again, by how passionate and enthused the 34 leaders got when I asked them to share stories about their strengths, about what is “right about them?”  The conversations were full of laughter, vigorous head nodding and an authentic sense of pride and satisfaction.

Their conversations were a reminder to me of how powerful a small shift in perspective can be as I work to be the best leader I can be. From my experience, and the stories I hear from leaders, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face in higher education. I can feel stuck and unable to work effectively with those around me who are also feeling overwhelmed. Yet I know when I rely on my strengths and ask myself, “how can I use my strength of individualization (the ability to identify unique attributes in others) to solve a problem with a course I am developing or a program I will be facilitating,” I have much more energy to tackle the challenge and I am more likely to come up with an effective solution.

This small but purposeful shift in perspective when working with others also makes a big difference in my leadership. I find that when I specifically start interactions with colleagues by asking myself, “what is right about this person?” or “what unique attribute or experience or information makes them successful?,” I am more open to new ideas and better able to move beyond the frustration I feel when things don’t go the way I expected!

Next time you feel stuck or overwhelmed, stay energized by asking, “What is right about me and what is right about the people on my team?”

Todd Thorsgaard

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Happiness fuels success!

Best of HigherEDge, first published on June 22, 2015

I’ve been focusing a lot on gratitude lately and it’s power to unlock healing, happiness and success. In fact, in the last week I’ve shared Shawn Achor’s concept of 3 Gratitudes with several colleagues and friends who are struggling with depression and maintaining happiness during this busy holiday season. You can see more in the blog post from 2015 below. Here’s a quote from Melody Beattie that captures the power of gratitude.

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.”

Anita Rios

According 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

Dancing with change, and watching the dance

Best of HigherEDge, first published on February 7, 2014

Ron Heifetz’s concept of viewing organizations “from the balcony” frequently comes up in our leadership development programs.  It’s been helpful to me as a reminder to keep my eye on the big picture. Bonus:  Todd Thorsgaard provided another view of this concept in this post from November 2015.

Dee Anne Bonebright

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

Blind spots

Best of HigherEDge, first published on January 9, 2013.

We had our first snow and ice of the year and the news has been filled with reports of car accidents and spin-outs. It reminded me of this post. I hope those of you in the midwest scraped your windows so you could avoid a crash due to a blind spot.   Todd Thorsgaard

Has this happened to you? You are a good driver, you have the best intentions, and you are paying attention and following all the rules, yet when you signal your lane change and start to move – suddenly you hear a horn honking! Next comes screeching brakes or a crunching sound and an impact. What happened? There was a car in your blind spot.

As leaders, we also have blind spots. Have you ever been surprised by how people on your team react to something you have said or done? Are there times when the pep talk you gave to help motivate someone or the wise piece of advice that you knew was exactly what your team member needed didn’t have the effect you intended?

I still remember the reaction I got from teammates in one of my first jobs after graduate school. My boss called me into her office for my 30 day check-in. I was meeting all my initial goals and I was providing good consulting resources, but my colleagues had shared that they did not think I valued their experience and they didn’t like my “attitude.” I was crushed! I respected them and was so happy to be working on a high performing committed team. What was going on? It was a blind spot. I had just spent a period of time in graduate school where we were expected to always ask critical and probing questions, on every idea raised by anyone. I thought I was demonstrating respect and letting my colleagues know how much I valued their experience and insight by asking questions and seeking to better understand what they were sharing. What they were feeling was that I was challenging their ideas and didn’t trust their experience!

Leadership is a two-way street filled with people. As Anita described in her last post, successful leaders need to understand how their actions impact others.  The Johari Window, a tool created by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham in 1955, highlights that we need feedback to better understand ourselves and to minimize our blind spots. (click on image to enlarge)

johari-window2

Increased self-understanding leads to greater effectiveness in leading others.  I needed to ask my boss in that new job what was happening, why were people reacting the way they were? I was unaware that when I immediately responded with a question to a colleague’s idea they felt like I didn’t value their expertise. It felt attacking. I was destroying trust while I blindly thought I was engaging in a spirited debate. Now, as a leader, my natural style is to focus on facts and reasons and I can be blind to how that feels to people on my team. I have learned that I need to continually seek feedback from others on the impact of my actions. Luckily I also have a trusted relationship with my current manager and I am able to ask about my blind spots and the impact they have on my leadership.

What leadership blind spots have you discovered in yourself? How can you invite feedback from others or gain more self-awareness?

Todd Thorsgaard


The problem is not the problem….

Best of HigherEDge, first published on June 24, 2013.

Interestingly, this post from 2013 is one of the most-read on our blog. I’m not sure if it’s because of topic or the fact that it contains a nice photo of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow. Still, the core message is enduring. While we can’t always control the circumstances we are in, we can control our reactions. This lesson has been even more important to me personally as I’ve worked the last 15 months to recover from a brain injury and tried to choose gratitude each day, rather than anger and frustration or sadness and a positive attitude, rather than a negative one. It’s made all the difference in the world. – Anita Rios

Ok. I have to admit that I’m not your usual Pirates of the Caribbean fan, but I do love this movie quote from Captain Jack Sparrow. Let me explain why. A few months ago, I experienced a few big disappointments. I know my natural response to those disappointments could negatively impact my team, their productivity, their confidence in me, and as a result,  their service to others. (If you recall Dee Anne’s blog about mood contagion, she outlines why it is so important for leaders to maintain a positive attitude and how it impacts our service to our customers.) I used this picture and quote as a daily reminder to keep my focus on maintaining a positive attitude, even though my gut reaction was exactly the opposite. I can’t say that I was successful every day, but this daily reminder helped me to focus on what I could control: my reactions.

Shawn Achor, one of the world’s leading experts on human potential, takes this idea further in his book The Happiness Advantage. Drawing from positive psychology, Achor builds a case that positivity or happiness fuels success for ourselves, the people we lead, and our organizations. He says that, “when we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.” He also demonstrates how this discovery has been borne out by research in neuroscience, psychology, management studies, and organizations around the world.

He outlines seven principles in his book:

  1. The Happiness Advantage: how happiness gives your brain and your organization the competitive edge
  2. The Fulcrum and the Lever: changing your performance by changing your mindset
  3. The Tetris Effect: training your brain to capitalize on possibility
  4. Falling Up: capitalizing on the downs to build upward momentum
  5. The Zorro Circle: how limiting your focus to small, manageable goals can expand your sphere of power
  6. The 20-Second Rule: how to turn bad habits into good ones by minimizing barriers to change
  7. Social Investment: why social support is your single greatest asset

If you’re trying to lead and excel with increased workloads, stress, and negativity or you want to build on a positive culture you have developed, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Achor’s book.

What strategies do you have for cultivating happiness and a positive attitude in yourself and others?

Anita Rios

Happy birthday to us!

HigherEDge has been around for 5 years! We started on November 26, 2012 and since then have generated over 630 posts to support leaders in higher education and beyond.

While a few of you have been with us since the beginning, many people have joined along the way. This month we’ll feature some of our favorite posts from past years that you might have missed.

To start with, here’s one of my early posts. It asks “what would you tell your younger self?”  I said that I would tell my younger self to be consistent with my core values, and at the same time learn to be more comfortable with taking risks. It’s still a work in progress, but I think that I’ve learned over the past five years about ways to give grace to myself and others when things aren’t perfect.

It was a fun exercise to look back through my early posts and reflect on how I’ve changed as a leader. If you’ve kept a leadership journal, take time to look through it. If not, consider starting one. Where do you want to be in five years, and what can you tell yourself now to help get there?

Dee Anne Bonebright