Author Archives: Dee Anne Bonebright

Diversity as a problem-solving strategy

In 2007, social scientist Scott E. Page generated what seemed like counter-intuitive findings about problem solving. When modeling outcomes for various kinds of groups, he found that random groups almost always did better than groups of the best individual performers.

What was going on?  In his book The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, he explained that a group with a diverse range of viewpoints is typically able to generate the best solutions. These groups include:

  • Diverse perspectives
  • Diverse interpretations
  • Diverse ways of generating solutions
  • Diverse ways of understanding cause and effect

Within higher education, we can seek diverse viewpoints through a number of strategies. Admissions, hiring, and appointment policies need to promote a diverse environment for learning and working. Reaching outside of traditional disciplinary silos is essential for solving complex issues.

Page says that leadership in higher education needs to have a fundamental belief in the value of diversity. That belief needs to be acted out in the way we form committees, who we consult with about decisions, and who is at the table when we’re deciding what to do and how to do it.

Google wouldn’t want only freshly minted graduates from MIT and Caltech. People with different training and experiences often add more than people who score better on measuring sticks. . . . All else being equal, we should expect someone different – be their differences in training, experiences, or identity – to be more likely to have the unique experience that leads to the breakthrough.
Scott E. Page, The Difference

What have you done to generate diversity on your teams and work groups?

Dee Anne Bonebright



Who’s making the coffee?

We know that leaders play an important role in ensuring that everyone has an equal chance to perform at their best and achieve their career goals. A recent blog post from Harvard Business Review highlighted one key aspect of this responsibility.

The authors described two types of work: “office housework” and “glamour work.”  As you’d expect, the first consists of the backstage tasks necessary to keep things flowing – everything from making coffee and taking notes to sitting on routine administrative committees. It needs to get done, but it rarely happens in the spotlight. Glamour work, on the other hand, consists of chairing key committees or task forces, serving on innovative teams, and high-profile or stretch assignments.

The research found that minorities and women spend significantly more time on office housework than their white male counterparts. In some cases, certain people are perceived to be better at organizational or care-taking roles. Others may feel pressured to volunteer for these tasks or face negative consequences for not being a “team player.”

What can managers do?  The first step is to identify the main office housework tasks for your team, and then assess whether anyone is doing more than their fair share. Create a system for rotating the tasks and hold everyone accountable for completing them.

When glamour work is assigned, be intentional and strategic to be sure everyone is considered. If some team members are more prepared than others, use strategies such as job shadowing and development plans to ensure that everyone is able to showcase their strengths.

Creating a team where everyone pulls their weight on the routine tasks and has opportunities to grow professionally not only demonstrates inclusivity. It also builds high-performing teams and creates an environment where everyone can succeed.

Dee Anne Bonebright

I just want to get the work done

Beginning this month we’ll be looking at the next set of Minnesota State leadership competencies. They are grouped under the category of Leader as Relationship Builder, and include:

  • Values diversity
  • Communicates effectively
  • Builds trust

I occasionally work with project leaders or team managers who consider these activities as “fluff” that takes time away from the “real work.”  For example, when I facilitate project team kick-off meetings we always spend a significant portion of the time getting to know each other, understanding communication preferences, and identifying the strengths each member brings to the table.  This can feel less important than digging into timelines, deliverables, and action plans.

However, I’ve learned over and over that if good working relationships are in place everything else flows quicker and smoother. Over the next few months we’ll dive into the many ways that building relationships is a key component of leadership work.

Dee Anne Bonebright




The over-promising trap

I was recently discussing a large-scale project with some of its leaders. As they looked back on the effort, they agreed that one of the key problems was promising too much, too quickly.

Without carefully talking to the people on the ground, institutional leadership made public statements about how much better the system was going to work, and how quickly it would happen. The system didn’t live up to expectations. We’ve all seen that same thing. For a variety of reasons, leaders often promise more than their staff can deliver.

When we think about the leadership competency of delivering on one’s promises, it’s easy to think about the personal side. As a leader, I try hard to do what I said I was going to do. But sometimes I am making promises for my unit or project team. With the best intentions, I can estimate timelines, costs, and outcomes that end up not being met.

Making the best guess when all the data isn’t available means that we will sometimes be wrong about our predictions. When that happens it’s important to own the mistake and review it to avoid the same thing in the future.

At the same time, we can try to be realistic about the expectations we set. Change is hard, and new systems rarely work perfectly the minute the switch is flipped. Helping people have a realistic picture of what to expect can make the effort more successful in the long run.

Dee Anne Bonebright


The perfect apology

We all know that effective leaders admit and learn from their mistakes, but admitting that we were wrong can be hard to do well. And if we’re taking ownership for an error related to work that was done under our leadership it can be even trickier.

On a website devoted to The Perfect Apology, the authors say that in a business setting, a good apology “will help solidify relationships with existing customers, acquire new ones, enhance customer confidence and improve overall loyalty to the brand.”

As an example, they analyze an apology given by JetBlue Airline after a particularly difficult week that included multiple delays and missed connections. The authors say it includes the key elements of an effective apology:

  1. It starts by expressing appropriate humility and remorse.
  2. It gives a detailed account of what happened and takes responsibility. In this case, the delays were caused by a severe winter storm, but the company didn’t try to minimize the effects of what happened.
  3. It offers restitution and proposes a Consumer Bill of Rights to remedy the situation in the future.
  4. It ends by saying that the airline values customer relationships and hopes to do business again in the future.

We could say that the experiences of an airline CEO don’t relate to us in higher education. We don’t sell tickets or compete for customer flight miles. We don’t seek customer brand loyalty (or do we?). But we all know that higher education isn’t perfect. People and organizations make mistakes, and leaders have to take responsibility. Is there anything we can learn from this example?

Dee Anne Bonebright



When compliance really matters

Part of acting with integrity is to comply with the laws, policies, and procedures that impact our work. While this might not seem as exciting as being innovative or as important as being strategic, it is an an essential leadership competency.

As a parent of a female athlete and someone who spent my career in higher education, I’ve been stunned by the stories about Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar. Clearly he illustrated extreme unethical and illegal behavior. But how did it go on for so long?

Here’s part of Aly Raisman’s testimony:  “If over these many years, just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided. I and so many others would never, ever have met you.”

Michigan State had policies and procedures to prevent what happened. But somehow the culture of the school, and of organized sports, did not make them easy to implement. Many of his victims were not famous athletes – they were college students. A New York Times article said that one of them remembered it as being “common knowledge; everybody knew that if you went to him you got weird treatment.”

I’ve heard of supervisors that “everybody knew” harassed employees, or managers that “everybody knew” discriminated against certain groups of people. Sometimes that behavior had gone on for years. Higher education is clearly not unique in this, but how does it happen that people aren’t always held accountable for following the laws and policies that ought to be governing their professional work?

I keep thinking back to Raisman’s statement. How can we be that one adult who did something?

Dee Anne Bonebright



Acting with integrity

The second in our Minnesota State leadership competencies is Acts with Integrity. As I was reviewing it and the behaviors that describe it, I was struck by the fact that it’s included under “Leader of Self.” Does that mean that a leader can’t really act with integrity without demonstrating self-awareness and self-control?  I think it does.

Some of these behaviors, such as abiding by relevant laws, rules and regulations, might not appear linked to self-awareness. But as I read about some of the public leadership failures we’ve had recently, they seem at least partly driven by a failure to ask the question:  “This act seems like it will benefit me, but does it align with my core values?”

This month we’ll look at this competency and how it applies to us as leaders within higher ed.

  • Demonstrates honesty
  • Abides by all relevant laws, rules and regulations
  • Encourages others to do the same
  • Gives credit where credit is due
  • Delivers what is promised
  • Admits and learns from mistakes
  • Corrects mistakes to utmost ability

Dee Anne Bonebright