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
It had been a good morning of snowboarding out west. Each run I pushed the edge a little more, tried to go a little faster or carve a tighter turn. And, no falls! I was ready to risk a double black diamond run. It was just slightly steeper I told myself, I can get away with it. But no! I lost my edge and took a spectacular fall. Luckily all I lost was a little snowboard cred with my buddies but when leaders push the edge of integrity they can get on a slippery ethical slope that leads to a much more damaging career crash.
You may have heard about the slippery slope of ethics but until 2015 it had not been closely studied or truly understood how it works. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology answered a few of those questions and can help leaders avoid falling down an ethical slope. The study also addressed how to create a culture that discourages ethical breeches. The key finding is that when small trivial behaviors that are slightly questionable are not noticed or called out over time there is a large increase in the likelihood that ethical people will commit larger violations in the future. This evidence demonstrates that getting away with seemingly minor acts like grabbing a few pens from the supply closet and bringing them home or extending a medical appointment to run an errand makes it easier for people to next add a few extra dollars on their meal expense report or fudge a few data points in their research. And if that isn’t noticed it can build to covering up safety issues, rigging a hiring processes, embezzlement or outright financial fraud. Crashing careers, reputations and institutions.
Personally leaders need to be aware that even they can be swept down an ethical slippery slope without realizing it if they work in a culture that doesn’t pay attention to trivial incidents. The study recommends establishing a personal vigilance on ethics that encompasses all issues, large and small. In addition, it reinforces the importance of leaders clearly defining misconduct and quickly addressing even trivial behaviors to ensure that people don’t set themselves up for a larger crash down the road. The authors describe this as developing a “prevention focus” by:
- setting clear ethical standards
- openly discussing and describing potential ethical dilemmas employees may face
- role-modeling ethical behavior
- responding quickly and openly to even minor violations – this doesn’t require draconian punishment but it does require notification and follow-through
- reinforcing vigilance and respect for ethical behavior in all settings
Slippery slopes are exhilarating on my snowboard but they can cause even the most ethical of leaders to crash and destroy their integrity without proper vigilance.
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:
- It starts by expressing appropriate humility and remorse.
- 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.
- It offers restitution and proposes a Consumer Bill of Rights to remedy the situation in the future.
- 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
Last week when I was preparing to meet with one of our university leaders, I noticed that her email to me had an interesting tagline. At the end of her email signature and institution’s mission, she had added a postscript. It read:
PS: “Please forward this email to those I may have inadvertently missed. Anyone who needs this information is welcome to being in the loop. Let me know who I missed so I can add them to future correspondence. Radical transparency is a fundamental practice I choose to follow.”
Wow! After reading it, I began to think about how her message not only communicated that she was committed to transparency, but was a declaration of her values AND a demonstration of integrity. Many leaders say they practice transparency in their communications, but few go to lengths of demonstrating it in this way.
At the end of our meeting, I asked her about the postscript in her email and remarked on its uniqueness. She affirmed that this practice has built trust among her teams. (I have to add that it is just one of the many things she does to create a productive work environment on her campus.)
As we were talking, she remarked that anyone who doesn’t think that their emails are completely public is fooling themselves. Everything we communicate online is open to sharing and can circle the globe quickly.
The phrase radical transparency makes me smile, in that it communicates transparency to the extreme. Simply defined, radical transparency includes actions and approaches that radically increase the openness of organizational process and information.
In that one postscript, this leader clearly demonstrates her integrity with every email message. What practices do you employ that demonstrate integrity?
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.
Last week we talked about ways to show your support for an organizational decision, beyond just talking about it. But what happens if it soon becomes apparent that it was the wrong decision?
A Google search of “incorrect decisions”, which is how I began brainstorming for this post, brings up multiple links: “America’s Biggest Foreign Policy Fiascos”, “Stupidest Business Decisions Ever Made”, and the more generic “10 of the Worst Decisions Ever Made”. Poor decisions are everywhere, but it’s how they’re handled that often gets noticed the most.
Leaders who successfully weather these storms have some things in common:
Take responsibility: Nobody likes to hear excuses. Own up to the mistake, then describe how it will be fixed.
Don’t play the blame game: Throwing your employees under the bus by publicly blaming them, either indirectly or directly, isn’t generally well received.
Learn from it: In retrospect, what could have been done to avoid this, and how can you keep it from happening again?
Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone handles them the same. Taking the high road when things go wrong is almost always the correct route.
One of the best decisions a leader can make is to decide to let others make decisions and to create a decision-maker culture. That is what Dennis Bakke recommends in his book, The Decision Maker: Unlock the Potential of Everyone in Your Organization, One Decision at a Time.
As a leader, you are ultimately accountable for how decisions turn out. That can cause many people to hold tightly to their decision-making authority. Instead Bakke reminds us that sharing decision-making responsibility actually can lead to better decisions, more employee engagement, develops employees expertise and supports professional development. To help leaders identify the best person, or group, to make different decisions Bakke describes a formal “decision-maker process.” Use the following four elements to guide your selection:
- Proximity – how close to the situation is the person and can they also see the big picture?
- Perspective – can the person bring a different point of view or utilize multiple points of view?
- Experience – does the person have enough experience in the situation to be able to actually make a decision?
- Wisdom – will you and others trust their decision?
From my experience, when a leader asks me to make a decision it can feel overwhelming and I may feel like I need to prove my worth by making the decision all on my own! If your people react in the same way sharing decision-making can actually backfire. To help address this issue Bakke encourages leaders to coach their people on how to seek out and take advice when making a decision. He also defines good advice as coming from people who have:
- Experience – they know or understand the situation.
- Different positions in the organization – they can provide multiple and diverse perspectives.
- Responsibility – they have an actual connection to the situation and the decision or outcome.
- Ownership – they will back up their advice and the ultimate decision.
It can be scary to relinquish decision-making responsibility but it is a risk worth taking!