Category Archives: higher education

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

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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

 

What does strategic leadership look like?

We know strategic leadership is important, but how do we recognize when it’s happening?  What efforts should we focus on to develop strategic leaders within our organizations?

The Strategy + Business magazine has identified 10 principles of strategic leadership. They also created a one-page infographic summary of the highlights.

The article defines strategic leaders as people who are able to tackle “wicked problems” – the ones that “can’t be solved by a single command, have causes that seem incomprehensible and solutions that seem uncertain, and often require companies to transform the way they do business.”

Higher education, like most other sectors, is facing any number of wicked problems. We’re going to have to continue to step up our leadership game.  Here are 10 principles that can help.

  1. Distribute responsibility
  2. Be honest and open about information
  3. Create multiple paths for raising and testing ideas
  4. Make it safe to fail
  5. Provide access to other strategists
  6. Develop opportunities for experience-based learning
  7. Hire for transformation
  8. Bring your whole self to work
  9. Find time to reflect
  10. Recognize leadership development as an ongoing practice

There are several items on this list that resonate with me – either because it’s something I’m involved with frequently or because it’s something I need to work on. Where could you focus as you address the wicked problems in your life?

Dee Anne Bonebright

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

 

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

Creating an ethical climate

People don’t usually wake up one morning and say “I think I’ll be unethical today.” It’s more of a gradual slide away from the moral center.
— Bill George

Several years ago I heard leadership expert Bill George talk about the idea of “true north,” which he defines as an internal ethical compass. He said it is shaped by a leader’s personal experience and it guides their leadership decisions.

The comment above has stayed with me. As we’ve seen in recent ethical failures by business and government organizations, most often it can be traced to a gradual path of unethical leadership decisions rather than one big mistake. For George, that can be traced back to the lack of a clearly defined moral center.

Transformational leadership needs to be ethical. And in order to be ethical, it needs to be authentic. George has identified five key areas for developing this kind of leadership:

  • Knowing your authentic self
  • Practicing your values and leadership principles
  • Understanding your motivations
  • Building your support team
  • Staying grounded by integrating all aspects of your life

You can explore this topic futher by reading the True North book and using the reflection activities available on the True North web site. Consider these reflection questions from the introduction activity:

  • Do you understand your purpose?
  • Do you practice your values?
  • Do you lead with your heart?
  • Do you establish connected relationships?
  • Do you demonstrate self-discipline?

Think about leaders that you admire and who demonstrate their “true north.” How might you want to follow their examples?

Dee Anne Bonebright