Category Archives: leadership challenges

A model of integrity

In recognition of President’s Day and our continuing dialogue on integrity this month, it’s a good opportunity to focus on a president who exuded integrity. George Washington, our nation’s first president, demonstrated integrity both on the battlefield and in the nation’s highest office. In the words of author and historian David Hackett Fischer, Washington possessed “integrity, self-discipline, courage, absolute honesty, resolve, and decision, but also forbearance, decency, and respect for others.”

Washington’s integrity was tested in the early years of our new nation, especially during the Revolutionary War. By 1777-78, he was commanding troops and had suffered losses in all major battles against the British. Retreating 18 miles north to Valley Forge, he helped his soldiers build log cabins where they stayed the winter in freezing cold conditions. With the lack of food, cold, illness, and a demoralized army, he lost at least a dozen men each day to death or desertion.

Washington urged Congress to send the troops food, but Congress advised him to steal food from nearby farmers. But that didn’t pass Washington’s integrity test. Even though local farmers were selling their corn and beef to the British, who paid in gold, Washington rejected Congress’s advice and promised to hang any soldier caught stealing food. Washington won the trust of his troops who were impressed with his integrity.  The next summer, his men who had trained hard over the winter, won a victory that set the stage for overcoming the British and gaining independence for America.

During Washington’s presidency, his integrity was tested often.  For instance, he recognized that America’s integrity, both at home and abroad, depended on honoring its war debt. Some Americans wanted to default on payments to those at home and in France who had invested in the war for independence. Some advised repaying part, but not all of the debt. Washington clearly saw this as an issue of integrity and persuaded Congress to pass a tariff to pay all our debts.

Washington wasn’t always popular with everyone, but he was respected and trusted. And that trust went a long way to ensure Washington’s success as our first president even when he did make mistakes. As Dr. Burton Folsum, Senior Fellow in Economic Education, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, observes, “Politicians of weak character are often second-guessed and challenged on their motives. Washington’s strong character helped Americans forgive him when he made errors in judgment.”

In Washington’s own words, he expressed the value of always acting with the deepest integrity:

“Without virtue, and without integrity, the finest talents and the most brilliant accomplishments can never gain the respect, and conciliate the esteem, of the truly valuable part of mankind.” – George Washington

Anita Rios

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Radical transparency?

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?

Anita Rios

Can you see from where you are?

What engages your people? At our colleges and universities we hope it is the success of our students both during college and after graduation! What would your people say?

In reality it is often challenging for people to see a direct connection between their day-to-day work and the ultimate difference it makes to your customers, be they students in higher education, patients in health care, or whomever. Focusing this line of sight for your people helps them directly see the value and importance of their work which has been shown to increase engagement and performance. A real win-win for leaders.

Management educator and author Russ Linden shares a few ideas on how leaders can do a better job to create a line of sight for their people.

  1. Put a human face on your mission and vision. A health care organization I worked at for many years would always invite patients to join our work team meetings. It truly changed how we thought about our work.
  2. Encourage and make it easy for people to take short-term assignments or projects in different departments/divisions/locations. Exposing people to the full range of work required to serve your customers and how the pieces fit together helps them understand the importance of each step.
  3. Turn employees into customers. Actively look for ways to let your people experience your organization as a customer. Make it real for them.
  4. Schedule and hold multi-unit and multi-location meetings and training events. Whenever possible have people working together as a “whole” rather than in separate “pieces” so they begin to see themselves as an integral element in the overall process.

Leaders have the responsibility and the opportunity to sharpen the line of sight for every person on their team. What examples can you share of a leader doing a great job or an idea you used successfully?

Todd Thorsgaard

 

Where to start?

Many days being a leader feels like this image. Where do you start?

Being a leader is complicated! Not only do you have your own job you are also responsible for leading and managing a team of people, representing your organization, collaborating with other leaders and functions, developing talent, making decisions, communicating up, and on and on. It can feel overwhelming.

To help all our leaders at Minnesota State we asked successful leaders across the system to identify what knowledge, skills, abilities and attributes were key to their success. Based on their answers we identified 11 Leadership Competencies that serve as a framework and a starting point for leadership success. You can see them above. We would also like to share them with you, our readers, in 2018. Each month we will focus on one competency and share insights, current literature, experiences and opportunities for your feedback and ideas. January will kick off with Understands Self and Others.

Our 11 Leadership Competencies are broken in four key leadership roles as follows:

Leader of Self

  • Understands Self and Others
  • Acts with Integrity

Leader as Relationship Builder

  • Values Diversity
  • Communicates Effectively
  • Builds Trust

Leader as Manager

  • Delivers Customer Service
  • Builds Organizational Talent
  • Demonstrates Good Stewardship

Leader as Innovator

  • Articulates Vision and Mission
  • Builds Organizational Capacity to Meet Future Challenges
  • Demonstrates Effective Decision-Making

Todd Thorsgaard

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


Advice for new executive leaders

Rich Bents, Ph.D., Partner, Future Systems Consulting

Are you in a new executive role or contemplating one? If so, this advice from Rich Bents might be very timely for you. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bents this month and found that he has a wealth of wisdom to share. (My questions are noted in bold, with his answers below.)

Rich, you’ve been serving as an executive coach to quite a few of our new and emerging executive leaders in the last seven years. What do you see as the top two or three challenges that new executive leaders face in their roles?

A common challenge for those seeking executive positions in higher education is fiscal management, particularly fundraising. Delegation is often a challenge. The basic act of clearly assigning a task and accountability can be difficult for new executive leaders. Another challenge is creating a stimulating vision for an organization that fits comfortably into the vision for Minnesota State. It is easy to just articulate a vision, the difficult part is demonstrating how that vision fits into a larger context.

In your observation, are there any predictors of success for a new executive leader? What do successful leaders do?

The predictors of success I have found are emotional intelligence and the ability to create trust while exuding trust-worthiness. The first step is to ensure high self-trust. Then attend to the following questions: Are my intentions pure? Do I have high integrity? Do I have the necessary abilities to get the work done that is before me? Do I exhibit the appropriate behaviors? Am I engaging in collaborative ways? Do I get desired results? These six questions pretty well cover all trust issues. A breech of any one of them will always challenge a trust relationship.

What are some of the most common pitfalls for new executive leaders?

A common pitfall is not understanding or not identifying all of the stakeholders and attending to their needs. New executives often do not realize who all of their stakeholders might be. And even when all of the stakeholders are identified, new executives may not know what the stakeholders are expecting. The needs of the stakeholders may be very diverse and at times unexpected. Validating the various stakeholder needs is an important and rewarding exercise.

Another common pitfall is not identifying potential blind spots in their leadership style or in their values. Blind spots are just that –things that we do not see. When looking at leadership styles and personality preferences, blind spots can be exposed by looking at the opposing styles and types. Opposing values are more difficult to discern because executives dearly hold to their personal values and find it difficult to find and state an opposing value in positive terms. Usually what happens is a value is stated i.e., “Optimism” and we quickly say “Pessimism” is the opposing value. However an opposing value to “Optimism” may well be “Realism.” Understanding that other people will hold opposing values to our own gives the executive greater insight to their own values and behaviors.

What do you advise leaders to do to avoid those pitfalls?

Reflect to identify all stakeholders and articulate, then validate, their needs. It is important to engage stakeholders in discussions that answer the following questions: What is it they want? What is it they need? What is it they expect?

First clarify personal values. Then share your values with those close to you. And always live your values.

If there is one thing you could advise all leaders to do whether they are new in their role or not, what would it be?

Know your values and live them. Learn how to create trusting relationships. Be emotionally strong/well.

For executives, I always try to instill the full meaning of what Max De Pree once said: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant.”

Thanks for your willingness to share your wisdom, Rich!

Anita Rios

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