Category Archives: Strategic leadership

Leading with powerful questions

Best of HigherEDge, first published on December 13, 2013

If you’ve followed our blog for any period of time, you’ll note that I’m a fan of asking good questions. It’s an essential part of leading effectively. While I don’t always succeed in asking the right question at the right moment, I’m always working at that particular skill. The post below from my colleague Dee Anne Bonebright challenges leaders to ask thought-provoking questions that will generate productive dialogue. – Anita Rios

In my last post, I talked about the importance of asking good questions. This can seem obvious, but I’ve found it to be very difficult in practice.  As leaders, it’s easy to believe that we are asking thought-provoking questions, while in reality others see them differently.  How often have you heard people say “He asked for our opinion, but I know the decision was already made.”

Asking powerful questions is one of the most effective ways to involve stakeholders in decisions that affect them, and to increase buy-in to the decision once it’s made. As I’ve been learning more about the art of asking questions, a colleague shared an excellent resource created by the World Cafe and Pegasus Communications: The Art of Powerful Questions. I highly recommend the entire article.  As a sample, here are some questions they recommend to help leaders frame questions that will generate productive dialogue:

  • Is this question relevant to the team’s goals?
  • Do I genuinely not know the answer?
  • What do I want to happen as a result of the question?
  • Is the question likely to generate new trains of thought or new directions?
  • Is this question likely to generate creative action?
  • Is it likely to generate more questions?

As I prepare to lead meetings, I’ve been challenging myself to be intentional about the questions I’ll ask. It really makes a difference in what I bring to the table and in the outcomes that are generated.

Einstein is supposed to have said that if he had only one hour to solve a life-threatening problem, he’d spend the first 55 minutes forming the right question, because then the problem could be solved in the remaining 5 minutes. How much time do you typically spend forming the right question?

–Dee Anne Bonebright

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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

It’s all in your mind….. thank goodness

As Buddha said, we can use our minds to drive our behaviors. Developing a more strategic way of thinking leads to more strategic behaviors.

In fact, leadership development expert Melissa Karz highlights how having a “strategic mindset gives you a lens to think big in every moment.” In a recent article, she suggests practicing four specific habits to develop your own strategic mindset.

Align to Organizational Objectives. Asking yourself the following questions can help you stay aligned and take the actions necessary to help your team be aligned to the vision, values and goals of your organization.

  • Where are we today and where do we want to be in 12 months?
  • What skills am I missing, and is my team missing, to accomplish those goals?
  • What relationships do I need to build or nurture?
  • How are we defining success now, and in the future?

Identify Highest Value Activities.  Strategic thinking means scanning all the demands, options, requests, and opportunities and identifying the ones that will best support short-term and long-term success. Prioritization means saying no or delegating. High value activities include:

  • Coaching and developing your direct reports.
  • Building relationships and networks to facilitate collaboration and a broader perspective.
  • Creating a direct line of sight for your team so they can see how their work contributes to the big picture.

Seek Under-The-Radar Information. The reality is that leaders are shielded from much of the information they actually need. It is human nature to withhold bad news or to hesitate to “bother” leaders. To overcome this leaders need to actively seek out information and make it easier for people to share information, even bad news. Practice:

  • Asking questions.
  • Using mistakes as a learning opportunity.
  • Reinforcing open and transparent communication.
  • Taking time to meet with colleagues and peers.
  • Meeting with people outside your own industry.

Schedule Time for Reflection. Developing a strategic mindset requires action and reflection. Scheduling time to analyze and assess what you have learned, what you want to continue doing, and what you want to do differently is strategic. Just like you schedule important meetings, dedicating scheduled time daily, weekly, quarterly and annually is a challenging but necessary habit to develop.

Over time these habits reinforce a strategic mindset which leads to more strategic behaviors further establishing strategic habits making strategic leadership a part of who you are.

Todd Thorsgaard

 

Do you see that bird? What bird?

After college I took a road trip to the western United States with two roommates, Digger and Jorgy. While we had a great adventure I also learned a fascinating lesson about the challenge of strategic leadership.

As we were driving Digger kept exclaiming, “do you see that bird!” And Jorgy would say, “no, where?” Then Jorgy would shout out, “look at that formation” and Digger would say, “what formation, where?” Digger, the ornithologist, was always scanning the sky or treetops, while Jorgy, the geologist, was always scanning the ground. They did not easily see what the other saw.

Author and leadership consultant Bruna Martinuzzi suggests that a strategic leader has to be able to “keep an eye on the ground and on the horizon at the same time.” In an article she wrote last year she provides advice on how to develop that tricky skill of looking up and down at the same time, or developing “the ability to oversee the day-to-day operations while directing the long-term strategic imperatives.”

  1. Practice Using Reframing.  Reframing is the ability to view an issue or topic from a completely different and new perspective. A physician I worked with at my previous employer shared my favorite example of reframing. Whenever she worked with a patient who kept failing when trying to quit smoking she would reframe it by focusing on the patient’s willingness to keep trying, not on the failure. Then they could reinforce the patient’s tenacity and agree to work on trying something new. Marinuzzi describes how leaders can use a Reframing Matrix to view an issue from four different perspectives before you make a decision.
  2. Adopt Practical and Conceptual Approaches. Honestly acknowledge if you typically use a more concrete or a more abstract approach and then force yourself to carve out time in your schedule to practice the opposite. If you tend to be more practical, take time to research industry trends and analyze trends over time. If you are more comfortable in the conceptual realm, take time to review the project plans of your people or examine the day-to-day processes your people use to get their work done.
  3. Strike a Balance Between Informing and Inspiring. Examine all your different types of communication and assess how often they focus on creating clarity and sharing of information versus inspiring and motivating people. Strategic leaders must do both.

As a strategic leader you can help your team keep their eyes on the ground and the horizon.

Todd Thorsgaard

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

Painting the closet

My grandfather was a master painter and wallpaper hanger and I had the amazing fortune to work for him for over 20 years. One of the many lessons I learned from him was that you have to deliver the basics to get the opportunity to become a true master at your craft. The first years that I worked for him I spent much of my time painting the insides of closets or the priming coat of paint. Strategic leadership also has a foundation in delivering the basics before moving to the strategic.

Rosabeth Moss Canter, in a November Harvard Business Review article, highlights that successful strategic leaders are those that have mastered execution and implementation by following these four imperatives.

Question everything. Force yourself to challenge your assumptions and tackle “sacred cows” that exist in your organization or industry.

Inform everyone, then empower champions. Focus on both breadth of awareness and ideas and depth of committed support. Share information broadly and ask for all ideas to ensure that you are considering all options. Then take action to support your early and enthusiastic adopters to demonstrate early results.

Keep relationships tight and rules loose. Build a large network of people who are comfortable sharing good and bad news with you. Focus on creating a shared vision and trust and then giving people the freedom to take action and make decisions based on their expertise.

Modify quickly. Recognize and be willing to acknowledge bad news or challenges. Learn from what isn’t working and modify as soon as possible.

Developing a strategy and announcing it isn’t enough, you have to dive in and get the closet painted.

Todd Thorsgaard

Your best laid plans

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.

Anita Rios