Category Archives: Strategic leadership

Developing into the hard spaces

I spent most of this week at the Luoma Leadership Academy, a year-long program in which about 60 leaders at Minnesota State have been learning about leadership and putting it into practice with action learning projects.

At the graduation program, Senior Vice Chancellor Ron Anderson spoke about the importance of developing ourselves as leaders. I appreciated his thoughts about the importance of development, even when it’s hard.

First, he talked about becoming comfortable living in the “murky space” of continuous change. He challenged us to stand up, step out of our comfort zones, and engage in what we could do, not just what we are doing. Increasing our comfort with change, from a work and personal standpoint, enables us to better serve our students, institutions, and the system.

He also challenged us to become comfortable with failure. As we push ourselves and our institutions into new places, we will try some things that don’t work. He reminded us that failure isn’t bad, and it doesn’t mean we’re bad leaders. As long as we learn from it, failure is part of the development process.

As Vice Chancellor Anderson pointed out, we in higher ed are less likely than some other industries to support the idea of “fail early and often.” Developing ourselves as leaders for the future will mean moving into that space and trying new things, even if we aren’t sure whether it will work as planned.

Putting ourselves into places that may be uncomfortable, and stretching our boundaries, is a key component to our work as leaders. What uncomfortable challenge have you taken on recently?

Dee Anne Bonebright

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What’s stopping you?

What’s stopping you from delivering excellent customer service? Is it long-held assumptions about your customers? Resistance to changing how you’ve always done something? Is it tied up with your organizational culture? Or something else?

In a revealing survey of higher education professionals from 79 institutions, Academic Impressions found that respondents did not give their institutions outstanding grades in customer service to students. That may or may not surprise you. Here are the common challenges they found that stop colleges and universities from delivering excellent customer service:

  • Faculty and staff don’t see customer service as necessary
  • Effective customer service training is not provided
  • Uncertainty or inability to audit their current service and identify bottlenecks/gaps

Authors of the study showcase various institution’s approaches to auditing and improving their services in enrollment, academic advising and student support services. For example, to begin identifying academic policies and procedures that impede student success, they recommend three key steps:

  1. Review student complaints as opportunities to identify and correct outdated policies or procedures, recognizing that recurring complaints may point toward a systemic issue.
  2. Survey students to help prioritize where you need to focus.
  3. Audit your academic policies for some of the most common inefficiencies.

In addition to addressing gaps/bottlenecks in service to students, it’s important to address our long-held beliefs and assumptions about students and how we do our work. As Rich Weems, AVP for Enrollment at Southern Oregon University says, “We need to stop thinking about service to the student as an interruption to our work. Service to the student is why we’re there. Your #1 priority is taking care of the student. Drill that in.”

Anita Rios

 

Did you miss the conversation?

A few years ago I was shopping at Ikea and decided to get some lunch. In the cafeteria line in front of me were a mom and her young daughter. They selected their food, sat at a table not far from me, and enjoyed their meal together.

But here’s the thing – during that entire time the mom never got off her phone. She got the food, sat down, cut up her daughter’s meatballs, and ate her lunch one-handed all while conducting a long conversation with whoever was on the other end of the line. The memory of that young girl trying unsuccessfully to get her mother’s attention still makes me want to cry. They were potentially making a memory together and mom missed it.

That experience solidified my resolve to try to be present with whatever conversation I’m in. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I try to use good listening skills whether I’m at home or at work.

In our Art of Supervision course we talk about three basic elements of listening.

  1. Stay focused. Minimize internal and external distractions, pay attention to the speaker, and use nonverbal signals to show you are listening.
  2. Capture the message. Paraphrase and restate the speaker’s key points to be sure you understand them. In work situations you may want to take notes to help with future conversations.
  3. Help the speaker communicate. Ask clarifying questions. Try to understand the feelings and perceptions behind the person’s words. Don’t worry about whether you agree with the message at this point, just try to understand it.

When I can follow these three steps, it helps me stay present. Focusing my energy on listening helps me avoid distractions such as multitasking and, I hope, prevents me from missing important conversations – even when I’m right there in the same room.

Dee Anne Bonebright

Seeking a diverse administration

By 2020, 45 percent of U.S. high school graduates will be non-white. Citing that fact, the American Council on Education says that it’s more important than ever to ensure diversity among admissions representatives. A 2017 blog post highlights the importance of admissions counselors in representing their institutions and in shaping the student body.

The articles says that, similar to other administrative roles, we have work to do to achieve that goal. The authors identified three issues that are limiting diversity in college administration.

Leaky pipelines – Students who graduate with four-year degrees are still predominantly white. This results in lower numbers of qualified minority individuals to fill administrative positions.

Insufficient recruiting – Search committees may not be skilled in recruiting and selecting diverse candidates. Members may not be aware of unconscious biases and strategies for mitigating them.

Lower retention – Even after hiring administrators who bring diversity to the campus, institutions may have difficulty retaining them. This can be especially true in high-turnover positions such as entry-level admissions counselors.

The article proposed some strategies that can help retain all administrators, including administrators of color.

  • Offer diversity and/or cultural competency training for all staff
  • Emphasize diversity in the recruitment process
  • Establishing orientation and mentoring programs for new administrators
  • Foster open communication
  • Invite administrators to be part of decision-making
  • Support administrators’ professional development goals

Building a faculty and administrative staff that reflects our student body is an ongoing challenge for Minnesota State. What effective strategies have you seen?

Dee Anne Bonebright

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

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