Tag Archives: accountability

Don’t touch the brakes!

I may have been driving a little too fast but the snow wasn’t coming down too hard. Then I hit the bridge section, lost traction and started sliding. I had made a mistake and was heading for a crash. Luckily my dad had taught me how to not overreact and what to do when sliding on ice. Don’t touch the brakes, steer into the slide and accelerate a little to maintain traction. My heart was racing but I straightened out and avoided a crash. As a leader, how you react to mistakes is also a crucial skill to learn.

As they say, mistakes will happen and your response to your own mistakes and the mistakes made by your team will either help build trust or slowly chip away at your integrity. It is easy to list what not to do – (Don’t touch these brakes):

  • Ignore
  • Blame
  • Point fingers
  • Deny
  • Deflect
  • Minimize
  • Rationalize
  • Overreact

More difficult is to steer into the mistake. Based on my own experience, and a few ideas from Kristen Beireis, a coach who specializes in trust-building, the following actions can help you avoid turning a mistake into a crash.

  1. Acknowledge it or admit it – as hard as it may be this is the starting point to correcting any mistake.
  2. Offer to fix or make good – it may cost you money or time or prestige but often a simple offer to honor or fix a mistake will go miles.
  3. Support your people and help them find a solution – resist searching for the cause immediately and support your people and encourage them to focus on first correcting the mistake. You can work together later to search for causes.
  4. Follow through – demonstrating commitment and follow-through is crucial after any mistake. People will accept an earnest correction but will be skeptical if they don’t see true follow-through.
  5. Learn from the mistake – adopt the mindset of a scientist and use the mistake as a learning opportunity to make an improvement or minimize the chance of a similar mistake.

It is human nature to slam on your brakes and make a mistake worse. Responding with intention can help you recover and demonstrate integrity.

Todd Thorsgaard



The over-promising trap

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

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

Decisions and habitual dishonesty

scalesSince I work in the Wells Fargo Place building, I’ve been interested in their recent ethical problems. A business professor from Wharton recently published an article about the issue. He looked at similar violations in the finance industry, as well as the Volkswagen scandal, and concluded that actions by leadership can normalize what would otherwise be seen as  dishonest.

For example, it appears that over 5,300 employees at Wells Fargo were involved in creating unauthorized accounts and charging unauthorized fees against them. Equally troubling, the HR unit had a plan for firing employees who reported the unethical behavior. And because of the widespread misbehavior, authorities are now having a hard time holding people accountable.

We in higher education are not responsible for people’s finances, but as leaders we make decisions that impact hiring, work roles, and many aspects of the campus climate. We can normalize decisions that are ethical, civil, and respectful to everyone. Over the past year I’ve been learning a lot about unconscious bias in hiring and employment, and how some things we consider “normal” are putting some people at a disadvantage without our realizing it. I need to examine my leadership decisions to be sure they support the climate we want to create.

What kind of decisions do you make in your leadership role? How can you be sure they are promoting ethical behavior in others?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Who is accountable?

yellow-brick-roadIn the end, Dorothy, the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man each had what they needed within themselves to get to the end of the yellow brick road.  To build organizational capacity, leaders and team members must also travel down an unknown road into the future. This type of action in the face of uncertainty requires personal accountability by leaders and the development and support of personal accountability for team members.

Roger Conners and Tom Smith, in their book The Wisdom of Oz, share ideas on how to assume accountability for our own actions, how not be defined by our circumstances and how to take action to reach our goals.

Their Four Steps to Accountability are:

  1. See It – acknowledge your own blind spots to reality and seek out additional information to truly “see” the whole picture. This often involves asking others for their point of view – and listening to it.
  2. Own It – acknowledge your own role in the current situation and take responsibility for finding a solution or taking action to move forward.
  3. Solve It – do the work required to find a solution, or make a change. This can involve doing research, seeking input, working with others, trying options, or other techniques. But you must take ownership of finding what you need to do.
  4. Do It – take concrete action to do what you need to do when you need to do it!

We don’t always know what the future will bring but if we accept our personal accountability we can shape our own future and not be controlled by a wizard behind the curtain.

Todd Thorsgaard


Tough collaboration!

barbed_wireIt is pretty easy to collaborate with close colleagues, it gets much trickier when we need to collaborate across boundaries. It can even get downright painful!

Today, I am excited to share an example of collaboration across boundaries to ensure future success. The Minnesota State system of colleges and universities announced at today’s Board of Trustee meeting that we will guarantee admission to students who students who complete the Minnesota Transfer Curriculum and earn a minimum 2.0 GPA* in an Associate of Arts (AA) degree from any Minnesota State college to every one of our seven Minnesota State universities with junior year status.

This required collaboration across multiple boundaries, including; community and technical colleges, state universities, administrators, faculty, labor organizations, local admissions offices, system office leaders and just a whole bunch of individuals with strong opinions.

As Dan Sanker highlights in his book, Collaborate! The Art of We, collaboration like this is required for success in the complex and competitive world we face in higher education (and all fields.)

I was not a part of the work to develop the admissions guarantee collaboration but I imagine it contained most of the elements that Sanker describes as essential for successful collaboration:

  • Ongoing communication – even when it gets tough
  • Willing participation – not up front agreement but a willingness to explore
  • Brainstorming – open to alternative ideas
  • Teamwork – all must participate
  • A common purpose – the crucial starting point that requires clarification and alignment
  • Trust – requires both time and demonstrated behavior
  • A plan – turn ideas to action
  • A diverse group – provides the unique perspectives to develop innovative ideas and action
  • Mutual respect – foundation for work
  • A written agreement – creates a shared understanding
  • Effective leadership – not just a single title but actions to keep the group focused and help when the process goes off-track

Each of us are responsible for creating the conditions that will support collaborative efforts on our teams and across work groups on our campuses. Sanker’s list can help our teams avoid getting stuck on the barbed wire fences that pop up at work.

Todd Thorsgaard


The future is now!

the-future-is-nowWell, by definition that may not be true – (Merriam-Webster definition of future\ˈfyü-chər\: coming after the present time) –  but leaders need to take action now to ensure that their people and their organizations are successful both tomorrow and further down the road.

The leadership competency we will be discussing in November is Builds Organizational Capacity to Meet Future Challenges. Specifically what actions do you need to take now to understand the challenges you and your people will be facing in the future and how to take action now to tackle those challenges.

The colleges and universities of Minnesota State define this leadership competency as:

  • engaging and supporting appropriate risk-taking
  • identifying and removing barriers to innovation
  • rewarding and supporting innovations advancing excellence and effeciency
  • promoting accountability for self and others
  • collaborating across educational and governmental boundaries in the system, nation and world
  • networking with innovative thinkers, developers and donors

We will use that definition as a starting point for our conversations with you.

The future is full of opportunity and uncertainty but one thing we know – it will be here soon!

Todd Thorsgaard