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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Sometimes leaders know they need to make a new beginning, either personally or for the organization, but they can’t figure out how to start. There may be many options, and sometimes these options are complete opposites.
We’ve written several times before about managing polarities – the kind of decision making that needs to happen when there are two opposing options, both of which have positive benefits.
A natural tendency is to look for some sort of compromise. But sometimes the compromise results in an outcome that doesn’t satisfy anyone. In their new book, Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking, Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin talk about ways to get out of the trap of either/or thinking and come up with new solutions.
So what does that have to do with Legos? As Riel describes in this interview with Harvard Business Review, the executives at Lego had to make a difficult choice related to the movie. Should they hold on to creative control and protect the brand, or should they give creative control to skilled professionals who would create an exciting movie but might not serve the brand well?
The executives came up with a new solution that resulted in a blockbuster hit. It was a win for Lego and for the creators of the movie. (Check out the interview to find out what that solution was.)
Is there an area where you are feeling stuck in either/or thinking? How can you look at the problem in new ways?
Dee Anne Bonebright
My vulnerability to my own life is irrefutable. Nor do I wish it to be otherwise, as vulnerability is a guardian of integrity.
— Anne Truitt, sculptor and psychologist.
It is scary to be vulnerable! In fact, that is why I like being the facilitator rather than a participant. When I am in the front of the room I am always prepared and ready for what is next. I won’t be asked to share and I won’t be caught off guard.
Leaders face the same issue with being vulnerable. It can be hard to share that you don’t have all the answers or that you have made a mistake. You may fear that your uncertainty or missteps will be used against you or cause others to lose confidence in you. Yet that same fear can sabotage your ability to demonstrate your integrity.
Charles Feltman, author of The Thin Book of Trust, puts it this way. “When you wear a mask of invulnerability people won’t trust that they can be open with you. At work this can translate into withholding ideas, information or important feedback. If you don’t let any of your own vulnerabilities show people may see you as strong, but will also question your ability to really care about them and their interests.”
Feltman encourages leaders to be “authentically vulnerable” by acknowledging to people that you:
- have cares
- have concerns
- have fears
- sometimes make mistakes
- wrestle with issues
To be an effective leader you must balance this type of vulnerability with competence. People need to have confidence that you can do your job, as well as see you as a real person who is vulnerable and trustworthy. That is integrity in action.
When was the last time you shared a real concern, or talked about a mistake you made, with someone on your team? How did it go?
Best of 2015, first published on March 4, 2015
As the title suggests this dilemma cannot be vanquished but only revisited and managed – not solved!
Ever since we could argue it seems as if people have been debating the merits of working for the common good or working for individual success and survival. Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher, wrote in 1651 that we needed government to enforce behaviors that support the common good. The economist Adam Smith argued in 1776 that we must establish a free economic market to ensure that the common good wins. Otherwise the power of individual success will win.
I first got involved in this debate as a behavioral biology student in 1976 when Richard Dawkins published one of my favorite books, The Selfish Gene. At the time it was described as “the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned. It’s breathtaking.” Dawkins continued the scientific debate that is occurring today: is it better to act for the common good or is it better to act for the good of the individual?
While this debate has fueled many wonderful conversations and arguments on college campuses, during long car trips, or at the local bar it highlights a dilemma that all leaders face. Do I focus on the success of my team and our services or do I focus on the success of the larger organization, even if it hurts my team or my success?
What if there isn’t a “right” answer and instead it is actually a polarity that you can leverage? In her 2014 post, Leveraging polarities, Anita introduced the concept of polarity thinking as a tool for leaders to use when facing these types of ongoing dilemmas. A recent article from the Polarity Partnership Group highlights the need to recognize the benefits of supporting the common good AND supporting your team while also acknowledging and acting on the downside of the common good AND the downside of team-focused success.
Over the next month we will be sharing tips and tools you can use to reap the benefits of focusing on the common good in your organization. Yet, in today’s complex environment we must also follow F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice and “hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It isn’t a debate between the common good and the good of your team, it is a polarity of the common good and the good of your team.
“Step with care and great tact. And remember life is a Great Balancing Act” –Dr. Seuss
As we near the Thanksgiving holiday, I’m reminded both of how thankful I am for the terrific team I work with and the talented people we serve in our colleges and universities. At the same time, I’m very cognizant of the great balancing act all leaders must engage in to be effective. This week, balancing work and home is really prominent for me, given the fact that I’m hosting Thanksgiving for my family and in-laws. That means tons of preparation; like shopping, cleaning, roasting the turkey and cooking all of the wonderful side dishes that go with it. That on top of a busy work schedule this week feels a little like walking a tightrope with every step carefully planned and executed. Every hour on my calendar is dedicated to a particular task or activity, whether it is for work or home.
In addition to balancing work and home, leaders must also balance many seemingly opposite characteristics in order to be effective, such as:
- Confidence and Humility
- Candor and Diplomacy
- Guidance and Tolerance
- Control and Empowerment
- Structure and Flexibility
- Planning and Implementation
- Decisiveness and Mindfulness
You’ll notice that each of these characteristics appear to be polar opposites. They are called polarities. Leaders must sometimes walk a tightrope in balancing the two. They can’t choose one characteristic or pole to the exclusion of the other. For example, good leaders balance confidence with humility. If they focus too much on confidence, they can appear arrogant. And if they are focused solely on humility, they can appear to completely lack confidence in their own abilities. Think about leaders you’ve known. What has been the effect on those they lead if they have overfocused on confidence? Have you known anyone who has overfocused on humility? What has been the result? In my observation, leaders who are successful approach both confidence and humility as a great balancing act.
As with any skill set, balancing some leadership polarities just comes naturally for us. Others are a bit of a stretch. In the structure/flexibility polarity, I tend to overfocus on structure at times. I like to be prepared and do quite a bit of planning in order to ensure that leadership programs, events, and presentations go well. And yes, that same preparation extends to our family Thankgiving celebration. Sometimes that means that I can have trouble shifting gears in the moment if something happens to upset all those plans. I know I need to increase my tolerance for flexibility and to stretch my skills in thinking on my feet so I stay nimble in the moment. Which of the leadership polarities listed above do you balance naturally? And which ones do you have to work at?
Can you believe what he did? What was she thinking? Where did he get the idea to do that?
How do you react when you hear people on your team making statements like these? How important is a “smooth operating” team to you?
While a team that embraces the culture of the organization and holds a set of shared values, beliefs and unstated assumptions can be a competitive advantage, there is also a dark side of culture that leaders need to recognize.
There has been a spate of stories and articles recently describing the downside of an over reliance on cultural fit in the workplace. Inadvertently, in the quest to hire and develop aligned work teams, organizations have created road blocks to diversity and have reinforced conformity and exclusion. Organizational cultural fit has morphed into “personal” fit which can lead to exclusion.
To leverage organizational culture and not personal similarity, Lauren A. Rivera, associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, encourages leaders to use data and focus on the traits, behaviors, values and past experience that are directly related to job performance and the overall success of the organization.
In the end leaders need to manage the tension between personal fit and diversity within the organization.
Best of 2014, first published on February 19, 2014.
Yes, every year the holiday season sneaks up on me and I scramble to pack in all the fun, festivities and craziness before the year ends! In a similar manner, the transformational changes you are leading in higher education also will continue to reappear. Not because something is wrong but because leaders face adaptive, complex and ever-changing changes! — Todd Thorsgaard
How often does this thought run through your mind, “I thought that last change had solved our problem, I can’t believe I have to deal with it again!”
It seems like many of the changes that vex leaders are related to recurring issues that keep popping up, again and again. Does that mean we are making mistakes in our change leadership? Have the wrong solution or the wrong people on the team? I believe not! A more accurate assessment of your current state may be that you are dealing with an adaptive challenge.
Adaptive problems require a longer term change strategy to ensure success than technical problems do, as described by Dr. Ronald Heifetz in the following video. Heifitz, the founder of the Center for Public Leadership and a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Affairs, describes the differences between adaptive challenges and so-called technical problems and highlights adaptive challenges as requiring a “sustained period of disequilibrium.” The nature of adaptive challenges means that any resulting changes will evolve and shift over time and not be able to be implemented and done with. Your change management efforts will need to support “a productive zone of disturbance and discomfort” over a long period of time Dr. Ronald Heifetz video
Learning to recognize the differences between adaptive challenges and technical problems will help you as you assess your current state and develop your change strategy. It may also help you feel less stressed as “problems” resurface, like the critters in “whack a mole!”
In their research on transformational change, Scott Keller and Colin Price, authors of Beyond Performance, have identified common pitfalls that organizations typically encounter on their change journey. Interestingly enough, these pitfalls are all paradoxes that people struggle with in organizational life.
For example, here are a few:
- Change vs. Continuity
- Planning vs. Piloting/Experimentation
- Standardization vs. Autonomous Practices
- Pressure for Progress vs. Discovery
- Independent Initiatives vs. Connected Initiatives
The key to managing any of these pitfalls is to see them not as EITHER/OR solutions, but to view them as BOTH/AND equations. For instance:
- To manage change and continuity, ask: What do we need to do to preserve the core of the excellent education we provide, but make room for leaps of innovation that will support student success?
- To manage planning and experimentation, ask: How do we balance our planning efforts with wise action that moves progress forward?
- To manage standardization and autonomy, ask: What processes would benefit from standardization across our campuses and where is it best to allow for autonomy among colleges and universities?
Well, you get the picture. But what if mere questioning doesn’t help get you unstuck when you are dealing with one of these common pitfalls? That’s when it’s helpful to do some deeper exploratory work. Using a tool called a polarity map can be extraordinarily helpful to discover what what underlying values and mindsets are responsible for polarizing people in the organization. Most importantly, the process of polarity mapping can help you explore common ground and strategies for moving forward, so you can manage the dilemma effectively.
For resources on understanding polarities, see: Barry Johnson’s book on Polarity Management or a Managing Polarities seminar available through our Talent Management team at MnSCU.
Understanding the normal flow and dynamics of how polarities operate in our world and workplace can give leaders valuable insights into managing not only change efforts but many complex unsolvable problems. In fact, in their August 2013 e-newsletter, the Center for Creative Leadership listed leveraging polarities as one of the key areas that senior executives must master in order to lead strategically. They state:
“Senior leaders constantly wrestle with the strategic and practical implications of priorities that appear to be in conflict. They debate the merits of global vs. regional, rewarding the team vs. rewarding individuals, centralized vs. decentralized. To be successful in today’s environment, leaders must leverage the value of each, rather than viewing them as “either/or.”
I’ve observed that leaders of change can create their own resistance, when they treat the change/stability polarity as an “either/or” choice, rather than a “both/and” solution. This often happens when leaders focus only on the new ideas or improvements that the change brings, while ignoring some of the pitfalls of change. To head off resistance, it is important for leaders to simultaneously discuss the things that the organization does well and is not changing. Simply put, it can help to speed adoption of change efforts, when leaders discuss both what will be changing and what will be staying the same.
What advice do you have for leaders to leverage the value of both change and stability?
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Sound familiar? Actually, this statement reflects a paradox or polarity that all leaders must embrace at some point when leading change.
As I’ve worked with leaders, I’ve learned that ALL change efforts can be managed better when they are fully understood as part of a polarity. For instance, knowing the benefits and limitations of change and stability can help you better understand people’s points of view and reactions to change efforts. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “People resist change.” While this is often an accurate point of view, it is not a complete one. Often what people are resisting are the downsides of too much change that result in confusion and chaos. Their point of view may also be reinforced by an appreciation of the upsides of stability, which can include continuity and organizational memory. Leaders need to continually manage the benefits of both change and stability, while limiting the negative impacts of each.
This week, I was in a meeting with a colleague, who encouraged our Competency committee to build our efforts from the good work that has already been done over the last few years, rather than starting from scratch. We were tasked with identifying competencies for Chief Human Resource Officers within MnSCU. Her point was a good one. She said that it would demonstrate to our HR colleagues that we valued the work that had gone on before and that we were developing it further. To me, this approach of managing the benefits of change and stability equates to: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” There is no need in change efforts to change everything. And it is important for people to know that their previous contributions have been valued.
Along those same lines, I have to credit our Vice Chancellor for Human Resources. When he started his new appointment, he was charged with crafting a new workplan for Human Resources systemwide. Rather than ignoring previous work that had taken place around creating a mission and broad goals, he honored that work and engaged his leadership team to build upon it and rework it where necessary. It gave him instant credibility in his new leadership role and greater support for the new workplan as it evolved.
Have you experienced the change/stability polarity in your workplace? If so, how?
For more information on managing polarities, see Barry Johnson’s book on Polarity Management.
You can also participate in a Managing Polarities seminar through our Talent Management unit.