Tag Archives: vision

Inspiration and culture

By guest blogger John Kearns

Leaders in higher education lead by fiat at their own peril. So when they want to shape the culture of an organization such as a college or university or system, they need to do a lot of persuading. There’s an art to persuasion in the western tradition that goes back to Aristotle, who said there were three things you have to do if you want to persuade people to follow you. You have to prove you’re worthy of being followed. You have to convince people that your way is the right way. And you have to make people feel something.

I’ve written a lot of speeches over the past decade – for myself when I was a dean and provost, and more recently for higher education chief executives – at a time when we don’t have the luxury of ignoring the need to change. Leading today in an academic setting is all about shaping a new organizational culture. But our leaders – especially those who come from the academic ranks – tend to be more comfortable proving their worth (i.e., the verbal résumé) and stating the facts that prove they’re right (i.e., the verbal graph). That’s because bona fides and facts are the main things valued in academic research. Making people feel all the feels? Don’t be ridiculous!

I’m not saying proving your worth and establishing your facts aren’t important. They’re extremely important and a leader’s communication must include them. But organizational culture is ultimately something that’s experienced, that’s felt. Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action is all about reminding us that leaders are much more likely to succeed in shaping an organization culture when they can explain WHY. For Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, WHY means Why we do what we do and Why we care about providing access to all Minnesotans.

But WHY also explains WHAT we do. We prioritize access: That’s why we have 54 campuses in 47 communities across the state where students from every walk of life come to learn. We protect affordibility: That’s why we don’t set tuition according to what the market will bear. We’re growing the pipeline of future college students: That’s why we work with public schools to redesign the transition from high school to higher education. And we want Minnesota communities to prosper: That’s why we graduate people in every profession, from nurses to mechanics to teachers and more.

Once an audience understands why, they’re ready to hear about what needs to happen.

John Kearns is the Senior Writer, Executive & Strategic Communication for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Todd Thorsgaard


What do (did) we face in 2014?

Best of 2014, first published on January 29, 2014.
Happy New Year’s Eve! Before you set your resolutions and goals for 2015 take time to look back, reflect and learn from what happened in 2014. How did you react to change, what worked well, what didn’t work as well? What do you want to continue to do in 2015? What do you want to do differently? Through reflection leaders can grow and not just repeat experiences — Todd Thorsgaard

Successful leaders are vigilant and pay attention to factors, large and small, that will have an impact on their people and themselves. It is almost impossible to not be awafuture signsre of the key issues that exist in higher education that will be driving change over the next year. Yet as leaders it is also important to be continually scanning the entire environment and using that information to help you lead your people during change.

In conjunction with leadership consultant Sarah Bridges, we have created a Situational Awareness Worksheet that can be used to help you conduct an “environmental scan” to identify external factors that will need to be a part of your overall change leadership strategy. One factor when leading change is an awareness of the workplace culture. Each institution and each work team has its own culture but a recent article from the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologists provides a Top 10 List Workplace Trends for 2014 that can be used as a starting point when you scan your environment.

Trend #6, Integrating Technology into the Workplace, is one that will be very important in my work leading change over the next year. I have discovered that new technology often feels like a threat and that reaction can derail change efforts. What I view as a tech enhancement and a positive change is viewed as a condemnation of past practice and stops collaboration and change! Including that knowledge into the change plan ensures that it is not overlooked and the concerns addresses.

What trends will be most important for you as you lead change in 2014?

Todd Thorsgaard

Code blue – save that change!

Best of 2014, first published on June 11, 2014
Leadership provides many opportunities to serve our students and the people on your team. It also requires much from you, particularly when there is conflict or concerns about needed changes. Inspirational leaders find a way to “go first” and demonstrate with their own actions what must be done. Even when it is hard.  –Todd Thorsgaard

aedEach morning I notice the AED defibrillator when I exit the stairwell on my way to my office. If I am running late I may be slightly out of breath from running up the stairs but I have never needed the defibrillator, thank goodness! Yet, I am glad that the leaders in our organization don’t just talk about healthy employees but take accountability and are committed to the health of their people. They purchased and put AED devices on each floor and provided training on how to use them. I am trained and it is a good feeling to know that we have resources available and I know what to do in the event of a health emergency.

Change leaders have a similar responsibility to align their own behaviors and take accountability for their role in building accountability for change in the overall institution. The Implementation Institute uses the acronym CPR to help leaders build accountability for actual behavior change and execution in change initiatives.

C – Communicate: Clearly define, articulate and share the specific behaviors, performance and actions that are a part of the change.

P – Practice: Clearly determine what behaviors you need to personally demonstrate to show your commitment to the change. “Practice what you preach”

R– Reinforce: Create an infrastructure, policies and practices that reinforce the desired behaviors, successful and initially unsuccessful attempts at the new behaviors, and other activities that support the change.

Leaders who understand the importance of change CPR and actively communicate, practice and reinforce the desired behaviors necessary for a change to succeed will build accountability and commitment through their higher education institutions or any type of organization.

Todd Thorsgaard




“Ouch, that hurts!” I was mountain biking last weekend with my brothers and a co-worker and I crashed. Trail ridingIt caught me by surprise. We were working hard, making progress, having fun, and suddenly, I was on my back – a little bloody but no worse for the wear. I picked up my bike, brushed the dirt off my body, smiled a bit, and continued down the trail. Sounds like leading change.

You can count on obstacles, and even a crash or two, when leading change. Being resilient and getting back on track can help determine the future of the change effort and your success as a leader. Last week I was participating in the Academic and Student Affairs Leadership Conference for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. While there we received notice that two of our major stakeholder groups are stepping away from our Charting the Future work. It was an emotional blow that requires leaders to get back up and keep moving forward. Psychologists call that resiliency, the ability to adapt and bounce back when things don’t go as planned.

At the conference, I listened to our leaders describe the challenges they experience having to repeatedly get back up and keep moving forward. Their experiences reflect what neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes in his book Hardwiring Happiness. Our brains act like velcro for bad news and teflon for good news. We absorb the crashes, ignore the victories and deplete our resiliency. Luckily new research has confirmed the concept of neuroplasticity. Our experiences literally can change our brains. We can develop our resiliency using a four step process Hanson describes as “the deliberate internalization of positive experiences in implicit memory,” or HEAL:

  1. Have a positive experience – notice one or create one for yourself
  2. Enrich it – recognize it and stay with it for a moment
  3. Absorb it – really recognize it and let it sink in
  4. Link positive and negative material – acknowledge something negative in the background and notice it isn’t overwhelming the positive

Developing your resiliency can help you be prepared for and respond to the crashes you will encounter leading change. Yes, the bruises I get riding can hurt, but the memories of trails and friends help me get back on the bike. top of crusher Bike resting

Todd Thorsgaard


Hard to define, easy to recognize

Accountability and commitment are terms that face becoming buzz words. If you do a google search you will find hundreds of different definitions of each word. The same search also brings up even more consulting firms that each guarantee their approach or model will develop employees who are committed to change and create accountability in organizations.

Despite this confusion and ambiguity we recognize that successful change requires both commitment and accountability. While hard to define, committed individuals are easy to recognize and accountability becomes clear in how they act. I want to share a powerful example I just experienced that I believe can help us define commitment and accountability. Obama

Over the past week I had the privilege and opportunity to attend the 2014 West Point cadet graduation ceremony and participate in an officer’s commissioning for a new graduate. President Obama gave the commencement speech but what was more impressive to me was the picture of commitment and accountability these graduates demonstrated.

Group gradsTo become leaders these cadets had to complete a  demanding training program and an intense educational experience that required persistence combined with an overwhelming greater purpose, or commitment. In addition, to be commissioned as an officer and a leader, they willingly accept responsibility for the lives of the people on their team and in our country. They take accountability to do what they know they should do and take responsibility for the outcomes.

Over the next month Anita, Dee Anne and I will share ideas and resources that leaders in higher education can use to build accountability and commitment in our institutions and our people. The definitions can be murky at times but experiencing true commitment and strong accountability leads to amazing success! West Point grads


Todd Thorsgaard

Making it our story

We’ve been discussing vision stories all month, mostly with a assumption that the vision is often crafted by a leader and their leadership team. While that may often be the case, I’ve found the sooner leaders engage everyone in the organization in making the vision part of their collective story, the more quickly the change is embraced. But how do you create a collective vision story, especially if you have many employees?

One way to engage everyone at the start of a change effort is to use one of my favorite tools, called SOAR, in a large facilitated meeting or in successive large meetings. SOAR stands for Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results, and is based in appreciative inquiry, a process that is co-constructive and focuses first on what is best about the organization and the people in it. It can be used effectively with very large groups of people.

With Strengths, individuals and groups share what they value most about themselves, their teams, and their abilities to deliver on the mission for the organization. Then they explore the best Opportunities to further that mission, given internal and external realities.

Moving to Aspirations allows people to visualize their dreams, often capturing the dreams in a narrative story that uses vivid language. This is where the vision really gets co-created as they share their stories of what could be possible. Then, finally employees work to identify the Results they want to see and the specific things that need to happen in order to achieve those results.

There are many resources available on Appreciative Inquiry. One of my favorite how-to books is: The Power of Appreciative Inquiry.

SOAR is just one tool that can be used to engage employees in co-creating a vision for change. What have you found that works well?

Anita Rios

What’s your vision story?

vision storySo you and your leadership team have crafted a compelling vision statement in 25 words or less. Right? But how can you communicate that vision verbally in a way that inspires or engages people?  Through good storytelling, of course!

Stories engage people’s hearts and minds. Stories create emotional responses. And stories stick! Good stories contain imagery and emotion, along with meaningful content, which naturally helps your listener connect with you and creates engagement. Think about some of the best speakers and communicators you know.  Chances are that they are good storytellers.

Some of us are naturally good storytellers. But if you’re anything like me, the thought of communicating a meaningful message through a personal story can be overwhelming.

In my search to improve my own communication skills and engage people, I’ve found some useful resources I can share with you. Building on my blog from last fall, “Create a compelling story,”  here is a strategy from David Hutchens that might help you in communicating your vision in a way that is both authentic and creates engagement.

1. Brainstorm stories that illustrate the future you want to make your vision real. Think about a description of your desired future in the following areas:

  • You, your leadership
  • Your team or department
  • Your college or university
  • The broader organization or system

Take about 10 minutes to jot down every idea you can think of in each of these areas.

2. Use these prompts, to help you create a “future story”:

  • “I’m living in a world where….”
  • What I am (or we are) doing
  • How students, community and business leaders, others see us
  • The rewards we are enjoying

3. Next, write your story in simple language. Try to write it the way you would actually SAY it. Shorter is better, especially when you are speaking.

4. Remember to include an explicit connection at the end of your story to reinforce the meaning.

This is just one template that can help you with crafting a story. What methods have you used in crafting stories that help communicate your vision?

Anita Rios

Get the vision right

According to John Kotter, leading author and change expert, creating the right vision guides action in all stages of change that you lead successfully. In his book, The Heart of Change, he tells what works and what doesn’t work with getting the vision right:



  • Trying to see–literally–possible futures
  • Visions that are so clear they can be articulated in one minute or written up on one page
  • Visions that are moving- such as a commitment to educating students and changing lives
  • Strategies that are bold enough to make bold visions a reality


  • Assuming that linear or logical plans and budgets alone adequately guide behavior
  • Overly analytic, financially-based vision exercises
  • Visions of slashing costs,, which can be emotionally depressing and anxiety creating
  • Giving people 54 logical reasons why they need to create strategies that are bolder than they have ever created before

Kotter explains that a vision has to be both compelling and have a strong emotional component in order to inspire people to action.

To zero in on that emotional component, here’s an exercise that might help: Think about what energizes you about higher education. What makes you come into work each day and strive to make a difference for  your college, university, its employees and its students? Can you translate that into emotions or pictures of the future that would help you create a compelling vision? What does that future look like, taste like, smell like, and feel like? Get specific.

What have you found that works well in getting the vision right?

Anita Rios

Making the future visible

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”

–Jonathan Swift

vision binoculars

During the next month, we will be exploring ideas, resources, and tools to help leaders with another element of leading change: articulating a vision for the future. Without a clear and compelling vision, it can be impossible to mobilize people to implement needed change. For example, if people don’t know what they are moving toward, it can be hard to build buy-in for change or engagement during the change effort.

When you have made the future visible by articulating a vision, what challenges have you faced? What successes have you experienced? What strategies have worked well for you?

Anita Rios

Communicating for buy-in

communicatingLast week during a leadership development program I was leading, one of the discussion topics revolved around how most people view change as loss. This is true, even if it is a very positive change. Think about that from your own experience in leading or being a part of change efforts. Have you ever heard people express concerns, like:

  • “We’re already doing our best, how can we do more?”
  • “What are those people thinking? They’re not on the front-line with students!”
  • “If I just ignore this, it will go away.”
  • “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
  • “What will happen to my job?”‘

According to John Kotter, author and world-renowned expert on leadership at the Harvard Business School, the goal of communicating a vision and mission for change efforts  is to “get as many people as possible acting to make the vision a reality.”

To do that, he argues that effective communication is more than just data transfer. Communicating for buy-in requires addressing people’s anxieties, accepting their anger, and appealing to their emotions on a gut level.

Here’s what Kotter suggests works to communicate change visions and strategies effectively:

  • Keep communication simple and heartfelt, not complex or technocratic
  • Do your homework before communicating, especially to understand what people are feeling
  • Speak to anxieties, confusion, anger, and distrust
  • Rid communication channels of junk so that important messages can go through
  • Use technologies to help people see the vision (intranet, video, ITV, etc.) and to enhance in-person communication

In addition, to communicate for buy-in, I recommend having real dialogue with those affected. Not just an information session, with a brief Q&A, but a real live discussion, where people can get their concerns, anxieties, and fears out on the table and work toward common goals. It may seem scary at first to engage in a dialogue like this, but it is the fastest route for building buy-in in any change effort.

What Kotter says doesn’t work is:

  • Undercommunicating (which happens all the time)
  • Speaking as though you are only transferring information
  • Accidentally fostering cynicism by not walking the talk

In your experience, what has worked best to communicate for buy-in and engage people in making the vision a reality?

Anita Rios