Friday, October 2, 2015

thinking of Rita Cavin

All of yesterday afternoon, last night, and this morning I have been thinking about Rita Cavin.  Yesterday, around 10:40 AM, Rita embarked on a journey she may have never thought possible, and weathered what was most likely the hardest day of her life.  Dr. Rita Cavin is the interim president at Umpqua Community College where yesterday a shooter took the lives of nine students and wounded seven others.  As I listened to the CNN reports at my desk yesterday, I kept thinking, "what would I do?" and the answer was "I'm not sure."  How does one prepare for that type of incident?  When all eyes are on you as the leader of the institution, how do you react?  Who are the first people you go to?  What constituency most needs your immediate attention?  And what does one do in the days and weeks following?

As I began to write this morning's blog, the thought went through my mind regarding the difference between crisis management and crisis leadership.  There are countless of courses and books on crisis management...institutions write thick manuals regarding crisis management...knowing what to do next can be figured out ahead of time.  But knowing HOW TO BE NEXT is not so easily written or codified.  What will President Cavin do this morning?  And what did she do last night reliving not only the incident but also thinking about everything she had done - or not done - during the previous twelve hours?  So, coming on the heels of a tragic shooting on a college campus, here are a few thoughts on crisis leadership:

  • people need to hear you speak...and this needs to be done through multiple media including written, social, and spoken form.
  • use the people around you...everyone on the team will bring different strengths to the situation.  Let them use their gifts at that time
  • follow the manual...there is a reason someone took time to create a process to handle emergencies. Know where the manual is and let those who wrote it direct the process
  • call your PR people and let them handle that end of the situation...similar to above, let the professionals do their work (and make sure you have ready access to professional PR people)
  • walk seen by others and engage in the process of helping and healing.  And during the walk, take time to talk with individuals who have been affected.
  • think ahead...the institution needs to keep operating the next day and the next week.  What needs to happen so that your organization - and your people - are back online as soon as is feasible? And what needs to happen so that those left behind can go through a healing process?
  • be a purveyor of hope...Napoleon's famous phrase that leaders are dealers in hope might never play out more true in times like this.  There is a future ahead - be sure that is part of your message
  • be true to who you someone to whom spirituality is important, I will pray and lead others in that practice; as someone who can be emotional at times, I will probably have my time of weeping and mourning; as someone who needs quiet time to recharge, I will find a place of solitude later in the day and just be quiet.  Crisis leadership demands everything one has, so being true to self is critical if momentum is to be maintained.
And so, I offer this prayer for the community that makes up Umpqua Community College and especially for Rita Calvin:

Lord of all compassion
We pray for all of those caught up in the midst of tragedy or disaster.
For those who have lost life and those working to save life
For those who are worried for people they love
For those who will see their loved ones no longer
Lord Have Mercy.
For those in need of the peace that passes all understanding
For all who turn to you in the midst of turmoil
For those who cry out to you in fear and in love
Lord Have Mercy.
For those in confusion and those in despair
For those whose tears are yet to dry
For those in need of your unending love
Lord Have Mercy

Friday, September 25, 2015

sayings to live by (the meeting edition)

Many people have sayings implanted in their brains that they learned from others, whether they come from parents, grandparents, friends, or colleagues.  Today's blog will feature two sayings I learned from a former colleague and mentor, Pastor Donald Black of Trinity Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas.  Prior to every church meeting, he would remind those involved that
1) everyone can have their say but not everyone can have their way
2) we need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.  
For some reason, those two saying have stuck with me for almost 30 years now, and I am reminded of them as I run meetings here at the University.  What do these sayings really mean?  Here are my thoughts:

Everyone can have their say but not everyone can have their way: people's voices need to be heard, and often times meetings are run in such a way in which either the quiet voice or the dissenting voice is not heard.  It is easy to speak up when everyone agrees with an is when one has an opposing viewpoint that it becomes harder to articulate what they are thinking.  The leader's role is to create a a safe environment where the quiet and/or opposing voice is able to speak if they so desire.  My first caveat to this is that while everyone can have their say, they also have the responsibility to say it in a fashion that is respectful and honoring of the other.  My second caveat is that at some point a group needs to make a decision, and while some would still want to have their say, they may need to respect the group's desire and give up their say at that time.  Another of the leader's roles is to determine when that time is right, without stopping debate before all voices that need to be heard are heard.

We need to be able to disagree without being disagreeable: this is perhaps one of the hardest sayings to live out in any group, mostly because people have never learned how to do this.  In a recent faculty and staff training here at Concordia, we had someone train us in the art of crucial conversations.  We learned that there is a way to disagree without being disagreeable...and that there were specific ways of thinking and acting that made those conversations go better than imagined.  Several ways to approach this is that when someone has a differing opinion, they should 1) believe the best about those with an opinion other than their own (rather than assume the worst) and 2) understand that their idea is based on what they believe to be true at that time, which may or may not be an ultimate truth...beginning with the words "I may be wrong..." works wonders most every time.  Those listening must also be respectful of the differing opinion, believing the best rather than assuming the worst.

Consider what it is that you believe about how meetings should play out, and check to make sure that what you want to have happen actually does happen.  And if it takes a certain saying that is repeated before every meeting, go ahead and say it...a good reminder of how an assembly should act can never hurt the process or the outcome.

Friday, September 18, 2015

what ball are you watching?

"Keep your eye on the ball!"  This common phrase is often associated with the world of athletic competitions, whether it be baseball, tennis, or football.  A player needs to know where the "ball" is at all times so they can react to it and move to where it is at any given time.  This is good advice in business...and in life.

So why does this phrase need to keep getting repeated?  Why would a well-seasoned athlete ever take their eye off the ball?  How can one, after years and years of instruction and practice, ever take their eye off the ball?  The answer is very simple...distractions.  The crowd...the opposing player...the's own issues...perhaps even a bird flying overhead could make one take their eye off the ball.  Whatever it is, once the player takes their eye off the ball, nothing seems to go right.

And so it is with leaders - once they take their eye off of the proverbial ball within their organization, things can go awry.  For me, the question is not so much whether or not one is taking their eye off the ball, but whether one knows what ball they should be watching.  A classic example in my field of work is the difference between total enrollment and net tuition revenue.  Universities and colleges have multiple ways in which they recruit and enroll students, including discounting the total tuition and partnering with other organizations to help with the recruiting and enrollment...all of which goes to say that the sticker price of higher education for each student does not reflect the revenue the organization will realize from each student.  When someone asks me how the enrollment looks for the year, I can give one answer...if they would think to ask me how our net tuition revenue is, I might have a different answer.  The real question is...what am I keeping my eye on?

While each organization is different, it seems to me that leaders should be keeping their eye on that which matters most for the future health of the organization...what is it that will determine what can be done next year, and what is needed to ensure that the organization is still here in 5-10 years.  In the early days of Amazon, if the only measure of success had been quarterly profits, we would not be reaping the benefits of Amazon Prime right now.  Jeff Bezos knew what he needed to keep his eye on, although it was difficult to convince others that he was actually watching the right thing.

My theory for today is that leaders tend to keep their eye on that which matters most to them, not necessarily what matters most to the long-term health of the organization.  Knowing what that measurement is is an important part of any organization (and often one must keep their eye on more than one ball at a time).  How do you know which ball to watch?  That's the question the leader and the team must answer...and then must always remind themselves to "keep their eye on the ball."

Friday, September 4, 2015

5 leadership competencies

The other day I was having lunch with a friend who spends a lot of time with leaders both young and not so young, and as we discussed what leaders need, the term "competence" came up.  I remarked that people often begin their leadership journeys by working on skills and developing specific competencies, then turn to the internal side of leadership...AND how important it is that leaders remind themselves from time to time about the importance of external competencies, refreshing those skills on a regular basis.  So today's blog is a simple reminder about five skills and competencies that leaders need that are often forgotten as time goes on:

  1. the ability to write - and perhaps I should state, to write well.  Sentence construction, proper grammar (not to mention spelling), using meaningful words, constructing a paragraph that flows...all of these skills that we should have learned long ago need to mastered and kept up over time.  For me, the simple act of writing regularly and reading good literature will improve this skill..
  2. the ability to speak in front of a crowd - similar to above, with the added aspect of having to be seen by people and thinking on your feet.  I have never known anyone who does this well on the fly, so write it out (see #1), practice speaking it out loud, and know your stuff cold.  And if you use slides, do not bore people with a lot of text...enhance your presentation with pictures and charts.
  3. the ability to lead a good meeting - leading meetings can take many forms, but above all be sure you are prepared.  Having an agreed upon format, using an agenda, engaging everyone around the table, bringing clarity to decisions made, and leaving the meeting knowing that something has been accomplished are all keys to leading a meeting that works. Remember that leaders get their work done in meetings, so you better be good at this.
  4. the ability to read and understand financial statements - I am still amazed that some people in leadership positions are willing to hand over all things financial to another person, and will take them at their word.  While it is important for me to have a capable CFO, it is also important that I understand the financial position of the organization, what that means on any given day, and can then explain it to others in my circles.
  5. the ability to use social media - one of my pet peeves is leaders who choose (and often adamantly choose) not to engage in social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogging, etc)...for me, that is like saying one does not engage in writing, speaking, or leading meetings.  A leaders of an organization has the chance to put a public face on that organization through social media and to make herself more real to others in the public.  I am not advocating letting the world know every time you go out for dinner...I am saying that social media is a tool to enhance and grow the business (as well as one's own leadership).
These are my five for today - what am I missing?  Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments below - and perhaps even recommend some books that people might use to enhance their skills in these areas.  My book recommendation for today is Patrick Lencioni's Death By Meeting - a great text to help you think about meetings differently.

Friday, August 28, 2015


Several years ago the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) phenomenon was all the rage - Bible studies, t-shirts, books, wrist bands and multiple other items were marketed with the WWJD tag line.  With apologies to those who came up with the WWJD slogan, today's blog is all about What Would Lincoln Do?  Someone once asked me why I was such a Lincoln fan (the picture is from the top of the bookcase in my office) are four reasons I look to Abraham Lincoln as a guide to my leadership:

  1. He surrounded himself with people who were smarter than him...and with people who thought differently from him.  The story of building a cabinet of one's rivals still boggles my he was able to do that and bring them together for a common purpose is one of the great acts of leadership in all of history.
  2. He won others over...and he did so in a way that was winsome and caring.  His ability to invite others to visit with him (even those who were against him), his ability to ask questions and listen, and his ability to use humor in even the toughest situations all helped to bring others to join him in the fight to win the war,
  3. He understood (and was able to live with) the tension of waiting too long to make a decision and making a decision too quickly.  Having to ensure that the right general was in place at the right time was one of Lincoln's consistent issues, and waiting loo long or not long enough would haunt him day after day.  Personnel decisions are never an exact science - and are subject to the circumstances surrounding the time and place.  
  4. He did what he needed to do to win...even if it meant stretching his powers from time to time.  Many people will blame Lincoln for overextending his reach and grossly expanding the role of the office, yet he seemed to do what he thought was best for the country at that time.  He was willing to make the hard decision even if it meant being castigated by others. 
If you would like to learn more about what Lincoln would do, I suggest the following three volumes:
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • Tried By War: Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James McPherson
  • Giants: The Parallel Live of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer

Friday, August 21, 2015

questions...or statements?

Following a recent Q&A session on our campus, I had a discussion with one of my colleagues about how often people use questions to mask their statements and what they believe.  He came back and wondered whether all questions are really statements.  After a bit of back and forth, he had me thinking that he might be right.  After pondering the debate more thoroughly, I have come to the conclusion that there is a range of questions, moving from pure statement to little or no statement at all.  Let me explain...

Let's assume I recently painted a room in my home blue (which would probably never happen, so this is as fictional an example as it gets).  My wife comes home and asks me questions about my choice of color.  Here is the range I am talking about:

  1. Don't you think it would look better painted tan? (pure statement)
  2. Did you consider pointing the room tan? (still pretty close to pure statement)
  3. Why didn't you paint the room tan? (moving from pure statement to seeking information)
  4. Why did you paint the room blue? (seeking more information)
  5. I wonder why I prefer tan to blue? (looking inward for more information)
  6. If we were to repaint this room, would we choose blue again or look for another color? (seeking to come to a collaborative answer)
Moving from question #1 to question #6 takes considerable effort to shape the question and requires a mechanism by which one can internalize their thinking. While there still might be a hint of statement in all six questions, there is a definite progression from 'this is what I believe to be true' to 'while I believe something to be true, I am willing to explore other alternatives.'  For me, this is what the art of asking questions is about - the ability to think out loud with others in seeking a mutual solution to an issue.

A few tips on how to get better at asking questions that are more about the question than they are about making a statement:
  • stop to think about the question you are going to ask and see what biases might be in the wording
  • consider what issue you are really trying to solve and word the question in a manner that reflects that issue
  • assume there is information you do not yet know, and that the question is a way for you to get more information
  • come at the question from a place of humility, seeking to learn more about the situation at hand
  • if the situation affords you to do so, write down the question before you ask it...and speak it to yourself internally to see how it comes across
Finally, there are times it is appropriate to make a statement prior to asking a question.  If my wife walked in the room and said that she would rather have had the room painted tan (statement) she could follow up with the question of why I painted the room blue.  For me, as the questionee, I now know what she believes and I can answer from a place of not having to guess what type of answer she is looking for.  As for the role of the questionee in clarifying questions, I will leave that for another blog.  Have fun asking questions that are not (or are, according to my colleague) statements.


Friday, August 14, 2015

partnerships - from transactional to transformational

This past week I had the opportunity to visit churches, schools, and alumni in the Houston area, all of which have some type of relationship with Concordia University Texas.  The word "partnership" was used often as we discussed what type of relationships would exist between CTX and the particular institution or individual.  It often feels as if most people see partnerships as something transactional...what will you do for me AND what will I get from you?  Perhaps that mentality comes from the salesperson in all of us, trying to convince someone to buy our product so that we all walk away better off.  For me, I often feel that when I approach someone about a partnership, everyone always feels that I am trying to recruit more students or receive more gifts for the University.

But what if we began to approach partnerships through a different lens?  What if partnerships were more about what we could do better together?  What if partnerships were about understanding the resources each party brought to the table to meet the needs of each of the organizations or individuals?  What if partnerships actually transformed organizations rather than just met their immediate needs?

 Many years ago, when I was head of school at Lutheran High North in Houston, the school partnered with LINC-Houston in what became a service project of significant proportions.  LHN needed access to places in which students could learn and practice the art of service and leadership...LINC-Houston needed manpower to get significant work done on several of their properties.  What developed was a Week of Service in the greater Houston community where over 300 students and teachers served at over 15 locations for 4 straight days.  As a result of that partnership, news stations throughout town covered the service project...students developed as leaders...15 Houston non-profits had their needs met...LINC-Houston gained a greater reputation for getting things done...and in the end, more students came to the school and we raised more monies through gifts and grants.

So how might partnerships move from transactional to transformational?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Begin the discussion by asking a lot of questions - what are the organizations' deepest need?  What strengths does each organization or individual have?  What are the similarities that exist between the parties?  What are the big picture goals both parties have?
  • State up front that you want the partnership to go beyond the transactional functions and that you are looking for something that is deeper, longer lasting, and have a benefit beyond just the two parties.
  • Accept that fact that each party is also looking for the transactional outcome and find ways to make that happen as well.
  • Take an inventory of each party's strengths - what does one organization have that the other doesn't...and how can that those strengths work together to accomplish something neither organization can do by themselves?
  • Come to the table with no specific expectations and just enjoy the dialogue that will ensue.  You never know where deep dialogue can lead.
  • Understand that a final solution may take time.  Often ideas have to cogitate and be shared with others before they can become a reality.
  • Engage others in the conversation.  As thoughts arise, bring new people and other experts to help you flesh out the ideas that are coming to fruition.  Expand the base of partners.
  • Be willing to walk away from the dialogue when no possible partnership exists.  Deep partnerships are difficult to come by and might even be few and far between...but you will never know what might be if the dialogue never begins.
Two Resources:
  • The Abundant Community by Peter Block and John McKnight (2010, Berret-Koehler)
  • The Collaboration Challenge by James Austin (2000, Jossey-Bass)