Friday, December 12, 2014

four cups of coffee

People often refer to the Starbucks down the street from our campus as my "second office." I can be seen there once or twice a week meeting people for coffee and having a lively conversation.  I mentioned to someone the other day that I could write my personal history over the past six years from the conversations that have happened there.  Those "cups of coffee," whether they happened at Starbucks or other places (and may not have even included coffee), have made me the person I am today.  I had four different "cups of coffee" yesterday that I believe are important for people to have on a regular basis...

  • Cup of Coffee #1 - someone outside your comfort zone: this is a person who comes from a different background, different culture, different ethnicity, or anything "different" which makes you a but uneasy.  When I encounter these situations, I sometimes even find it difficult to ask questions because I am unsure of the norms in the other person's life.  These are conversations which you enter into with courage, humility, and the deep sense that you are about to learn something both about the other person and yourself.
  • Cup of Coffee #2 - someone who can mentor you: this person is often much smarter than you, has a higher level of experience than you, and has been where you want to be.  I am not referring to a formal mentor here; rather this is someone you encounter by chance and have the opportunity to have a dialogue, or someone you invite for that cup of coffee and come with a host of questions.  These are conversations which you enter into with a multitude of questions and ready to listen intently, knowing you may never get this opportunity again.
  • Cup of Coffee #3 - someone you can mentor: again, I am not necessarily talking about a formal mentoring relationship; rather, this is someone with whom you get to share knowledge, help them clarify their thinking, discuss accountability issues, or get to think out loud together.  What I love most about these "cups of coffee" is the ability for me to clarify my own thinking about certain subjects,  These are conversations which you enter into with the intent of being 100% present for the other person and creating an atmosphere of trust and respect.
  • Cup of Coffee#4 - someone in your inner ring: this is a "safe" person who allows you to be yourself and with whom you can share your deepest struggles and joys.  I have found these conversations occur most often at the end of the day and are often around a beverage other than coffee.  This is where you get to ask the really hard questions, where you might get some really tough feedback, and where it is okay to let your guard down.  These are conversations which you enter into with complete candor and openness (often referred to as "vault" conversations).
As I look back at the past several weeks, there are many times I get to have all four cups of coffee in a single day...and there are times where they are spread out over a week's worth of conversations.  What I do know is that they do not happen without some planning...and without my invitation.  How many cups of coffee will you have today?

Friday, December 5, 2014

clearness counts

Writing a weekly blog can be an arduous task, having to come up with new ideas week after week.  That is why I am grateful when I come across another blog that provides fodder for me - both in writing and in my daily experience.  I was recently introduced to The Accountability Blog written by Linda Galindo, and this week's topic was entitled "Wishy-Washy is a Thing...Leader be Clear!"  I read it right before heading into a meeting in which I realized I had been less than clear (okay, I may even have been wishy-washy).  It was important for me to send a clear message so that goals could be accomplished.  What I began to understand after reading Linda's post was that clearness counts.  So today's blog is more of Linda Galindo's ideas rather than mine, with a few twists and turns from my own experience.  Here's what I learned:

  1. Don't be unrealistic - this would include setting realistic goals, understanding the players involved and what they can do, and knowing your culture.  If what you want to have happen can't yet happen, don't expect it to happen (at least not right away).
  2. Tell them what you want - those great ideas in your head need to get translated into tangible tasks and results.  This would include goals, mileposts along the way, reporting structures, and ways of behaving.
  3. Culture is critical - this is a great opportunity to build the culture you want...but if you don't say what the culture should look like, then others are guessing what you want it to be.  For example, be sure people understand whether you want decisions made as a team or in a chain of command.
  4. Know your team - While I may be a person who likes a suggestive style, others may need more clear directions (specific deliverables at specific times).  Don't frustrate the team by only acting in a manner in which you are comfortable.
  5. Ask for and expect pushback - nothing is more frustrating than having members of the team walk away without fully owning the decisions made at that time.  Make sure that everyone has a chance to express their frustrations and misunderstandings so that clarity happens for the entire group.
  6. Don't be afraid to be clear - sometimes this means that you need to state very boldly what you expect and what the consequences are for not meeting those expectations.  That way no one is surprised by what happens later in the process.
One of the reasons leaders are successful is that they are comfortable with ambiguity and are able to live in a "gray" world without going crazy...and one of the reasons leaders are NOT successful is that they stay in that "gray" and ambiguous world, even when trying to be clear.  Remember that you are not the one carrying out the operations of the organization, so if you want to get things done, remember that clearness counts.

Friday, November 14, 2014

hugging tornadoes

I have to admit mascots scare me...I never know who is inside and they are always so happy.  So you can imagine what courage it took for me to hug our Concordia Tornado mascot this past Wednesday as we were breaking ground for our new softball field on campus.  While I might be smiling in the picture, there was a bit of fear and terror going on inside of me.  I have come to learn who was inside that mascot uniform...and my fear has greatly subsided.  However, as I looked at this picture, it struck me that perhaps this was an apt metaphor for leadership, thus today's title and content for this blog.

I have never had to be in the path of a real tornado, but have viewed the aftermath of one.  The destruction they can cause is unbelievable, including loss of life for members of the community.  What I do know is that tornadoes often appear with little warning, it is difficult to determine in exactly what direction they might head, and there is nothing that can be done to mitigate the loss of property when one hits directly.  All you should do when a tornado appears is to take appropriate shelter and pray for the best.

It seems unfair to compare a real-life tornado with what might happen in an organization, yet it is a term that is often used, with such phrases as "it looks like a tornado went through here," or "that person is reeking havoc just like a tornado."  Just as a tornado comes on suddenly with an unknown path and great destruction, the same can happen  when people behave badly or external circumstances impact an organization.  What can leaders do in such situations?  Here are a few thoughts:
  • hang on for the ride - just as we cannot "tame" a real tornado, it is impossible to tame people or external forces
  • shelter down - sometimes you need to get yourself and others out of the way of the destruction and wait it out until the storm passes over...keep everyone safe
  • prepare ahead of time - just as those who live in tornado alleys, think ahead what you will do if and when disruption hits your organization..  How will you handle a situation over which you have little or no control?  What kind of "sheltering" is in place for your employees
  • hold a "tornado" drill - talking about what you will do, and having people think through certain situations may help in not catching you unaware when disaster strikes
  • expect tornadoes to happen - it is often not a question of "if" but rather of "when."  Organizations will go through turbulent times, so don't think you are safe just because nothing has happened for a while
  • Be ready for the clean up - after disaster hits, it's time to clean up and recover.  Ask for help, get all hands on deck, and know that in time life will return to normal.
I hope and pray that the destruction that happens as a result of a real tornado does not happen to anyone's organization...and I know that it will happen in time.  How you think about it, how you prepare for it, and how you react to it will make all the difference in the world.  Get ready to hug that next tornado!


Friday, October 31, 2014

outside interests

As the leader of an organization, there is always too much to do.  People make demands on your time, budgets need to be looked at, it's important to walk around and talk with people, and then there is the planning and dreaming that needs to take place.  After the energy and excitement around Inauguration last week, I found myself having more time in the office these past few days to "get things done."  While it was good to go through the piles that had built up over time and good to make contact with people throughout the buildings, I found myself missing my morning coffees at Starbucks with new people and outside acquaintances.  As I got on the plane yesterday to come to Minneapolis for a Lutheran Music Program Board meeting, I felt a little guilty about not being in the office, taking care of all of the items listed above.  And then I remembered...it's good to have outside interests.

On an individual note, having outside interests keep you fresh, introduces you to new people, provides new ideas, and let's you get away form the day-to-day details of the organization.  Having a fresh perspective...being around creative and smart people...using other parts of your brain...being at meetings where you are not in charge...having time to think on the plane or in the car...catching up on sleep in the hotel room...making new friends and relationships.  All of these are good for one's growth and energy, thereby adding to one's leadership capacity and capability.

Having outside interests is also good for your organization.  Consider what you can bring back to the organization after being involved in these outside interests:

  • new ideas from organizations that are different from yours
  • new friends who could possibly become customers or donors
  • new partnerships that build on current or future programs
  • new ways of saying the same thing - a fresh rhetoric
  • opportunities for others in your organization to get involved in outside interests
There is much that can be learned from one's outside interests - both personally and for one's organization.  The trick is balancing the time needed for both.  Perhaps the mix changes during different seasons of one's career or different stages of the organization.  Few people will tell you to spend more time outside your organization - it will probably be up to you to figure out the mix.  Don't be afraid to ask your team if you need to spend more time inside or outside..they will probably be very honest with you.  And here's the final paradox...when you feel as if you are spending too much time on outside interests, you are probably not spending enough...and if you feel you are spending too much time on inside issues, you are probably not spending enough.  It is never a balance - it is an understanding that both are important...both will take more time than you have...and both need to be managed.  Enjoy your outside interests!

Friday, October 24, 2014

the value of friends

Last night at our inaugural concert I had the privilege of having a long-time friend attend and watch me accompany our choir.  Suzanne Pence (nee Tiller), one of the choral conductors at The University of Texas at Austin, was one of my high school friends, or as she put it, we were part of the choir and band geeks.  I reconnected with her at out 30th high school reunion and we have stayed in touch ever so slightly...and the fact that she would take the time to come this concert meant the world to me,.  Having her there brought back so many memories and reminded me of the value of friends.

The concert kicked off our Inaugural Weekend, a time in which I am officially placed into the office and role of Chief Executive Officer here at Concordia University Texas - and it is a great excuse for a celebration and party.  To help me celebrate and party, many of my friends have come from near and far to make this weekend special.  While I cannot name them all here, I do want to reflect on the value of friends, especially as it relates to leadership:

  1. friends are a reminder of all the great things that have happened in your life and the journey you took to your leadership role
  2. friends are a reminder of the struggles in your life, and the bumps and bruises that made you stronger for your leadership role
  3. friends encourage and build you up when you need to make hard and gut-wrenching decisions
  4. friends pray for you (and they even tell you they are praying for you)
  5. friends will keep you humble because they know the real you, inside and out
  6. friends will counsel you when you need some advice - and will keep your issues confidential
  7. friends laugh with you about the past, the present, and even the future
  8. friends cry with you when the world is crashing around you
  9. friends know exactly when to call you (I have no idea how they know to do that)
  10. friends don't need your constant attention (like others might)
  11. friends have your back, and will cover for you when needed
  12. friends don't let you do stupid things (and when you do stupid things, see #11)
  13. friends have pictures of you they like to show others (and know which ones to NOT show)
  14. friends are God's gift to you - steward them well
Consider the friends in your life and take some time today to drop them note, thanking them for their friendship and reminding them that you too are a friend to them.

Friday, October 17, 2014

being new

What do you do when you look around and you are the "new kid" in the room...especially when you have not had to play that role for awhile?  These past few days (and others over the past several months) I have been the "new kid" in the room, hanging out with new faces and new friends, many who have done their role for many years.  Even if I know their names, and have met them previously, I am still new in this particular room.  Here's the problem...there is NOTHING I can do about that.  I AM the "new kid" in the room - and I'm glad I am (well, at least I am glad I am in the room).  Being new can cause anxiety, uncertainty, embarrassment, and sometimes downright fear.  There is also a certain freedom in not knowing what you don't know and being able to use the excuse "I'm still new."  Trying to balance all of these emotions is a part of the job - and how one is able to travel this new road can say a lot about their character and can help in shaping the future of their role.  After three months of experiencing being new once again, here are a few thoughts on how to best navigate this time:
  • keep reminding yourself that in one year, you will no longer be new...and there may even be other "new kids" around
  • keep reminding yourself that everyone else in the room was once new...and they felt the same things you are feeling
  • don't be afraid to ask questions - remember that this is what got you to this new position in the first place
  • don't ask too many questions - you do not need to bore the others with what you don't know
  • find a friend - and start asking that person those questions that you did not ask above
  • get to know people by engaging in conversations - have your list of questions ready that are more than just about work
  • don't insert yourself into others' conversations all the time - remember that the rest of the people are not new...be respectful of their deeper conversations
  • get comfortable with sometimes having to be by yourself - they aren't ignoring your...they just don't know you
  • be cognizant of where you sit - look around and be smart about where you actually take your seat at the literal table
  • be interesting - be willing to share your story and talk about things other than work and the job
  • listen intently - the people in the room are actually a lot smarter than you right now
  • be patient - your turn to take the lead will come in time (this is especially true when you are the "new kid" with a group of high level executives)
  • have fun - embrace being new as an honor and privilege...you only get to do this ONCE with this group
In a year or so I will look back on these days and months and remember those feeling of what it was like to be new...and I will be thankful for the many colleagues and friends who were patient with me as the "new kid" and helped acclimate me into the group.  Until then, I'll just keep reminding myself of the joys of being new.

Friday, October 10, 2014

learning to talk horizontally

It a classic case of the sales people not being able to communicate with the design people...or the finance people not being able to communicate with the human resource people...or management not being able to communicate with the line worker.  It happens in every organization, in every business, in every government function...and even in most homes.  Some people refer to it as only communicating within one's silo...I speak of it as communicating vertically.

It's easy to communicate vertically...everyone has a similar function, you spend most of your time with this group of people, you see the world through the same lens, you are all working toward the same goals, and you all get rewarded in a similar manner.  For most of the people in this vertical alignment, this is the function of business in which you have spent most of your working life - and in which you have found your greatest success.  It's  warm and cozy in the silo...who wants to ever leave it?  And yet, in order to get things done and make the best decisions for the organization, people need to get out of the vertical and move into what i call HORIZONTAL COMMUNICATION - talking across the verticals and learning to communicate with the "others."

We have already established why horizontal communication is do difficult.  The need to do so has been characterized in many books, articles, blogs, and podcasts having to do with effective and efficient practices in organizations.  So what can be done about it?  Here are a few thoughts on how to get people talking horizontally:

  • create a different organizational chart - remove the boxes and lines and show how different functions of the organization need to connect with one another
  • bring people from different functions into the same room and force them to talk together (it may help if you force them to sit next to people outside of their areas).  And then get them talking about important things with each other
  • find a way to reiterate the importance of this over and over and over...and over.  People will naturally fall back into vertical conversations when they are not reminded about it over and over and over...and over.
  • name horizontal conversations as one of your organization's core values - and then find ways to reward people who do it really well.
  • keep asking the question, "who else needs to be in this conversation before a decision is made?"  and then get them into the room as quickly as possible
  • when people forget to have the horizontal conversation, go and see then right away and ask them why that happened...and then get them to agree to have the horizontal conversation as soon as possible
  • hold multiple horizontal conversations yourself...and let it be known that this is how you operate. 
  • hire people to work in areas different from what they may have been grown up in...not only does it expose them to new functions of the organization; it also forces them to ask questions because they will not have all the answers (not to mention this is a great way to develop future leaders)
I am sure there are many more ways to create a culture of talking horizontally.  It is a process - and it is worth it!