Friday, December 15, 2017

5 attributes of a strong team

This past week, during our executive team's offsite, I witnessed a group of people who not only work well together but also are able to deliver on results.  After a year of being together in the current configuration, something has happened that has made this team strong, resilient, and what Patrick Lencioni would call "highly functioning."  Since that meeting on Tuesday, I have been thinking about what it is that makes this team work and what has led to other teams work so well which I have led or been a member of.  Here are my conclusions to what makes this particular team (and what might  make other teams) function in an effective manner:

  1. an acknowledgement of one's own strengths and deficits...using the Birkman Profile for the past two plus years has made each of us all too aware of who we are and what makes us tick.  Beyond acknowledging our own behaviors, we work to manage those behaviors and improve  in areas that might hold back our own performance or the team's perfomance.  We keep visiting these behaviors at every offsite meeting just to remind ourselves of who we are and how we behave.
  2. an acknowledgement of each other's strengths and deficits...as we explore our own behaviors, so we get to know the behaviors of each other.  Our coach (who attends each of the offsite meetings with us) helps us discover new insights about each other.  The more we know about each other, and the more we accept each other as we are, the more we can support each other and fill in the gaps for each other...and of course, we can do that because we are confident that fellow team members are working to improve on their own strengths and deficits.
  3. an unwavering commitment to working with each other...no member on the team does their work in a silo, knowing that to get the most information (and the right information) they need to talk together, plan together, and collaborate on the work they do together.  This is not always easy as people can be physically scattered, time is often short, and each member of the team has their own team to worry about.  Regular check-ins and weekly meetings help to foster this behavior, but it is the unwavering commitment of each team member toward this behavior that really makes this happen.
  4. a commitment to getting better as a team...at the end of each quarterly offsite, we ask ourselves how we are better as a team than we were eight hours earlier; we are willing to be all in with the team exercises our coach puts us through; we commit to act fully in agreement when decisions are made; we keep reading about and exploring what makes a team better; and we do regular evaluations of ourselves as a team.  We noted at the end of this week's offsite that this is not something we should take for granted and that we will need to be ever vigilant to those items that could derail us as a team.
  5. the ability to hold each other and the team accountable to results...at the end of the day, it is results that matter.  The ability to execute decisions is the pinnacle of a highly functioning team, something that is not easy to come by.  The use of dashboards...the charts, graphs, and emails that remind us how we are doing...the regular check-ins that are about what we have accomplished...the commitment to ask hard questions when results are not reached - all of these help us to hold each other and the team accountable to results.
The work of these types of teams often goes unseen throughout the organization.  It is work done behind closed doors or offsite...it is work done with the trust and confidence of each other...it is work done that can expose one's deficits...it is work done that, given the opportunity, many people would rather not do.  And, at the end of the day, it is work done that brings deep satisfaction and great meaning to one's vocation.  I am thankful to have this type of team and look forward to working with them for a long time.

Friday, December 8, 2017

the process of decision making

I wrote this blog one year ago this week...it is still one of my favorites. 

“The leader facilitates a decision making process by which those involved feel good about the decision making process”


This thought came to me as I was driving to Concordia's service of commencement this past Saturday (who knows from where these ideas originate).  It struck me that when a group of people are brought together for a decision to be made, there will be times (probably more often than not) when some of the group members disagree with the decision...perhaps even disagree violently.  The leader's role is not to get everyone to agree...the leader's role is to facilitate a decision making process by which those involved feel good about the decision making process.  That's not always easy, and it may take more art than skill.  Here are a few thoughts on how one might be able to make this happen on a more regular basis:
  • before the process begins, be sure that the right people are in the room...it is probably better to err on the side of too many people around the table rather than missing someone who needs to be there
  • articulate the problem very clearly so people know exactly what the issue is on which they are deciding...clarity around problem solving saves time and keeps the group focused
  • ask good questions...before entering the room, be sure that the right questions have been articulated and that the leader does not have pre-conceived answers they already want to hear
  • be sure everyone has a chance to speak...bring out everyone's ideas, especially those who tend to be more quiet
  • do not let a certain voice or opinion dominate...when people are passionate about something, they want to speak to it (and often believe that if they speak loud and long enough they will get their way)
  • ask clarifying questions...be sure that you and the others around the table understand what is being said and WHY certain ideas are being stated
  • have a common understanding about who is making the decision and how that decision will be made...is it the leader's decision; the decision of another person in the group; is it through a vote or consensus?
  • do not leave the room until everyone understands what decision has been made (or when it will be made)...again, getting clarity around this helps to send the same message forward
  • follow up with major dissenters and influential voices...very few people need to get their way all the time AND most people want to know that they were heard.  Those who get a little more attention from the leader after the decision has been made are more apt to be supportive as the decision is rolled out
  • enter into the conversation with the attitude that you as a leader do not always have the right answer to the issue at hand...being humble throughout the decision making process will go a long way toward helping others feel good about the decision making process
Leaders who understand and practice this concept can help to build a strong constructive culture where people are free to speak up, teams work collaboratively, and team members feel good about the decision making process - whether they agree with the decision or not.

Friday, December 1, 2017

meeting greatness

In just a few hours, I will be picking up and meeting for the first time Dr. Robert Louis Wilken, a 1955 graduate of Concordia who will serve as our fall commencement speaker tomorrow morning.  Dr. Wilken is a world-renown expert in the discipline of patristics, the study of early church history and the early church fathers.  His most important work is the book The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity published by Yale University Press in 2012 and already translated into several different languages and used in colleges, seminaries, and universities across the world. After having read his book over the past several weeks I am more than ecstatic to meet him in a few hours and begin the process of asking questions and learning from him.

So let me be clear - this is not a blog about Dr. Wilken, or early church history, or even my upcoming meeting with him.  It is about what it means for leaders to brush shoulders with those who are considered to be the best in their fields and what they might be able to learn as they engage with these experts.  Serving in a leadership role makes multiple demands on people - they are engaged with strategy; they are engaged with financial health; they are engaged with multiple publics and entities demanding of their time; and they are engaged with people.  This is why I believe that leaders should consistently be putting themselves in contact with those who are considered to be great...people who are considered to be experts...people who are recognized as world-renown...and people who are a whole lot smarter than themselves.

What do I hope to learn today as I interact with Dr. Wilken?  And what might other leaders learn from those they meet who are considered to be great?  Here are a few of my ideas on this Friday morning:

  • new ideas...great people are often deep thinkers who are constantly testing out new ideas with others.  Whether those ideas and thoughts are directly related to my field or discipline does not matter; their thinking will get leaders thinking and new ideas will start to flow
  • a different frame through which to think...Dr. Wilken is a historian and theologian, so his frame of thinking will be different than mine.  Having a new frame through which to view issues just might give me some new insights into current problems
  • new questions to consider...great people, being deep thinkers, are always asking questions and their questions might easily be translated into similar questions leaders should be asking about their own organizations.  
  • a little more knowledge...experts love to talk about their discipline and their field of study, and I plan to know more about the early church than I currently do after spending time with Dr. Wilken.  That knowledge may or may not prove helpful to my vocation as a leader...it will increase my knowledge of a part of history which is not currently fleshed out in my mind
  • a greater appreciation for greatness...in their roles leaders have to wear many hats and spread themselves thin.  Those who study a discipline deeply and over time become very knowledgeable and are great in their field of study.  That greatness is and should be recognized by everyone, something of which I am in awe
  • how to lead better...the wisdom, the maturity, and the experience of Dr. Wilken will give me insight into how I might think and behave differently.  Those who are considered to be great bring that wisdom, maturity, and experience to everything they do. By merely watching him over the next two days, I hope to learn from him just by being present
One of the roles of leadership is to be a constant learner, getting better and better in our leading over time.  One way to learn is to hang our with people who are considered to be "great."  Which great person will you be meeting with over the next month or so?

Friday, November 17, 2017

avoiding difficult questions

Let me begin by defining difficult questions.  I am not talking about those questions that attack one's integrity or demand the sharing of personal or sensitive information; what I am talking about is those questions which wonder about the very existence of the status quo or to which there is no simple or quickly arrived at answer.  These are the existential questions which take time, energy, emotion, and giving-up-of-self to answer...these are the strategic questions which often means considering a new solution to an ongoing problem...these are the ethical questions which can make one rethink how they see the world and their own position in that world...and these are the personal questions which almost everyone wrestles with in the dark of the night.  Given that these type of questions will stretch and even hurt, there should be little wonder as to why they are often avoided by people, groups, and organizations.

So what can leaders do to keep from avoiding difficult questions?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • lack of time: when boards, committees, and other various types of groups only meet every month or every quarter (and often even less), there is barely time to get through the agenda at hand.  Leaders should be sure to not only find time to bring these groups together more often, they should meticulously control the agenda to ensure that difficult questions are addressed and discussed
  • lack of imagination: having lived in a system for a lifetime, there is little wonder that to imagine a different scenario is not only difficult, it may actually prove impossible.  Leaders can help groups develop this capacity by engaging with generative thinking questions on every agenda and by bringing in outside expertise to help others see and consider a different future
  • lack of will: taking on difficult questions and trying to solve them may mean that everything changes and the future will never be the same.  Leaders should consistently be doing the things that show their groups and organizations that execution of the perceived impossibility can be accomplished and, that in the long run, these new paradigms create a better reality
  • lack of right people: boards, committees, and teams are often populated with the people who have the most investment in the current system (mostly because they are the ones who care most deeply about the organization).  Leaders must be looking for new blood to bring to the table, focusing not only on specific skills and abilities, but also on new perspectives from an outsider's view
  • lack of leadership: whether this be the CEO of the organization or the chair of the board, this deficiency can be quickly identified if this person is not consistently challenging the status quo and bringing new ideas to the group regularly.  Leaders (positional or not), when spotting this, should do all they can to find new leadership as quickly as possible, putting in place those people who will embrace the difficult questions and bring to bear the time, imagination, will, and right people to answer those questions
Leaders are faced with difficult questions on a regular basis, whether they are being asked directly by others or are considering them in their own minds.  Avoiding these questions merely "kicks the can down the road" with the problem continuing to exist and still being talked about the next time the group meets (or worse yet, the problems will NOT be talked about because individuals and groups are afraid to face them).  Leaders can regularly take a quick inventory of how often they and their groups are taking on difficult questions and, if the number is shrinking, shift their thinking and action to once more embrace difficult questions as a part of their regular work.

Friday, November 10, 2017

leadership is a precious thing

In a Board meeting I was attending yesterday afternoon, the chair of our board noted that "leadership is a precious thing," said in reference to our newest Executive Director and the great work that he has done in a very short time.  The phrase struck me as very important for boards, for organizations, and for leaders themselves.  Having watched many groups struggle under weak leadership and others thrive under strong leadership, I had to agree with my board chair that, indeed, leadership is a precious thing.

So if leadership is a precious thing, how might both leaders and organizations think about it in that way?  Here are a few thoughts for  this morning:

  • If leadership is precious, it must be treated with care: precious items are often those that no one wants to have lost or broken, so special attention is placed upon them.  Leaders need to take care of themselves so that they are available to their organizations and organizations need to take care of their leaders so that they remain in place over time and lead well
  • If leadership is precious, it should have value: precious items carry a certain value, whether monetary or sentimental.  Leaders need to be adding value to their organization and organizations need to let their leaders know what value they actually do add to the organization
  • If leadership is precious and valuable, that value should increase over time: just as precious items often increase in value, one's leadership value should also be increasing through added knowledge and experience.  Organizations need to invest in their leader's growth and remunerate them properly for that growth
  • If leadership is precious, it should be regularly on display: precious items are often on display for others (friends or the public at large) to see and enjoy them.  Leaders should be out and about, interacting with those they lead and organization members should seek engagement with their leaders and derive value from those interactions
  • If leadership is precious, it should be evaluated from time to time: just as precious items are often taken to an appraiser for valuation, so leaders must also be evaluated by an outside observer through the use of a coach or consultant.  Organizations should insist that regular evaluation is done of the leadership and that those results are shared in a meaningful manner
  • If leadership is precious, it should be passed on to the next generation: precious items are accounted for over time through one's estate planning.  Leaders need to put in place a succession plan so that good leadership can continue over time and organizations should develop a culture of caring for their leadership so that new leaders can quickly assimilate and begin to function in their roles
As leaders treat themselves (and their responsibilities) with a sense of care and concern - and as organizations develop a culture where leadership is handled carefully and treated with honor - the idea that "leadership is a precious thing" will allow for individuals and organizations to grow, flourish, and become all for which they were created.

Friday, October 20, 2017

what leaders fear most

Yesterday I was interviewed by one of our freshmen as a part of an assignment for her Life & Leadership Class (taken by all new students).  She had a series of questions that were prescribed as a part of the assignment...and then, as we finished, she said she had one more question for me that was not a part of the assignment.  She looked at me and asked, "What are you most afraid of?"

I must admit that the question took me by surprise, so I gave myself some time by asking her why she was asking that question.  Apparently she asks this question of a lot of people and, as she told me, most people answer in the same way and she was wondering if I had a different answer than others.  I proceeded to share my thoughts, which led to a longer discussion of the paradox of leadership fears and, of course, the conversation went on from there.

So this morning has me thinking about the fears leaders face and how they use those fears to improve their organizations and their own personal leadership (as fate would have it, last night I ran across the November 2016 Harvard Business Review which is entitled "What Really Keeps CEOs Awake at Night").  This morning's blog is a list of possible things that leaders may fear most...and why those fears are important to a leader's development.

  • the fear of failure...while I do not believe this is the most important fear (nor the most relevant), it is a fear that keeps leaders focused on some very important metrics and ideas
  • the fear of success...if the organization is successful beyond its wildest dreams, will the leader be able to respond in a way that can truly build on that success
  • the fear of being found out...I cannot take credit for naming this fear, but many leaders are afraid that others will find out that the leader is not the smartest person in the room (which is the way it actually should be)
  • the fear of not being relevant...just when leaders believe that their organization is well known and important within the marketplace, it becomes crystal clear that not everyone knows the organization, much less believes in the organization and its promise. Building the brand should be on every leader's mind all the time
  • the fear of losing the best people...most people are replaceable - and others are not.  Taking care of the very best people in the organization has to be one of the leader's top priorities
  • the fear of a disaster...whether natural or not (fire or firestorm), it only takes one disaster to cripple an organization.  Being prepared for the worst is a good trait for leaders to have
  • the fear of someone doing something stupid (or illegal)...similar to above, these type of mistakes can have a devastating effect on the organization.  Policies, guidelines, and values can help mitigate some of the stupid (illegal) things that others might do
  • the fear of putting the organization at risk...any long term decision and/or expenditure has the chance to hurt one's organization over time.  Demanding multiple options and getting all the facts before making a decision can help navigate these issues
  • the fear of not being afraid...I saved this one for last, because this may be the most important fear of all.  For many leaders, when things are humming along and all seems well with the world, hubris can easily take over as the dominant character trait.  Leaders who begin to believe their own press...leaders who are no longer afraid of their own mistakes...leaders who act as if they are the golden child of the organization - these are the people who put the organization at the most risk.  My advice for leaders is "be afraid...be very afraid!"
Take a few moments today to determine what it is that you fear most...and then embrace that fear as a way to move your leadership - and your organization - forward.

Friday, October 13, 2017

the agony of victory

Growing up, I would anxiously wait for Saturday afternoons when I would be able to watch ABC Television's Wide World of Sports.  As the opening credits began to run, I would wait anxiously to view the famous (and not so famous) clips of sports history and hear the iconic words spoken over those images "the thrill of victory...and the agony of defeat."  Those words echoed in my mind over the past 7 days as I watched my beloved Chicago Cubs win (after many ups and downs) their third straight National League Division Series.  Four days of waiting for the first game to being...five excruciating games.....two long days built in for travel...over twenty hours of actual baseball (not to mention the pre-game and post-game shows)...and the stress that went with each pitch along the way.  As I began to remember October 2016 (when the Cubs became World Series Champions), I realized that if the Cubs kept winning again this year I would once again be handing over my entire month to this passion...and I would once again be consumed by the stress of each game...and I would once again spend my days reading and talking about the playoffs...and I would once again stay up later than I should more nights than not (last night's game went until 12:45 EST - so happy to be living in CST).  Suddenly I realized that there was an AGONY TO VICTORY, something I would have to endure if I was a fan (and please remember that for about 54 of the 58 years of my life, my Octobers have been mostly normal).

All of this thinking about baseball got me thinking about leadership...and what, if any, parallels might exist for leaders in terms of feeling the agony of victory.  Here are a few thoughts on this Friday morning:

  • leaders want to be successful, but are they willing to pay the price for continued success?  It's never enough to win only once...success is about winning (translate that for your own life or organization) time over time.  Finding new ways to win...keeping everyone focused on winning...and being willing to stay the course after surprising setbacks can be very agonizing.
  • once the leader and their organization wins, everyone expects them to keep on winning.  The pressure from the outside (be that customers, employees, or boards of directors) has caused more leaders to leave their roles, even after they have had some good runs.  Not being able to satisfy one's constituents can be very agonizing.
  • winning comes at a cost of both revenue and people.  Finding the resources to win (and win big) is hard work, especially when raising cash from investors or donors and trying to create a margin that will sustain winning over time.  Getting the right people on the team to do the hard work of winning time after time means making hard decisions (including decisions about one's own leadership ability).  Making and executing on these decisions can be very agonizing.
  • leaders know that sometimes they (and their organizations) have to lose in order to win.  Most people end up in leadership roles because they have learned how to win, enjoy winning, and have been rewarded for winning.  Doing something that will lead to losing (even if it is short term for the good of the long haul) is antithetical to most leaders and can be very agonizing.
So why do we do it?  Why would anyone put themselves through this type of agony just to win?  I believe it is because the thrill of victory far outweighs the agony of defeat for both the leader and their organization.  When leaders and their organizations win (assuming that "winning" leads to the betterment of the common good), the world might just be a better place.  For me, when Concordia University Texas experiences the thrill of victory, more people have been developed as Christian leaders and are serving their organizations in a manner that makes the world a better place.  Why wouldn't I want to keep winning?  Why wouldn't I go through the agonizing times to experience the thrill of accomplishment?  Why wouldn't I spend hours of my time consumed about my organization in order that the university reaches its vision?  For leaders, this is their adrenaline - to experience the agony of victory to achieve that in which they completely believe.

A final personal note: in 2012, the Cubs hired Theo Epstein to be President of the organization and from 2012-2014, Cubs fans experienced the agony of defeat just as they had for the past 100+ years...and the past three years have been glorious.  As a life-long Cubs fan, I am thankful to Theo (who had been used to winning in Boston) for being willing to experience the agony of defeat during those years to build a winning franchise.  I am hopeful that he - and many others - will also be able to experience the agony of victory so that I can continue my own agony of victory for many years to come.