Friday, March 17, 2017

where are you standing?

I just returned from three days of watching baseball in Arizona, enjoying spring training and the company of fellow brothers.  One of our discussions was centered on where fielders stand on a given play or for a given batter (or for that matter, where batters stand facing a given pitcher or situation).  This conversation (as well as many others) led me to consider what it might have to do with leadership, thus the title of today's blog.

So what might it mean for leaders to consider where they are standing...and what is the impact that standing might have?  Here are a few thoughts for this Friday morning:

  • physically, leaders need to consider where to stand when they address their constituencies - are you directly in the middle, do you stand to one side or the other, or do you consistently move around?
  • values-wise, leaders need to be able to know and articulate where they stand.  What is most important to them and does everyone know and understand the implications of what the leader holds as important? And what happens when individuals violate the leader's most dearly held values? (and perhaps even more important, what happens when the leader violates his or her own most dearly held values?)
  • strategically, leaders must stand firm when competing ideas or needs want to deter the organization from moving in the agreed upon direction.  Even the very best ideas pushed for by the very best people need to checked against the current strategic direction (and, if a change in direction is warranted, the leader needs to be able to explain why they are choosing not to stand firm at that time)
  • personnel-wise, the leader should have the ability to stand in the another person's shoes and work hard to understand their viewpoint, especially when there is conflict or unmet expectations.  Hearing and understanding what the other person is saying or doing can lead to a better outcome for everyone involved
  • budgetarily, leaders have to stand firm and not let their organization make decisions which can harm them in the long run. Investing in the organization's core capabilities and choosing not to invest in activities that are not required (and insisting on holding the line in terms of agreed upon margin) are all part of the leader's stance in terms of financial health
Thinking about where you stand can serve to strengthen one's leadership capacity. Where the leader stands will help to define what the leader is standing for...and in turn help others know how to stand as they move the organization forward in its mission and vision.

Friday, March 10, 2017

from responder to listener

The reality is that those who react, respond, and make things happen often get promoted to positions of leadership.  The ability to see a problem and fix it is exactly what people see as valuable in most organizations.  Those of us who are currently in a leadership position most likely got there because we were able to react, respond, and make things happen.  The problem comes that when one moves into that leadership role, it suddenly becomes more important to listen and think rather than act and do.  The other day I asked someone what they had been learning about themselves, and their response was "I am learning to listen to listen, rather than listen to respond."  That is the essence of what it means to lean into one's role as a leader.

Now here's the rub...because the ability to react, respond, and make things happen is most likely built into the DNA of those in leadership roles, the natural reaction will be to respond rather than listen - and that can easily get someone into trouble because of that natural reaction.  So what can be done?  How do those in leadership roles stay in the listening mode and not rush to the responding mode?  Here are a few ideas:
  • stop before you offer a solution...rather than offer your own solution, ask the person if they have an idea about a solution
  • have a series of 3-4 questions that you always ask...these are your go-to questions that everyone knows you are going to pull out of your back pocket
  • pause before entering into dialogue...before the meeting begins, take a deep breath and remind yourself of why you are there and what you should be bringing to the table
  • finish each meeting with a ratio inventory...determine what your ratio was of questions asked to statements made, and ask yourself if you are happy with that ratio
  • ask for feedback...check with those around you if they believe you are more interested in responding or listening
  • stop and ask for forgiveness...if you find yourself in the middle of solving for a problem, stop your rambling and ask the other person for forgiveness - and then let them start solving the problem
  • remind yourself that you are not the smartest person in the room...which is often hard to do when everyone else is telling you (directly or indirectly) that you are the smartest person in the room
  • enter into all conversations with humility...you don't know what you don't know, and because of that you will never have all of the answers
Unfortunately, this is not something that goes away over time.  Remember that those in leadership positions got there because they are wired to respond, and that immediate need to respond never really goes away.  The paradox is that once one understands that this initial reaction will always be there, the easier it becomes to manage it.  And that's what leaders do - they manage themselves so they can lead in a more effective manner. And remember that it is in the listening that leaders best respond to others - and that is really what most people are asking for from leaders.

Friday, March 3, 2017

when a leader loses their voice

Last week I had no voice...literally.  I had been sick, I overused my voice, and my vocal cords gave out on me.  Just having to squeak out a few words was painful and all I wanted to do was be quiet.  Yet the job demanded that I appear at certain functions to speak, hold meetings with individuals or groups, and walk the campus greeting people.  It finally got to the point where I was unable to speak to a groups and had to ask others to step in for me.  I had no voice.

My belief is that leaders can lose their voice even when they are healthy and their vocal cords are functioning just fine.  I can speak, but if no one really listens I have no voice; I can lead meetings, but if I have no influence I have no voice; I can meet and greet people all day long, but if no one really cares I have no voice.  What can those in leadership roles do to keep from losing their metaphorical voice?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • give the voice rest...just as I had to stop talking to get back my physical voice, leaders at times need to stop talking and spend more time both listening and in quiet contemplation.
  • talk less, smile more (with apologies to the musical Hamilton)...sometimes presence is as important (or even more important) than one's physical voice being heard.  Letting others know that you are there and being a part of the event is just as important as speaking at the event.
  • choose words carefully...more talking does not always equal a stronger voice.  Stay on target, be careful with words, and be succinct.  Many times less really is more.
  • keep the voice at a lower level...when trying to make a point, those in leadership roles can often get excited and perhaps even agitated.  The louder and more aggressive the voice, the less people might actually listen.
  • stay away from large crowds...smaller meetings take more time, but the ability to craft one's message for an individual can go along way in making one's voice really heard.
  • let others speak...leaders often believe that they are the ones who deliver the message best; the truth is that there are many people in the organization who can say things better and more to the point.  Give them the chance to practice their own voice and others the chance to here a new voice.
My greatest fear was realized as I considered what might happen if my physical voice never fully came back.  I realized that my voice was the tool by which I do my work.  That is true for the leader's metaphorical voice as well.  Perhaps the fear of losing that voice should be greater than the fear of losing one's physical voice.

This past week I have talked much less, avoided large crowds, talked only in a softer voice, drank plenty of tea and honey, and regularly used salt and warm water to heal the throat.  I am not yet a 100% but am now able to hold a conversation without much pain.  I have learned my lesson to take better care of my voice...and I have learned to care for my metaphorical voice as well.  Let's hope that lesson serves me well for years to come.


Friday, January 27, 2017

the complexity of leadership

Upon finishing my "state of the university" address this past Monday afternoon, I felt exhausted.  It was not a difficult talk...it was not an overly long talk...it was not a combative question and answer session.  As I drove home I asked myself why I felt so tired and beat up - and then the answer came to me.  By the end of the talk, I realized how complex my organization is, how many different (and differing) constituencies we as an institution must consider, and how quickly the landscape of higher education is changing.  While I might want to claim that this is only true of Concordia (and higher education in general) I know that this is the reality of most organizations today.  Who is our customer? What is our product? How do we gain market share? What about diversity and inclusion? What is the economy going to do today? And how do I keep the people of the organization happy?

Leadership, like organizations themselves, is complex.  Having to consider the multiple questions that come one's way, those in leadership positions must deal with the complexity that is consistently all around them.  This is not about working harder...this is not about working more hours...this is not about hiring more people...and it is certainly not about attempting to make the organization less complex.  So what are leaders to do?  How might they better deal with the complexity of leadership?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • slow down...if one does not take the time to breathe and think, how can they even see or understand the complexity that exists?
  • read more...in the midst of complexity, those in leadership roles often feel as if they are the only ones dealing with these issues.  Reading helps one to see beyond their own situation and might provide an answer to one of the many questions in front of the leader.
  • simplify where you can...the truth is that complexity is throughout the organization.  Where might one simplify and make the decision making process just a little easier (or at least less complicated)?
  • listen to stories...in the midst of the complexity, a gentle reminder of why one does what they do can make the stress of complexity a little more bearable each day.
  • hire really smart (and emotionally intelligent) people...by their very nature, those in leadership roles tend to take on themselves the entire complexity of the organization.  Let others share in the burden of complexity - it makes life easier and better for everyone.
  • take a break...one of the golden rules of leadership is to take a full day off once a week, three straight days off once a month, and two straight weeks off once a year.  Getting away from the organization puts the complexity a little more in perspective and allows the leader to renew their strength to deal with the constant onslaught they face.
  • lean into it...at the end of the day, the complexity of leadership is here to stay.  Embrace it, enjoy it, and learn to manage it - because there is no way around it.
Life has always been complex...and people's resiliency has always learned to manage it.  Dealing with complexity begins with accepting that it exists and then moving forward.  Remember that if your organization was not complex, it might just be moving toward shutting down.  What is the better alternative?

Friday, January 20, 2017

what's really important?

Many people wear a badge of honor regarding how busy they are...they're busy with this and that, they are attending too many meetings, their email inboxes are overflowing, they can't find time to read, family time is at a minimum, etc. It almost comes off as if they feel the measure of their work (and especially their leadership) is measured by the amount of time they spend on various activities.  Being in a leadership position will automatically provide more demands in one week than one can accomplish in a 24-hour, 7-day time frame.  The only way to deal with this is to turn one's attention to those things that are most important...and that is easier said than done.  Who determines importance?  Is it what is important today or important in five years? What about the multiple emergencies that keep coming across one's desk?  Here are some thoughts on how one might determine what is really important:
  • think long term...what is it that you and/or the organization needs to accomplish in the long run and what, if it is not done today, will put that future in jeopardy?
  • ask others in the organization...this is not about having someone else set the agenda; it is about getting a sense what is important to those one leads.
  • review the position description...what is it you were asked to do when you started in the position  Does it still make sense and, if so, are you actually doing those things?
  • consider the mission...are the activities in which you are engaged helping to advance the mission; and by that I mean in significant ways, not only incrementally
  • consider the margin...do your activities have a return on investment for the organization that is tangible and creates a greater financial margin at the end of the year?
  • consider the people...while it has become almost trite to say that the greatest resource an organization has is its people, there is still truth in the concept.
Now comes the hard part - choosing the few things that need to be done, narrowing the list down to what only the leader can do (and delegating much of the rest), scheduling the activities on one's calendar, and then actually executing on those items that are really important.  While this can be a difficult exercise for many who have assumed leadership roles, it should also be freeing and rewarding...and it should give back one's time.  Let "doing really important things" be your new personal badge of honor!

Friday, January 13, 2017

it's ALL about leadership

During a recent breakfast with a friend and colleague, we concluded our discussion with the simple phrase "it's all about leadership."  Then we both stopped, looked at each other, and repeated the phrase with a special emphasis on the world ALL...it's ALL about leadership.  Some people might respond with a no-duh...others might respond with a shrug and look of skepticism...still others might respond with an enthusiastic yes and a pump of the fist.  No matter what the response, for this writer it was, is, and always will be ALL about leadership.  So if this is such a no-brainer concept, why might I be thinking about it today?  Here are a few thoughts on why it is important for people to undersand that it's ALL about leadership:

  • leaders must lead...once one is placed into a leadership position, there is no going back.  The named leader does not get to wake up one morning and decide not to lead...those chosen to lead must lead.
  • leaders must learn how to lead...being placed into a leadership position does not guarantee leadership.  Leadership is a learned act (despite what others might believe or say) and one gets better at leading by practicing leadership skills, attitudes, and behaviors.
  • leaders must make hard decisions...while there are many other people within an organzation who do the work and make decisions, those in leaders positions are looked at to make the decisions that make or break an organization.  Leadership is not for the faint of heart or those who like to sit on the sidelines.
  • leaders must build and work with a team...no one person leads an organization by themselves (even if they believe they do).  Learning how to work with a team of highly professional people is critical to leading and to the success of any institution.
  • leaders must know their business...because of the difficult decisions that leaders make, they have to fully understand the business they are in, the product they produce, and the customer they serve.  While leadership skills are transferable (see last week's blog) leadership in a given context is not.
  • leaders must be all in...because it's ALL about leadership, those in leadership roles need to be completely transparent, completely vulnerable, and completely committed to their organization and their role as leader.  Half-hearted leadership not only hurts the institution, it is far from fulfilling for the individual.
A word for followers...when those who are being led realize it's all about leadership, it becomes their responsibility to ensure that leaders can and will lead.  If someone in a leadership role chooses not to lead, who will  hold them accountable to lead?  If someone in a leadership role is struggling to lead, who will encourage them to lead?  If others are hampering the ability of a leader to lead, who will confront their colleagues to allow the leader to lead?  When it's ALL about leadership, then it's everyone's responsibility to ensure that leadership happens at its highests level becuase it's ALL about leadership.

Friday, January 6, 2017

transferable leadership

I had the honor this week to be on a panel with two other college presidents - Rebecca Bergman of Gustavus Adolphus College and Paula Carlson of Luther College.  The three of us reflected for a group of up-and-coming leaders about our first 2 1/2 years in office (each of us began our roles as presidents in the fall of 2014).  Rebecca came directly out of industry into the office of the president following a very successful career at Medtronic in Minneapolis.  When asked what is was like not having taken the traditional route to the presidency, her reply was very simply "leadership is transferable"...and I could not agree more.

There are many who believe that only those who know a certain industry...only those who grew up around a certain industry...and only those who have spent their careers in a certain industry are able to lead those industries.  And yet, there are countless examples of individuals who moved from one industry to another and led in an exemplary fashion (just as there are countless examples of those who spent their entire lifetime in a certain industry and failed miserably in the executive role).  What makes leadership transferable?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • leadership is about understanding and being able to work with people
  • leadership is about being curious and willing to learn what one does not know
  • leadership is about surrounding oneself with really smart people
  • leadership is about knowing and understanding the environment in which one is placed
  • leadership is about listening to others
  • leadership is about understanding that the leader is hardly ever the smartest person in the room
  • leadership is about executing strategy and putting in place the tools to ensure execution
  • leadership is about having the ability to consider and act on BOTH margin and mission
  • leadership is about knowing where and how to spend one's time
  • leadership is about building a team and setting that team loose to do the necessary work
  • leadership is about articulating the mission and vision through story and data
  • leadership is about the ability to know and understand one's own emotions and attitudes
So no matter what you lead or where you lead (and remember that leadership is not always about having a defined position), now is the time to start practicing these leadership attributes to prepare for the next leadership gig...no matter what particular industry for which one is chosen to lead.

Many thanks to both Rebecca and Paula for sharing their stories with me (and others) and to our friend and mentor Loren Anderson (former president of Pacific Lutheran University) who pulled the panel together.  You are all excellent leaders who make a difference in the lives of people and institutions.  May God continue to grant each of you health and peace in this new year.