Friday, November 20, 2009

two sides to everything

As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room in Eagle Pass, Texas less than 1/2 mile from the border with Mexico. I am here on a trip with a group of our students sudying international business management. This is the fourth year in a row we have come to this place, and each time I learn a little bit more about what life is like "on the other side." I have come to love and embrace the "border" mentality, where there is really not two distinct towns but one fused community, with a river running between them. As I listen to the people and watch the interactions, I am reminded how two very different cultures can work together to support each other economically and socially...and the stuggles that also go with those differences.
So what might that mean for organizations - and individual relationships? How can we as leaders embrace the "two sides" mentality toward greater organizational performance? Here are a few thoughts that cross my mind on an early Friday morning:
  1. when people are on two different sides, there views are going to be different. Listening to what the person on the opposite side sees helps you better understand the area in which you are standing (remember, they see it different from you). Appreciate what the other person sees (and says) and learn frm what they are saying (and seeing).
  2. here on the border, each side carries a different world view...not only do they see something different, they interpret what they see thorugh a different lense than the other person. Appreciating the history, culture, and lifestyle of each side helps to interpret what that person is seeing (and saying). Keep that in mind as you listen and respond.
  3. remember that history is often written from the view of the people who win. If I view Mexican life through a lens that says "we won" then I will see things different than if I view Mexican life as a culture and tradition that was present in this part of the country centuries before America even existed. Putting "the other side" in perspective helps me understand the other perspective and keeps me from seeing everything though a win/lose proposition.
  4. I really like Mexican food, and nobody makes Mexican food better than Mexicans. What is it about the other side without which I would find it difficult to live ? Seeing the positive in others and their ideas helps to bring people (and groups) together.
  5. putting up walls only makes people angry - while there are those who think that walls can be used for protection, no one close to the wall ever benefits from them. Walls say "stay away" and "we do not want you." Are you a person who tears down walls - or puts more of them up?
  6. as I travel over to Piedras Negras, I come into contact with the unfamiliar, and for me, that is very exciting. What is it about "the other side" that might be exciting to you? Where can you find joy in the unfamiliar and perhaps even a little scary? What are you willing to risk in order to discover something new? Embracing the unfamiliar enriches one's leadership and enhances an organization

I would invite you to discover this wonderful pair of towns on the Texas border known as Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. I love the people here - and I love coming to a place where I can learn more about others - and I can learn more about myself. And isn't that what leadership is all about?

Friday, November 13, 2009

people who drive me crazy

Think about the people who drive you crazy...not the TYPE of people who drive you crazy, but the ACTUAL people who drive you crazy. Go ahead and name them outloud for a moment (or not, depending on where you are reading could get you in trouble). But for a moment, consider a few thoughts on the people who drive you crazy:
  • WHY do these people drive me crazy?
  • Are they REALLY so different from me - or maybe too much alike?
  • Does their BEHAVIOR push me out of my comfort zone?
  • Is it a VALUE issue...or is it a PERSONALITY issue?
  • What can I LEARN from these people?
  • What are the PATTERNS among the different people who drive me crazy - both today and in the past?

As I consider the different people who drive me crazy, several things become apparent very quickly:

  1. their strengths are very different from mine
  2. they tend to not back away from conflict
  3. they seem to spend more time at their desks than walking around and talking with people
  4. they would rather talk about operational approaches rather than strategic approaches
  5. they tend to see the glass as half-empty rather than half-full
  6. they would rather blame others than take on the responsibility for change
  7. they make more statements than they ask questions

The difficult part of making this list is that I have to come to the realization that each of the above behaviors can be a great advantage to an organization:

  1. different strengths allow for different ways of looking at the same issue
  2. ideas need to be challenged in a strong manner
  3. data needs to be collected and shared, which takes time to put together
  4. things need to get done - vision without action is only a dream
  5. the realities of the organization need to be named and talked about
  6. people who mess up need to take responsibility for their bad work
  7. decisions need to be made after asking the right questions

OK, I get the point. I understand that it's good if there are people in the organization who drive me crazy. I may not understand how they think...I may not like how they act...I can disagree with their behaviors and attitudes...but I need to embrace them as important to the organization and try my hardest to work with them. Here's to those who drive me - and you - crazy!

Friday, November 6, 2009

dealing with difficult moments

Leaders will have their share of difficult moments. In my area as Dean of a College, I have difficult moment with students, faculty, administrators, alumni, parents, and even colleagues. The good news is these difficult moments are often few and far between. The bad news is that they are REALLY difficult. What makes them difficult is that they always involve people, and people are hard to deal with. Why is that?

  • People are like you and me - when we look into their faces or hear their voices, we are seeing or hearing ourselves.

  • We want people to like us - and when we face difficult moments with them, we are probably saying things they do not like to hear...which means they may not like us.

  • Difficult moments mostly involve people when they are at their most vulnerable state, and the last thing we want to do is hurt people even more.

  • What we perceive as a problem may not look like a problem to the people with whom we are dealing, so we start off on different pages. Having to explain the problem to someone else is often the hardest part of starting the difficult conversation.

  • For me, there is always a gnawing voice in the back of my head saying that I might be wrong...and I begin second guessing myself.

While difficult moments are difficult, part of the role of a leader is to confront problems and deal with those difficult moments. If the leader shirks that responsibility, then they are not fulfilling their role as leader. So what might be some ways to deal with difficult moments and perhaps make them slightly less difficult?

  • Deal with them right away - the longer one lets the issue go, the harder it is to confront the individual with the problem

  • Know exactly what you are going to say in the moment - take some time to think through and write out what you want to say to the person before you begin the conversation

  • Approach the situation with the understanding that you MIGHT be wrong - that thought pattern can remove any attitude of superiority and put the two of you on more equal footing

  • In the conversation, provide a way and time for the other person to admit their role in the problem and make restiution - if you do all of the talking, it will put the other person in an even more defensive mode

  • Realize that you are doing your job, and no one else can do it for you - this is why you were put in the leadership role, so do it and do it well. You may or may not win friends in the process, but what you are doing is strengthening and building the organization and its mission

  • Don't dwell on the issue - state what the problem is, ask a few questions, note the consequences if warranted, and stop. If the person responds, there is then room for dialogue with the two of you. If not, then the conversation is over. Be sure to check for understanding before the conversation is finished.

  • Follow up - an email or note after the difficult moment helps to make sure that both parties understand what happened and leaves a paper trail.

  • Move on - a difficult moment is just that...A MOMENT. Once it is over, it is over, and both parties can move on with their work. Don't take it personally, and don't hold a grudge. On the other hand, there is no need to go out of your way to "fix" the relationship or issue right away. Let it take care of itself over time.

And finally, remember not to make a mountain out of a molehill. Much of what we might perceive as a difficult moment may be nothing more than a blip on the screen for the other person. What keeps me awake at night may not keep someone else awake at night, and I have to accept that fact. Yet another hazard of leadership.

A final note - while I never enjoy the difficult moments, I always feel a sense of accomplishment when I have dealt with the issues and the people. Perhaps that has to do with the realization that I am actually doing my job...and doing those things that only leaders can do. And that's a good thing.