Saturday, February 19, 2011

working with the "slows"

I recently read a section of a book on Civil War Leaders that dealt with the relationship between President Lincoln and General George McClellan. The relationship was never very good (though President Lincoln tried his hardest) with General McClellan consistently demanding more than he needed and waiting too long to attack General Lee's forces.There is a point in the conflict in which President Lincoln referred to General McClellan as having the "slows." As much as Lincoln urged him much as he demanded him to move much as he asked others to push McClellan, nothing much ever happened and the Army of the Potomac lost multiple opportunities to win decisive battles that might have shortened the war.

Who do you know - or who do you work with (or for) that seems to have the "slows?" What seems to characterize this person? How does this person's behavior and actions keep the institution form moving forward? And what happens when you as a leader tend to get the "slows?"

The behavior is often characterized by someone not being able to act in a timely manner. When leaders get the "slows" the whole organization begins to grind to a halt. Other people wonder what is happening...other people begin to get blamed for opportunities not taken...other people are scrambling to gather data the leader wants in order to make his or her decision...other people get blamed for budget issues...other people are asked to perform above their call of duty...other people (well, you get the idea).

McClellan was a master "blamer" - it was never his fault, but always someone else's problem when he was not able to take the initiative. He blamed it on his generals...he blamed it on the weather...he blamed it on his superiors...he blamed it on his numbers (or lack thereof)...he blamed it on lack of information. What he never did was blame it on himself. His "slowness" brought the Army of the Potomac to a grinding halt - and eventually led to his own demise. Following the battle at Antietam, Lincoln found the right time and place to remove General McClellan and replace him with General Burnside (who ended up in a similar situation within a few months).

How can we make sure the "slows" do not happen to us? Here are a few thoughts:
  • determine what it is that needs to be done - and then set a timeline in which to make it happen
  • find a group of people who will hold you accountable to your decision making process
  • don't be a data freak...though this might be a strength of yours, do not let it become your weakness
  • know your data - gather what you need, be sure it is as accurate as it can be, and then move forward
  • understand what the organization needs to move ahead - and empower others to make those decisions
  • be willing to say "I might be wrong" and then move forward
  • always have your list of what's next - be thinking about and working toward the next big thing
  • don't be afraid - the fear of failure can keep you from acting
  • don't become arrogant - your pride can easily create a fear of failure
  • surround yourself with great people - and work with them to make timely decisions
  • do regular inventories of what you have accomplished in the past 90, 180, 360 days

If you have the "slows," determine to do something about them...if those around you have the "slows," discuss with them their inability to act and help them correct the issue...if those to whom you report have the "slows," find ways to encourage them to give you (or others) permission to act...if your organization has the "slows," set up a way for yourself and your division to make things happen. Don't be accused of having the "slows"'s a terrible disease that can hurt you, your career, and your organization.

Friday, February 11, 2011

decision making 101: who should a leader listen to?

While leaders are not making decisions regularly (and if they are, they have moved into the management mode), the decisions they do make often have a significant effect on their institution. These decisions will come with a lot of input, data gathering, and often some serious hand wringing. These are not what we would call easy decisions. While there has been a lot of science that has gone into understanding how one makes decisions, I would like to comment on the process of who leaders listen to as they go about their decision making process.

Listening to people's input as leaders go about making decisions is an important part not only of the decision making process, but also in building the culture that one wants to have within their organization. Who leaders listen they listen...when they listen...and how that advice is used all affects how others perceive the leader and the organization. Here are several groups of people that I believe leaders should listen to - and the process in which they should listen to them:

The Executive Team - more often than not, this is a group of people who surround the leader because of their title and position. They are also often tied to a particular section (aka SILO) of the organization. This group of people bring data to the issue from their unique perspective and often have a stake in the game as decisions are being made. The decisions made by the leader will often affect them and their people very directly. While they have to be a part of the decision making process, I often wonder if they bring the best advice. And we all know what can happen if the leader actually asks them to VOTE on the decision...

The Masses - our culture tells us that democracy always works best, and yet decisions made by the masses are often made with little or no real data. What "feels" good at the moment often guide this group in decision making. Whether it is by vote...or by survey...or by informal input, the masses are mostly asking "what's in it for me?" They often only see what is on the outside of the decision to be made, and know little about the real issues. They are not fully informed (nor should we expect them to be) and yet are quickly willing to lend thier opinions.

Those Who Have Gone Before Us - while it is good and wise to to have counsel from mentors and coaches and those who have been in the decision making role in the past, it is difficult for this group of people to be completely objective in their thoughts and opinions. The picture of what worked in the past might not necessarily work today or into the future. This group of people may want their own personal legacy to live on, and relying on them for help in the decision making process can skew a leader's understanding of what the organization REALLY needs to move forward.

The Best People in the Organization - for me, this is the group I would put the most stock into when listening for advice in decision making. They may or may not have a title...they may or may not be sitting on the executive team...they may or may not have been with the organization for a long time...BUT they should be the people whom the leader trusts the most. They bring the most value to the organization...they are the ones whom the leader believes can best move the organization forward...they are the ones coming up with ways to make the organization better...they are the ones who show up early and stay late...they are the ones with whom others associate the organization...they are the ones who see their job as their calling and vocation...they are the ones who exemplify what the organization is all about. Listening to them makes the most sense, because they will give advice that is best for the organization (not themselves)...they will give advice that is forward looking (not the easy way out)...they will give advice that comes from the heart (becasue that's the only way they know how to think about the organization)...and they will give advice that challenges the "normal" way of thinking (because they are always challenging themselves and their personal way of thinking).

Leaders should be listening to others in their decision making process, and who they listen to says a lot about them as a leader - and a lot about the culture of the organization. Ultimately, the leader HAS to make the decision, and it becomes THEIR responsibility to do so. There is no place for blame afterwards, and the leader lives with the consequences of that decision. However, good listening (or what others refer to as deep listening) can assist the leader in the decision making process - and can serve them and their organization well in the long run.

Friday, February 4, 2011

thinking about leadership

The title of this blog is "thinking about leadership" - so just how often do you think about leadership and what is it you are thinking about? I was recently asked the question about how my various academic degrees have prepared me for a position of leadership, so I actually had to do some thinking about leadership. I was talking with a colleague about a cermaics class he is teaching, and as he described how his best students work with their clay, it brought to mind a picture of good leadership and I began once again to think about leadership. Sitting around and catching up on journals this past Sunday evening had me reading about higher education, and most articles I read had me thinking about leadership. Having coffee with a friend and mentor had me thinking about leadership. At my most recent College of Business Advisory Board meeting, I began thinking about leadership. So why is this important?

I have met way too many people that just lead - and believe they have all the answers because they have experienced leadership. One of my colleagues keeps referring to a book (yes "a" book which I assume means one) that they read on leadership and nows acts as if they have all the answers. Others think that leadership is something one is born with and therefore that person will naturally have all the answers and know how to lead. Still others who were elevated into a leadership position many years ago now pontificate as if they are the experts on leadership. I wonder if these people ever really THINK about leadership.

It amazes me how many times in a given day or week I pause to consider the concept of leadership. As I drive in the car, my mind wanders to how one led that day, or the decisions I made in a leadership role, or what might be done better to lead my institution. As I read various books (mostly NOT on leadership), I begin to contemplate what that particular tome is telling me about leadership, though often indirectly. As I interact with people, ideas of leadership pop in my head that I can bounce off of them. Watching people lead gives me the ability to critically reflect on why they did what they did, and what I might have done differently in that given situation.

So how does one become the type of person who thinks about leadership on a regualr basis?
  • develop leadership lenses - whatever you read or observe, ask the question about how that might inform your own leadership ideas
  • ask quetions - when talking with others, ask them why they made the decisions they did, trying to understand how they lead
  • wonder outloud - in conversation (or in your own head) ask the "what if?" question that gets at the heart of the matter of different viewpoints or ideas
  • read widely - don't just read leadership books (though it is important ot read many of those). I especially encourage good fiction to broaden one's mind in terms of thinking about leadership. I also encourage browsing the magazine shelves at bookstoes and picking up issues you have never read to discover new ways of thinking about leadership
  • interview really cool people - I have often said the best part of my job is that I get to meet really cool people. Find someone who interests you, set a time to meet them for a cup of coffee, and just pick their brain, especially on leadership topics
  • watch moves - and ask the question of yourself what it might be saying about leadership
  • observe - watch leaders and the decisions they make, and then think about why they made those decisions. Consider alternatives, going back to the "what if?" questions
  • journal - while this is not a strong suit of mine, I know that putting one's thoughts down on paper on a regular basis (some call it blogging) can help in making lucid the multiple ideas running through one's head
  • develop a spirit of humility - I teach my students to be able to use the phrase "I might be wrong..." because if they can embrace that attitude, they can become lifelong learners. Realize now that you actully know very little about leadership (even if you have forgotten more about leadership than most people will ever know) and become a lifelong student of the topic

I love thinking about leadership - I probably do it even when I am not thinking I am thinking about leadership - it becomes natural for me - and it is always somethining I am pursuing to a deeper level. I invite you to join me in thinking about leadership - and take your leadership to a new level.