Friday, December 26, 2014

the 56th time

As I turned toward the center of the church on Christmas Eve to hear the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke being read regarding the birth of Jesus Christ, I realized that I was hearing the same passage being read for the 56th time in my life (I may not remember the first several, but you can bet I was in church during those years).  On this day, the 56th Christmas Eve service I had attended, I was hearing the same words spoken..."And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed..."  I have to admit that hearing the words spoken in the King James Version is still my favorite.  I will put up with the NIV or the ESV, but I am never so happy as when I hear the story spoken in the language in which I had come to memorize those words.  And so as I listened, I was again enthralled with the story of the birth of Jesus as told by Luke.

So what does this have to do with leadership?  I read somewhere (perhaps it was something by Peter Drucker) that said when people get tired of hearing about the mission, you have just begun talking about it.  The STORY of your organization must be told over and over again...and it is best if it is done in a way that resonates with everyone.  To tell the STORY (the organization's mission, vision, values, and culture) is critical to keeping the STORY alive.  Part of it is its history...part of it is its successes...part of it is its day-to-day workings...and part of it is the story that reminds people of why you do what you do.

When I heard the words "And it came to pass..." I began reciting the words inwardly to myself because I knew them so well.  Would it be the same way in your organization?  Can people recite the story to themselves and others?  Do they know what the story is?  When they gather, is there an anticipation that the story will be told again?  Does the story remind them of the importance of what they do - and how they do it?

What is your organization's story - and how important is it for the people to hear it over and over again?  What milestone is celebrated each year so that the story can be told in its entirety?  For us, the beginning of a new school year marks that time...yet I will never pass up the opportunity to remind people of the story - and why it is important to the institution.  part of my job is too ensure that the story is kept alive.  What will you do in the new year to keep your organization's story alive?

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'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 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 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!

Friday, September 26, 2014

making small talk

I am on the third leg of a 10-day journey away from home at conferences and trips with people who, for the most part, are new to me.  I sat at lunch yesterday thinking to myself, "I just want to be quiet and not have to make small talk with someone I do not know."  Those who know me understand that this is out of my character, so I must really have hit a wall.  That being said, I really enjoy getting to meet people and learn about them...if they are willing to engage in conversation.  I have come to understand that the art of making small talk is not natural to many people, and that there is much to learn in how to do this.  Leaders spend a lot of time with people they may not know, and I believe that the art of conversation (small talk) is a critical skill to have.  Here are a few ideas to try out next time you are in a crowd and needing to make new friends:

  • Ask questions about them and their families...nothing gets people talking faster and deeper than when you ask about their hobbies and children
  • Be willing to offer your own never know where the connections will happen
  • Extend your hand, offer a shake, and tell them your name and what you do...making people ask the obvious always seems odd to me
  • Have an arsenal of questions ready...what do you do? what brings you here? where did you grow up? what is your favorite thing about this conference? etc
  • Be interested...your enthusiasm will go a long way to keep the conversation going
  • Don't make it a sales call...keep your business card in your wallet or purse until someone asks for it or it seems obvious this connection should continue
  • Set a mental time limit for the conversation...nothing is worse than a conversation that drags on because one (or the other) person keeps talking
  • Learn to exit you have to see someone else? make a phone call? go the the restroom? get in line for food? check your email?
  • Be willing to be quiet...those of us who are extroverts believe it is our God-given duty to keep the conversation going at all costs.  Sometimes it's okay to just sit next to someone and be quiet.
Small talk is precisely that...small and short.  It's not too painful, and you never know where it might lead.  AND it's just another way to be nice to someone else.

Friday, September 12, 2014

passing the baton

Yesterday I had an opportunity to witness an official "passing of the baton" event here at Concordia University Texas.  I began the College of Business Speaker Series in October of 2006, a monthly event that helped to shape and grow the College of Business over the past 8 years.  Yesterday, the hosting of the series was handled by our interim Dean of the College of Business, Dr. Lynette Gillis, and she did a superb job in making it an incredibly successful event.  Over 175 students, faculty, staff and community members were in the room listening to Jason Johnson, a CTX alum, being interviewed.  I sat in and among the audience, listening and enjoying the presentation.  As it finished, I thought to myself that the baton had been passed successfully and the next leg of the race had begun.

I have also been on the receiving end of the baton being passed well, assuming the role of CEO here at Concordia after 12 years of great leadership by Dr. Tom Cedel.  When people have asked me how it has been over the past 6 weeks, I get to say that for the most part everything has been smooth and I am enjoying the role.  Much of that is a result of having the baton passed onto me in a manner that allowed me to be successful in this role.  For that I am thankful and hope to carry that baton for quite a while.

So how can leaders best pass the baton on to to others?  Here are a few thoughts from my experiences over the past several months:

  • Prepare to pass the baton - who is it that might be best to carry the baton (if needed) and how are they being prepared?
  • Let those people know that they might have the baton passed onto them so they can watch and observe in a different manner.
  • Give them opportunities to practice what they might have to do in that role.
  • Give them assignments outside of their normal area of routine - and support them during that with coaching and mentoring.
  • Have a transition plan in place when the baton is getting ready to be passed and then, if possible, work that plan over time.
  • Be available for questions after the baton has been passed (but please do not be a nuisance).
  • Show up and support them during the passing of the baton (and still ensure they remain the center of attention).
There is much to be said about succession planning, something with which most organizations do a very poor job. I am glad that the College of Business had an interim succession plan in place for the role of the Dean, and I am glad that Tom Cedel gave me multiple chances to practice the role of President and CEO prior to my assuming the office.  While nothing can fully prepare one for a new role, there are many ways to help make the transition better.  Take some time to day to consider how you are preparing that next person so that when you have to pass the baton on to them, the transition can be as smooth as possible.

Friday, September 5, 2014

getting to a deeper WHY

In several of my conversations this past week, questions were asked about what we as a University might consider and do in the future...most of the questions were really statements about what people wanted to have happen or not, i.e. "Is Concordia going to build another residence hall on campus?" or "Don't you think Concordia should have a football team?"  While most people would prefer a YES or NO answer so as to see if I concur with what they believe to be true, I often answer their question with another question that begins with "WHY..."?  It might sound like "why do you think that is important? " or "why is that important to you?" or "where does that question come from?"  What I am finding more and more is that most questions have a deeper WHY because what people are really longing for is something bigger and even more important than what is asked for in the initial question.  With the question of another residence hall, people might be really asking for a more robust student life on campus...and with the question about football, most people are either a) for football and the excitement that would bring to a campus; or b) against football because of the emphasis it might take away from other programs.

I think the same theory holds true for most of what we look for in our own lives and decisions, whether it is in choosing a new home, a new car, or even as simple as what to do on a weekend.  While I do not want to psychoanalyze too deeply, I believe that we often want something more than what it appears to be on the surface...are we looking for more time to spend with someone, more prestige in our lives, the ability to feel good about something, or as simple as just feeling good about doing something different?

When leading people, helping then (and you) understand the deeper WHY provides options in the decision making process, and allows for more engagement from people around the table.  When confronted with a request that seems impossible due to resource constraints, or an idea whose time has not yet arrived, leaders can help their people re-frame the question or request so that the real reason can surface and the team can arrive at an answer that meets the deeper WHY.  I often refer to this as moving from the tactical to the strategic, a way of thinking that should be prevalent in leadership teams.

So don't be afraid to ask the WHY question, over and over and over.  It sometimes takes me 4-5 WHYs to get at the heart of the matter, at which time everyone in the room often goes, "Oh, I hadn't thought of it that way before."  And next time you are asked a question that is really more of a statement, resist the urge to answer it right away and probe the questioner as to where their idea or question comes both might be surprised by the answer that is given.

Friday, August 29, 2014

it's about people

Of course it's about people!  Every leadership book says so...every leadership coach says so...and every leader will tell you that is what they believe.  Yesterday I witnessed what happens when people are actually put first in an organization when the employees at UFCU recognized and honored their leader, Tony Budet, for his 30 years of service there as well as his 60th birthday.  As I listened to the the speeches and watched the video presentation, I was taken by how these people genuinely loved the man they worked with and for.  Tony (that's him on the right) has often shared his maxims with me, telling me how he treats the people at UFCU.  Watching the result made me realize he did more than talk about it...he actually puts his beliefs into practice.

So what do leaders do who really believe that "it's about people?"  Here are five ideas to consider:

  1. Promote People - this means more than just giving someone a new title and more means that individuals and groups are recognized for their work, that they believe you care about them (both in and outside of the organization), and that whenever you get a chance, you talk about how great the people in the organization are.
  2. Protect People - our colleagues need to know that we have their back, both in good times and bad.  This might mean we have to run interference for them at times, that we might need to set limits at times, and that we need to create a work environment that is safe from abuse and harm.
  3. Provoke People - I believe that people want to have something bigger to aim for in their lives, and the leader's ability to create a bigger vision has as much to do with people's job satisfaction as does the work environment as a whole.  Helping people find their dreams and passions within the organization can be incredibly satisfying for everyone.
  4. Poke People - this is about accountability, and holding people to doing their work excellently and in a manner that cares for others,  This is often the hardest thing that leaders need to do, and it needs to be done for those who are not getting the job done, as well as for those who are the superstars (they need to know that you know who is not getting the job done).
  5. Pray With People - I have the unique privilege of being able to pray with my colleagues, and taking the time to lift them up in prayer publicly.  While not everyone will be able to do this, it is important that people know you care enough about them that you would pray for them, that they are important to you, and that they are a part of your spirituality (whatever that might look like).
Those are my five Ps about people for today...anymore to add?

Friday, August 15, 2014

clear ambiguity

When trying to explain a concept to someone else that I might struggle to understand, I often get that look that is telling me, "Your explanation is as clear as mud!"  Sometimes I have to start over, and sometimes I have to accept the fact that no matter how hard I try, the explanation will continue to be "clear as mud" until either I have a better understanding of the concept or I find someone else who can do a better job of explaining the issue.

This past week I have come face-to-face with the reality that in an executive role, most decisions that come across one's desk are, to say the least, "clear as mud."  All of the leadership and management texts remind us that the tough decisions are those that are neither black or white, but a very dark (and murky) gray.  There are no easy answers to these type of decision, and leaders need to get comfortable with ambiguity and paradox.  The good news is you do not need to make a quick decision...the bad news is that you have to live with the ambiguity of the decision.  In other words, the ambiguity of the decisions making process will become very clear.

So how do leaders create a clear ambiguity in their decision making process?  Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Remind yourself - and others - that you do not have all the answers.
  2. Get really good at asking questions - and make sure they are questions to which you do not know the answer.
  3. Listen to a lot of people - ask the same questions over and over of different people and see how they respond.
  4. Listen deeply - ask probing questions of people's initial answers.
  5. Take your time - there is a reason these decisions are ambiguous and paradoxical - they are big and tough and deserve the time they need.
  6. Read - learn everything you can about the issue so that you can ask knowledgeable questions and interact with other professionals.
  7. Have a trusted team you can go to and probe the issue deeply, with no fear of being held to your ideas or words.
  8. Consider alternatives...keep asking the "what if" questions.
  9. Relax - the world does not revolve around you or your organization.  Someone else might be able to solve the issue.
  10. Be ruthless - take the issue on directly and make it personally yours (note the paradox here) because once you own the issue (see last week's blog) you can then deal with the ambiguity it brings.
  11. Trust that God is in control - and that you have been placed by Him into this role to engage in these type of decisions.  
So enjoy the ambiguity - and remember that is why you have been called to lead, because you love ideas and issues that are "clear as mud!"

Friday, August 8, 2014

creating ownership

Leadership and management experts will tell you that in order for individuals or groups to care about something, they have to feel ownership of it, whether that be an organization, a mission, or simply an idea.  Ownership of anything (be it an idea or a physical object) includes caring for that item, stewarding the item, ensuring the item works, and being proud of the item.  I have a good friend who is a car fanatic, and as I watch him “own” his cars, he does all of the above – with much fanfare and enthusiasm.

This week I had the opportunity to watch a group of people begin to own a part of Concordia’s structure which they had been asked to join, something known as Concordia’s University Council.  More than owning the group, they began to own the reason why the group will exist and its function within the University.  It was magic to watch how a group of 24 individuals came together for three hours and claimed ownership of the function of the group over a short period of time.  Through the process of talking, questioning, testing ideas, and an open space in which to think, this group began building its own charter by which they would function in, with, and for their organization.  And by building the charter themselves, there is a better chance they will own what they do and how they do it.  And if they own it, they will take responsibility for its function and outcomes.  I am excited to watch what happens over the next few months as we figure out exactly what this charter will look like and how the group begins to own WHAT it does and HOW it does its work.

Now let me take a little side trip here (or as a good friend of mine likes to say…SQUIRREL!).  I have come to realize that no one can force ownership upon any one person or a group of people.  You can give them ownership…you can ask them to take ownership…you can write ownership into their job description…but until they TAKE ownership on their own, they will be unable to care for and steward the item given them.  Leading cannot entail only giving ownership…leaders must create the environment in which others can take ownership and truly own what they believe is important.  How does this happen?  A few thoughts:

  • Allow others to create the reason for ownership
  • Create the space and the time for people to consider what it actually is they might be owning
  • Ask questions that allow for people to dialogue on what ownership means
  • Put people together with disparate ideas so that the best ideas can emerge
  • Let the group decide what they believe is most important
  • Words are important – be sure that the individual or the group know exactly what it is they are owning and are able to express it in a consistent and coherent manner
  • Don’t ever (I repeat, ever) take back the ownership once they have accepted it it…AND if they choose not to take ownership, then take it back and find someone else to give it to
  • Realize that they may want to take ownership but do not yet know how to care and steward for what they have accepted – this is where training and discipling comes into play
  • This isn’t about delegating ownership – you as the leader own whatever this is as well…it is about sharing ownership and working together for the good of the organization, idea, or goal

As you go about the rest of the day, consider what it is that you own, how you might include others in that ownership, and what expectations gaps exist where you believe you have given ownership but that ownership has not yet been taken…and then go have that conversation about why that gap exists.  Enjoy!

Friday, August 1, 2014

day one

Today is day one of my new role as Chief Executive Officer for Concordia University Texas...wait, did I just type that?  It is both an exhilarating and humbling feeling to have walked into the building this morning and see this sign posted on the office:
We all go through multiple day ones during our life time - the first day of school...the first day on a team...the first day of college...the first day of a new job...the first day of marriage...the first day as a mother or father...the first day on a new board...and the list continues for each and every one of us.

So what should a leader consider on their day one?  Here is a list of items I have been thinking about:
  • Get prepared - read everything you can about the new role, talk with others who have been previously in that role, and think deeply about what you want that role to look like for you
  • Take stock - look around and get a sense of what the new environment looks like...walk, look, listen, and get comfortable in what will be new surroundings for you (both  physical and mental settings)
  • Arrive early - don't be the last one to show up...and use the time to meet those around you and learn about the environment.  Nobody wants to apologize for being late on day one
  • Be humble - ask a lot of questions.  It's okay to feel as if you don't know everything, because you really DON'T know everything.  Rely on the people who have been there and are a lot smarter than you
  • Be confident - you are in this role for a reason (whether you wanted to be or not) so take the seat that has been given you (again, both physically and mentally).  Don't be afraid to take a chance, even on day one
  • Lean into the role - this is YOUR day one, so make it special.  Take the mantle (whether you have a title or not) and enjoy the role given to you at this time and place
  • Relax - everything will be different a year from now as you learn the ropes of the job and the organization.  Remember that this is day one, and NOT day 365
  • Pray - in the doctrine of vocation, we believe that God uses his people to serve others in this world.  You have been placed in this new role and place for a purpose, so trust that God is walking with you during this day one
People have asked me what I am going to do one day one...and my reply is that I will do much of the same as I have been doing all along, including writing this blog as I do most every Friday. I hope that you will be looking forward to any upcoming day ones, even if it is just today being day one of the rest of your life.

Friday, July 25, 2014

ethical presence

This past Tuesday morning I had the privilege of being asked to present to a group of emerging leaders at the Texas Health and Human Services Leadership Development Program.  This program, which has been developed by Chan McDermott, identifies a group of 25-30 individuals who have shown leadership qualities throughout this 56,000 person organization.  My topic was Ethical Leadership, and we had a great time thinking through the issues of how to determine right and wrong in multiple situations - and how to lead others through those same circumstances.  Toward the end of the presentation, I brought to the them idea of ETHICAL PRESENCE...a concept which came to my mind at the time and something which I am still thinking about.

What is ETHICAL PRESENCE?  For me, it is the ability to be in the moment, to be completely present, to be thoughtful, and to be still,,,all of which allows one to be prudent in their decision making and calms others who are in the situation so they can be in a better position for making decisions.  To better understand this, let's look at a couple of concepts:

  • ETHICAL BEHAVIOR is (according to Aristotle) doing the right thing in the right way at the right time.  One can know right and wrong...the important thing is being able to act in a way that shows the just the right amount of justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude within any given situation.
  • LEADERSHIP is about providing guidance and influence with a group of people to help them obtain a shared vision for the common good.
  • ETHICAL LEADERSHIP is doing things and making decisions that influence others to behave in such a way so that the common good can be reached and people are well-served.
So then, what is ETHICAL PRESENCE?  For those in positions of leadership, there are many times when it feels as if decisions must be made quickly and the stress is on to make the "right" decision.  People are watching to see what decision will be made and how the leader will react to the stress that is present.  I believe that how one behaves in these times speaks to their ethical leadership and impacts the ethical decision of those around them - thus the idea of ETHICAL PRESENCE. So what might this look like?  Here are a few examples:
  • in a meeting when the team is pushing for a quick decision, have the ability to pause and ask them if more time may be taken to consider the idea or request
  • when a colleague is in your face and complaining about you or others, rather than react to their inappropriate behavior, take a deep breath, speak slowly and quietly, and ask them for examples of what they mean
  • for those of us who like to process out-loud (call us extroverts), we can change our behavior and process internally for a short time - you may need to ask people to wait while you process, and then just take the time to think before responding
  • the ability to say "I don't know" may be one of the best practices of ethical presence available to the leader.  This sends a signal that you are not God, and that you do not expect everyone to have the right answer (or an answer at all) all of the time
  • when someone in the group is pushing back at you, rather than arguing your own point, look at another member of the group and ask them what they think - by gathering more information and opinions, you have a better chance at acting more ethically and making a better decision
I have come to realize that in a leadership role (especially when that role becomes more public) people are watching you all the time - and the signals you send by your actions and behavior set the tone for the organization.  How you act in moments of stress and decision making will signal to people what right and wrong behavior will be for the organization - and how others will be treated in those times.  Your presence in those moments will determine the ETHIC (ethos) of your organization into the future...and that can make all the difference in the world.

Friday, July 11, 2014

leadership and governance

During my month of reading in Maine, I stumbled upon several of the important texts in the discipline of political philosophy - those texts that discuss why and how people govern themselves within a community - and why some forms of governance work and others do not.  It was a fascinating time for me to be reading these texts as I assume a new role at Concordia where I can lead the dialogue on this topic.  Reading Aristotle's Politics, Machiavelli's The Prince, and Rousseau's Social Contract (with many more still to be read) got me thinking of the importance of governance and how a leader functions within that role.  Whether you run a family, a church, a business, a nonprofit, or even a university, there needs to be a set of "rules" by which one governs and by which those involved in the family/community/organization know how to function.  When people know how they are expected to live together - and those expectations are actually lived out - life can be fairly peaceful for most of the people most of the time (even when you disagree with the expectations, at least you know what they are).  And the more I read, the more I realized that it is that person in the leadership role that is accountable to ensuring that those expectations are reasonable, understood, known, and carried out in a manner that is fair and just...thus the importance of governance.

So many times we as leaders think about getting better at leadership - those behaviors and skills that enhance our ability to make decisions, think strategically, build relationships, act collaboratively, etc.  What we may forget is that while we need to do all of those things, we also need to function within an organization that includes people and their needs to feel ownership within that organization.  How will your organization make decisions?  How will others be involved in that decision making?  What type of structure is in place for people to have their voices heard? Who owns what decisions - and who holds others accountable to the decisions that are made?  The founders of the United States worked hard to determine a form of governance that would work for a new collection of states, with a wide variety of peoples, who had a large frontier in front of them.  They argued, fought, wrote, debated, and finally decided on a structure that they believed would work for them at that time and well into the future.  Little did we know how amazing that structure would be, now over 200 years old.  If only the governance structures of our organizations and institutions could last that long...

At the end of the day, we as leaders want those who work with us to be happy - no matter what the institution is or does.  The role of political philosophy is to think about what type of governance structure will make the most people happy most of the time.  I do not believe there is one perfect structure that will work all of the time for all of the people...but I do believe that there are ideals that have been around since the beginning of time that need to be present in any form of governance that is going to work.  I believe that people need to have a voice in the decisions that are made for an organization...and I believe that once those decisions are made, those same people expect that the decisions will be upheld and put into practice - and that when others violate those decisions that they will be held accountable.  Sounds easy, doesn't it?  If it was only so...

Leaders - consider the governance structure in your organization and ask if it is supporting the mission, vision and values that are in place.  If so, celebrate that and let people know how cool it is that the governance is working to help accomplish the tasks at hand.  If not, start thinking about how you will be able to align the mission, vision and values of the institution with its governance - and get to work making it happen.  WARNING - this is hard and messy will take time and people will disagree...AND it will be worth all the time and effort put into the process.

Friday, June 20, 2014

leading and learning

Someone has stated that "all leaders are readers."  I would agree, with the added phrase that "all leaders are learners."  I have come to realize that not everyone learns by reading, something I take into account now when asked my ideas on a topic.  Rather than jumping in and recommending a book, I will first ask if they are a reader, and if so, then recommend a book.  If they are not a reader, recommending a book will not help them learn, so it is up to me to find other ways to help them do so (mentoring, TED talks, internet sites, others who have done something similar, etc.).  As I have begun my summer of reading (and learning), here are a few things I have come to learn in the past several weeks:

  1. From reading The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman, I have come to realize that different people understand politics and governance with different means and ends in mind (are they Aristotelian or Platonian?).  I am going to be doing a lot of research into political philosophy as I consider best structures for governance.
  2. From reading Means of Ascent by Robert Caro, I began to further understand how one uses influence to achieve a certain end...while I may not want to be a ruthless (some may use other words) as Lyndon Johnson was, he has taught me that it is important to act politically to achieve goals.
  3. From reading Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Elliot Gardner, I was again reminded of the power of the arts in helping shape the "ethos" of an organization.  Bach's ability to make the word come alive through the music is still an amazing feat he accomplished week after week in his Church Cantatas.
  4. From reading the Psalms, I am again reminded of God's constant love for me - and of the consistent pressure about me to do wrong.  The psalmist knew that he was up against the powers of the devil, the world, and his sinful self...and that he needed God's protection to move forward.
  5. From reading the Tao Te Ching I am reminded that what often seems the right thing to do may be just the opposite of what needs to be done - this text is so full of paradoxes that make so much sense, especially in the role of leading and managing others.
The summer continues - and so does the learning.  More books are on the list for the next several weeks and months (and more to come in the near and long term future as well).  What are you reading - and learning - about leadership?

Friday, May 30, 2014

learning to say no

Someone asked me the other day what my biggest challenge might be as I take on the role of CEO at Concordia University Texas on August 1, and my answer (after some thought) was learning to say NO to things so that I could say YES to others.  I have often referred to as yes-type of person, one who is willing to give people and ideas a chance, to see what might stick and be of value to the organization.  I love to give people permission to try new things and run with their latest ideas.  I am a firm believer that if you try 100 ideas and 2-3 are good, then you have been successful.  And that's not just true for others...I believe it is also true for me.

In this new role, I know that there will be more requests than I can say YES to...I know that I will have more ideas than I can say YES to...I believe there will be more people than I can say YES to - so what am I to do?  How will I learn got say NO?  Here are a few ideas for me - and for you - to consider as we learn to say NO:

  • WAIT - give yourself time to make the decision
  • LISTEN - have trusted advisers with whom to bounce your ideas around
  • PRIORITIZE - be sure you know what your 3-4 big things are, and test ideas and people against those
  • STRATEGIZE - have a strategic plan that helps to determine priorities for you and the organization
  • REMINDERS - somewhere on your desk have a sign that says NO, or WAIT, or NOT NOW
  • BUDGET - determine the budget and manage it well
  • NAYSAYER - have someone at the table who sees the world through a half-empty glass and let them have a say
  • REMEMBER - consider all the times someone said NO in the past and how it was beneficial to you and the organization
  • REFLECT - remind yourself that you are not in this seat to win friends and have others like you
  • PRAY - for wisdom of when to say NO and the courage to do so
And so begins the journey of saying NO...while most people will be remembered for the things they say YES to, one of the reasons they were able to say YES was a result of the many times they said NO before that.  God grant me - and you - the wisdom and courage to know the difference. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

ethical leadership

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending the 12th annual Ethics in Business and Community Awards luncheon sponsored by RecognizeGood and benefiting the Samaritan Center for Counseling and Pastoral Care here in Austin.  Concordia University Texas, and especially its College of Business, has been involved with this event for 10 years and recently has become a partner in making the event happen.  As I watched the 12 finalists be introduced and listened to the five recipients of the awards, I kept thinking about what it means to be ethical in our daily lives and behavior, especially in leadership roles and positions.  I am reminded of Lord Acton's statement that "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely," with a reminder that with power comes great responsibility.

The people who were recognized yesterday - and the organizations they represent - are all very powerful.  Each of us has the ability to have (or take) power on a regular basis, whether it be a result of our position or our demeanor...and let me just say that I would encourage you to take that power.  With great power does come great responsibility...a responsibility to make things happen for the common good...and to do so in an ethical manner.

So what does ethical leadership look like?  How does one know that they are actually leading in a way that is ethical?  While I would never hold myself out as an expert on ethics (I will leave that to my friend and colleague Dr. Carl Trovall), let me offer these few thoughts:

  • ethical leadership considers the quiet or oppressed voice when making decisions
  • ethical leadership asks more questions than has answers
  • ethical leadership is never ashamed of its decisions
  • ethical leadership is consistent - and when it does not look consistent is willing to explain why
  • ethical leadership is transparent in a way that allows others to trust the decision making process
  • ethical leadership does not allow unethical behavior among others
  • ethical leadership asks the question of how decisions might impact those who are closest to the living out of those decisions (aka subsidiarity)
  • ethical leadership is often described as caring and compassionate (even when an action might not seem so)
  • ethical leadership is always balancing the good of the organization with the good of the individual
  • ethical leadership will consistently provide a WHY for its decisions
  • ethical leadership looks around the rooms and asks the question of who is not present that should be
  • ethical leadership ensures that values are stated, talked about, upheld, and used in the decision making process
  • ethical leadership invites all voices to the table - and listens closely to those voices that are different and seemingly negative
  • ethical leadership upholds those act in an ethical manner to others, and raises them to levels of leadership so that the organization continues to think and behave in an ethical manner
That's my take on the day after being immersed in ethical discussions (both at the lunch and in other settings).  My advice is to think deeply about this and then read on the topic, beginning with a great anthology entitled Ethics: The Essential Writings, a compendium of great minds considering this important topic, especially among those of us who are known as and called leaders.  

Friday, May 16, 2014


On Friday, April 8, 2011, I wrote a blog entitled "an end...and a beginning" which detailed how I had NOT received the call to serve as president at Concordia University St. Paul and the lessons I had learned throughout the process.  This past Tuesday, May 13, 2014, it was announced that I had been named the next Chief Executive Officer at Concordia University Texas effective August 1 upon Tom Cedel's retirement (you can read the full story here).  I wrote in the April 8, 2011 blog that
"I am excited about this beginning - it is almost as if this is the first day of the rest of my life." 

Now as I begin thinking about this next chapter in my life, the above sentence seems as true as ever.  The April 8 blog contained a series of questions that would guide my learnings from that time forward, with one of them being, "Having tasted the role of being a college president, what are the next steps in my growth toward having that opportunity in the future?"  There is much I have learned in the past 3 1/2 years - and many people to whom I am thankful for walking with me on this are just a few:
  • Ralph Wagoner - for being a coach, encourager, and friend 
  • Carl Trovall - for giving me words that could fit my ideas
  • Gayle Grotjan - for introducing me to people and places
  • Beth Atherton - for seeing things in me I did not see
  • Ron Kessler - for walking with me through both processes
  • Joel Trammel - for providing a bigger (and better) picture of what the CEO is and does
  • Linda Greenwald - for being there to share my ideas and dreams
  • Kristi Kirk - for helping me understand a broader picture of college and university issues
  • Rebecca Powers - for words of wisdom and encouragement
  • The College of Business faculty - for being so good that I could venture into other areas of growth
  • Tom Cedel - for providing an outstanding picture of what the leader of a University is and does
  • Deb (my wife) - for being my sounding board and loving and believing in me for over 34 years
If you are reading this and your name is not on the list, please do not be offended - I am sure that you (and many, many others) have had similar influences on me and have made me the person I am today.  I am excited about the next steps, many of which will include transitioning from Dean to CEO.  That journey will prove to be full of lessons along the way, many of which I hope to include right here.  So until August 1, I remain the Dean of the College of Business at Concordia, and will continue to be "thinking about leadership" through that lens.

Friday, May 9, 2014

experts on the inside

There is a running joke in organizations (at least the ones of which I have been a part) that the best way to get your point across is to bring in an expert on the subject...and that what constitutes expertise is living 50 miles or more away from the organization.  What really constitutes an "expert" on such topics as leadership, change, development, marketing, etc?  Is it it the number of articles or books one has is one's various it the number of positive reviews someone receives...or is it merely distance?  Obviously I say this tongue in cheek, but this week I experienced an in-house expert who did all - and more - than an "expert" from 50 miles or more away could have done.  We had tried to get three different "expert" speakers from all around the country to come and talk with our faculty on the topic of "Leadership and the Theology of the Cross" all to no avail.  As Carl Trovall and I looked at each other and kept wondering who to invite, it dawned on us that we had an expert in our midst - namely Dr. Carl Trovall.  He humbly accepted the invitation and began preparing his remarks for the faculty retreat.  And let me tell you, he did an incredible job.  The only thing another "expert" would have brought with them was the fact that they were coming from 50 miles away or farther.  The Concordia University Texas faculty truly benefited by our own expert on the inside.

So what does this mean for us who lead groups and organizations?  How might we make more use of our own experts - and what might be some of the pitfalls?  Here's my thoughts:

  • Consider who on your team has an expertise - and invite them to share that with your group
  • Realize that part of the expertise is more than just knowledge - our expert, Carl Trovall, also has the ability to speak in an engaging way - and that was actually a part of his expertise
  • Expertise should be encouraged and developed - how are you investing in your people for them to become your resident expert?
  • Encourage your resident experts to go 50 miles or more away so they can practice being that expert outside of your own organization
  • Brag about your experts to others - both within and outside of the organization.  Let their expertise become known to others.
  • Becoming an expert requires practice - let your own experts practice in front of you...and give them the grace to fail the first few times they engage
  • One of the pitfalls of the inside expert is their inability to speak truth to their peers - create a safe environment for that to happen on some level
  • Outside experts can help hold us accountable to action plans (because we have spent money on them).  Build a similar culture of accountability within your organization so that inside experts can do the same
  • Just as you would pay an expert who traveled 50 miles or more to your site, find a way to reward your inside expert - it could be remuneration, it could be a gift card, it could be time off, it could be additional resources, and it SHOULD be a note of thanks from your and others
Who are your inside experts - go to them today, tell them you consider them to be that, and put them in a position make it a reality sooner rather than later.

Friday, May 2, 2014

a hard question to ask - and answer

Tomorrow is graduation at Concordia University Texas, and many of my students will be walking across the stage.  I can't wait to shake their hands, wish them God's blessings, and then begin following their careers and lives post-college.  But there was a task I needed to complete before the hoopla takes place - the infamous "exit interviews."  While I am not able to get to every student, I am able to talk with a few and get their opinions (good and bad) about the Concordia University, the College of Business, the classes they took and the teachers they had.  The interview always includes a question that is both hard to ask AND hard to answer.  Near the end of the discussion, I look at the student and ask, "Is there anything I may not know that I should know?"  Sometimes they have a puzzled look, and I need to flesh the question out for them a little bit, explaining that I am not able to know everything that is going on, and if I am aware of those things (again - good or bad) then I can actually address them.  They think for awhile and then proceed to respond with things that sometimes I know - and sometimes I don't know.  I won't bore you with the details of what I have discovered through that question or the changes that have been made because of those discoveries.  Needless to say, they can be eyeopening at times.

So why is this question hard to ask and answer?  Consider the following:

  • when I ask the question, I am opening myself up to receiving knowledge that could rock my world
  • when I ask the question, I do not have any control over what the student will say
  • in order to ask the question, there has to be a safe environment for the student to respond truthfully
  • when asking the question, I am, in some ways, putting the student on the spot
  • asking the question has the possibility of hurting the relationship between myself and the student
  • when answering the question, I have to decide how truthful I want to be
  • when answering the question, I am putting my reputation at risk
  • when answering the question, I need to know that I am safe in that time and space
  • if my answer leads to others' reputations being put in jeopardy, I risk their trust and friendship
  • I need to consider whether the person asking the question is coming from a place of best intention
  • I need to believe that what I say will be held in confidence
All leaders have a blind spot - both about themselves as well as others.  Asking this type of question helps to reveal those areas of concern and weakness that perhaps only the leader can begin to address.  One other aspect of why asking this question is so hard...when you get an answer that does rock your world, you will need to act on the information.  If a student, employee, or colleague reveals something that needs addressing, they will watch closely to see how you react - and then how you act.  You had better do something...and then follow up with that person if you want to keep your credibility.

So it's time to ask the hard question - and if you are ever on the receiving end of the question, go ahead and answer it in a way that improves the organization.  Your truthful and honest answer could make all the difference in the world.

Friday, April 18, 2014

on giving advice

Last week I blogged about asking for advice, and the best ways to do that - and since I had recently had the opportunity to ask some of my mentors for advice, it seemed like a timely topic to explore.  During this week, I had the chance to GIVE ADVICE to some of my colleagues, advice that had actually been asked for and solicited (as opposed to the "unsolicited" advice we often give to others).  I think that I am the type of person who would rather ask for advice than give it (I know that might make some of my colleagues laugh), but it actually felt good to give advice to these few people this week.  As I was reflecting on my opportunities to help others (at least I hope that is what I was able to do), I thought I might share a few ideas this week on how to best give advice.  Remember that this is coming from one who would rather receive advice than give it, so while I a not an expert, I believe I have a few things to goes:

  • If not asked directly for advice, always ask permission of the other person if they are willing to listen to your thoughts
  • When asked for advice, take a moment to consider whether or not you should - you may not have an expertise in the areas being asked for, you may be prejudiced in some manner and give less than good advice, or it may not be the best time for the person asking for advice to hear what you want to say
  • Less is more (even when you have more to share)
  • Just as in any good dialogue, use "I" messages
  • Remind yourself - and the person to whom you are giving the advice - that you might be wrong
  • Be as specific as you can...and ask if the person wants specific advice or just wants to think out loud with you on the topic
  • While you may be an expert on the topic, always remain don't know everything
  • Remember that the person asking for advice has just made themselves vulnerable - be careful where you tread during this time
  • Sometimes it might be okay to ask for some time and then to get back with this person - it gives you space to think through your answer
  • The person who asks for advice deserves your best advice - take the time to think through what you are going to say...and only say what you are sure about.
  • If you are in a position of power with this person (i.e. you are their supervisor) you need to be EXTRA careful, because anything you say could be interpreted as  something you want them to do and something on which their performance might be evaluated
  • Before diving into giving advice, ask some clarifying questions...this will allow you to give advice on what they really are asking about, not just on what you think they are asking about
  • Thank them for their willingness to open up to you, and for the opportunity they have given you to think about these issues out loud - giving advice is a learning process for the advice giver as well as the advice receiver
What am I missing?  Feel free to chime in, add your thoughts, and give me and others some advice on how to best give advice.  

A blessed Good Friday to each of you...this is one of my favorite days of the church year as it fully prepares me to understand the joy that comes with the festival of the Resurrection in just a few more days!

Friday, April 11, 2014


There comes a time in people's lives (including mine) when it is important to seek out and receive advice.  When those times occur in my life, I think about those people whom I know and trust...people who have experience in the areas I need advice...and people who will be straight with me, not mixing words.  There are not many of these type of people in our lives, and it is important to build that group over time.  Recently I was seeking advice on an issue and approached several of my trusted's what I did:

  • asked them for a short amount of their time
  • met them on their terms (time and place)
  • clarified the issue for them
  • asked the burning question
  • listened to what they told me
  • told them what my greatest fear was
  • let them assure me or provide ways around/through the fear
  • asked clarifying questions on their advice
  • listened some more
  • thanked them for their time
  • sent a thank you as a follow up
Here's the paradox - the more one "moves up" in their career, the more they are expected to know...the more experience one has, the more they are expected to know...the older one gets, the more they are expected to know...the more titles and degrees one accumulates, the more they are expected to know - and often times they stop asking for advice.  It is at these times when those of us in leadership roles need to realize we know less than we think we do and consistently ask for advice.  Not only do we learn something, the person giving the advice benefits because 1) they get to hear themselves talking about the issue out loud, clarifying their own thoughts; and 2) they feel great being asked for their advice.  EVERYBODY WINS!  So here are my thoughts on how to become the type of person who asks for and gets good advice on a regular basis:
  • Believe you are not the smartest person in the room
  • When you find someone whom you trust and has the knowledge and experience you need, develop a relationship with them over time
  • Never force this type of relationship - if it develops, great...if not, keep them as a colleague and keep trying to find the right person
  • Prior to the conversation, think through the questions you want to ask and get the wording right
  • Invite these people into your life and entrust them with your deepest concerns and fears
  • Be a good listener
  • Don't be a pest
  • Let them ask you for advice every now and then - and be gracious enough to give it to them
  • Follow up with people - they appreciate knowing that their advice actually made a difference
  • And finally...Believe you are not the smartest person in the room
Enjoy the process of asking others for will be amazed at what you learn and how you may soon become the type of person whom others will ask for advice.

Friday, April 4, 2014

in over your head

Two conversations yesterday led me to consider the importance of being "in over your head."  I first interviewed a long-standing faculty at Concordia (41 years), Dr. Larry Meissner, and when I asked him about his journey and how he learned to become the person he is, he kept coming back to people giving him opportunities that he never should have been given - and how he consistently found himself "in over his head."  Later in the afternoon, one of my faculty and I were chatting about an opportunity which could be coming his way - he looked at me and said he felt that perhaps he might end up "in over his head."  Over the past two weeks, I have had conversations with people that I walked away from thinking that if I said yes to what they were asking about, that I too would be "in over my head."  Scary? of course...Possibilities for growth? tremendous!

So here are two lists that might help you 1)get yourself in situations that are "in over your head" and 2) help you manage those projects in which you find yourself "in over your head:"


  • find ways to meet really cool (and really smart) people
  • ask good, open-ended questions
  • shut up and listen
  • never say NO too quickly
  • find possible partners who are willing to explore and create with you
  • do new and cool things yourself
  • be really good at what you do
  • introduce others to one another
  • show up at places you would not normally be
  • ask to be invited to conversations outside your area of expertise
  • keep your contacts and relationships going
  • raise your hand to ask questions and make suggestions

  • remind yourself that great things happen only when people are "in over their heads"
  • learn to enjoy the ambiguity of these types of projects
  • believe that there are people a whole lot smarter than you
  • find those people who are a whole lot smarter than you
  • ask for help from those people who are a whole lot smarter than you
  • find resources to help pay for the time and energy needed to go into these type of projects
  • remember that it is sometimes okay to say NO and pass on certain ideas and projects
  • if no one is going to die, go ahead and's OK to fail
  • take a breath...pause for a moment...enjoy the scenery...and then get back to the project
  • learn to collaborate - projects like this can seldom be accomplished by yourself
  • trust that you have been put into this situation for a reason - God works in mysterious ways
  • consistently check your own purpose for why you might be "in over your head"
  • hang out with others who are ":in over their heads"
Final thought: you may not be the type of person who enjoys being "in over your head."  That's okay...if we all were "in over our heads" we would all drown. There needs to be those who will first put on their own oxygen mask and then place the other one over the person next to them...that's the beauty of collaboration, partnerships, relationships, and friendships.  Maybe your role today is to look for someone you know who is "in over their head" and offer a word of encouragement or the time and expertise to help them in their project.  You never know if by doing that one act of kindness, you might soon find yourself "in over your head" - and if so, I hope you enjoy the swim!

Friday, March 28, 2014

asking the right question

In one of my meetings this week, we were talking about questions, and someone made the statement that when someone answers his question with another question, he  wants to "reach over and punch them" (said in jest of course).  We all laughed, especially knowing his personality and began talking about how people use questions to manipulate others, use questions to make a statement, and other thoughts around the use of questions.  Last night (in a conversation with someone a lot smarter than me) I posed a question and he had the gall to answer my question with another question...the only problem was that his question was a lot better than my question.  Needless to say, I did not reach over and punch him...what I did do was engage in a great dialogue about the questions we had posed.

As I write this blog, I am assuming that most people would agree that asking a great question can lead to some pretty significant answers.  The issue is not whether or not we ask enough questions - the issue is are we asking the RIGHT questions.  Here is a list of ideas of how we might be able to get to the right questions in our conversations:

  • Believe that questions are a really good way to get at the answer to a problem - REALLY believe it!
  • Check to make sure that you are not really making a statement of your own belief when you ask a question
  • Don't ask questions of others to which you already know the answer you want
  • Engage in asking questions that might not seem to have an answer
  • Be willing to think out-loud...and allow other to do the same
  • Embrace the "what if..." question
  • Practice the art of dialogue - ask, listen, speak, suspend, accept, ask, listen, speak...
  • Hang out with people a lot smarter than you and ask them your mosts pressing questions
  • Don't stop exploring the question until you believe you have the right question - and then ask a few more
  • Read great literature (because great literature deals with the big questions of life)
  • Read in areas of which you know very little (because you will come away with many more questions)
  • Don't be afraid to ask questions when you don't know something (remember the adage "there is no such thing as a dumb question")
  • Go ahead and answer a question with a question (and get ready to duck)
Two books to recommend on this subject:
  1. Mark Kurlanksy's What? (the entire book is a series of questions...great fun!)
  2. Michael Marquadt's Leading With Questions (interesting way of thinking about leading others)

Friday, March 14, 2014

learning from the "greats"

I have often blogged about the importance of hanging out with people a whole lot smarter than you - those who have been there, done that, and can guide you on your journey.  For me, this typically means the mentors I find, the contacts I make, and the people who come across my desk from time to time.  This past week I had the privilege of attending SXSW Interactive in Austin - an amazing confluence of people and ideas that brings together some of the biggest names in science, technology, the arts, government, and other odds and ends of the world.  When having to choose who to hear and listen to, I felt like a kid in a candy many great choices with so little time.  My "AHA" was that they "greats" really have a lot to offer...they are "great" for a reason.  And it was the most fun when I listened in on conversations about which I knew the least.  Here is a quick run down on a few of the "greats" I heard and what I learned...

Neil Degrasse Tyson (astrophysicist and hosts of the FOX show "Cosmos") - Neil was amazing!  He was smart, funny, engaging and passionate.  I loved his line that scientific literacy is not just knowing a bunch of facts and is "how much do you still wonder about the world around you?"  He reminded me that the more I learn about science, the more skeptical I become (in the best sense of the word), and the more I can engage in learning at that point.  His final line was that we need to "take action on the things we are inspired by."  I left energized, ready to take on the world, and ready to learn more about the world around me.

Dean Kamen (inventor and thinker - designed the segway) - I was once again reminded (and convinced) that technology, properly used, can indeed solve the world's problems (as it always has).  We, in this time and day, have a responsibility to solve the deep issues in society - because we can...and perhaps there needs to be a Bill of Responsibilities along with the Bill of Rights.  Because I am a big fan of learning through failure, one of my favorite lines of his was, "Sucking if the first step to doing anything!"  He inspired me to get going and "build something great."

Lena Dunham (film maker and creator of the HBO series "Girls") - Okay, this was a little far out there for me, and it was probably the star power that attracted me, but I am so glad I stood in line 45 minutes to hear her (and I got to stand and chat with good friend Roxanne Wilson).  She was witty, funny, passionate, and inspiring.  I was again reminded that I can learn a lot from a 28-year old who is creative and really good at her craft.  Three thoughts stood out for me: 1) because of technology, the lack of money is no longer an excuse (applies to most situations in life); 2) Maya Angelou once said that "when someone tells you who they are, believe them."  What a powerful statement that can lead to some great collaborative work; and 3) "tell the story that only you know" - ruminate on that for a while and see where it leads you.

Ralph Steadman (British artist who created the drawings for Hunter Thompson's book "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") - I think I really attended this one to listen to historian Douglas Brinkley do the interview, and was pleasantly surprised by what I learned.  Ralph (who has to be in his 80's) talked about the creative spirit and the need to be one's self.  Listening to him talk about his role in history and how he has hung around with great writers and politicians was interesting in and of itself.  I was reminded that we all need to develop a style and use it to make an impact in whatever we do.

Robert Duvall (actor and director) - again, I was attracted to the star power, as well as the fact that he was being interviewed by Leonard Maltin.  I was four rows away from him and got to watch a master talk about his craft.  As he told stories of working with John Wayne, Marlon Brando, and James Caan (to name a few) I watched his enthusiasm for acting and making stories come alive.  It is so much fun to see how people who are masters of their craft are so comfortable talking about what they do.  I was also reminded that no matter how famous one is, they still do their jobs day in and day out - and that doing one's craft well is often times just about showing up and doing a good job.

Rahm Emanuel (Mayor of Chicago and former Chief of Staff for President Obama) - The gist of the Mayor's talk was about how the arts have become an important part of Chicago's strategic plan and how important it is to have the arts present in schools.  He talked about how in his short administration he has "gotten a lot of stuff done" - not a bad vision for someone in charge.  Having a 10-year plan with the nimbleness to change has been important to him - and to the city.  And as he talked about serving the 77 different neighborhoods in the city, he saw his role as "providing the resources that were needed to light the spark that was already there...and I wondered to myself how I might be able to do that with faculty, programs, etc within my purview.

Whew...I'm exhausted just writing about it.  The four days at SXSW were once again "a liberal arts education on steroids" for me.  Many thanks to my friend Nathan Green for once again asking me to be on a panel that provides a free Gold Badge for me...AND it would also be worth the $1000 if I had to purchase the badge.  Only 51 weeks until SXSW 2015!

Friday, February 28, 2014

the power of hospitality

This past week our campus welcomed a team from our accreditation body, formally known as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).  The team, comprised of faculty and staff from peer institutions, came to see how we were doing with our remote locations...and I am pleased to announce that they were more than complimentary on what they observed.  Several times throughout the visit, they complimented us on our hospitality and thanked us for treating them well.  When all was said and done, I believe it they left with a good impression of Concordia University Texas - both in how we run and operate the institution - and in how we treat our guests.

There is great power in hospitality because it creates a picture of who you are and how you make things happen.  When one feels welcome, they believe that all is well in paradise...when one is welcome, they are willing to forgive the little mistakes that can arise...when one is welcome, they feel a part of the family and will give you the benefit of the doubt...when one is welcome, they will work with you to achieve greatness...when one is welcome, there exists a camaraderie that builds bonds that last a lifetime.  So how might one exhibit this type of hospitality?  Three ideas:

  1. Create an hospitable environment: is the room/house/office/building clean?  have you taken the time to tidy up the room feel at ease? are the candles lit, the music playing, and the food ready? are you ready to receive the people and not running around at the last minute? is your desk cleaned off? are there enough chairs in the room? is the table set (feel free to apply that metaphor in multiple ways)? in other words, is everything in place so that your guests feel as if they are the most important people in the room?
  2. Do for one what you wish you could do for all: I used to be the type of person who felt I need to spend equal time with everyone at a gathering I hosted so that no one would feel left out.  I soon discovered that no one got my best and I receive nothing from the group.  Once I started focusing my attention on the person in front of me and spent as much time as was needed there, things changed.  Going deep with one or two people shows the crowd that you care - and that you believe each person is important enough to spend quality time with them (even if they do not get you that time around).
  3. Be authentically hospitable: if your are practicing hospitality only to get a result, your guests will see right through that.  However, if you are truly hospitable from the inside out, everyone will know that as well.  Having an hospitable spirit is one of the spiritual gifts mentioned in the Christian Bible - Romans 12:13 encourages others to "practice hospitality."  For me, this does not mean having to gregarious and outgoing; rather, it is the ability to really care for the other in a way that makes them comfortable, especially when they enter a strange place.
So do a quick inventory:
  • how hospitable is your organization to guests and strangers?
  • how hospitable is your home to friends and neighbors?
  • hos hospitable is your office to colleagues and guests?
  • how hospitable is your classroom to students?
  • how hospitable is your waiting room to vendors and patients?
  • how hospitable is your entrance and foyer to first time visitors?
  • how hospitable are you when encountering the stranger for the first time?
"Love must be sincere,  Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God's people who are in need.  PRACTICE HOSPITALITY (Romans 12:9-13).