Reflections on Decision-Making with the Administrative Management Institute

I’ve just finished my session on decision-making for the Administrative Management Institute conference at Cornell University. To those of you in attendance, thank you for your terrific engagement today. You came ready to be challenged — and to challenge me in return! Our time was brief, and I know you’re all faced with a deluge of information from other sessions. So I want to share with you three key observations from our decision-making model that you can apply directly to your own work. 

Internalize Your Vision of Success
We are exceptionally talented at looking for bad potential outcomes. We’re wired to find fault and risk in our plans. But as you look back at our work today reviewing the Decision-Making Model, the first three steps comprise the most important part of the process of making change: Why?

If we work together to understand why we’re taking on a new initiative, we can then visualize ourselves in the future, looking back as if the successful results of our work are already in place. If you take anything away from our time together today, please take this. There is no better way to motivate individuals and establish team alignment than to create a clear vision of a future in which you’ve already won. 

Reframe Consensus
Remember the classic film The Princess Bride?

Vizzini has just cut the rope The Dread Pirate Roberts is climbing up
Inigo Montoya: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Such is our relationship with consensus. Over the years, the word has evolved, and now it brings with it such baggage that any process seeking consensus is met with eye-rolls at best. But consensus does not mean what we think it means. While team members shudder that all a consensus leader is looking to do is to make sure that everyone agrees before making a decision, the reality is much different. 

When you’re starting a new project, at your first meeting, reframe the word clearly and concisely. I’m even going to give you a script: 

“In our team meetings, we’re going to be working toward consensus. We will not agree all the time. But for us, consensus means that we are all willing to move together in the same direction, even if that direction is not our personal favorite.”

Reset the expectation around consensus and you’ll go a long way toward streamlining your decision-making process. 

Time is Everything
We accomplished what we needed to accomplish today in about 1/3 of the time I typically allot for these sessions. On the surface, I count that as a big win — we came with concrete objectives, and with focus and determination, we met them. You can do the same with your own work as change leaders. 

But that comes at a cost. Without the time in workshop to reflect and practice the principles we learned today, a much greater weight is placed on you all to do that work individually, at home, at work, and beyond. It’s up to you to study the model, to adapt and align it with your internal processes, and most importantly to practice moving through each step with your own teams, on your own projects. 

Yes, we saved time today. But decision-making is a muscle, and to build it takes focus, practice, and repetition. 

I walked out of our session today feeling great about our work together. I hope you share that feeling, and I’m confident that the decision-making model will support your work in leading change in your own institutions. My deepest thanks to AMI for inviting me to present today. I look forward to our paths crossing again down the road.

— Howard.


Wrapping up NACUBO 2014 — Reflections, Observations & Inspirations around Communicating Strategically

This has been a fantastic week. 

We started off with the New Business Officer's forum, helping those new to the role to get acquainted with the skills they'll need to cultivate to succeed. From there, I co-facilitated a conversation on communication with the talented Kelly Fox and Greg Lovins. Somewhere in between, we were joined by the truly incomparable Alison Levine, legendary technologist Bill Gates, and too many terrific concurrent sessions to mention. 

What strikes me yet again is the degree to which NACUBO has internalized the issues and struggles facing business officers every day, and reflects those struggles with spot-on opportunities for continued learning and engagement. This year, whether we're talking about debt or financial aid or the relative "brokenness" of our business models, one thing is clear: communication is a key skill.

We had a wonderful connection with a business officer that supports the point. Chatting at a reception about the importance of communication, this individual said, "what we do is numbers. I can do the touchy-feely stuff for about 30 minutes ... then I need data." 

True, for those of us more accustomed to working with numbers, sitting through sessions on the art and importance of communication can certainly feel "touchy-feely." But think of it this way: if you're struggling with sitting through sessions at a conference around this topic for more than 30 minutes, how does that translate to your leadership team or board room, in which you're charged with presenting beyond the numbers to non-numbers people in a way that highlights your strategy to lead important initiatives? 

Not convinced? Just take a look at NACUBO's last National Profile Report. As you review it, notice how many key profile areas might involve become a better, more articulate, more convincing communicator? Spoiler: most of them.

I've been speaking around the country on this topic for several years now so you can imagine how gratifying it is personally to see NACUBO continue to take up the mantle. Communicating strategically is a key leadership skill; how many great leaders do you know who can't communicate clearly enough to rally support for their initiatives? Remember, great managers have subordinates. Great leaders have followers. It's our job not just to manage change in our institutions, but to inspire it. 

Thanks to everyone for a wonderful week — and here's to the NACUBO Annual Meeting 2015!

— Howard

Team Teibel is in Seattle for NACUBO 2014!

We’re here, joining the incredibly talented field of business officers, administrators, and educators for the NACUBO 2014 Annual Meeting. Seattle is a beautiful city and the perfect backdrop to this year’s conference. 

You’ll be able to find the Teibel team throughout events this year and I encourage you to reach out and connect. From the NACUBO Speaker’s Corner to the New Business Officer’s workshop, to concurrent sessions, we’ll be engaging in the most important topics facing business officers right now, and doing our part to have a little fun while we’re together!

We’ve put together a resource page for those following Teibel events at the conference. In addition, we’ve recorded two special episodes of my podcast, Navigating Change, focused on NACUBO:

It’s going to be a great event, folks, one that continues to define the landscape of best practices in our field. It’s an honor to work with you, and we can’t wait to work with you all this week.

— Howard

Leadership Lessons from EACUBO NY Spring 2014 — Dancing Guy, Followers, and Decision-Making

Howard Teibel at The New School

I am honored to have been speaker at the EACUBO New York City Spring 2014 WorkshopThe New School is a beautiful facility, and served as a terrific location for creative thinking and discussion. 

As a refresher, our time together was focused in two areas: effective decision-making, and leadership. If these concepts were presented as a Venn Diagram, you’d be looking at a circle — or pretty close to it. 

You see, making decisions effectively is inherently a product of leadership. It is the mark of someone who has exercised the critical muscle of influence, whatever their role in the organization may be. Just because you don’t have managerdean, or vice president before your name does not mean you don’t have influence in the organization.

Consider our discussions of the “Dancing Guy.” In just three minutes, we witnessed a lone, shirtless dancer in a field transform into a movement of a hundred or more. How did he do it? As entrepreneur and narrator Derek Sivers frames it, dancing guy was a Lone Nut, committing his passion all alone to something he believes is truly great

But even more importantly, he had the benefit of help from his first follower, that special believer who had the courage to commit his own influence to a cause he believed it. That courage transformed the Lone Nut into a leader that others could follow without fear. 

Now that you’ve had a few weeks to settle back into your work, I ask you to think about these two take-aways, and evaluate how you are applying them each day. 

  1. Do you understand the scope of your own influence? Take the time to reflect on your own work and expertise. Are you regularly considered the Lone Nut? Or are you brave enough to be the First Follower? Where will your own influence lend support to truly important — great — projects in your institution?
  2. Bring a group together, and deconstruct a project. If you haven’t had the opportunity to apply the decision-making model to a current project, do it soon! Condition yourself to approach new challenges using the model and watch how effectively you are able to generate new ideas and overcome past logjam.

Leadership is a powerful and mysterious role, but it doesn’t come courtesy of a title. We are all capable of becoming leaders, of driving change in our organizations. It’s your job to develop an eye for opportunities to lead change as the Lone Nut, or to apply your own influence artfully and effectively as the First Follower. Keep your eyes peeled — these opportunities are everywhere!

Leaders are those who empower others.
— Bill Gates
Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.
— Warren Bennis
Leadership is influence. Nothing more, nothing less.
— John Maxwell

Gearing up for the NAEP Leadership Forum

In the morning, I’ll be leading the Leadership Forum annual meeting for the National Association of Education Procurement. It’s a beautiful evening here in Louisville, Kentucky, and judging by the members I’ve already met, tomorrow promises to be an engaging and productive day.

We’ll be taking on some pretty important issues in today’s session around leadership and strategy. How do you cultivate an environment that is open and encouraging of change? What is your role as a leader in supporting your people through periods of terrific complexity? Becoming an influential leader is very much a personal journey, but the result serves as a foundation for teams that understand — and are excited to build on — the shared strategy of the team, department, or institution.

Speaking of strategy, we’ll be digging in to the strategic planning process, too. When execution suffers, it can often be traced back to holes in the strategic plan. Whether you inherited a plan from a prior leader, or never finished the process in the first place, developing and refining the strategic plan is critical to getting back on track.

We’ll ask some important questions of each other today, questions that get to the heart of the business model we serve. When we’re finished, you’ll have a roadmap for developing your teams around a strategy that you own, for your people, driving toward the shared success of the institution.

This is some of the most fun work I do, engaging high performing teams and helping them to see what’s possible in their work. Get ready for some new skills, new frameworks, and great fun today!

Reflections from NWAIS

I've just wrapped a fantastic learning experience with the collected business officers of NWAIS in Seattle. The team was leaning in and engaged even after two days of intense program before I even hit the stage. 

I thought I'd take the opportunity to share a few thoughts on video for all of you in attendance, a few ideas that might help you continue to engage these ideas in a way that is proactive and sustainable. I hope you all will stay in touch on the journey through change at your schools.

NBOA Q&A on the Decision-Making Model

Special thanks to the folks at NBOA for allowing me to share this interview I recently did with NetAssets magazine. Take a look at the PDF for additional insights which I hope you find expands your thinking about the art, craft, and strategy behind the decision-making process.

Reflections: Communicating Effectively at SACUBO

One in a series of Texas Firsts for me at SACUBO!

One in a series of Texas Firsts for me at SACUBO!

It’s been a whirlwind trip to San Antonio for the SACUBO Annual Meeting. The team behind the conference has been fantastic, as to be expected. Now that events have started to wind down, I’ve had a chance to reflect on our Communication session I led with Greg Lovins, and would like to offer a few key take-aways to consider as you make your way back to work this week.

With nearly 150 people in the room, there was clearly enthusiasm around this topic. The weight around one particular question was striking, though: how do you communicate bad news?

Short answer: deliver the brutal facts balanced against a positive view of the future.

We drilled down into detail on this one, but I think the focus on tactics comes as a disservice to a deeper mission. Communication is a tool. Our ability to communicate complex information clearly is often directly linked to the direction of our organizations. As business officers, it is our responsibility to own our message, and to understand the impact of its delivery through the choices made by others as a result. Our mandate is one of participation: share the tough insights with leadership, but be ready to share positive solutions and recommendations, too.

Don’t forget: You’re a Storyteller.

When you’re communicating something — whether it’s spoken, written, presented, briefed, or brown-bagged — you need to start thinking about your story. A story has a beginning, middle and end, and crafting your stories in this way helps your audience digest it. We’re wired for stories, us humans. I took a few minutes to read the Three Little Pigs. How many times have you heard this story? And still, how many of you really wanted to know how it turned out at the end?

Big caveat: with adults, remember to start with your key message. When communicating complex news, holding the punchline till the end can frustrate your most important audiences.

Cut the Jargon.

Greg has such a wonderful way of talking to this point. He calls jargon techie talk, and I think the diminutive works so well here. Jargon separates us. It divides us. It can minimize others work in false favor of our own. Jargon isolates.

People love simplicity. As Greg says, do your part to stamp out jargon, even in your own departments, and you’ll go far toward changing the culture of communication across the institution for the better.

When you get back to work, while your SACUBO experience is still fresh, pull out presentation that you’re going to be delivering sometime soon. Read through it with the following three simple questions in mind:

  1. What’s the key message
  2. Who’s the audience I’m trying to serve?
  3. What impact do I want to make when they’re finished with this story?

The third question is the zinger. It highlights the trap we’ve all fallen into from time to time. As business officers, we often hope the data will speak for itself, without any call for change. And yet, we don’t have to look far to see the cries for change around us.

I’m reminded of a wonderful passage in the film The American President. The president is having a difficult conversation with his deputy around the lies in the media, and the president’s preference to remain silent in the face of false accusations. Then the deputy, played by Michael J. Fox, delivers this line:

People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.

As business officers, we have the obligation and opportunity to not only take active ownership of our message, but to get out in front of it and ask for change.

I played the following example of an exceptional speech from the unlikeliest of sources given the SACUBO audience: Ashton Kucher at the Teen Choice Awards last year. I include it here for those who might like to share.


Seven Steps to Relevant Decision-Making Now Online at NACAS

In the spring 2014 issue of NACAS College Services magazine, you'll find my latest feature, The Seven Steps to Relevant Decision-making.

I've long held that one of the key differentiators of best practice institutions is their ability to cultivate a healthy environment around making decisions. These institutions are more agile, more responsive to dynamic market conditions, and vastly more creative when it comes to defining solutions in a sea of complexity. 

The stakes have become greater in recent years, making the functioning of a well-oiled decision machine that much more critical. In this piece, I discuss the traits of powerful decision making, the pitfalls and trials that come with it, and offer a tested process for decision-making that can help your institution become more responsive to demands of your constituencies, and more creative in the process. 

I invite you to read the article online now, and share your comments and insights below. 

Reflections: Berkshire Properties

I’ve just completed a wonderful stay with the team at Berkshire Properties in sunny Palm Coast, Florida. While it’s always a treat to work with teams interested in becoming better agents of change, there is something truly special about working with a team directly in the midst of it. 

Change is hard. There is no way around it — change turns our world upside down. But that is not to say that change is bad. Change is what it is — neither good nor bad — and only takes on identity by way of our approach to it. We’re in a habit of framing change as a negative. Our number one objective when approaching a significant change? We need to change that habit.

In our session together we reviewed the cycle of change. Janssen’s “Four Room” model is a terrific map for our process of adaptation in the face of difficult change projects for two reasons.

  1. It allows us to see how we naturally move from out stage of acceptance to another, from Contentment, to Renewal, to Denial, to Confusion, then back again, and not always in order.
  2. It allows us to understand where we are in our acceptance and adaptation to change and — more importantly — to know where we have ability and responsibility to support others on our teams. 

As leaders, recognize that you’re allowed to adjust to change yourselves, to move through the process naturally and honestly. However, your public face is to celebrate the renewal of change to come, while denial you confront in private. 

Your teams will be confused. Celebrate that, too. If the people around you are confused it means they are working hard to engage in the change that is occurring around them. They’ll be struggling to hold positive and negative emotions in their heads at the same time; you are the mover of rocks and the carrier of water for your teams, constantly reframing each challenge as yet unrealized opportunity. 

For those who have asked for the link, here’s a wonderful video I presented at the conference, “Not about the Nail.” It captures what may be the most critical component of any change project: there’s always room to laugh. 

Reflections on Change — NBOA 2014 Change Leadership Workshop

Today was a banner day. I've just finished the Change Leadership Workshop here at the NBOA Annual Meeting, and I wanted to share a few closing thoughts as we gear up for the wonderful week ahead. 

People who attend change workshops tend to be people who are already primed for change. And yet, this group I had the honor of working with today was hands-down the most excited group of change advocates I've met. This was a group energized and ready to engage their campuses deeply in positive change. 

Photo courtesy  @LeahThayer

Photo courtesy @LeahThayer

What they shared with me was their thirst for a systematic approach to energize the people around them in big ideas. Why are they struggling with this? They're certainly not alone. They're not alone because common sense is so often thrown out the window when people are stressed. And when we attempt big, harrowing, audacious change ... oh boy, do we get stressed.

It's funny, then, that the most important lesson for a group of change leaders might not be the systematic change process after all. The lesson is one of permission. Permission to feel confused when confronted with change. Permission to feel frustration. Permission to feel denial and grief. It is absolutely appropriate to struggle with change, and to let your people feel the same.

In my conversations with attendees after the event, I heard some wonderful snippets of conversation. "I have places I can grow."

"I know I can be better." 

"I know I need to piss some people off." 

To attendees, you're going to head back to your offices in a few days and the conference glow will begin to dim. Before you succumb to the rhythm of work, before you let the day-to-day take over, remember that you have to practice this stuff to master it. So grab the people you work with and bring them all together. Find a problem, use the decision-model, and revisit your collective ability to approach tough problems. Don't skip steps, and don't wait to put these ideas in front of the people who need to see it. Oh, and if you'd like some help on-site, you know who you can call.

Thank you for the opportunity to work with you today. And I wish you the best in your change journey ahead. 

NBOA 2012—Building the Roadmap for Change

There is a roadmap to navigating a change initiative. That's the good news. The bad news is that using the roadmap is difficult because it forces us to work against our instincts.

Our instincts tell us to we should get all the right people in the room, present our biggest challenges, and then—like magic—solve those challenges. That sort of binary thinking is usually just the thing that drives us to the point of frustration. We must first temper our expectations.

Our goal is not to have it all figured out but to establish enough positive momentum that we create energy around the process. From there, it’s a matter of staying connected, staying engaged with those involved so that people are able to see the progress they are making. The road map below focuses on a hybrid approach of taking responsibility for those things you need to own, getting participation from a broad yet targeted set of stakeholders and finally, getting help where you need it.

In the second of the talks I'll be hosting at NBOA, I'll be leading a workshop on brainstorming and mapping organizational processes, so I'll refrain from delivering the bulk of my talk here, but I'd like you to think about these three concepts before we meet in Chicago. 

  1. What does it mean to identify the best people across your organization to help with your change initiatives? We've already covered the importance of the cross-functional team, a team that brings breadth of experience in operations, and is invested in the change they're tasked with addressing. But what are the individual skills and personalities that lead to being positive contributors, team members interested in moving the organization forward and solving significant problems?
  2. How do you frame the broad vision for your team? How do you ensure that your top performers have a clear understanding of what the institution's best possible future could hold, if they are successful? Careful visioning can uncover not just the best possible outcomes, but is the single best exercise for uncovering the silent risks.
  3. How do you know when you're finished? By simply asking that question of your team, you'll incite a healthy conflict, and likely uncover new constraints on your time. By coming to agreement on a target start and end date for your change initiative, you're defining a boundary of accountability, making it real for the folks who need to own the work to come. 

If you missed our podcast summary of the talks I'll be hosting at NBOA this year, I invite you to click play below, and join us with your comments. I look forward to meeting more of you in Chicago! 

NBOA 2012—The Power of People and Making Change Stick

Welcome to part two of my brief series of posts leading to the National Business Officers Association (NBOA) 2012 Strategic Leadership Conference in Chicago. Click here for background.

Last time around, we talked about the power of uncertainty over our teams, and the fear that comes with innovation. This time, I'd like to narrow the focus a bit and talk about the challenges we have in bringing our teams into alignment with our strategic objectives around change.

The right questions and the right people

If you're asking the right questions, then you're putting the stuff you don’t want to talk about square in the middle of the conversation. That's a very powerful thing. Questions like:

  1. How can we ensure our academic programs create the learning outcomes we expect?
  2. What programs that are core to our mission should be retained and what programs need to be reworked?
  3. How should our division or department be structured to best meet the needs of our core customers?

These big questions demand a broad perspective, especially from those using the services and programs we’re trying to improve. Success means different things to different stakeholders and the right people need to be part of owning the solution. But it's not our natural inclination to think so broadly. Instead, we charge these questions to the most obvious stakeholders and expect them to solve the problem in isolation. If our problem includes a dollar sign, we send it to the budget office. If the problem includes enrollment numbers, we send it to admissions, and so on. This narrow assignment of responsibility is a form of denial, and we can do better. 

Being effective in leading our institutions through change is about learning what will impact our areas of focus; defining a broad constituency charged with understanding—not solving—the problem; and then developing a plan that includes those who will implement and live with the change. Our charge, and our responsibility to our people, is rooted in a measured approach to understanding and gaining broad perspective on our problems from those who know best. 

It's that last point that stymies even the most experienced groups. How, when faced with paralyzing economic and financial forces, do you find the strength as a group to come up with new ideas, and energize your team around change?

  1. Figure it out yourself, identify what you don’t know, build the expertise in this area, and then engage the best of your workforce to be part of the solution.
  2. Hire an expert and have them tell you what to do.

We’re biased against hiring an expert thanks to inconsistent performance in the past. We may like doing things ourselves because no one knows our business better than us. We may be reluctant to use cross functional teams because of the risk of accidental public disclosure of our sensitive challenges.

I could go on, of course. It's our past experience that limits our ability to choose from among broader strategies today. Our personal—and organizational—comfort levels can be a key limitation to growth.

If you missed our podcast summary of the talks I'll be hosting at NBOA this year, I invite you to click play below, and join us with your comments. I look forward to meeting more of you in Chicago and will have more thoughts to offer in part three, later this week. 

Ben Zander - World Business Forum 2011

Ben Zander talks to 4,000 people as if they’re children.

Zander serves as the conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, and is of renown as a guest conductor with orchestras around the world. He’s a Grammy-winning recording artist with the Boston orchestra and takes as much a part in creating the music as he does in teaching his community—and the world—how music works.

Zander was, by far, the most engaging presenter I have ever seen. When I say that he spoke to us as if we were children, I mean that with no degree of sarcasm. In fact, his first demonstration was to illustrate exactly how children learn music. He used the child’s model of understanding rhythm, structure, and the essential building blocks that lead to this concept he calls flow. Music, he says, and the connection to music, has to be in the body.

As it turns out, taking us back to this more childlike frame was a brilliant way to demonstrate what we need to be doing with our lives and our leadership, and to ask this essential question of ourselves: Are we connected with what we are doing in our lives right now?

Zander then introduced us to John. John was an attendee, just like I was, sitting a little further down toward the front of the hall, and it was John’s birthday. Zander proceeded to stand John on a chair in front of the crowded hall and conduct us in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to celebrate.

We were terrible. Zander told us so.

He made us take it again. He pushed us, driving us to give our very best to John, saying that this birthday was to be the very best day of John’s year, and that we were to commit to giving John that level of our attention and focus. And John, Zander prodded, was to drink in every ounce, to let it wash over him and be proud of the feeling.

Zander was a lunatic of the highest fashion. And yet, a surprise to many of us, he managed to bring out that commitment and we delivered one of the best damned renditions of “Happy Birthday” I’ve ever heard 4,000 executives muster.

A key lesson of Ben Zander for me is this: Our role as a leader is to demonstrate our commitment to people being as big and as great as they can be. His leadership asks not for following, rather for asking people to be actively engaged and connected in what they are doing. And his own commitment to that same connection inspires what he calls “Shining Eyes”—the physical manifestation of that connection. As a leader, Zander says it’s our job to bring that same shine to all our teams.

Zander’s leadership is not about celebrating his own wisdom and experience as a globally recognized conductor. It’s about what he is able to bring out in others. But developing this sort of relationship comes with great risks, some more manufactured than others. Zander cautions that our modern concepts of performance measurement often come at the expense of true leadership.

Measurement is, at it’s worst, about judgement. It’s about setting a bar above which is success and prosperity, and below which all else is failure. According to Zander, if you want people to succeed, you can’t be kicking off your team relationships from a position of judgement.

If transformational relationships can lead to success, fear of being managed operates in the face of that potential for success. Where Zander succeeds is in eliminating judgement, which in turn eliminates fear, and returns to productivity. Measurement maturity is leading us to be more inclusive about what we’re managing — including more ethereal concepts like happiness—in creating a more well-rounded picture of performance.

Measurement is a collaboration. Zander says he starts off every student-professor meeting by giving his students A’s all around. He presumes success from the outset, and works with his students so that they define why they are going to be successful. If they don’t deliver what they promised up front, they will know exactly why they are going to fail.

This practical, holistic approach to building sound measures hits home for me. It sheds the stigma of the one-size-fits-all methodologies and lets individuals shine as they need to shine, and departments and teams and organizations, too.

Tal Ben-Shahar - World Business Forum 2011

Tal Ben-Shahar is a teacher and writer. He’s a former Harvard lecturer where, according to his Wikipedia biography, “his classes on Positive Psychology and The Psychology of Leadership were among the most popular courses in the University’s history.” Ben-Shahar is intelligent, charismatic, and driven; the mission on his website reads, “I have created this virtual world for the purpose of helping individuals, relationships, and organizations flourish.” His talk on the WBF stage focused on the science underlying positive well being, and he opened his talk with a trick. He informed us that he was about to put an image up on the screen before us. In that image would be a series of shapes. “I want you to tell me how many shapes you see,” he said, and then an image appeared.

On the screen were shapes of all sizes and geometry — triangles embedded inside of triangles, circles in circles, and so on. After thirty seconds, the image disappeared and he asked us, “how many shapes did you see?” One person shouted, “Ten!” A few more, “a hundred!” Still more voices shouted, “a thousand!”

“Good,” he said. “Now, how many children were on the bus?”

I didn’t know there was a bus in the image I had seen, let alone how many children were on it. The rest of the audience was equally confused.

“What time was on the clock?” he asked. The image came back on the screen. Right there, plain as day, a clock, a bus full of kids, a full story of images beyond the shapes Ben-Shahar had initially asked us to count.

That 4,000 of us in the audience were all but clueless to the story that unfolded in the image on the screen. The experience built the foundation for Ben-Shahar’s key point: the questions you ask provide the foundation of your focus, and your focus is what you end up doing. In this example, he’d asked us to focus on the shapes on the screen. We did so, at the exclusion of other key data in the images.

As it turns out, we are naturally gifted at listening to and following instruction. Our intellectual gift puts a great deal of responsibility on the shoulders of our leaders in discovering and determining the right questions to ask of our organizations. If we don’t ask the right questions, we’re in danger of answering them with irrelevance.

It is Ben-Shahar’s position that we as leaders spend far too much time focusing on what is not working in our organizations, than on what is working. In that light, he counsels leaders to develop what he calls an “also/and” reference frame. It is this frame that allows us to evaluate and grow what is working without ignoring what needs work, but not at the exclusion of it. After all, he says, with every question we ask we’re excluding a whole range of other potentially critical questions, and relevant sets of data.

For example, in the higher ed context, we might be wary of asking “why is our tenure system broken?” Instead, pose the issue, “our Tenure system fosters academic and research excellence and it puts a financial strain on academic departments; it’s time for a discussion on maintaining strength and relevance of the program in light of financial realities.” In this way, we frame a complex discussion in a way that celebrates what is working and highlights issues we must address and resolve collaboratively.

This is a particularly profound learning for me. The lesson here is about more than just learning to ask the right questions. After all, we’ve been taught since childhood that there are no right or wrong questions. But our job as leaders is to be aware that the question you ask will directly guide the outcome.

“Our experience in the world is completely influenced by where we place our attention,” Ben-Shahar says. Our job as leaders is to ask the right questions which foster and grow awareness, and focus on growing what is working, rather than what is not. Where you put your attention as a leader, the organization will follow.

It could be easy to write off Ben-Shahar’s work as a gimmick. I assure you, based on my experience, it is no gimmick. Nor is this a simple framework to use when you’d rather avoid having a difficult conversation. In fact, this new level of focus and awareness opens the door for much more complex, challenging, difficult, and rewarding conversations than we’ve ever had before.

Malcolm Gladwell - World Business Forum 2011

Malcolm Gladwell is an author and columnist. He has brought us great fodder for consideration in his books The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, and has been an award-winning writer for The New Yorker Magazine since 1996. In his time on stage at the World Business Forum, Gladwell shared his thoughts on risk. His thesis is pretty simple: Leadership is about taking risk.

Simple, indeed. According to Gladwell, there are two types of risk that good leaders will have to cross at some point or another in their leadership careers: operational risk, and social risk.

  • Operational risk asks how willing you are as a leader to bet big. Do you have the guts to risk the company on a path you believe is right?
  • Social risk asks how willing you are to give up popularity in the face of big, potentially unpopular decisions.

Gladwell’s research over the years has led him to some interesting observations. As it turns out, many in positions of leadership take massive operational risks, betting the company on some new product or another, all the while working hard to ensure they remain socially accepted and popular.

But the best leaders, says Gladwell, the leaders that make the biggest and most profound impact, make decisions in precisely the opposite fashion. Instead of being willing to bet the farm on hair-brain ideas that follow the accepted, popular path, the best leaders are even-headed and operationally risk averse. And yet, they are willing to risk their social capital to do what they believe is right. The best leaders inspire through reason, and when push comes to shove, they don’t care what the rest of the world thinks about them.

Gladwell is part of a fascinating caste of journalists at work today. He is a keen observer of the human business condition, and the elements of communication that pique his interest for investigation tend toward those that are only completely obvious in hindsight.

Insight, Gladwell said, might be the greatest difficulty for great leaders. It takes great insight, after all for leaders to find strength and motivation to take risks and accept social rejection. In the end, the calculus is fairly simple: You have to love what you do, Gladwell says. If you truly love what you do, you will be willing to take the right sorts of risk and work that much harder.

Bill George - Word Business Forum 2011

Bill George is a professor of management at Harvard University. He is also former chief executive of Medtronic, where he grew the company from $1.1 billion market capitalization to $60 billion in just 10 years. It’s this experience, being the leader responsible for such a dramatic period of growth in such a volatile market space, that makes George such an interesting subject on paper. But it’s his demeanor that first struck me. I found myself sitting in the audience noting his casual dress, the way his arms swing haphazardly before he crosses them across his chest, his direct yet casual banter; Bill George is an everyman. As much as we love to ascribe an air of pomp and circumstance to those whose work we admire, there is as much a tribute to be shared when those expectations are broken. In the case of Bill George, I find myself admiring him for his leadership lessons, and for his ability to maintain his pragmatic and approachable sensibility while delivering explosive business results.

This sensibility is absolutely apparent in his take on leadership.

George has three operating questions that guide his model for leadership.

  1. What is the purpose of my leadership? In his book True North, George provides an exercise in which the reader is to write an essay to herself describing the long-term purpose of her leadership. The first step in defining great leadership is understanding the near-term purpose of it. However, leadership objectives can’t be fairly assessed without asking the next question. …
  2. How can I stay the course with my values and purpose? George asserts that daily efforts in leadership are likely more connected than we think to the rest of our lives. His follow-up question is appropriately leading: In what ways does the purpose of your leadership relate to the rest of your life? Is it integral to it or separate from it?
  3. How can I develop my leadership? George cites a 2009 Harvard study which revealed that 69% of respondents believe there is a leadership crisis in the U.S., exacerbated by widespread loss of trust in politicians, media, finance, and business leaders. In recovering trust, George says leaders must recover their compassion, contemplation, and sense of purpose.

It’s these three simple questions, combined with George’s profound experience and straight-forward approach to issues so many professionals make too complex, that cement his credibility. He reminds us to align people around mission and values before projects and processes, empower people to stand up and lead, and to do so in a collaborative spirit. I love the simplicity of this message.

So much of George’s presentation clearly comes from a deeply personal place. As he prepared his close, his talk turned particularly sober. “A key part of leadership development,” he said, “is to develop your emotional intelligence.” Practical skills and technical training will give you the tools you need to do a job. But it’s emotional intelligence that allows you to work with others cooperatively, collaboratively, and to create great programs.

Finally, George concluded with a challenge. He said that on our deathbed, we’re going to ask ourselves what we did to make a difference in the world around us by way of our leadership. “If you can work out what that is now,” he challenged the room, “then do it now.”

World Business Forum 2011 - Introduction

Last month, I had the opportunity to join a group of my peers in New York City for the World Business Forum annual session, produced by HSM Global. I attended this conference for my own personal and professional development. Most conferences I attend, I’m interacting with clients and prospective customers in the higher ed and health care space. I thought this might be a good opportunity to see what’s going on in the wider business community.

As it turns out, there was a more important reason for me to attend this particular event: so many of the concepts that came together over these two days are part of a conversation that is largely not occurring in the higher ed and health care space right now. Creative leadership from the top, collaboration and teamwork, understanding our core customer; each of these takes a backseat to political struggles and strategic planning initiatives that risk looking backward far more than looking ahead.

The World Business Forum in so many ways was a port in the storm for me, a sign that while our intentions are good, we have so much more work to do together to ensure that our institutions are are ready to transform, to tackle the most difficult issues successfully, and to serve our most important core customers: the leaders of the future.

In the month that has passed since the event, I’ve had the chance to stop and reflect on key concepts and learnings. As I begin to integrate these lessons into my own work, I’d like to share a few of the stories of these leaders with you. Through this series of posts here on the blog, I will walk through the key lessons of eleven of the keynote presenters from the WBF stage including:

[twocol_one]Bill George Malcolm Gladwell Tal Ben-Shahar Ben Zander Howard Schultz


[twocol_one_last]Patrick Lencioni Tamara Erickson Claudio Fernandez-Araoz Jack Welch Seth Godin


In many cases, I’ve read their books. For some, I’m a regular reader of their writing online. For few, I’ve never had the opportunity to cross paths with the ideas they shared with us over those two days. But for each of them, I can now say they have rightfully earned their position as influential leader, and that they have taken the time to share their ideas on transformational leadership with our forum is a gift to us all.

It is my hope that this series of posts provides a brief framework for discussion, and that the notes I share here will provide you a launchpad for leadership through change in your own organizations.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter on the Zoom Function for strategic leadership

YouTube - Zooming: How Effective Leaders Adjust Their Focus

Kanter has an interesting take on the importance of zooming in, and zooming out, for leaders in strategic roles. It's a riff off of her "Kanter's Law," everything can look like a failure in the middle, recommending leaders learn to be agile leaders. What I find worth noting is that it's logic that challenges our assumptions of the characteristics that make up the best leaders. We hear too often that the best leaders are big picture people, people who are able to define direction and lead others to grand change. Kanter's assertion is that mixing the big picture with the muscle of zooming in to understand detail, not just principle, allows leaders to "see the specific destination, not just what's around it."

The interview below is just 10 minutes and is worth consideration this morning.