Monday, 22 August 2011

Asking Good Questions

Earlier this summer we shared five practices effective leaders use to accomplish extraordinary results.  One of them - "Challenge the Process" - recognizes that leaders today must continuously ask how to get better and improve outcomes.  They ask, "Why are we doing what we are doing?  Why are we doing it this way?  Are there more effective things we can do?" (Kouzes & Posner, 2002).

In today's fast-paced world, leaders can't possibly have all the answers.  They need to use good questions to guide others to get to the "right answers".  Peter Scholtes (1998) identified "seven basic all-purpose questions" leaders must ask:

  1. Why?  When you encounter a problem, ask why.  Ask why as many as five times to get to the root cause of the problem. 
  2. What is the purpose?  People love to suggest things and often grab onto new ideas to implement in their organizations without making sure there is a match between the organization's needs and their ideas.  Help people clarify the purpose - or desired outcome - as they plan new projects.
  3. What will it take to accomplish this?  While it is nice to dream, your job as a leader is to support people to implement their ideas.  This question gets others to think through the methods they will use to put ideas into action.
  4. Who cares about this?  Ask this question to make sure you are choosing actions that will matter to the right people.  If the people you serve notice or care about the action, it should have higher payoff for you.
  5. What is your premise?  Many suggestions and ideas are made without stating the assumptions or beliefs that are guiding them.  When you ask people to state their premise or assumption, you help them gain greater insight.
  6. What data do you have or could you get?  Some suggestions and ideas are based on perceptions and hunches - asking this question pushes people to "ground" their actions in real data.
  7. What is the source of your data?  Before you base decisions on data, make sure it is valid and comes from a reliable source. 
Increasingly, a leader's role is to coach colleagues to think through plans, anticipate problems, and get the right things happening.  Questioning and demonstration are the basic tools of a good coach.  Here are some other questions that Scholtes suggests leaders ask when a team is implementing a new project or intervention:

Prior to Starting

  • What could realistically go wrong?
  • How might that be prevented?
  • What should we monitor to see if the problem is occurring?
  • How can we be prepared to react if it goes wrong?
During Implementation

  • What are you doing?
  • Why are you doing it?
  • How do you know this is the right thing to do?
After Implementation

  • Are we getting what we wanted?
  • Are we avoiding what we didn't want?
  • Do we need to make adjustments?
  • How would we do it differently next time?

From:  Leading Every Day by Joyce Kaser, Susan Mundry, Katherine E. Stiles, & Susan Loucks-Horsley
Published by: Corwin Press

Monday, 15 August 2011

Paying Attention to Leadership Actions and Traits

Recall a time when you were particularly effective as a leader and bring to mind your actions as well as your personal characteristics or dispositions you exhibited at that time.  As you think of your experiences, it becomes clear that leadership actions and personal traits work hand in hand to support quality leadership.  From such an exercise, people report taking actions such as:

  • developing and communication a clear purpose
  • holding high expectations for everyone
  • anticipating and addressing small problems before they grow into bigger ones
  • demonstrating a deep understanding of the work
  • developing others
  • facilitating change

As they take these actions, leaders are also using personal characteristics that contribute to their success, such as being action oriented, enthusiastic, realistic, risk taking, caring, and committed.  They underscore the importance of having integrity and being a listener and a learner and willing to change minds.  What emerges from this exercise is a composite of actions and traits of effective leadership.  High performance leadership comes from balancing key leadership actions with personal dispositions that strengthen and support leadership results.

Michael Fullan (2001) writes that all of us can become better leaders by focusing on just a few key leadership capacities.  He developed a framework for leadership depicting five capacities for leaders to lead complex change. 

  • being guided by a moral purpose
  • understanding change processes
  • building relationships
  • promoting knowledge creation and sharing
  • coherence making
Fullan wraps these leadership capacities in three personal characteristics - energy, enthusiasm, and hope - that both build and reinforce the five capacities.  For leaders to achieve high performance they need their actions and dispositions to work in harmony. 

From:  Leading Every Day by Joyce Kaser, Susan Mundry, Katherine E. Stiles, & Susan Loucks-Horsley
Published by: Corwin Press

Monday, 8 August 2011

Keeping a Client-centred Focus

Think about a time you felt you didn't get the service you wanted, needed, or deserved.  Perhaps you had taken time off to have someone come fix an appliance, and that person didn't show up and didn't call.  Maybe you had paid a bill but the accounting department kept sending you statements.  Possibly you had made arrangements with your supervisor to take a personal leave day but he or she had forgotten and scheduled you into a meeting. 

Try to remember what you were feeling.  Frustration?  Anger?  Resentment?  Now, think of just the opposite situation.

Think about a time you were treated as a valued customer.  Perhaps the accounting department notified you of an overpayment.  Maybe someone from your clinic called to tell you that the doctor was running late.  Possibly your supervisor stopped by to make sure that you had everything you needed to get the proposal in on time.

More and more leaders are finding it essential to adopt a client-centred focus.  Take education as an example.  The ultimate customers are the students and the community.  In the old paradigm, if students did not have basic skills in reading and math, it was their fault.  After all, they had the opportunity to learn, didn't they?  If that situation occurs now, schools are more inclined to look at their own systems to determine what else can be done to ensure that the students reach the learning goals.  Their core mission is to teach students, not just 'deliver' lessons. 

Students, their parents, and the community are external customers but there are also internal customers - the colleagues with whom you work.  It is important to maintain a client-centred focus with them also.  Having a client-centred focus means always thinking about how you can provide great service and making sure that people receive value. 

From:  Leading Every Day by Joyce Kaser, Susan Mundry, Katherine E. Stiles, & Susan Loucks-Horsley
Published by: Corwin Press

Monday, 1 August 2011

Developing Your Culture

What is the culture of your organization?

Darryl Connor (1993) defines cultures as "the beliefs, behaviours, and assumptions of an organization [that] serve as a guide to what are considered appropriate or inappropriate actions" for individuals and groups to engage in.  Culture operates at two levels: 1) overly, as apparent in policies and procedures and 2) covertly, reflected in "the way things are done".

Culture in an organization usually evolves over time.  The personalities of the leaders often determine the beliefs, behaviours, and assumptions that eventually become firmly established, although they may not be especially visible.  This results in what Connor (1993) calls a default culture.

It is much less common for leaders to consciously and deliberately establish the type of organizational culture that serves their needs.  As a result, new leaders often inherit a culture that doesn't support changes they want to make in the organization.  And they find out quickly that a non-supportive culture can be very inhospitable to a change initiative. 

If you are a leader of a new organization or project, you have the opportunity to build the type of culture you believe works best.  If you take over an existing entity, you have the harder task of assessing and changing the culture - a difficult but not impossible task. 

Regardless of which position you are in, here are some things to consider about your culture:

  • Are the values and principles explicit so that everyone understands what is valued?
  • What is the trust level in the organization?  Do people at different levels trust one another?  What do you do to make it safe for people to take risks and trust one another?
  • Are people valued as individuals, or are they thought of primarily as assets or resources?
  • Are people's hands, heads, and hearts wanted - or just their hands?
  • Is the atmosphere informal and comfortable, or is it formal and tense?
  • Are people treated equitably, or is there evidence of preferential treatment?
  • Is the environment positive, with people encouraged and recognized, or is it negative, with little or no recognition and a lot of blaming?
  • Does the organization freely share information, or is the flow of information tightly controlled?
  • Is learning from mistakes valued, or are people more likely to be fired, blamed, or reprimanded for errors or failure?
  • Is learning valued, or is it seen as a deterrent to getting the work done?
  • Is the organization committed to continuous improvement, or does it change only when there is a major problem? 

From:  Leading Every Day by Joyce Kaser, Susan Mundry, Katherine E. Stiles, & Susan Loucks-Horsley
Published by: Corwin Press