6 Leadership Imperatives

Retiring senior administrator Tom Rocklin lists the six key things he knows now that he would have liked to have known when just starting out.

July 25, 2017
 
 
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I started my career as a faculty member, and for the first 15 or so years of my career, I taught, conducted research and served on various committees. In 1996, I started down a path I had not expected to walk and took on increasingly responsible leadership positions within my university. I have been director of the teaching center, chair of my academic department, associate provost, senior associate provost, vice provost and, for close to the last nine years, vice president for student life. Like many academic administrators who emerge from the faculty, I never formally studied anything very directly related to leadership or management.

Now I am retiring, and this essay -- although certainly not a comprehensive list -- captures what, in my experience over the past three decades, I’ve identified as six leadership imperatives. Perhaps one or more of them will resonate for you.

Adjust the flame. Issues arise every day. Many of them come to you from the people you lead. Each arrives at its own temperature. Some come in hot -- you get a call from a couple of team members. They need to see you immediately. Others come in cool -- you get an email marked “FYI.”

Do not assume that the issue arrives at the correct temperature. It is up to you to figure out what temperature is appropriate and adjust the flame -- which you can do in many ways. Don’t overlook the most obvious way: just say something. “This is not an emergency” or “We need to act on this immediately.” There are other options as well.

Turning the heat up might look like:

  • Calling a meeting on short notice and at an unusual time: “Everyone in my office at 7 a.m.”
  • Reducing or eliminating process: “For the duration of the emergency, each of you is authorized to make purchases up to $50K without approval.”
  • Reassigning responsibilities: “I need you to drop everything else and devote all your attention to this issue until we have a final resolution.”

Turning down the heat might look like:

  • Adding process: “I think we need to get a group together to study this, and then it should go to the Faculty Senate and staff council for input.”
  • Asking for more information: “I’d like to see a report on how our peers handle this.”

Don’t use any of these tactics arbitrarily. Use them to get the best outcome. The end product should be neither burned nor undercooked. Don’t miss the opportunity to debrief after adjusting the flame. Over time, team members will become better calibrated, and more issues will arrive at the right temperature.

Ask the question; call BS. Someone on your team will lie to you nearly every day. OK, that’s putting it way too strongly. I’m not talking about malicious deception or outright prevarication. My experience suggests, however, that:

  • Your team members have their own agendas. As such, they will shape the message they bring you to fit their agendas.
  • No one on your team has as broad a perspective as you do, so they sometimes leave out crucial information.
  • Some of your team members have expertise in areas in which you are barely a novice. Expertise is a good thing, but it also creates the kind of blind spots that lead people to say, “That’s the industry standard way of doing things,” and not fairly consider alternatives.
  • Sometimes, team members will tell you things that aren’t true because they just don’t understand something.
  • Your team members sometimes pass along bad information they got from someone on their team.
  • Finally, and very, very rarely in my experience, your team members may lie to you out of malevolence.

You, it follows, have to maintain a healthy skepticism and ask good questions. When an answer seems implausible, you have to say so and not accept it until you see convincing evidence. When you hear, “That’s the way everyone does it,” you may have to check to see if that is true. Likewise, when you hear, “That would violate policy” (or regulations or the law), you might have to ask to see specifics. When someone tells you one week that a task will be easy and the next that it will require substantial resources, you might have to ask if the two assessments are in conflict.

Here’s the good news: as you work with your team, you will learn that some, probably many, of your team members will always be able and willing to provide you with accurate, truthful information. Treasure them and be sure to tell them you appreciate their honesty and clarity. And some people, because of the kind of questions you ask, will get better at giving you good information.

Repeat the mission statement. Over and over. Keep folks focused. Your team exists to accomplish something. Not just anything, but something specific. That something is captured in your mission statement. Well, at least it should be. If your mission statement doesn’t clearly establish what your team is meant to accomplish, revise it and then start repeating it over and over.

Losing focus is natural. The world is full of shiny objects, and we like to pursue them. Staying concentrated on the team’s mission is an act of will and requires discipline. You need to provide that discipline for your team. When team members come to you with an idea for a new program, service, policy or whatever, help them think through whether the idea is a shiny thing or a mission-rich possibility. You can simply ask the question “How does this help us accomplish our mission?”

One of the classic shiny objects is a moneymaking possibility. A wise friend of mine suggests this response when someone presents to you an idea for making money: “Great, and let’s sell quilts, too.” Unless your organization has a mission related to quilts, it seems kind of silly to go into the quilt business, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that moneymaking ideas are all bad, just that they have to be evaluated against the mission statement.

When evaluating possible shiny objects, consider, in addition to mission richness, the opportunity costs. Anything your team suggests doing will mean not doing some other things. Is that OK? Or is the idea just a shiny object that will distract the team from mission-rich work?

There is another important reason -- probably a more important reason -- to repeat the mission statement over and over. A clear sense of purpose makes work more rewarding and bolsters team morale. Folks can work harder and better and enjoy themselves more when they understand why they are doing what they are doing. Teams are teams (as opposed to just some group of people) because they have a common purpose. So, repeat the mission statement over and over.

Manage the budget -- all of it. If you manage the budget effectively, it will be the clearest statement of your priorities. When you have to cut your budget, and you can’t manage by increasing efficiency or some other strategy, you have to eliminate something. That decision defines your priorities. Likewise, when you identify a new source of funds, how you use it defines your priorities. So, if you want to accomplish your priorities, you have to manage the budget.

Team leaders face a continuing challenge concerning the question of where in the organization budget decisions should be made. There is a lot to be said for allocating funds to managers and then getting out of the way. It makes sense that those closest to the action in a unit should make decisions. At its extreme, however, that strategy takes away from your ability to have your budget reflect your team’s priorities. If one unit has a resignation, and another unit needs another team member, simply allowing the unit with the resignation to fill the position does not reflect your priorities. You, as the leader of your team, are the only one with a comprehensive understanding of the entire budget of the team. At the end of the day, only you can keep the budget aligned with the mission and the team’s priorities. Sometimes you have to tell managers how to spend “their” money in order to maintain that alignment.

A final point. In complex organizations like large public universities, resources exist in various bins, each with its own restrictions. Sometimes it seems as though the only place to find the money to pursue an important opportunity is in a bin that won’t allow it. In my experience, more often than not, you can find a way to use your resources, whatever bin they sit in, to advance your mission. I am emphatically not talking about breaking rules here. (See imperative No. 6 below.) Ask around, though. The finance experts in your organization will know what’s possible.

Remember that nothing is ever just one thing. William James, in The Principles of Psychology (1890), described the world from a baby’s perspective, as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” As we get older, the world doesn’t become less of a blooming, buzzing confusion, but we learn to filter and simplify in order to make sense of it. The world is a complicated place, and simplifying is a built-in feature of the human cognitive system.

Still, nothing is ever just one thing. When people say that sexual assault is a law enforcement issue, they are right, of course, but also incomplete. If we think of sexual assault as only a law enforcement issue, we will only consider law enforcement strategies to address it. If we acknowledge, for example, that it is also a public health issue, we open up to whole new set of strategies. And, of course, sexual assault is not just a law enforcement and a public health issue. It is much more, and each new lens we bring to the issue will suggest new strategies.

One of the most pernicious “just one thing” characterizations takes a form something like, “This is fundamentally a political issue.” When I have heard that assertion, whatever was under discussion was pretty much always a moral issue as well. It’s very risky to forget that. Beware. Calibrate your integrity meter, recalibrate it periodically and use it frequently. Leaders need to know what they stand for and act with integrity, matching their actions to their principles.

Calibrate your integrity meter, recalibrate it periodically and use it frequently. To put it bluntly and concretely, what would you refuse to do (or insist on doing), even if it cost you your position? When the situation presents itself, you may not have much time to decide on your action (but don’t forget that you can try to adjust the flame). If you know what you stand for, you’ll be in a better position to decide what to do.

By the way, here’s a bit of avuncular advice. You’ll be in a better position to act on your principles if you are financially able to quit your job any time. Save enough money to live on for however long finding a new job would take, and don’t touch it unless you are out of work. End of avuncular advice.

You’ll need your integrity meter in situations that have much less than your position at stake. If, for example, one of your personal principles has to do with kindness and compassion, you’ll probably get chances every day to act with integrity -- or not. Without frequent reflection on your principles (recalibrating your integrity meter), you risk drifting away from your personal principles. Some unprincipled leaders seem to thrive, but most of the time their thriving is temporary, and their fall is hard.

And you know what? Unprincipled leaders don’t have very successful teams. Along with all that, leading without integrity just seems to make people unhappy.

So, there you have it, six imperatives. Maybe the best way to think of them is as six things that today Tom would have liked to have had the opportunity to say to back-then Tom. Of course, back-then Tom may or may not have been in a position to hear them, but I like to think he might have carried them around with him as ideas worth chewing on. I hope you find them tasty and nutritious enough to warrant chewing on them. Maybe they will help you define your own leadership imperatives.

Bio

Tom Rocklin recently retired as vice president for student life at the University of Iowa.

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