Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Three Surprising Leadership Skills

MIT is looking ahead, trying to figure out what skills the next generation of scientists, engineers, applied social scientists, designers and managers will need.  After careful consideration, and a close review of numerous studies of the future of work, MIT believes it will have to complement the depth of the training it currently offers in dozens of technical fields with an equal commitment to developing the breadth of each individual’s leadership capabilities. To build this necessary breadth, it will be necessary to focus on helping learners know themselves (e.g., improve their emotional intelligence, adaptability, resilience, ethnical awareness, reflective capacity, etc.), work with others to get things done (e.g. motivate others, give and receive feedback, build teams and networks, communicate effectively, resolve conflict, and negotiate with difficult people); and build organizational capacity (e.g., manage change, manage crises, help organizations learn, implement user experience design and better marketing, and commit to process improvement).  No one can learn all these things at once; so, we’ll all have to commit to life-long self-improvement. The university’s job will be to make it easy for everyone to acquire both technical depth and leadership breadth as they need it.  In all likelihood, this will involve a range of new teaching and learning formats.

As I listen to successful individuals say what it took for them to achieve their goals (at every level, in every sector), many seem to be stuck on an old-fashioned view of a leader as someone with a strong personal vision who can command others to do what needs to be done.  In my view, this model -- derived mostly from accounts of military, sports, political and business victories -- is not likely to work in the future. More distributed or facilitative models of leadership-- that emphasize knowing how to work in partnership with others and build organizational capacity -- are likely to be more valuable.  When I look at the way ideas about leadership are changing at MIT, shifting from top-down to facilitative models, three specific leadership skills stand out for me: setting a constructive problem-solving tone, facilitating group efforts and negotiating in a value-creating fashion. These are likely to surprise traditionalists, but I think we can already see how these capabilities will define a new generation of leaders.

Setting a constructive problem-solving tone

What do leaders need to be aware of at the outset of a venture?  Not just their own goals and vision, but the way their behavior influences others. Efforts to establish one’s firmness or strength are less important than an ability to model or set a joint problem-solving tone. Whatever the organizational context, technical managers, team leaders and CEOs must be able to motivate and inspire others to work and think creatively. The more everyone is ready to share responsibility for the success of the group, the lighter each person’s load will be, and the greater the collective wisdom available to apply to problem-solving.   Leaders are people who are able to put themselves in the shoes of others.  They are in sufficient control of their ego to be able to share responsibility and applaud the good work of others. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness are crucial to the ongoing success of teams or organizations in an era of flattened hierarchies and distributed leadership. If a leader can’t inspire a problem-solving tone, commanding that everyone perform is likely to backfire.

Facilitating group efforts

The general presumption in the world of management is that technical experts will be able to collaborate with each other; it turns out, though, that collaboration is a learned, not an innate capability. Launching multifaceted high-performance teams is an important leadership responsibility, and it involves being able to facilitate group interactions, not just leaving everything to the team members.  In my view, facilitation is a crucial leadership skill. Those of us who teach facilitation know that it involves selecting the right mix of team members, designing the work plan properly (including parceling out assignments and setting ground rules regarding the way members will interact with each other), holding a mirror up when the group members are not working well together, mediating among contending individuals and serving as a scribe so there is a reliable record of what transpired.  While it is possible to contract out for many of these facilitation services, leaders better understand exactly what the facilitation assistance is that they want and need. And, sometimes, only the leader can resolve internal team disagreements.

Negotiating in a value-creating fashion

The success of many organizations hinges on the ability of their leaders to negotiate effectively with representatives or leaders of other organizations. Supply chains work that way, as do inter-organizational partnerships. Leaders who think that these kinds of negotiations are like traditional win-lose bartering in the market place, do their organizations a terrible disservice. Negotiating when long-term relationships are important, requires a different (i.e., “mutual gains”) approach to deal-making. The Mutual Gains Approach (MGA) to negotiation requires finding trades or ways of reframing disagreements that add to, rather than just divide, value. The most successful leaders know how to do this.

As colleges and universities re-organize to enhance the breadth of the leadership skills they are imparting, I hope they will realize that the learning involved is probably not best presented in traditional semester-long courses, nor delivered in lecture format. Helping students learn from their own experience, and engage as co-learners with others (often online), will require new pedagogical strategies.  And, when this happens, learners are likely to demand certification: not just an indication that they have completed the required work, but a guarantee that they have achieved mastery of the skills involved.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Do colleges and universities in America do more harm than good? Of course not!

I was shocked to learn that a substantial portion of American adults believe that colleges and universities do more harm than good. Really? What leads them to this conclusion? The web and talk radio are filled with people making such assertions (but offering no evidence). You will see and hear that: it costs too much to go to college; there’s no guarantee of a good job after graduation; student loans are destroying every student’s financial future; college faculty are brainwashing their students – biasing them against traditional American values, teaching them Marxist ideas and misleading them about what it takes to succeed in life; university administrators are claiming more and more tuition money for themselves, and amassing gigantic endowments; and there are an increasing number of useless majors and frivolous subjects being taught. Some of these same observers are convinced that most young people should become mechanics, plumbers, and welders, so they can live a good life without wasting time and money getting a college degree. Finally, according to these critics, colleges and universities are coddling students, encouraging them to cave in to political correctness and banning right-thinking speakers. If you read the Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly newspaper produced by people who know something about what’s actually happening on campuses in the United States, academic are on the defensive -- obsessed with the most outlandish claims of their online critics. We see story after story about a very small number of high profile campus confrontations. Very little space, though, is devoted to detailed analyses of what is really being taught, the dramatic changes that have taken place in instructional methods (in most fields), the ways that universities are reconfiguring themselves to ensure that their graduates can meet the demands of a changing (global) job market and the actual impact that college and university study has had.

What we rarely see in the Chronicle, hear on the news or read on the web, are accounts of the vast majority of students and faculty in 90% of the colleges and universities in the country, going about the business of teaching, learning, pursuing basic and applied research and providing service (often as part of applied learning programs) to local and distant communities, agencies, and companies. Unless you spend time in a legitimate sample of colleges or universities on a regular basis, sit in on classes, read the materials students are assigned, read the theses and project reports students produce, analyze the research findings of the faculty and talk with their community and industry partners, you would have no way of knowing the startling success that two-year colleges, four year colleges, public and private colleges and research universities are having – often in the face of substantial under-funding. They continue to prepare the next generation of workers, citizens, managers and leaders while amassing new knowledge and innovative technologies that make it possible to improve the quality of our lives, use our resources more wisely, organize ourselves productively and govern ourselves effectively.   It’s a good thing that our higher education system is working as well as it is, and not the way the critics claim. If they were right, America would have long since lost its competitive edge. New jobs wouldn’t be created at unprecedented rates. Investment capital would have migrated to more friendly locations with better prepared workers, more effective managers and more stable and accountable regulatory systems.  But, that’s not the case. More of the brightest people from all over the world are still trying to make their way into our colleges and universities.

Unfounded claims about the diminishing value of higher education in America have nothing to do with what really happens in 90% or more of the classrooms, laboratories and field-based learning settings around the country. On most campuses, students and faculty are too busy to worry about what the latest self-aggrandizing guest speakers has to say. The amount of class time spent debating the latest front in the culture wars is trivial. The vast majority of media-based critics don’t spend nearly enough time inside colleges and universities to understand how students, teachers and administrators go about their day-to-day tasks. One reason for this is that many of the people voicing unfounded criticisms have neither the knowledge or the skill to understand the substance of what’s happening. It takes no knowledge or skill to repeat unsubstantiated claims aimed at attracting attention on the web.

If everyone teaching and every student studying at a college or university in America were to tweet two lines about the most important thing they are learning or doing research about (under the banner #I’m learning what I need to learn or # I’m teaching what I need to teach), we could quickly rectify the built-up mis-impressions.   My tweet would say (#Teaching urban and environmental planners how to lead and support public and private agencies and organizations in the US and around the world).  

There wouldn’t be space in our tweets, but maybe we could also convince the media (of all kinds) to include stories about the new inventions emerging from university laboratories, the start-ups being created in dorm rooms, and the assistance students are providing to a wide range of communities. Most people would be surprised to learn about the new interdisciplinary majors and concentrations that have been created in data science, biotech, applied social science, design science, conflict resolution, user experience design, and a host of other fields at a wide range of colleges and universities. It would be great to see independent documentation of how the requirements in all kinds of degree programs have changed over the past ten years, and how opportunities for hands-on learning and internships have increased in pre-professional studies programs all over the country.

It shouldn’t be hard to create an overwhelming counter-argument showing that all citizens need constant access (throughout their lives) to the learning opportunities that colleges and universities provide, across many fields, for continued skill development and personal fulfillment.  And, our society depends on the constant flow of scholarly insights and research breakthroughs crucial to our continued well-being.