Monthly Archives: September 2014

Well Done

No, this won’t be a culinary tutorial in overcooking things.  Instead it’s a post inspired by a quotation from Benjamin Franklin that I recently came across” Well done is better than well said.”  Putting aside my abiding love of eloquence, I take his point.  And it’s another one of those deceptively simple lessons that would serve administrators well.

In this case, I’ll adapt it to a particular set of circumstances and the issue of follow through.  For several years I attended an annual meeting of leaders in my college.  The afternoon included a brainstorming session to generate ideas about how to improve the college’s stature on campus, recruit majors, and other worthy endeavors.  But nothing ever came of these sessions.  Great ideas were generated but then vanished into the well-meaning ether of good intentions.  By the second or third time I’d watched this happen, I’d become completely disenchanted, and as a consequence, disengaged.  What good were any good plans we might identify if no one would ever try to implement them?

Clearly, this was a flawed process.  But aside from its immediate flaws, it unwittingly fostered apathy and disgruntlement.  So the long-term effects were probably more pernicious than the short-term ones.

So how could this process have been better?  In other words, how do you facilitate follow through?

To begin with, write it down.  Keep track of what gets said.  Be sure that someone is the designated note-taker and record-keeper.  In other words there need to be minutes of what transpired.  Taking minutes seem too old-fashioned?  Another possibility is to write the notes on big sheets of butcher paper or a blackboard and then take photos of them.

Once the group has finished brainstorming or generating ideas, look them back over and determine who is going to follow up on which idea.  In my experience, everyone is at least pretty good at coming up with clever ideas.  Where the rubber hits the road is in implementation.  So get people to volunteer or assign them tasks.  And circulate the minutes or photos of the work as soon as possible after the meeting.  Keep everyone engaged in the task at hand.

But wait, you’re not quite done yet.  You also need to set deadlines or some expectation of reporting back.  How long does everyone have to follow through on their assigned idea/task?  Will there be another meeting to discuss progress (if so, you’ve got everyone already assembled, set the date now while everyone’s in the room!).  Will there be sub-groups that need to set their own timeline?  Unless there’s some accountability you risk another encounter with the well-meaning ether of good intentions.

While some may grumble while you make these assignments and set these timetables, the payoff of promoting follow through and producing results will foster faith in your leadership and contribute to greater engagement in the long run.

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Write It Down

Really, this blog post could begin and end with the title.  Write it down.  This, however, is a lesson that I learned the hard way recently, so allow me to say a few more words.

The issue in question was a sensitive conversation with a staff member about expectations.  I assumed I was clear.  But it has recently become apparent that we have very different interpretations of the conversation.

Sometimes we don’t write things down because we’re too busy.  Or too rushed.  And there is definitely a lesson here about slowing down and being deliberate and focused.  But sometimes, I think we don’t write things down because we don’t think we need to.  But I don’t mean those cases where we think we’re sure we’ll remember later.  I’ll say it baldly: my memory is awful.  If the reason to write something down is that so I’ll remember it, then I do.

No, what I have in mind here is something slightly different.  I’m thinking of a friendly, collegial conversation that goes well.  But it’s still a conversation that involves issues that touch on workload, expectations, classroom performance or similarly sensitive issues.  Yet you finish the conversation and you think to yourself “Gee, that went well.  We talked about some touchy stuff, but I think we came to a constructive understanding.”  That kind of good will and pleasant exchange doesn’t inspire record-keeping.   I also think we (and by this I mean myself) might resist the temptation to write things down out of sense of not wanting to seem mean or suspicious or litigious.  We want to expect the best of people, and don’t think it’s necessary.

But you should do it just the same.

As I discovered recently, even a friendly conversation can result in different interpretations.  Sometimes deceit or malice are involved in the later controversy, but more often than not, I think it’s honest disagreement.  Sometimes we hear what we want to hear.  Sometimes we don’t express ourselves well.  Sometimes we’re reluctant to ask questions or seek clarification.

So, if I could rewrite (pun intended) the past, what might I have done differently to avoid the scenario I described above?  There are several options.  I could have written a memo that communicated these expectations and then invited the faculty member to meet to discuss it.  Or I could have written a summary of our conversation afterwards and shared it with him.  Or perhaps, depending upon the individual and the circumstances, I could have done both.

The lesson here is deceptively simple: write it down.

Turn and Face the Strange Changes

I’ve written a fair bit about change.  How to manage unwelcome changes at your institution.  How to have conversations about making constructive changes.  The change as one school year rolls over into the next.

But this time change is personal.  I have a new position.  I have stepped down as chair of my department and assumed, at the invitation of my provost, an interim position as Director of a program at my university.  While it’s a change I was happy to embrace, it has not been easy.  First, I really loved being chair.  The job had its fair share of headaches, but I worked with great colleagues.  I was comfortable in my role and mapping new projects for the future.  Second, I am climbing a steep learning curve.  The program I am leading is mostly new to me.  I have a new (to me) staff and a lot to learn about the responsibilities and rhythms of the work this unit does.  Finally, I have, for the first time since I entered the profession almost twenty years ago, stepped away from my disciplinary affiliation.  This is a little disorienting.  Oh, and did I mention that this all happened in the second week of the semester after classes had already started?  Color me overwhelmed.

Despite this change, I’m still caught somewhere in the ranks of academic middle management, so I will keep blogging about the experience.  Shifting to a new role and learning a new job should provide plenty of fodder for reflection.  And what does it mean to be an “interim” anyway?  Navigating those waters will undoubtedly provide some lessons.  So stay tuned as I take up this new job and continue to ponder the challenges of academic management and leadership.