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Working in a leadership incubator – don’t waste the opportunity

| August 25, 2020

by Justin Sipher

Working in a leadership incubator – don’t waste the opportunity

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Justin Sipher, Program Leader, Leadership Coach and Consultant at MOR Associates.  Justin may be reached at [email protected].]
This past spring and summer 2020 was a powerful and complex time for participants in our various MOR leadership programs.  Like your institutions did in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we pivoted to remote sessions and lost some of the fellowship that comes with the in-person workshops.  Gone were the conversations over breaks or meals, and possible camaraderie at the late night hotel bar (or early morning run) for travel programs.  At the same point, it surfaced opportunities to connect people we never would have when looking solely through a lens of in-person workshops.  We brought together a handful of programs to cross pollinate the relationships and deepen the learning experience.  As challenging as it was both personally and professionally for everyone, it was a powerful time to observe and study leadership.  Through all of this it has been a leadership amplification moment.
So as the fall semesters start up at our respective institutions, regardless of plans for face-to-face, online, or hybrid, it will be yet another important time for successful leadership.  We are already seeing a couple institutions pivot from face-to-face to virtual based on what has happened in the first days and weeks on campus.  Despite months of planning and preparing, things can go awry. This is evolving rapidly and being mindful of what is changing around you is important.  Many of you have had the privilege of working with my MOR colleague Jack Wolfe when you went through a leadership program.  If so, you probably know that Jack loves to articulate things in 3’s.  Let me channel my inner Jack and ask you to think about the following.

  1. Observe
  2. Learn
  3. Apply

In my coaching I’ve used this mantra to help focus participants into finding the learning opportunity buried in this unfortunate circumstance.

  • What are you observing regarding all that is happening around you, especially through all this COVID enabled transition?  Be an intentional student of communication, empathy, EI, presence, etc…  What is the University leadership doing and saying that resonates with you, and that which doesn’t?  The same is true for your CIO, members of your team, and yes yourself also.  All around us are constant opportunities to be present and aware of what is happening in the moment.  If something doesn’t resonate with you, or your colleagues, make note of it.   At the same time, if something really does get your attention in a positive way, note that also.  Don’t just let these opportunities pass without thinking.  There are examples everywhere and if you are not intentional about observing, and probably documenting, these lessons will enter and depart your consciousness before you know it.  Often we can’t fully unpack it in the moment, so journal your observations for later.  Don’t count on your memory.  It might be an interaction you witness.  Perhaps it’s a communication from senior leadership.  Perhaps it’s the way a colleague, or you yourself, handle a situation or request.  There are situations all around us, especially with the stress, inevitable changes, and competing priorities.  What an incubator we have been living and working in since the spring.  Not finding a way to document these scenarios and situations for our own benefit is a lost opportunity.  While the pivot in March and April was profound, what is ahead of us this fall may be equally insightful from the standpoint of observing leadership.  Do your future self a favor and find a way to collect these moments.
  • Being intentional about observing and documenting what happens around you is great.  It is a critical first step.  However, that must be unpacked to SO THAT you can actually learn from those situations.  From what you are observing, how do you reflect and then learn from these observations?  Observing without learning is a second lost opportunity.

    There is a quote attributed to John Dewey, American philosopher and scholar who lived in the latter half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.  I believe it to be paraphrased from his writing but it is most commonly referred to as “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience.”  You probably remember this phrase from your time in one of the MOR programs and I find it particularly adept for this moment in time.  As you attempt to learn from that which you observe, it happens through the power of reflection.  Use defensive calendaring to prioritize time to deconstruct your observation and create the learning.  Ask yourself some questions:

    1. What was it about that communication, interaction, or observation that made it worthy of documenting for future reflection?  It’s not just what was observed but WHY was that so impactful and worth your future consideration?
    2. Upon understanding why you documented it, what is the lesson(s) you can take away.  Is it something you want to replicate?  Something that you want to make sure to never do?  Perhaps an ah-ha moment?

    Whether the observation is of great success or a shortcoming, analyzing it and finding the true nugget of knowledge is important.  You can then evolve your list of observations, into a list of lessons learned.  How powerful is that?

  • Lastly, at the end of the day, it’s about action.  Documenting observations is great.  Taking time to reflect and unpack those observations into learning is wonderful.  However, if at the end of the day we don’t actually take those lessons learned and put them into action regarding both what we do, and how we do it, it’s lost.  We need to apply these lessons so that we elevate our performance, and that of those around us.  The application is what turns us from being a student of great leadership to a practitioner of it.  Learning without having it influence our actions is a third lost opportunity.

Observe, learn, apply.  It sounds so simple.  Yet too many won’t leverage the learning opportunity before us either because of feeling too busy, or not able to step back and see the forest through the trees.  It will require intentional discipline to avoid allowing the pressure of the urgent to crowd out time for the important.  Perhaps through defensive calendaring.  Perhaps in a small learning team with colleagues who are also MOR alumni.  The fall 2020 semester will be complicated and stressful for many.  In ways none of us can fully predict, it very well may play out slightly, or drastically, different than we intend or hope.  IT will likely be central to helping the institution deal with both the obstacles and the opportunities.  This will require many leadership attributes.  Going back to your MOR program, what did you observe / learn during that time, and how are you applying it now?   Clear communications.  Active listening.  Empathy for a variety of stakeholders.  Being strategic.  Navigating politics and culture.  Building, maintaining, and leveraging relationships.  Managing your presence.  Being willing and able to give (and receive) feedback, including difficult conversations when needed.
Now more than ever our institutions need leadership excellence at all levels.  You are poised to be an important link in that leadership chain. Figure out how you will document that which you observe.  Make time on your calendar to unpack those observations into lessons you can learn.  Then figure out where and how to apply them.  Step up to the challenges presented and consider observe, learn, and apply as a mantra to help you and your organization be its best.
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