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Advice to Sponsors and Managers of MOR Program Participants

by Sean McDonald

When participants come back from MOR workshops they are brimming with energy and excitement, raring to put new skills and ideas into action, but they come back to the same places they left, where often little has changed—except maybe their to-do lists, which have grown. While it is ultimately each participant’s responsibility to claim ownership of their professional development and navigate the application of their learning, managers play a critical role in protecting and harvesting this energy and new ideas that participants bring back. Even with good intent, ‘receiving’ participants upon their return can be extremely challenging. In an effort to provide some practical advice we interviewed Laura Patterson, recently retired CIO of the University of Michigan, and Casey Gordon, the CIO at the College of St Benedict and Saint John’s University in Minnesota. Both have sent team members through MOR Leadership programs. Casey has also attended a MOR program and Laura now works with MOR as a coach and program leader. We are extremely grateful for their insights, which appear below. Thank you Laura and Casey!

Good Intent is Different than Changed Practices and Behaviors

Laura Patterson enrolled her entire senior leadership team from the University of Michigan in the 2005 MOR Leaders Program. This was shortly after they came together as the new lead team for a recently created organization. Laura recalls that by the conclusion of the program, every member of the team enhanced their individual leadership capabilities. The pace of development varied, and the impact was more dramatic for some than others, but without exception every person grew as a leader.  

What she hadn’t expected was the impact the experience had on the group as a whole and on her as their leader. The team came back from the program with a common language. Their interactions were more candid and productive. They provided each other, and her, with direct, constructive feedback. They engaged in intense, thoughtful dialogues resulting in a shared strategy and clear direction. They had a shared toolkit that they employed to manage projects and address organizational challenges. The group dynamics improved and their productivity increased because each of them had become a better, more intentional leader.

Manager Tip –> As a manager of a team or individuals coming back from a MOR experience make time for them to share the new tools, new practices and shared language they learn about with you and the rest of the team.

For Laura, she hadn’t expected to see such dramatic changes.  It was surprising, and in full honesty, she wasn’t prepared for it. She quickly realized she needed to increase her own performance as a leader in order to serve them well and to leverage their capabilities. They had gone into the program as managers and had come back as leaders. She needed to become a leader of leaders. So, she set out to intentionally change her behavior, adopting some new practices herself. She delegated more readily. She included them in strategic conversations with university executive leadership. She charged them with leading major change initiatives. She stopped directing and started coaching.  She regularly discussed career goals with them. She routinely asked them for feedback.

Manager Tip –> After hearing from your returning team member or members, reflect on your engagement with them. What new practices can you employ to better leverage this new leadership energy and insight? 

Not surprisingly, as Laura aimed to raise her own performance, the team’s leadership capabilities continued to increase and their organizational responsibilities expanded as well. There was a positive cascade effect on their teams and the entire organization. Over time, a leadership culture began to flourish that had a positive impact on the climate, on productivity and on performance.  

Manager Tip –> An investment in professional development can have huge returns if it ripples out and spreads across your organization. But it will have limited benefit if you aren’t engaged in it yourself.   

Laura’s closing advice is to set high expectations at the outset of the program.  Establish accountability for participants to be “all in.”  Regularly discuss developmental goals and share feedback.  At the conclusion of the program, assign important, cross-functional projects to MOR graduates that require the application of the tools they’ve learned.  Set expectations and let them run with the new responsibility.  Become a leader of leaders.

Even When You Think You Are Ready, It Will Be Harder Than You Think

As a 2017 MOR Leaders Program graduate, Casey Gordon, CIO at the College of St Benedict and Saint John’s University, thought she was going to be ready to best ‘support’ her four direct reports as they came back from the 2018 MOR Leaders Program. To her surprise, it was still very challenging, it took effort, and old habits needed to be reassessed. We asked, her, “So what did you learn?” Here are her tips to other sponsors and managers…

Manager Tip 1 –> When participants come back and come to you with new ideas, which they will (especially if you are doing Tip 2 below); step back and listen. My first instinct was to help them implement their new ideas right away, taking on the burden of thinking it through further and bringing it to fruition. However, it’s unsustainable to implement every idea people bring back. Use questions and coaching techniques to encourage your staff to think it through more. Give it back to them. Let the person further recognize where there is true opportunity, where challenge exists, where it matters most, and where the best starting point might be for an experiment. 

Manager Tip 2 –> Supporting Tip 1 above, this is a good time to assess the current practices in regard to being open and inviting this alternative thinking. With the pressures of the immediate and demands for results, we can lose sight of carving out time to look ahead, to think differently. If you are not receiving new ideas today then you might look in the mirror and seek feedback. How could your current approach or processes be a limiting factor? 

Manager Tip 3 –> Create a space for a new type of conversation, one focused on strategic thinking, continued development and leadership, not progress reports with an operational or tactical focus. Develop a routine for bringing new ideas, learning moments, and out of the box thinking forward. Create a space where team members can share openly, with no fear of consequences. “Yes and” becomes the norm over “but”, as others can build on the ideas and not rebuff them. Learning and continuous improvement become business as usual. 

These three items that Casey shared are clearly linked in a virtuous circle, and one could argue that the order should be flipped. However, the first one, described in Tip 1, is what will kick the rest of this off, consider it your prompt, as it will likely happen before you are ready for it. And although it might seem easy to spin up Tip 3, don’t do it until you take a close look and reflect on Tip 2. 

We at MOR would add two additional items, layered across all of the above:

  1. This will take you out of your comfort zone

  2. “Stretch and Challenge” begets better performance

You were most certainly promoted along the way because of all of the strengths you have and good work you’ve done. Ironically, now that your career has progressed and you are a leader of leaders you need to let go of what got you here. Why? To give others room to grow. You have to assess old habits, the ones that served you well for so many years, and make room for new practices in an ever-evolving world.  Stepping out of your comfort zone is not easy, but it is where the learning happens, where the magic happens.

Finally, as you receive participants back from each workshop or any MOR Leadership experience, keep in mind the MOR mantra, “Stretch and Challenge.” Challenge your people, stretch them today beyond where they could reach yesterday. This is how your team will continue to grow and learn. You have the opportunity to facilitate this stretch and challenge. The results will far surpass any current prediction you may have your teams capability and capacity.

Good luck!

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