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Help: Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can

| September 1, 2020

by Sean McDonald

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Sean McDonald, Vice-President of MOR Associates. Sean may be reached at [email protected].]
Last week I had the chance to speak briefly with a help desk team member from a university whose campus plans are in flux. This person and their team have not been part of the decision chain around how this institution will respond, adapt or transform amidst our disrupted world.  However, they are most certainly at the front line for supporting those in need at this increased moment of uncertainty. The call volumes and stress are at extreme highs.  The team is doing extraordinary work toward supporting forward direction and desired results.   There is also burnout.  In the organization’s intense drive to support the mission, we are potentially jeopardizing one of the values central to our institutions: taking care of our people.  Unfortunately, this story is a reality far beyond this single institution. We are asking 110% from people that may already be stretched to the max.

Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. 

– Arthur Ashe, American Tennis Champion

We let the words of Arthur Ashe inspire us. A reminder that the past is behind us and any new day is an opportunity to start anew. Make contact with your team today. Reschedule those one on ones. Evolve the schedule if needed, but don’t let connecting with your team be the thing that goes away because of how busy you are. Situations will arise that impact your availability. Canceling a one on one will happen. But missing two in a row is the start of a new routine. Making time for your team sends a direct message that they matter to you and their work at this time is important.
Then, as Arthur Ashe has encouraged us to do for ourselves, do the same for your team members.  Start where they are: listen, understand the current context they are navigating. Each individual is traveling through these times on their own unique path. Those paths are rapidly changing for each of us.  A check-in two months ago may have shown a different reality than today’s check-in.  As you evolve these ongoing conversations, help team members separate where they have control and where they do not.  In uncertain times, putting focus on things we can control gives us more hope and increased momentum. Use coaching, the leadership skill of asking questions to help others solve challenges and see opportunities, to help team members see solutions through the fog. Your team is closest to their work and processes.  Make sure their ideas are heard and considered in decision making processes that impact them.  
Give the team ownership of the process and outcomes wherever possible.  This requires two primary ingredients: direction and empowerment.  The two go hand in hand. Without intentional direction there is likely unintentional confusion. It typically makes for an environment where team members feel everything that comes there way needs to be done, and immediately.  Your clear direction and enabling the team to progress on priorities will bring much needed clarity. As stated by recently retired CIO of UC Berkeley Larry Conrad, this time requires not only intentional direction, but ruthless prioritization. We need to trust our team to delay, delegate, and/or delete some items not on their critical path. To get there, we need to keep our leadership skills sharp.  Much has been written in the past few weeks about supporting your leadership in this regard.
As we shift our focus from listening and coaching staff toward direction with empowerment, we are also moving toward a collective engagement with the team as a whole. This intentional connection and coming together as a team is critical. Being in “it” with others brings a layer of comfort and support. Not feeling alone, in a time when many are isolated at home and/or in their silos, reminds us we are part of something bigger. It gives us needed forward motion. Make focusing on your team a weekly practice. And remember, what you choose to focus on influences the team. You set the tone. You fuel the mindset. One mistake we often see during this time are leaders who focus on what we can’t do during the pandemic.  While that list is perhaps long, it is more beneficial to focus our staff on what we can do.  What is possible and what we will be doing during this time?  To be clear, we are not suggesting delusional optimism (thank you Kathryn Iwamasa from CWRU for this apt phrase).  We need to be a beacon of forward direction through the fog. Bring to the equation what we need to know, good and bad, and see forward and believe in the vision. The mindset you bring, and how that spreads, makes all the difference.  We will make it through this and you are impacting how.
There are numerous ideas and practices you can use to engage your teams. Recognition, appreciation, and sharing your team’s story are especially powerful team fuelers.  Invite your team into this focus, it is their team, what ideas can they share toward acknowledging the work, balancing the work/life blend, and taking care of themselves at this time.
One last thought for today: make it a practice of asking for help. I found in my work that many find this a sign of weakness or have trained themselves to persevere. Now more than ever we need to acknowledge our own limits.  We can no longer afford bringing ourselves to the brink of stretching too far.  Our role modeling asking for help in turn encourages our team members to do the same.  As the leader of your team, make asking for help part of every meeting.  Don’t wait until after burnout.
We started today’s reading with the story of the help desk team member who is giving extraordinary effort and has little control over the environment at this time.  While it was one person’s story, it is a story shared by so many of us and so many of our team members.  As we begin the uncertainty of the fall semester, what can you do to give your team even a little more predictability and control?  What can you do to more fully show care for your team members who care so deeply for your institution?  In the words of Arthur Ashe, start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.