A Serious Discussion

Posted by jlubans on January 29, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

I am writing an article about my Fulbright teaching experiences – my course design, its content and the class outcomes - for Del Williams, the editor of Advances in Library Administration and Organization. (He had a Fulbright to teach in Klaipeda, Lithuania the same time I taught in Riga.)
Del and I discussed my assignment and whether it should be more theoretical rather than pragmatic. In our conversation, I expressed some frustration: “Librarians seem mired in the economic situation and, frankly, even when libraries were relatively flush we did not really want to hear that much about management topics. Perhaps I am wrong?”

Del expressed an opposite view: “While most librarians think it might be useful to have more management training, they still tend to be more into the pop management literature than serious discussions of the topic, so selling the topic becomes more difficult.

Perhaps, like Del says, if we can avoid the pop stuff (you know, FISH, Strategic Planning, Core Competency, Sigma Six, and Knock Your Socks Off Customer Service, etc.,) we can reflect on what it is most on our minds as managers and leaders. We can ask and discuss in depth the questions most on our minds.
As a start, I’ve developed a list of questions for that serious, frank & candid discussion (I like this painting, titled A Serious Discussion!*). What would you add, take away from my list?

1. What’s working well in our organization? What is not? What will we do about it?

2. Is the top down, boss to worker, the best model of organization for us? If not, what should replace it?

3. What contemporary leader do you admire the most? Do you emulate that leader in how you do your job?

4. Are we in a post-departmental era? Do we use the departmental arrangement less than other ways of accomplishing the work of the organization?

5. What is the most important organizational trend you are observing?

6. Is your organization reactive or proactive? If the former, do you want to shift more to the proactive? Doing so, what would be in the way and what would you do about it?
7. All of our organizations have an accumulation of problem staff, people who seem to hold the organization back. What can be done?

8. Why do some of our best staff reject management jobs beyond the team leader or departmental level? What needs to change organizationally for our best and brightest to aspire to leadership positions?

9. What training opportunities exist for staff? Are existing programs rigorous enough? What is rigor? What should a training program teach and what should be the outcomes for participants?

10. Is there evidence, factual or otherwise, to support the investment our organizations make in performance appraisal? Does PA make a provable difference? Are there better ways to let people know how they are doing or not doing?

11. How do we refresh and augment our skills as leaders?

12. What is our productivity goal?

13. What are our REAL organizational values toward each other and to our clientele?

14. If fear or anger prevents us from our open and candid discussion of any of these questions, what does that say? Does it matter?

* A Serious Discussion is by S. C. Faber, 2010. See at http://scfaber.com/gallery4.html or here.

Followers With the Most to Lose

Posted by jlubans on January 24, 2012  •  Leave comment (4)

I collect stories about followers – good and bad – in the business world and on campus. For example, I’m intrigued by the Olympus Corp’s $1.7 billon fraud. My interest is piqued less by the magnitude of the deception and more by the corporation’s firing of the person (the CEO, Michael Woodford – a recent hire) who uncovered the fraud.

And then, there’s the curious case of the celebrated social psychologist Diederik Stapel. He’s the researcher who concluded with certainty that prejudicial thinking (of a certain kind) was not prejudicial. It was on target and he had the evidence! For example, you (a vegan) might believe that eating meat makes the carnivore aggressive. Herr Professor Stapel “proved” it! (And, in the process, confirmed just how insightful you are.) Well, if the proof is in the pudding, Stapel’s dozens of published puddings have been putrid for over a decade. He admits he regularly made up the numbers to fit his desired outcome.

My question is about why Stapel’s peers (his faculty colleagues and other researchers) did not catch the phoni-ness? Instead,

“The (investigating) committee concludes that the six young whistle-blowers (researchers) showed more courage, vigilance, and inquisitiveness than incumbent full professors. ”

Do you find that an astonishing statement? The people who have the most to lose were the ones who caught the scam, who fingered the forger. The “incumbent full professors” who have the least to lose either were clueless or did not want to hinder the agenda, the shared world view. I suspect they also did not want to go up against Stapel and his admirers. The investigating report says “colleagues or students who asked to see raw data were given excuses or even threatened and insulted.” Similarly, Bernard Madoff, we are told, would go on the offensive when confronted with his criminal behavior. If not for the economic downturn, he’d probably still be stepping high, wide and handsome.

So, just like in the King Bidgood story,
the question becomes, how did junior lab members have the courage to question Stapel? (The same question can be asked of the junior researchers who spotted and reported the exalted Marc Hauser’s dubious research.)

When like-minded peers agree with your agenda – they really, really want what you say to be true - they may turn off their stink detectors. Here’s a telling quote from the investigative report: “Among Stapel's colleagues, the description of data as too good to be true "was a heartfelt compliment to his skill and creativity!" (Emphasis added.)

My geese picture suggests that when we surrender our critical thinking to someone’s agenda we become docile; we go along to get along. Sheep-like, we are ineffective followers. Some of us may even go so far as to enable the fraud. And, once we are complicit, we might even punish the people who uncover the fake facts. Academe has several stories about the impaired careers of graduate students who found and reported plagiarism by tenured professors.

Good followers are important to an organization because they do not suspend their disbelief just because they like the messenger or the message. They don’t go along to get along – the people that exposed Stapel did not go along to get along. Effective followers think critically for themselves. An effective follower ascribes to some higher purpose or personal philosophy outside and beyond the immediate work place.

When I talk about types of followers in my Leading from the Middle workshops, I underline why effective followers are different: They tell the truth. (You can see how that might get you in trouble. Effective followers lead proactively, and do not behave like someone in need of direction.)

Leaders empower effective followers. Warren G. Bennis, writing about leadership: “Nothing serves an organization better than leadership that knows what it wants, communicates those intentions accurately, empowers others and knows how to stay on course and when to change.” It comes out in times of “agonizing doubts and paralyzing ambiguities.” It is in times like that when the organization’s effective followers – if the leader has empowered and protected them – avoid suborning values and keep the organization on course.

Leaders in Self-managing Teams: An Oxymoron?

Posted by jlubans on January 18, 2012  •  Leave comment (1)

One of the best parts of my Leading from the Middle workshop in Riga at the end of November 2011 was the student panel: three students from the management class I taught in the spring semester at the University of Latvia. They told the 25 workshop participants about what worked and what could have been better about their self-managing teams. Since the students spoke in Latvian I did not fully (hah!) understand their conclusions. One of the panelists, Aija Uzula, kindly sent me an English summary of her remarks:

“1. I spoke about my own experience of being led by a … supervisor … and then about changes that happened after she got sick for 6 months. During her absence our department changed a lot: everyone found her/his own place in work mechanism and we worked as team. Before that we only did what our supervisor ordered us to do. We learned how to work without anyone ordering us what to do, we had our own experience in ups and downs; it gave us courage to have our own opinion about things. We all tried to lead and to follow without anyone telling anyone else what to do. For me it was great experience, a school of life :)
“2. And, I explained about the projects we worked on in class…. For me the best one was Books2Eat, then interviewing women leaders and worst of all was the final project. I believe that a project is successful if team members are good in cooperation; also, (success) depends on team members' personal issues and characters. (Note: When Aija and I talked, she also mentioned the importance of knowing your teammates. If they are “strangers” then much more group dynamic work needs to be done before all can be comfortable interacting. She reminded me that the Books2Eat and leader interview teams were self-selected. I had appointed the final project’s teams!)
“3. Conclusion. It would be good to take (your) course for all workplace team members not only for one or two, as it was in my experience, so all could get important information and knowledge about how to lead and how to be led, how to follow etc.”

Given Aija’s assessment and from what I understood from the panel presentation, I have taken a second look at what each final project team said they would change and/or what should have gone better. (Each project team's full listing out of "goods" and "not-so-goods" appeared earlier as a blog entry here.)

Here are the “do better” items common to all three teams:
Unclear roles of team members;
Lack of agreement on project topic;
Need to improve group dynamics, including communication and facilitation (form, storm, norm, perform);
Lack of time;
Need for a leader to motivate, make decisions;
Complicated logistical matters; and,
Better teamwork was needed.

Perhaps obviously, each team would have benefited from someone taking on a leadership role. Why did this not happen. After all, they were self-managing; they could have elected a leader. Each group could have spelled out/distributed leader roles. One group might have wanted a boss-type leader. Another group, a leader to guide the group to a decision.

I have learned much from the panel’s feedback. If I were to repeat this assignment I would have the project teams work during class so I could observe and coach their dynamics. Better yet, I would make clear that self-management does not exclude a leader. That would make for an intriguing discussion, how could a self-managing team have a leader?

Thomas Seeley, author of Honeybee Democracy, tells us what the bees taught him about leading humans:

As head of a faculty department he:
1. States the group’s object
2. Defines the group’s decision-making process
3. Keeps the group on track
4. Fosters a balanced discussion
5. Identifies when a decision is reached

Next time, I am going to emphasize these roles so each team member better understands what a leader can and ought to do. And, I would also make use of self-appointed project teams!

Pūt vējiņi: Of individual freedom

Posted by jlubans on January 02, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

20120102-lk-084.jpgAs we leave the old year for the new, I am reminded of a story about our innate desire for individual freedom and how it survives and finds expression even under the worst of conditions. Egils Otlans, a Latvian-American friend, told the story to me a few weeks ago. His family, like mine, fled the Russians at the close of WW2 and, as refugees, wound up in the USA to start a new life.

Egils returned to Latvia sooner than I did. While I came back in 2000, he was one of many Latvian-American tourists to visit Riga and Latvia during the 70s and 80s, when the Soviet occupation of the Baltics was in full force.

When he went, the only option was through Intourist, the communist travel service. It was a moneymaker (all those refugees yearning to see their homeland and the families left behind) and it was an espionage service. Run by KGB and NKVD – with graduates from a different kind of hospitality school - tourists were strictly limited in what they could do, whom they could see, and where they could go. All facilities and services were under Intourist – no options. Intourist hotel rooms were bugged and employed hundreds of listeners. Mail was routinely intercepted and read.

On Egils’ visit to Riga he saw a city that had once been beautiful and was now dilapidated, neglected. He encountered first hand the grim realities and absurdities when individual freedom is banished. (My mother also visited occupied Latvia and her stories confirm what Egils and hundreds of other visitors saw.)

At tour’s end, Egils was seated with the other tourists outside the Intourist hotel on the Intourist bus. On the sidewalk were family members, friends (and Russian police). Since Latvians are “slightly crazy” about flowers, everyone on the bus and on the sidewalk probably had farewell bouquets. It was time to depart. Egils told me that several elderly visitors believed they would never see their Latvian relatives again.

Besides a genetic love for flowers, Latvians often sing, putting their emotions into music. Music defines Latvia, the Latvian language and its heritage. Of course, the national anthem could not be sung – it would be a crime to do so and would result in some sort of recrimination by the police – maybe a one-way trip to the notorious House on the Corner*, KGB headquarters, on (then) Lenin and Friedrich Engels streets.

Slowly, one voice started the first words of a national folk song, a song as well known as the national anthem: Pūt vējiņi (Blow wind, blow**.) All joined in - on the bus and on the sidewalk – and their voices blended and the sad melody soared. Soon everyone, including Egils, was in tears. The police, befuddled, stood by, not knowing what to do.

And that is how Egils’ tour to Latvia ended.

See a performance of the song with thousands of voices, here.

*What is the tallest building in Riga?
The answer was “The House on the Corner”, because from its sixth floor you could see Siberia.

**Put, vejini (Latvian Folk Song)
Arranged by Andrejs Jurjans (1856-1922)