Saturday, May 28, 2011

Good Job, Bad Job, Lessons Learned

In the past two years, I have worked for two very different divisions within higher education institutions (and lived in two very different parts of the country). These experiences have been incredibly valuable for me, because they have allowed me to gain insight into organizational culture, leadership, and my own strengths, weaknesses, and values -- from two divisions quite unique along a number of spectrums: quality of leadership, guiding values and philosophies, approach to student development, formality of work environment, demographics of students and staff, organizational structure and management practices, and so on.

For the past couple weeks, I've been trying to decide how to share my experience working in these two different worlds via my blog. The reality is that I had an outstanding experience in one, and a less-than-stellar experience in the other. I learned valuable lessons from both experiences that I feel are important to share with my readers, but I also want to be careful not to vilify the division/institution where my experience was sub-par. None of the people there are bad people; in fact, I worked with many great professionals who I am happy to call my colleagues and friends. The culture was just not a good fit for me.

So rather than characterize each of these institutions based on the attributes outlined above, I thought it might be more appropriate, and more beneficial to my readers, to instead provide a summary of some of the real-life lessons I learned. These lessons are a mixture of good, bad, realistic, hopeful, and self-disclosing truths I have come to know.

  • Trust is absolutely essential in any relationship. The only way to get it is by giving it.
  • If you want to be a leader, focus on people and relationships. That's what separates managers from leaders. The world (and every organization) needs both, but understand the difference between the two and don't mistake one for the other.
  • Attitudes are infectious. If yours is good, others' will be too. If yours is bad, well, as they say, misery loves company. (I spent way too much time having a bad attitude this past year.)
  • Listening is an incredibly difficult, yet supremely important, skill to master. I have immediate respect and admiration for a good listener.
  • People learn in different ways, at different paces, and with different needs. Embrace it!
  • Know what you know, and what you don't. And don't act like you know what you don't.
  • Take time to thank the people who have made a positive impact in your life.
  • Humility is one of the most underrated leadership qualities. The best supervisor I've ever had was also the most humble.
  • Be humble, but don't be afraid to speak with confidence about things you're good at. You can be confident without being cocky.
  • Happiness comes from within, not from the outside world. You can't buy it, and you won't get it by comparing yourself to others. It's a choice you make.
  • One good mentor is worth a thousand advice-givers.
  • Sometimes the best way is not your way.
  • Sometimes the best way is your way, but you can't expect others to recognize it on their own. Advocate for what you believe in. (I need to be a better self-advocate.)
  • The world is changing (and becoming more connected, and moving at a faster pace). Organizations are becoming flatter. Traditional hierarchies are being replaced with networks. Social media are here to stay. Creativity is the capital needed for future success. Millennials will soon comprise the majority of the workforce. Learn to adapt to this new reality or be left behind in the dust as you wax nostalgic.
  • The best learning comes from reflecting. If you don't take the time to reflect often, you aren't growing. Learn how to sit quietly with only your thoughts. It's becoming harder to do (and somewhat less valued) with the new reality described above, but the ability to do so is a uniquely human capacity, so don't waste it.
  • Know your values, and act upon them. Make your decisions by them. Live your life according to them. It not only makes you a better human being, it also feels great.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why You Should Care What People Think

In the era of Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and personal websites, we all have the ability to exercise social influence. Even through more traditional forms of publishing (books, articles, papers, etc.), the words we put out there for the world to read can carry great weight and significant consequences -- for better or for worse -- no matter how big or small your world may be.

For me, blogging has been a valuable experience, because even though my audience is small, it has taught me to carefully choose each sentence I compose. I will sometimes spend 10 minutes finding just the right word or phrase to express what I'm thinking, and another 10 re-reading it just to make sure. I care how my messages are heard because they reflect on me both personally and professionally. I believe I have a responsibility to use my social media outlets in a manner which 1) has a positive influence on others, and 2) is consistent with my values.

There are people whose blogs I subscribe to, tweets I follow, and articles and books I read who have had a substantial impact on me. Some of these people I've met once, some never at all. Many of them don't even know I exist. But they influence the way I think. They have helped me become a stronger professional. They have inspired me to want to be a better person. They have forced me to re-examine some of my own beliefs and assumptions, and I am better for it.

If you are using social media -- any form of it -- you are having an influence on others whether you intend to or not. And whether you have two friends/followers/connections or two million, you should care what others think. That doesn't mean you should care what everyone thinks, but as soon as you share, tweet, publish, or post, you become a virtual role model. With each thought or opinion you put out there, you are crafting your legacy, constructing the impact you make in the world.

Care about that.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Default

The organ donor rate in Europe is considerably higher than the rate in the U.S. In theory, this means more organ transplants are being performed and lives are being saved. Are Europeans just more altruistic than Americans?

Not necessarily. Throughout much of Europe, becoming an organ donor is an "opt-out" system. The default option is to be a donor -- you have to actively choose not to be one. In the U.S., it's an "opt-in" system. Unless you specify that you want to be a donor, the default is to not be one. The difference in donor rates is not indicative of a difference in people's motives. Rather, it is due to a default that is invisible to the average person. It's a minor distinction that has major consequences, especially if you're the one in need of a transplant.

At the last institution where I worked, the I.T. department recently made an organization-wide change to the printer settings. Previously, the default setting was to print one-sided. They changed it to two-sided printing. This small adjustment didn't make anyone more environmentally conscious per se, but it's saving a ton of paper. Minor distinction, major consequence.

In human affairs, defaults are the settings in our minds that operate outside of our awareness but drive everything we do. Our philosophies, paradigms, world views, beliefs, values, assumptions, and discriminations are all defaults that have tuned over time through experience and repeated patterns of behavior. These things influence how we see the world and interact with the people in it. Most of the problems and conflicts we face stem from differences in our defaults. Too often, we look outside of ourselves to place blame or assign fault to others. Sometimes, we believe the solution is for others to change. (I am/we are not the problem, he is, she is, they are.) Instead, we should spend more time reflecting on our own default settings, challenging them and changing them when necessary.

The power to make the world a better place, to achieve peace and justice and equality and harmony, does not come from governments or nations or institutions. It lies within the space between our ears.