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Doing What You're Told Only Makes You Average

Posted on25 September 2012 | 1 comments

You know the saying, “It’s better to be safe than sorry?” You know what’s better than being safe? Being extraordinary. People often make the mistake of thinking that doing all the tasks in their job description makes them excellent, even exceptional. But the job description is the starting point, not the destination. Great leaders (and top performers) are relentless in assessing current conditions and taking decisive, future-focused action. They don’t wait for someone else to tell them what to do; they make things happen.

Initiative is doing the right thing without being told. ~Victor Hugo (French writer)

Taking initiative can greatly improve potential for advancement, recognition and professional growth, yet many people sit back and wait for instructions. Here are a few thoughts on encouraging staff initiative:

1. Identify obstacles. Ask staff the question, “What is getting in the way of you taking initiative?” If time is an issue, help prioritize, remove or reassign tasks. For money concerns, assign a budget or identify alternative funding sources. If competency is a concern, identify training options. If experience is an issue, pair up with a coach or mentor for guidance in transforming ideas into reality.

2. Identify personal goals, strengths and interests. Most leaders understand employee strengths but have a lesser understanding of where people want to be–not necessarily what promotion or job title they want next, but what they hope to accomplish as a legacy in their career. Staff initiative, hard work and extra effort come easier when objectives align with personal motivation.

3. Celebrate small wins. Improving work processes, products, services, and systems that are a vital part of how the organization does its business often get ignored because they lack the attention and glory of big changes. But such initiatives are a great way to get noticed, build confidence and establish a skill set for bigger projects.

4. Remove the fear factor. Encourage (if not require) staff to try new things and cultivate an environment where staff can learn from both failures and successes. Provide a safety net to reinforce courageous actions and help people troubleshoot inevitable difficulties, setbacks and resistance. Adopt the Tom Peters mantra, “Reward brilliant failures and punish mediocre successes.”

5. Focus on culture. Peers and colleagues can either encourage or discourage staff from stepping up. Set the tone and promote a positive culture by visibly rewarding and praising individuals who regularly take action. Share examples that demonstrate initiatives that go beyond “BEST” practice and instead create “NEXT” practice.

6. Remove excuses. Bosses can and do choke off new initiatives and can seem unwilling to support new ideas. You must demonstrate support for initiative and encourage staff to fully prepare to present new ideas. As a leader, you need to clearly communicate what you expect, including

    • Research and data to support the idea.
    • Identifiable outcomes, benefits, risks and challenges.
    • Perspectives from a range of colleagues and constituencies.
    • Potential allies and partners who will support and assist in the implementation of an idea.
    • A realistic estimate of time, money and staffing requirements.

7. Be a courageous role model. Honestly evaluate your own track record in taking

initiative. Are your past attempts safe and incremental or are they balanced with a range of risk and reward? If you want to model initiative effectively, research opportunities—don’t over analyze—be courageous—move swiftly—and deliver results. Assess,

learn and refine as necessary. People will look to follow your lead, not just your words. They will do as you do, not just as you say.

To be successful, organizations (and leaders) need staff at all levels to think for themselves and take action without waiting for instructions. Irrelevance, isolation, and stagnation are real consequences that can result from lack of initiative. Leaders must help staff explore new ways to develop and execute transformative ideas so both individuals and the organization continue to grow.

Question: How is initiative rewarded in your organization?

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Build your connections before you need your connections

Posted on22 August 2012 | 4 comments

netwokingMost professionals agree that the quality and breadth of one’s connections are critical to organizational and personal success. Positive relationships support problem solving, crisis management, collaborations, new initiatives and even enhance career opportunities. Despite this understanding, colleges don’t emphasize teaching networking strategies for students. Moreover, though we may agree that networking is important, many of us don’t intentionally create an action plan to develop our own network. As leaders, we need to make Read more

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Take the Two Item Productivity Challenge

Posted on30 July 2012 | 2 comments

I’m a productive person and am constantly looking for ways to squeeze more out of my days. I tried a number of different applications for task and time management before finally settling on Nozbe. I also have two calendars: one for my appointments and one for my reminders. I use Evernote to keep track of documents and websites for various projects and Dropbox

to make sure I have documents and photos at my fingertips. Yet, it was a 3 x 5 index card that revealed challenges to my self-image as a highly productive person. Read more

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Innovation Enforcers versus Innovation Appreciators

Posted on15 June 2012 | 0 comments


Note: This is the first in a series of reflections on the Big Ideas Conference that took place on May 18-19, 2012 at Rutgers University, which was sponsored by The Jersey Alliance, Student Life at Rutgers, and NIRSA. This conference sold out 240 tickets that cost up to $189 each and was a conference the likes of which had not been seen in the history of student affairs (This is NOT hyperbole!). This article focuses on the context in which this innovative event was produced.

Given how innovative it was, The Big Ideas Conference certainly gave me the opportunity to reflect on innovation. However, I ended up not only reflecting on innovation but on the contexts within which Innovators attempt to innovate. I came away realizing that there are at least two “positive” contexts in which Innovators can attempt their work: Read more

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Futures Forecasting: Not About the Weather

Posted on7 May 2012 | 0 comments


You can and should shape your own future; because if you don’t, someone else surely will. ~Joel Barker, futurist

We unthinkingly create our own future every moment of every day. Each action we take, each decision we make, we are shaping and creating Read more

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Silos, Fortresses and Lunch With Strangers

Posted on25 April 2012 | 3 comments

silosIs your organization a series of fortresses where departments battle each other for resources, attention, and influence? Too often in large organizations, staff may rarely connect with others outside their department unless forced to do so through meetings, processes get implemented without an understanding of broader implications and consequences, and information passes only through select channels. The result is not an effective organization committed to global goals, but a series of petty fiefdoms whose individual focus often distorts the larger mission. If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is time to tear down those walls and take steps to achieve organizational excellence.

Silos aren’t created by organizations; they’re created by people. More often than not, leaders create and perpetuate barriers through inappropriate behavior and action. To eliminate silos, leaders must facilitate conversations and require collaboration across functional areas. Here are a few practical tips:


Like most of us, you probably eat lunch with the same circle of friends and colleagues, or worse, you eat alone at your desk. My advice? Stop it. Having lunch with the same people (or by yourself) every day is a HUGE missed opportunity. Instead, ask people to lunch from different functional areas to find common ground, soothe a strained relationship, educate yourself about their area, solve problems, or collaborate on a new initiative. Articulate your reasons for meeting with the invitation, but Do NOT make it only about your needs. Seek first to understand their world and help them, without expecting anything in return. Strike a balance between chitchat and a working lunch. Your main focus may be about work, but enjoy getting to know your colleague as well – that is what builds relationships.


Invite people from other departments to your regular meetings. This simple gesture can be tremendously powerful and productive. People love to share information about their work and the cool things happening in their area. In return, guests leave with a better understanding of your team’s structure, goals, and accomplishments. Provide time for questions on both sides to raise issues and initiatives that could be developed collaboratively. Ask your staff to identify people they’d like to meet. Start now with an invitation to your NEXT meeting and make “guests” a regular occurrence.


Challenge your staff to be the most networked group within the organization and reinforce your expectation through conversations, evaluations, and success stories. Measure networking through monthly reports or one-on-one meetings by asking staff to identify the people they have met and their conversation. We are all more likely to go out of our way to help people that we know, like, and respect. Map out staff connections at your next team meeting to see how far your combined network extends. Develop a plan to meet new individuals who have potential to create future partnerships.


Stop bad mouthing individuals and departments. Don’t be quick to judge decisions or make assumptions about motives without trying to understand constraints, rationale, history, and purpose. If you’re unsure about something happening outside your area, ask! And don’t bash the efforts and accomplishments of others–a consistently negative attitude will make collaboration impossible and drive good people away. Instead, look for opportunities to publically praise. If you are a positive force, people will look to collaborate with you, and you’ll gain a reputation as a bridge builder.


Assemble staff from all levels and functional departments to meet regularly and eliminate systems, processes, and obstacles that are preventing the larger organization from achieving excellence. Participants should not be appointees–have people apply and describe their motivation and their potential contribution toward unification. Front line staff and senior level staff must be equally represented to form a balance between executive vision and “on the ground” reality. The team must also have the ability to ask tough questions and the authority to affect change without hindrance or resistance from those seeking to protect the status-quo of their respective silos. Admittedly, this practical tip will require much more effort and buy-in at different levels of the organization for implementation, but we should not shy away from ‘big picture’ efforts to make critical connections. Making change is about both small steps and big leaps.

“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one” ~Mr. Spock


Everyone knows that “knowledge is power.” In silos, knowledge is guarded to prevent other silos from gaining power. Social media can be a leveling tool that allows organizations to subvert silo communication through knowledge sharing, relationship building, and collaborative efforts across cross-functional teams. Having conversations and sharing data through virtual networks, blog posts, chat rooms, wikis, and Google-shared documents allow users to control (and hopefully increase) dialogue and cooperation.


When you communicate broadly, everyone can identify unifying messages. Share your successes at bridge building at larger organizational staff meetings, conferences, or social gatherings so that people across the organization can celebrate accomplishments, learn about current challenges, and understand vision and values. You may not have the power to set policy and vision for your organization, but your efforts can identify and reinforce the importance of all members of the larger organizational community. Perhaps even host an informal gathering across units to provide the opportunity to catch up with colleagues from different areas and develop new relationships.

Question: Can you identify silos in your organization and what actions have you taken to break them down?


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When Goals Become Limits

Posted on15 April 2012 | 0 comments

I am a goal setter. I set goals at the start of each year, each semester, even every weekend. What do I hope to accomplish? How much? How high? How far? I set goals in my work life, in my personal life, in my musical life, and in my running life. Goals help me stretch; goals help me go beyond where I have gone before. I want to run 250 miles in a month; I want to have a 50% response rate to an interest inventory; I want to reduce my email inbox to zero by Friday. Goals help me focus; goals help me envision success.

In a previous entry, I wrote about internal obstacles [link here]. Now, I’d like to focus on a particularly insidious internal obstacle–goals! It is insidious because Read more

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6 Ways to Encourage Risk Taking and Disruptive Innovation

Posted on9 April 2012 | 3 comments

riskPhoto courtesy of Ken Douglass

Successful leaders are forever under pressure to produce consistent results and maintain high standards. The inclination over time is to protect status by making conservative decisions and taking fewer risks, but this kind of behavior leads to stagnation. The most innovative organizations thrive on leadership and a culture that encourages Read more

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Managing Your All-Stars

Posted on2 April 2012 | 3 comments

An important task of anyone in middle management is to identify and recruit high quality talent. Entry level staff tend to show up to professional meetings intending to impress, get noticed, and be on the lookout for that next opportunity. The purpose of networking for new professionals is primarily for the individual (which early in one’s career is not a bad thing!). But at some point we realize the value in noticing and identifying people who we would like to work alongside, and our emphasis turns toward Read more

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The Antidote to Ambiguity: Values-Based Leadership

Posted on15 March 2012 | 4 comments

Isolated Hand Hollding Large PillWhat is your mission statement? How many people in your organization have read it? Understand it? Remember it? BELIEVE IT? And, how many of those who remain after answering those questions have actually adopted it?

Management books universally extol the importance of a mission statement. I have both suffered through mission development exercises as a staff member and been hired to facilitate these sessions. The process goes something like this: a group of senior administrators lock themselves in a room for an extended period of time; they debate, compromise, and craft lofty prose until they finally unveil (white smoke from chimney) their UNIFYING DOCUMENT. Shortly thereafter, they proudly display their statements on websites, placards, and business cards, then sit back and wait for the wisdom to trickle down to the masses. Much to their surprise, little change occurs.

The problem? Most mission statements are too long, too generic, too complex, and

so focused on the organization (not the consumer) that they have little meaning to the people in a position to execute them. Instead, leaders who set aside the mission statement and enact a VALUES-DRIVEN approach are likely Read more

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