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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: Read more

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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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Intrapreneurship: An Entrepreneurial Approach from Inside an Organization

Posted on12 March 2012 | 0 comments

ballandchainAn ENTREPRENEUR is someone who builds a business from scratch whereas an INTRAPRENEUR brings about change from WITHIN an organization. Unfortunately, innovation is often stifled in organizations by traditional planning cycles due to incremental change and consensus building. Setting goals, creating plans, taking action, and evaluating outcomes are the hallmarks of a conventional approach. In contrast, innovation is a nonlinear, complex, and creative process. While traditional planning is group-dominated, innovation emerges from individuals or small groups of people. It is true that aspects of traditional planning may be applied to an intrapreneurial course of action, but there are several other strategies and behaviors that make a process intrapreneurial. Here are five of them:

Read more

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Get Your Head Out of the Sand: Progressive Leaders Use Social Media

Posted on5 March 2012 | 4 comments

headinsandLost amidst stories about Farmville and Anthony Weiner’s inappropriate tweets is the tremendous potential for digital leadership. The platform, whether LinkedIn, Twitter or Pinterest, doesn’t matter. Today’s most progressive leaders are recognizing and leveraging the benefits of social media. For those who dismiss digital initiatives as a distraction, it’s time to stop making excuses, learn enough to make informed decisions, and focus on the future.

Social media serves to humanize leaders and reveal authenticity in a way that a biography on an organizational website cannot. Leaders who share values, thoughts, and their personality with their followers can imbue trust and respect over time. The reach and efficiency of communication that social media affords was unthinkable just a few years ago. So why haven’t more leaders taken advantage? Here are a few Read more

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Our Most Significant Obstacles

Posted on26 February 2012 | 1 comments

In 1931, Jules Ladoumegue set the world record in the mile by running 4:09.

In 1945 (14 years later) Gunder Hagg ran the mile in 4:01 (8 seconds faster). It took another 9 years to carve 2 more seconds from the record. Why was that, especially considering advances in conditioning, training, and equipment?

It was because experts declared that 4 minutes for the mile represented the limits of human endurance–man could not run a mile faster than 4 minutes. People believed it, coaches believed it, and elite runners believed it; so no one Read more

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Great Leaders Deliver High Impact Presentations

Posted on21 February 2012 | 6 comments

femalespeakeratpodiumPeople underestimate the power of a good presentation. I’ve delivered public speaking and electronic presentation training to corporate executives, college students, and colleagues for two decades. People have told me they’ve gained business accounts, aced classes, nailed conference presentations, received awards, and landed jobs using presentations that benefitted from the simple, yet powerful, lessons of my training. Presentations matter, and great presentations help distinguish you and serve as

Read more

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What is your Super Power?

Posted on16 February 2012 | 7 comments

superwomanWhat can you do better than anyone else–in your department, in your organization or in the country? I ask that question in corporate trainings, presentations, and job interviews. The answers I receive are wide-ranging, but topping the list of frequency are, “I’m great with people,” I’m

an advocate for others,” or my all-time favorite, “I’m really, really nice!”


Those answers are not distinguishing attributes or skills; everyone thinks they have those traits. More than likely, you may not be significantly better than anyone else, and as an employer and leader, I’m looking for Read more

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Stop Making Excuses: Resources Are Everywhere

Posted on13 February 2012 | 0 comments

trappedbox“We don’t have any money,” your boss tells you when you share an idea with her. Or maybe you don’t even share the idea because you have already heard that line in your head as soon as you had the idea. Don’t worry; you won’t have to worry about hearing that line in your head in the future, because pretty soon you won’t be having such ideas. In that way, we’re just like fleas.

Fleas can jump 200 times their body length, but training them not to jump out of jars is easy. Put them in a jar, put on the lid, and within 24 hours you can remove the lid and none will jump out. It’s simple–they hit the lid a few times and learn to jump just short of the top. Once the lid is removed they don’t change their behavior. We act pretty much the same way in an environment of perpetually constrained resources. We not only learn to stop asking for resources–we stop having ideas that Read more

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No Clothes Leadership and 7 Ways to Avoid It

Posted on6 February 2012 | 2 comments

noclothes2Every leader needs to surround him/herself with people who will give honest feedback. When a leader heads down a questionable path, when his idea is unrealistic, or when she’s deaf to the pulse of what’s happening, someone needs to fearlessly point out that “the emperor has no clothes.” Sadly, this kind of intervention rarely occurs, and leaders are largely to blame.

As critical as assessment is to developing leadership competency, those in positions of power don’t ask for much of it. Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the Leadership Challenge, analyzed data from more than 70,000 individuals who completed a thirty-item behavioral inventory and found Read more

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5 Ways To Diversify Your Development And Be A Rockstar In Your Field

Posted on1 February 2012 | 9 comments

Most higher education professionals haven’t had very diverse experiences. They move steadily from an undergraduate degree to Master’s and PhD and settle into a career without ever leaving the sanctity and homogeneity of an institutional setting. As professionals, they travel to conferences, attend educational workshops, and read journals and books, all focused SPECIFICALLY in their discipline. Advancement and praise are afforded to those who further divide the proverbial pie of theories and research relative to their expertise into smaller bits of unexplored terrain. If one takes a “big picture” view, this fairly standard and narrowly focused approach is limiting and can serve as an endless loop of inbreeding that ultimately leads to complacency and ineffectiveness. Consider Steve Jobs’ perspective: “When people don’t have enough experiences, enough dots to connect, they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.”

Here are 5 suggestions designed to give you and your team

a broad range of new perspectives by Read more

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Telling Our Story: Marketing and Student Affairs

Posted on29 January 2012 | 1 comments

megaphoneboy2Last fall, I was walking to lunch with my boss and we were discussing the “Improving Retention and Graduation Rates” report that had just been distributed by the Student Success Committee from our Office of Enrollment Management. He was bemoaning the fact that in this more than 60 page

document there

was virtually no mention of student affairs having a role in retention at Rutgers University. He was frustrated that this committee of 30 members and contributors did not think to add student affairs either as a past contributor or as a potential contributor to improving retention and graduation rates at the university.

I took a deep breath and said, “Actually, it’s our fault.” He asked what I meant. I shared my perspective that Read more

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Because That’s The Way We Do Things Around Here

Posted on24 January 2012 | 7 comments

monkeyHave you ever looked at a situation and asked why something was done a certain way and been met with the stern reply, “Because that’s the way we do things around here” or some variation? Most of us have, and there’s research that sheds some light on the issue.

Harry Harlow was an American psychologist best

known for his controversial social experiments on Rhesus monkeys. In one of his experiments, he placed five monkeys into a cage and hung a banana at the top of the cage, high out of reach. He then placed a stepladder in the cage so that the monkeys could climb up and grab the banana. When the first monkey climbed to the top to reach for the banana, ALL five monkeys were sprayed with freezing cold water. Read more

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