Eagle Talk

Leadership Lessons in Higher Education

Dear Friends,

This issue of Eagle Talk features Pete Risse, a superb individual and inspiring leader whom I have known and worked with since moving to Boise. I believe his experience and leadership wisdom is meaningful and valuable to all of us across the full spectrum of our individual roles and careers. He is having a significant impact within Boise State University, helping to expand BSU’s educational programs throughout Idaho. 

— Bob

Pete Risse
Pete Risse

Pete Risse is Associate Dean, for Boise State University’s Division of Extended Studies. He has been in his role since 2010 and provides leadership and oversight of rapidly evolving Adult and Organizational Outreach programs. Pete has a strong background in training and development, and educational consulting. He has provided consultation and strategic planning and support for Oil and Gas, fisheries, healthcare, retail, manufacturing, government and non-profit sector clients. 

Leading an effective team through times of transition can be a humbling experience. Changes in senior leadership, direction of the organization, adaptation to new modes of delivering goods and services, regulations, funding processes, and team mission all create the potential for a derailment caused by any one of these items. When ALL of these items occur simultaneously, as happens in my industry (higher education), it creates a unique environment upon which to base our leadership philosophy.

We can choose to fall into the trap of allowing a negative mindset to germinate, or we can engage ourselves in a positive dialogue about “what if?” Being mindful of positive “what if” or “how might we” scenarios creates opportunities to engage our teams with stories and visions of success regardless of the situation.  What if we determined that this level of change creates opportunity instead of risk? What if we empowered our teams to flex and adapt with change rather than fight against it? How might we operate from that perspective rather than one of constant threat?

Following is a list of experience-based actions and techniques I’ve learned over years of moving myself beyond a natural inclination focused on “trip and fall potential” to one motivated by leading highly effective teams.

1. Provide a vision worth pursuing and keep it fresh:
Individuals and teams want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Create and articulate a clearly defined vision for the team and their role within the larger organization. Review it with them regularly, testing your activity and progress. As with anything, a great vision today may not age well into tomorrow. Periodically invest time to review the currency of the vision. Update as needed!

2. Create a culture built around outcomes rather than process:
Processes are an essential component of any operation. Build processes designed to flex and change along with conditions in the marketplace. To do otherwise invites long-term degradation of effectiveness and competitive edge due to calcification of the very actions designed to keep us on track. Too often we fall in love with the processes we’ve developed, losing sight of why they were originally created.

Regularly gather feedback from your team and constituents, continuously assessing the effectiveness of processes and opportunities to update them. Invite those from outside the team to help evaluate and give feedback—especially those individuals who might have expressed frustration or displeasure with the current process. This feedback will be invaluable to understanding how your work impacts them and their work.

3. Hire the best people to pursue the vision and deliver outcomes:
Hiring great people starts with developing a great job description and search process. Create a well-defined Job Description based on current and projected needs (2 years out) of the position. Projecting future needs is as much art as it is science. The rate of change in nearly all sectors of the economy is creating an interesting dynamic. It is directly related to how trends in technology, social, and economic change are converging to create uncertainty that compels us to be agile like never before. Hire based on alignment with values and mission, experience, and potential – a key ingredient to the agility of a team. Changes in technology are creating special challenges related to the anticipated “expiration date” of particular skills. Finding and hiring members of a team who understand the value and need to regularly upgrade skills, have a positive, mission focused attitude, and flexible approach to problem solving is essential.

4. Inspire and empower your team to do the right thing:
Give your team the leader that individuals and teams can willingly follow. Share your passion for your work through story.  Be vulnerable, including those stories of failure and perseverance. Link them to the vision and goals of the team and organization by helping them to understand their own contributions to the success of all.

Empowerment begins with training your team and good training starts with a consistent Orientation process. Starting on day one, orienting and enculturating new team members is essential to introducing them to the organization and existing team, ensuring they understand the vision, mission, and goals of the organization. Failure here results in the loss of a golden opportunity to increase the speed at which a new team member is able to perform to the best of their ability. In addition to the orientation is position specific Training that is consistent and focused on quality outcomes (i.e. encourages retention, enables new employees to perform their job at a high level quickly, and includes appropriate demonstration of skill and supervisor approval prior to moving on to new tasks).

Consider building in a Peer Mentorship (first 90 days) plan within your team and include training for the mentor(s). This gives a new employee a safe harbor when learning new systems and processes. New team members will learn quickly what is and isn’t within their purview and allows them to ask why. Considering these why questions gives us an opportunity to evaluate our processes through fresh eyes. Providing training that includes clearly defined expectations for the mentors, leaves nothing to chance.  

5. Engage with your clients and constituents to assess their needs and deliver the outcomes they desire:
We’re the experts, right? Not always in the ways that matter to our clients and constituents. Take the time to authentically engage and listen to their needs and goals. Take decisive action to address what is shared. Can we align our own goals with those of our clients and constituents? How might we share risks and rewards to bring about meaningful outcomes?

6. Regularly set clear goals to keep your team focused on success:
Use what we learn through our engagement with our teams, clients, and constituents, set goals and keep everyone focused on successful outcomes. Too often, we set goals and forget them until they are due. A great mentor of mine once said, “goals are lost one day at a time.”

7. Celebrate the accomplishments AND “noble failures:”
Creativity and innovation in an organization do not just happen. They happen because we give our teams the opportunity to try and fail. Teams who lack confidence that they CAN fail, WILL fail to do anything new. Remember the “trip and fall” analogy? This is where it can haunt an organization with a real or perceived aversion to failure.  Over time, the result is the loss of competitive edge and morale amongst the team you’ve built from the very best individuals.  Celebrate individual and team successes, but also celebrate attempts that result in failure. Some of our greatest successes have come about because of their acknowledgement and assessment for learning potential.

8. Invest in the growth of individuals and teams:
When you hire the best talent, you must provide opportunities for continued growth in skills and abilities. Develop a plan and set aside resources to provide Professional Development opportunities for individuals and teams. To the extent you can, hold these resources sacred so that they are not absorbed into other needs or eliminated in times of financial stress.

Articulate an expectation for how these resources are to be used. Encourage their use for developing individual career pathways, and to meet the goals of the organization. Invest in time with individuals and the team to regularly reassess their development needs and establish defined outcomes with them. Whenever possible, build in the opportunity to apply new skills in a safe and organizationally relevant manner. The conference attended with no outlet for applying or sharing a new skill within the organization was time and money wasted.

9. Retain talent, release the rest:
We hire the best and we want to retain them. Unfortunately, not every high-impact employee is destined to stay on a team for the long haul. So often, we view retention in terms of whether or not a quality team member stays on. How might we view retention differently to the benefit of our staff and their professional goals? How might we spread our positive leadership impact beyond the borders of our departments or organization and build our “coaching tree?” We must view retention beyond ourselves.

Retention of a high-impact employee in a different department within the organization, or within the industry, or within the community, and so on, gives our staff room to grow, expanding our own influence through the good work they go on to do. In my business, even sending a high-performance individual off to another institution helps me achieve my goals of improving access to higher education. They may not have a direct benefit to my institution, but I know they are going to inoculate their new team with the same values, drive, and focus that they learned with me. That’s a win for everyone.

Not every hire is a good fit within an organization. The key to addressing a bad fit is to identify the situation early and take steps to correct the issue. Whether it is a training problem or simply a bad hire, be decisive in taking action to repair the condition. Holding on to an unwinnable situation is bad for the employee, bad for a leader, and a disaster for a highly effective team. Lean in to the problem and work with the individual to find a better fit for them as soon as possible. At times, we don’t have the luxury to take this time without a lasting negative impact. In those cases, take respectful action to end the relationship. 

10. Grow your replacement:
Whether we like to think about it or not, our time occupying a leadership position with our teams will come to an end. We may chose to leave due to a new growth opportunity for ourselves, we may retire, and in some cases, we may need to leave due to a change outside of our purview. Knowing this, our task is to ensure the sustainability of our team by developing and growing the next person up to replace us. Some call this succession planning, I call it being responsible. Growing your replacement might mean mentoring and developing an individual, but we would be wise to provide these opportunities to a group of individuals so that each member of our team has the knowledge, skills, and abilities to replace us. We may want to choose our successor, but history demonstrates pretty clearly that we rarely do so. Better to prepare several people for the opportunity. If nothing else, they will be ready to assist the new leader in continuing to move the team and organization forward.

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