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Leading Unanticipated Change

Jacob’s story was largely framed by challenging familial relationships. The struggle with his twin brother and chief nemesis Esau began in utero, where each sibling already expressed their unique identities. (See Genesis 25:22-23) Still, even with early indicators of separation and discord, it would take many years for the struggle to fully manifest. And when it did, Jacob, a man known for his simplicity and truthfulness, would be forced to move far out of his comfort zone in order to achieve his lofty aims.

Chapter 27 of Genesis describes the incident. An aging, near-blind Isaac was preparing to bestow the primary blessing, that of the firstborn, on Esau. Rebecca, recognizing the danger of empowering her erstwhile eldest son, instructed Jacob to don goat skins and approach his father as if he were the hairy Esau. The deception worked; Jacob successfully emerged with the desired blessings.

In truth, Jacob should never have had to resort to a ruse. Years earlier, Esau had sold the birthright and its related blessings to his younger sibling for near nothing. He sealed the deal with a vow and had even scorned the birthright, as if it were a burden. However, Esau had come to regret his impulsive sale and was deeply grieved by Jacob’s ability to deceive him not once but twice. He promised mortal revenge. Fearing for his life, Jacob again heeded his mother’s directive and fled.

Jacob found asylum in the house of his uncle Laban. But Laban was no ordinary loving kinsman; the Torah presents him as one of the biggest swindlers in history, even towards family. Following seven years of labor for the rights to marry Rachel, Laban used a ploy to extract an additional seven years of service from his new son-in-law.

Imagine what was running through Jacob’s mind at this moment. He had fled for his life over a birthright that he had justly acquired and a blessing that God, his mother and, at the end, even is father absolutely wanted him to have. He arrived at his uncle’s home only to be duped in a nuptial arrangement that was not only deceitful, but had cost him seven additional years of intense toil at the prime of his life.

But Jacob persevered without complaint and completed his entire work commitment faithfully. By the end of his stay at Laban’s home, this man of integrity had come out ahead. He was the patriarch of a large, distinguished family and possessor of great material bounty. Jacob managed to remain true to his principles while meeting Laban on his own terms.

Jacob’s metamorphosis through this entire ordeal, from the time that he fled his parents’ home until his return to Canaan decades later, is noteworthy on many levels. He began as an “innocent man”, straight and pure, focused exclusively on study and spiritual pursuits. But God had other plans, and required him to deal directly with some of history’s greatest villains.

Throughout his entire life, Jacob retained his core values. He remained a man of truth, steadfast in his desire to fulfill God’s will. Still, he understood that he would have to adjust his approach and think as his nemeses did if he was to survive and even thrive in the face of adversity and mortal danger.

Change is never easy, certainly not for someone with an established persona and modus operandi. Jacob’s character was clearly defined and he was living his life along a clear, peaceful trajectory when circumstances charted him along a new path. Rather than to resist the change Jacob embraced it. He used it to better himself and prepare his family for a long road ahead.

As with Jacob, change and adaptability are crucial skills that we all must develop in today’s fast-paced societal landscape. Parents, teachers, communal and business leaders are all forced to reconsider their roles, relationships and behaviors in the face of new trends, technologies and expectations. How can we know which changes to embrace and how best to implement them? The following suggestions may help.

Some of these behaviors include:

  1. Be Open to New Ideas – One cannot explore new ideas and learn how to apply them without first being receptive to them. Being receptive, however, is not enough. We must also be mindful, constantly exposing our minds to different perspectives, which can allow us to see more ways new ideas can work.
  2. But Stay True to Your Values – The dizzying prospect of new opportunity can often challenge us at our moral and ethical core. What are we willing to do in order to remain competitive and get ahead? Defining and articulating our values is a crucial step in helping determine the extent to which we are willing to engage others and the marketplace.
  3. Keep it Simple at First – Generate short term wins by setting goals that can be easily achieved and made widely visible. Recognize and reward employees who were involved in the successes.
  4. Manage Risk – All actions involve risk and uncertainty, including the “action” of staying in the same place. A healthy risk tolerance means taking all possible steps to mitigate or eliminate risks, and then making a well-calculated advance in a new direction where appropriate.
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate – Leaders should make sure that as many people as possible understand and accept the vision and the strategy. Keep the vision simple, visible, and easily repeatable within and without the organization. 

Perhaps more so than ever before, we have great opportunities to take advantage of new, far-reaching opportunities. However, such opportunities come with the need to manage change and risk while remaining true to your beliefs and values. Leaders who can successfully maintain that balance are poised to sit at the forefront of their respective fields and provide their teams with the vision and motivation for future growth and success.

Become a great listener - SmartBlogs on Leadership 11.7.2014

At the beginning of my principal tenure, I was heavily criticized for rushing into decisions without getting sufficient input and feedback. I had been under the clear impression that certain changes needed to be made quickly in order to gain the trust of the board that had hired me. I had also heard from many teachers and parents who were eager to see improvements in various areas of school function.

However, in my haste to be a change agent, I acted too quickly too often and soon developed a reputation for being a unilateral decision maker. It was a moniker that I would continue to deal with, even as I took great pains to become more open and collaborative.

To succeed in today’s business world, leaders must be proactive, skilled listeners. Leaders who make themselves accessible for conversation and listen regularly are well-informed of the goings on in their workplaces. They better understand others’ opinions and attitudes and are able to take this information into consideration when making decisions.

There are other benefits to listening well. One is building trust. Effective listening conveys a sense that the leader cares about her people, their thoughts, opinions and concerns. A leader also builds stronger commitment within others when people feel that she cares about them personally as well as in how they fit within the organization.

What can leaders do to become better listeners and gain the feedback, confidence, support and buy-in that they seek?

  1. See eye to eye. One crucial element of good listening is making strong eye contact. We discussed the importance of this when we detailed how to make a positive first impression. By fixing your eyes on the speaker you will avoid becoming distracted while also showing genuine attention. Eye contact is an important element of all face-to-face communication, even if you know the speaker well.
  2. Use receptive body language. Without saying a word, we communicate much about attitudes and feelings. We need to be aware of this in any conversation that we have. If seated, lean slightly forward to communicate attention. Nod or use other gestures or words to signal attention and to encourage the speaker to continue. Visibly put away possible distractions such as your phone. This communicates that there is nothing more important to you right now than this conversation.

Always be careful to maintain an appropriate distance between you and the speaker. Being too close may communicate pushiness or lack of respect. If you remain distant, you may be seen as cold or disinterested. Body postures matter too in most cultures. The crossing of one’s arms or legs often conveys close-mindedness.

  1. Stop talking and start listening. This is the most basic listening principle and, oftentimes, the hardest to abide by. When somebody else is talking, it can be very tempting to jump in with a question or comment. This is particularly true when we seek to sound informed or insightful, or if we start to feel defensive due to the speaker’s criticisms. Be mindful that a pause, even a long one, does not necessarily mean that the speaker has finished. Let the speaker continue in their own time; sometimes it takes time to formulate what to say and how to say it. Never interrupt or finish a sentence for someone. Patient listening demonstrates that you respect others, which is the first step in building trust and rapport. Remember, if you desire to be listened to, then give others the courtesy of listening to them first.

I remember once listening to a talk on communication. The speaker, who we’ll call Mr. S., was a well-known life coach and communication expert. Mr. S. recalled his early days on the job as a program coordinator for a large educational organization that required that he meet often with principals.

Mr. S. met with two men in short succession. One gentleman was gracious and well-meaning. He allowed for a lengthy conversation but was continually interrupted by phone calls and other matters. Though they spent an hour together, the meeting felt short and unproductive. In the next school, he had to wait for a while and was given but a few minutes with the principal. The man apologized for his lateness and brevity, but made sure that during their time together Mr. S’s agenda was fully heard and responded to. It goes without saying that Mr. S. felt significantly more validated by the second man, despite the wait and their short time together.

  1. Take on their point of view. Approach each conversation from the vantage point of the speaker (his role, past perspectives, etc.) Be empathetic and seek to objectively consider their position. Don’t be dismissive, regardless of their rank. Be humble enough to listen carefully, even if you disagree with what is being said. Remember that those that confront and challenge you are ultimately the ones who help you stretch and develop most. True wisdom doesn’t see opposition, only opportunity.
  2. Summarize and clarify. When the other person has finished talking take a moment to restate and clarify what you have heard. Use language like, “so, to summarize …” End by asking whether you heard correctly, which will encourage immediate feedback. Not only will this ensure the clearest takeaway on your end, but it will help the speaker feel genuinely heard and valued. A strategically placed pause at some point in the feedback can be used to signal that you are carefully considering the message that was just shared.
  3. Leave the door open. Keep open the possibility of additional communication after this conversation has ended. You never know when new insights or concerns may emerge.
  4. Thank them for approaching you. Do not take any conversation for granted. For many employees, requesting a meeting requires that they must summon much courage and rehearse their message time and again. Moreover, you probably learned something useful and meaningful during your talk, information or ideas that may help you as the leader. Few things go as far in building good will as expressing appreciation.
  5. Create a listening culture. While all of the above strategies can help leaders make the most of listening opportunities, leaders also need to take steps to create a broader culture in which listening (and therefore communicating) is valued and desired. Cultures typically do not evolve. They are the product of conscious decisions and behaviors that, over time, become part of the fabric of communal and organizational life. Leaders who actively encourage others to speak, at meetings, by setting up one-to-one meetings, etc. will not only be more likely to really know what people are thinking but will improve morale and increase worker motivation.

Practice what you preach - SmartBlogs on Education 11.6.2014

As a teacher, you are used to giving lots of feedback. Returned tests and papers, notes home, conferences, faculty meetings and the like all provide us with ample opportunity to share our thoughts about such things as student performance, programming and other school-related matters.

However, you will certainly also be the recipient of much comment, from your supervisors, parents, students, colleagues or some other school constituents. While much of that will likely be positive and affirming, a portion of it may not be. Their words may focus in on your teaching style, specific actions or comments of yours, your attitudes or some combination thereof. Even if the remark was delivered with constructive intent, you may resent the message or even become unsettled by it. Perhaps you may seek to get back at them in some way.

This is normal. Some may call it natural or even healthy. But as someone who has received his fair share of criticism over the years, my suggestion is that you get what you can from the comments and use them to your advantage.

When we think of retribution or even simply hold onto fear or animosity, we allow ourselves to remain stuck, and we focus on events that have already occurred. The best way forward is to be future thinking, and to see how we can make today and every day the very best and most productive yet in our careers.

Almost every critique can teach us something powerful about ourselves. When an attribute or behavior is singled out, let me assure you that there’s at least some kernel of truth in what’s being said. Doing something about that issue, including finding out what’s concerning people and taking steps to improve in that area, will serve you long into the future.

It’s also important that we practice what we preach. If we wish to be heard when we share feedback to our constituents, we should be open and willing to hear what others have to say about our performance.

Remember, at the end of the day, it’s all about the children. That’s why we chose this field instead of any other. We should be prepared to do whatever we can to give the children the best possible learning experience.

The next time someone approaches you with some unwanted feedback consider doing the following:

  1. Listen well. Hear them out without interruption. Then mirror back what you heard for clarification. If there is something that you disagree with, hold it until the end. This way you validate them and open further lines of communication. It’s always best for the concern to come directly to you rather than to others.
  2. Respond carefully. Try to avoid sounding defensive. Leave your ego to the side and accept warranted concerns as well as viable advice. If you are unsure about the validity of feedback or what to do with it, ask for time to respond. Make sure to get back to the other party in a timely fashion and with a real game plan (see below). Ask for feedback about the plan.
  3. Thank them. Let them know that you appreciate the fact that they brought this matter to you and didn’t go around you. They easily could have; it would have been less risky and more comfortable. Let them know that you appreciate this growth opportunity that they have given you.
  4. Seek more feedback. Chances are that others also have opinions about the matter at hand. Seek out people whose opinion you trust and try to gauge the broader truth. Just how widespread is this concern?
  5. Do something. This may be the hardest part. No one likes to change, especially if we already have a plan in place and are well along in its execution. Seek to identify, alone or with a trusted confidant or coach, a set of actions that can help you grow as a leader. Then make sure to get back with the concerned party about what you have decided so that they feel validated and also do not add more grist to the mill.

We all want to hear that we’re doing well. Feedback is the breakfast of champions and positive comments can really put wind behind our sails. Constructive comments can also help us advance, sometimes even more than affirming ones. Regardless of the nature of the feedback that you received, be sure to make good use of it, so that you can become the very best professional possible.