If you were able to participate in all, or part, of the 2021 NBOA Annual Meeting, you may recall dancing up a storm with Cynt Marshall, CEO of the Dallas Mavericks and our closing general session speaker. Marshall shared her passion, energy and heart as she described her leadership journey. And she shared a leadership lesson that truly resonated with the virtual audience. “You have to invest personally, including one-on-one with people. Find out what is in their heads. Find out what they want to do — what are their career aspirations? You get the best out of people when you invest the time in them.”
Therefore, I read with great interest “Are You Really Listening?,” by Adam Bryand and Kevin Sharer in the Harvard Business Review (March-April 2021). Sharer is the former CEO and chairman of Amgen, a major pharmaceutical company. In the article, Sharer shared the peril of not being present as an organizational leader. He cited an instance where he was “thinking of eight things at once” when he was meeting with his direct report. How many leaders and managers can relate to that moment? Frequently in meetings, I am distracted thinking about the information I need to share, and too often this limits my ability to take in the information that someone is sharing with me. Other times I am thinking of the remainder of my to-do list and upcoming meetings — I’m sure business officers can relate — rather than absorbing information about the person, issue or organization at hand. In short, too often as leaders, we are simply not as present as we need or wish to be.
The authors contend that repeatedly not listening is a compounding behavior that can trap individuals in a leadership “bubble.” They start “believing they know everything they need to know about what’s happening in their organization.” Perhaps most compelling for me was the notion that while today’s leaders have multiple channels to receive information, the authors contend, “Warning signals are tamped down. Key facts are omitted. Data sets are given a positive spin.” Is it possible that this occurs at your school with the head, board chair or even you? It’s something to think about, and most importantly, something that can be addressed.
We can all agree that in the complex world our schools are operating within, it is critical to open the funnel as wide as possible to allow for the best ideas from individuals throughout the organization, regardless of hierarchical structure.
The authors assert, and I agree, that organizational listening is more than paying attention to the person sitting across from you. It is about creating “systems and processes that not only make listening active, but also elevate it on all fronts to a state of hypervigilance.” We can all agree that in the complex world our schools are operating within, it is critical to open the funnel as wide as possible to allow for the best ideas from individuals throughout the organization, regardless of hierarchical structure.
From the authors, here are several useful steps to puncture the potential of a leadership bubble at your school.
Protect against blind spots: You may be a leader in a culture where others do not feel free to challenge you. This creates a blind spot that should be avoided. One of the interviewed CEOs told her board of directors, “You have a responsibility to help me actively work the blind spot.” I really like this strategy and plan to use it myself. Could you go to your board of trustees or finance committee chair and ask them to do this? They could be a key asset in helping you work your blind spot by sharing what you need to hear but may not know. From where I sit, this level of transparency and partnership could really produce remarkable results
Give permission to share bad news: In another example, a CEO requested that his team follow a simple rule, “If you have bad news, text me; if you have good news, share it with me in person.” The point is this CEO explicitly opened a channel to receive bad news from members of his team. The thought is, the consequences of bad news can be better mitigated if they are communicated quickly, buying you precious time to respond. From my perspective, acknowledging you expect to get bad news from time to time, and it will be addressed together, is powerful. Do you think this approach would better equip your business office colleagues to be the bearers of bad news, when necessary?
By sharing progress, we not only acknowledge what we have accomplished, but create an opportunity to discuss, as a team, where we would like to go, and determine an effective strategy for getting there.
Encourage problem-solving by acknowledging progress: After more than 10 years in my current role, I often find myself sharing where the association has been, where we are and where we are going. I sometimes fear that individuals perceive that as looking backwards. The authors provide this excellent framework: Ask team members what accomplishment they are most proud of now, and then ask them what they would be most proud of five years down the road. By sharing progress, we not only acknowledge what we have accomplished, but create an opportunity to discuss, as a team, where we would like to go, and determine an effective strategy for getting there.
In a world where leaders are called upon to communicate frequently and take in information via in-person conversations, zoom meetings, email, text and more on an hourly basis, it’s helpful for me, and I hope for you too, to understand how powerful listening can be for you and your school.
Give an ear to this advice!