Five Thoughts for the Day

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

1. The best leaders are “reluctant leaders.”  Steer clear of those who never want to lead and those who always want to lead.  Look for those who don’t seek leadership roles, but who naturally emerge as leaders when the situation requires it.  They tend to have that rare combination of competence and humility.

2. Life really is a zero sum game.  Beware of those who tell you otherwise.  They’re just trying to get into your head.  Not everyone gets the job, or the raise, or the promotion.  Not everyone gets a fair shake or a decent chance.  That’s life.  But maybe you can offer someone a fair shake, or a decent chance, or some measure of hope.  And maybe you should.

3. Never emphasize teamwork for the sake of teamwork.  You need a better reason than that.  If you can’t explain in 10 seconds why you need a team to do something, then you probably don’t need a team to do it.  In that case, you’re better off without a team.

4. The greatest barrier to effective communication is that no one is actually listening to you.  That’s why your first sentence needs to get people’s attention.  Remember the professor who always started the term by saying, “look at the person to your left and to your right because one of you isn’t going to be around at the end of the term”?  Make your first sentence an attention-grabber.

5. Never assign an optimist to advise you about risk factors.  Always look for the person who can tell you “why the plan is going to fail.”  It’s not a character flaw.  It’s a super-power.  Leverage it.


Graduate-Level Leadership Development

The December 15th, 2017 issue of Fortune magazine has an interesting article in its Special Advertising Section.  The title is “Educating the Next Generation of Business Leaders” and it explains how business schools are “offering innovative advanced degree programs aimed at developing the leaders of tomorrow.”  It’s worth reading.  I recommend it.

Obviously, this is an interest of mine as well.  I’m an instructor in the Master of Engineering program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).  Leadership skill development has been a point of emphasis within our Information Engineering and Management (IEM) track from its inception.  Our interest really accelerated, though, sometime around 2005 as years of feedback showed us that our graduates placed very high value on two particular outcomes: (1) Building a high-quality professional network within the business/technology community and (2) significantly developing their professional skill sets (leadership, communication, teamwork, and critical thinking).

In addition to teaching, I was also doing some consulting work at the time on strategic planning and curriculum development.  We were looking at data. And what we were seeing was that our students, all of whom were working professionals, were already pretty solid on the technical side and, to a considerable extent, on the management side.  They were gaining valuable incremental knowledge – which is good – but it was often more breadth than depth.  Even so, unexpectedly, many of them were telling us that the program had, literally, been “life changing.”  How so?

They were discovering or developing capabilities that came as a surprise to them.  The way we ran the program was more of a consulting model where our students were treated as clients.  We were not just teaching – we were also coaching and mentoring.

The result?  Nascent leadership skills were developing.  Fear of public speaking was diminishing.  Working in groups and on teams was becoming second nature – nearly every class required it – and they benefited from working with professional colleagues from other companies who brought diverse skills and insights to every project.

I’m not saying we were the only ones accomplishing this, but we did seem to be leading the way on the engineering side.  Graduate programs that are focused on working professionals should definitely include courses and course work that develops leadership and other professional skills.  It adds excellent value to the programs.  And it’s something that we, as educators and mentors, should constantly study and improve upon.

Soft Skills or Complex Skills?

I’ve written previously about that aspect of professional development that focuses on the so-called “soft” skills, like being able to effectively lead, communicate, and work in teams (to name three of the most commonly mentioned).  And when you research these things – digging through news articles, for example – you generally find two common themes:

  1. These attributes are highly valued, but in very short supply.
  2. These attributes are very hard to “teach.”

I’ve said before that I don’t know if these skills are truly in short supply.  I have no data.  But my professional sense is that it’s more likely that they are being overlooked (if not by people, then certainly by algorithms), and that, in practice, the “hard” skills win out over the “soft” skills for any number of reasons… none of them, in my view, satisfactory.

As for whether or not they are hard to teach, I think they are.  I have been trying to teach them in my courses for a very long time, so I have some personal insights on this – enough to know we can do better.  And I’ve spent over 40 years in industry, so I know the importance of these skills (and they go beyond the three mentioned above, but that’s another discussion).

We need some fresh ideas on how to make greater progress in this area.  These are not soft skills, they are complex skills.  This is not a methodological problem, it’s a paradigmatic problem.  We need a new model.

And, keep in mind, this is a multi-disciplinary challenge.  We would benefit from collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines.

Leadership in a Complex Environment

I recently gave a short lecture on the challenges of managing in a complex environment.  To be successful, there are four fundamental building blocks that must be established early on across the organization.  You have to build the right culture; everyone on the team needs to understand that there are certain expectations that go along with being a member of the team.  You have to execute with precision; everyone has to be willing and able to perform their tasks (so motivation and preparation matter).  There has to be accountability; this is the follow up to setting expectations.  And there has to be thoughtful, meaningful, and respectful dialogue at all levels.

Complexity is a kind of filter.  It makes it harder to be successful.  It demands the very best you can deliver 100% of the time.  Leading in a complex environment begins with the basic framework I have described.

Managing Complexity
Leading in a Complex Environment

Graduate Study and Professional Development

Here are a few words I offered to my graduate students this morning.  I thought I’d post them here as well.

A major part of what we are doing within this program is related to “professional development.” As graduate students, you already have technical backgrounds and have demonstrated the ability to learn important concepts and methods and apply them. The goal now is to work together to help each of you find ways to leverage and amplify your abilities so that you stand out as leaders. To be successful in that way, you want to develop your professional presence – your ability to communicate, your ability to express complex ideas, your ability to select a framework or construct a narrative that helps your team or organization move forward in the face of tough challenges. You then become a difference maker.

A Focus on Consulting Skills

I began IEM 630 (Systems Engineering) this term with a strong initial focus on basic consulting skills.  It’s a useful way to help my students develop a mindset that they are not just “learners,” they are problem solvers and problem owners.  In a sense, it personalizes the subsequent course content.  It makes the material “about them.”  Or so I hope.

As I told them on the first day of class, the point of all this is to give them the knowledge and confidence to take ownership of any technical project at any stage of its life-cycle and manage it effectively.

It also moves our overall focus a little more toward systems engineering management – which is exactly where I want us to be.

Building Teams of People (and Machines?)

The way I build a human team depends upon the purpose of the team.

Sometimes I need a team with skills nearly-identical to my own.  Sometimes I need a team with widely varying skills.  Sometimes I need a little bit of both – I need subject matter experts with deep knowledge in a specific area who also have other skills and insights acquired through different professional experiences.

Sometimes I like to include a totally new perspective – perhaps a new hire or trainee or novice or someone from an entirely unrelated discipline because they may see things in a way that the rest of us can’t see or ask a question that the rest of us wouldn’t ask.

Would I do the same things if I were building teams of people plus machines?  For example, would I select multiple machine-learning systems that were written by different programming teams and that implement differing algorithms in order to gain diverse machine insights?