October 16, 2013

Be careful of "Rock Star" leaders

Here in Massachusetts we are having an interesting discussion/scandal (depending I guess on where you sit) regarding the President of Westfield State University. Apparently he likes to spend money. The university's money; and he has a history of this, which is what got him fired, or, shall I say, caused him to leave the University of Hawaii. He threatened to sue...they paid him 1.4 million dollars plus lawyers fees to leave.  Here is a link to one of the many stories on the topic in the Boston Globe:  Evan Dobelle came to Westfield State with record of excess.

I don't presume to know all the ins and outs on Evan Dobelle, given my reliance upon media stories which don't always get it right. But a couple of comments in this story really caught my eye...

"The consultant who recruited Dobelle to Westfield said Dobelle was so impressive he was 'almost out of our league,' recalled a member of the hiring committee"

and, also:

 "...some considered him a 'rock star' of higher education".

Really? University Presidents are now Rock Stars? I guess I tend to be skeptical.  I think there are really very few leaders of such stature. Furthermore, it tends to get us in trouble. Leaders who are treated as rock stars begin to believe their own mythology. They tend to think they are better than they are. And those surrounding such leaders can lose their judgment when they are busy swooning over these larger than life beings.

True, there are great leaders in business and academia as well as other sectors of our lives. However, that shouldn't stop us from doing our homework, questioning credentials, and challenging behaviors that appear out of step.

And oh the mighty, they do fall.

August 12, 2013

Can you hear me now?

Active listening is considered a fundamental skill for leaders. This is evident in its prominence in Communication Skills workshops and seminars. There we find exercises designed to help people become better listeners: make more eye contact; stop talking so much; reflect back the other person's comments; don't interrupt.  These are some of the strategies suggested.

These are actually pretty useful techniques for getting people to tune in more to others. But they sometimes seem insufficient;  as though they are not getting to the real reason so many leaders are not good listeners.

One approach is for leaders to become more "mindful".  Yes, I know, mindfulness is all the rage now... the popular media has picked it up, so you know it is becoming a trend. But, mindfulness has  been around for ages in eastern philosophies. It hit the US big time in the 60s, is increasingly more integrated into healthcare services (alternative/complimentary therapies), and is now permeating the workforce. So maybe there is just something to it.

What does mindfulness have to do with listening skills? It's simply this:  being a good listener requires self-understanding and self-control.  It requires being "in the moment", or being "present".  Why is this difficult? Because, leaders are often busy thinking about what just happened, or preparing for what is to come next.  However,  being an active listener means you are sitting with another person or persons, attending to what they are saying to you...NOW.  You aren't  preparing your rebuttal, or waiting for the person to finish so you can talk.  You are listening, inquiring, reflecting with an open mind.  You are curious. You are listening to understand.

So, what if instead of listening skills training we opt for "being in the moment" seminars.  It may be a harder sale to the training department. But, hey, it may just be worth a try.

July 30, 2013

I trust my employees.........really?

It is a beautiful day in New England. I am sitting on my back deck, with my laptop, working. Since I work for myself, this is acceptable. I check in with my boss (me) and ask if today is a good day for working outside.  My boss answers, "Why yes, Betty, its a beautiful day, you have lots of emails to get through, a blog to write and some other important computer-related work, so go for it."

Of course, most people work in companies in which working at home, sitting on the back deck,  is not an option. Though I submit that it could be much more of an option, if companies trusted their employees more.

Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, made a big stink when she asked all employees to come back into the office. No more telecommuting. Her argument was that people needed to see each other--be in close proximity so that they could collaborate, create a more cohesive team environment.  I know that argument. One hears it a lot.  And I think it has merit.  Virtual teams have many challenges and it simply is not the same as being able to walk down the hall and see a colleague for a spontaneous chat about a project; or have face to face meetings where everyone is in the room and you don't have to struggle with wondering who is really paying attention and who is secretly checking emails or  Facebook posts. 

But does it have to be an either/or situation---office vs. home? Might there be other options?  How about 3 days in the office and 2 days at home?  How about telecommuting for certain jobs that really don't require significant face time? And how about teams who are scattered all over the globe--does it really matter if I am on a conference call sitting in my office in Company X vs. on my back deck, if I am communicating with people who are not in the same location anyway?

I think a big issue here is trust.  I honestly think most companies just don't believe their employees will work hard when out of sight. Maybe they are right. Maybe we won't. But, on the other hand, maybe we will.

Telecommuting may be a unique situation, but it is probably worth seriously considering whether you trust your employees. I mean, do you REALLY trust your employees? If so, do your policies and practices reflect this trust? And if you can't honestly say that you do trust your employees, it might be worth trying to figure out why.

May 24, 2013

Personal Leadership

It is probably fitting that I will be attending a Memorial service this Memorial Day weekend.  The service is for my mother-in-law, Mary Wolfe, who died on her birthday at the age of 95.

Mary was one of those special ladies.  She was not CEO of a company, a war hero or a major political figure.  She was instead an elegant woman of integrity, grace and personal leadership.

Like many women her generation, Mary was a stay-at-home mom, who made sure her children were fed, dressed, well-behaved and educated.  She provided good healthy dinners for her husband and children at 6:00 every evening. She indulged her grandchildren, including my two kids, with her time, sunny disposition and endless delicious meals and treats. She seemed happy and took pride in her role.  When her 3 children went off to college, she decided she had to receive a college education herself so that she could keep up with them; she must have been the oldest graduating student in her class at Skidmore College in 1969.

Mary demonstrated leadership in her life and community. She was a major force in her church, taking on roles such as directing the preschool program, Sunday school classes or the numerous charitable events that occurred in their semi-rural upstate New York community.  She was never one to say no if asked, and her boundless energy never ceased to amaze me.

We often forget to acknowledge the people in our lives who exhibit strong leadership every day. People who demonstrate committment, take on responsibilities for their communities, families and friends. People with strong integrity, compassion and engagement.

Thank you, Mary, for your personal leadership. You are loved and dearly missed.

April 26, 2013

Consultant, do no harm!

As a Consulting Psychologist, my goal is to help people.  As a matter of fact, my practice is heavily influenced by Edgar Schein's "Process Consultation" approach, in which the first of 10 principles is:  "Always try to be helpful".  So in my work in organizations, my goal is to be helpful: To help the individual I am working with, his or her coworkers, and other key stakeholders in the company.  Despite the Showtime series "House of Lies",  I imagine most consultants have this goal--to help our clients.

However, there is the law of unintended consequences.  And there are sometimes conflicts of interest. So how do we ensure that we are always helpful....or, at minimum, do no harm?  I suggest we be careful; very, very careful.

A good example of potential harm that is sometimes overlooked is with the introduction of 360s as a management tool.  I have discussed 360s in an earlier blog posting .  So what is the potential harm?  There is growing consensus on the benefits of 360 assessments, but there is also some research that suggests caution. For example, a 360 report containing a high percentage of very negative feedback can be overwhelming to someone with a fragile personality, particularly if it is not delivered sensitively and appropriately. Implementing a 360 assessment considered confidential, when in reality it is not, can also cause harm if, for example,  the leader retaliates against someone for honest but not-so-flattering comments.  Using 360s for performance appraisal rather than development can be risky;  one should be cognizant of the potential risks in this situation and ensure the implementation process is well-designed to mitigate any potential harm.

Companies need great leaders and this is especially challenging today given the rapid changes and complexities of our global economy. Assessments that help leaders better understand themselves and others can provide significant value to companies. As consultants we can really help; but we must understand the risks as well as the benefits of this sensitive work, and companies need to understand this as well. Sometimes providing this information is uncomfortable; sometimes we must make the difficult decision to walk away from a situation we know is not right. We can provide great value, but first, and most importantly, we must  DO NO HARM!

February 4, 2013

A Physician (and Psychologist) share personal perspectives

  More on healthcare, leadership and culture...

Today  there was an interview in the Boston Globe with a Physician whose mother died. He felt there were errors made and wanted to speak out to help prevent these things from occurring.  http://bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/2013/02/04/jonathan-welch/YDxG225lt80x7i4UG0MJbL/story.html  

His answer to this question stuck out for me:

Q. Do you think smaller hospitals, like the one in Wisconsin that treated your mother, make more errors than big, teaching hospitals?

A. I don’t know if size necessarily has a lot to do with it. What I think really matters at the end of the day is culture. I think you need [hospital] leadership to say: “This is important to us. We’re not going to have people die unnecessarily on our watch, and we’re going to listen to patients and families.” 

So, my thoughts....What will it take to ensure every hospital creates a culture that emphasizes listening to patients and families? What leadership is required?

This resonated with a personal experience I had many years ago.  My first husband died of metastatic melanoma as a young man. He received excellent care, by many providers and more than one hospital over many years; but the disease did eventually take his life. 

Despite this good quality care, he had one experience that almost led to a preventable early death. As his wife, by his side constantly, I could see things that were going wrong. He was misdiagnosed. He was being "observed" and not receiving active treatment in part because it was the weekend, the hospital was understaffed and they were waiting for the full array of hospital staff ("experts") to arrive on Monday morning. 

But that may have been too late. 

I was forced to  confront a resident who was over her head and not willing to get the help needed. I became pushy, persevered; no longer concerned with politeness, I raised my voice. I demanded a specialist. I demanded a CT scan. I insisted they get someone in who could deal with the situation. [At that point, I am pretty sure she was offended, but I no longer cared...we were talking life or death here].

Later in the day, when it was confirmed that he had been misdiagnosed, (he had a brain tumor that was causing swelling, delirium and eventually a seizure) and the situation was stabilized, I was commended by the medical staff for "catching" the problem before it was too late.

The point is not that I know more about medicine, I don't. The point is: I knew more about my husband. I knew what he was like "well" and I knew he was deteriorating.

I agree with this physician--Hospital leadership needs to set the expectation that staff listen to patients and families. It needs to be a core value. It needs to be supported. It may prevent unnecessary deaths, and it also will lead to an overall much better hospital environment.

February 1, 2013

The human side of healthcare transformation

I just attended the Mid-Winter Leadership Forum co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Hospital Association (MHA)  and the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE)- Massachusetts chapter. It was quite interesting and it is exciting to be in Massachusetts where there are many innovative initiatives underway.

The title of the conference:"Making Connections: Crafting a New Healthcare System", was clearly meant to highlight Collaboration and Transformation. There were presentations of several innovative Massachusetts-based collaborative initiatives in which payors and providers have come together to provide better quality, cost effective solutions.

I was a little surprised, however, at the few references to the human aspect of transformation throughout the conference day, especially given the title "Making Connections". For example, what is effective leadership in these initiatives? How do leaders in healthcare organizations contribute to, or hinder, these transformations? What is the role of the physician leaders, healthcare executives, nurse managers and other leaders in ensuring the successful transition throughout these massive changes? What about those on the front lines?
Peter Straley, President & CEO, of Health New England, Inc. came closest to addressing the personal side of change by noting that what was really needed was to change the culture in which we grew up. YES!  A new vision...a new way of viewing and operating in a healthcare system within which we have been living.

Transforming healthcare is not about new technologies or new payor systems ALONE. Yes, those are critical, as are needed structural and systemic changes for delivering high quality care, more efficiently, effectively and at a lower cost. But, transformation requires personal change. It is about changing the culture. It requires collaboration, communication and compromise. It requires a new way of thinking. In essence, it is about changing behavior. And this is often the most difficult change of all.

January 21, 2013

Taking a Stand: Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today we celebrate a leader who died tragically and way too young: Martin Luther King, Jr.  We celebrate his accomplishments in moving civil rights forward and mourn our loss of a great man.

This 7 minute video is part 1 in a 3 part series in which Dr. King is interviewed by Mike Douglas on TV in 1967. The focus of the interview is primarily on his stance in opposing the Vietnam War, which was not particularly popular even among some people who supported his work on civil rights.  He speaks eloquently on the topic and remains steadfast with his convictions.

One section of the video I find particularly inspiring (around 5:20)  is when he is questioned as to whether his stance on the war may cause people to turn away from him, people who might otherwise support him. His response, in essence, is that people who really support equality will not change their views because some leaders in the civil rights movement take positions on other issues they don't agree with. He paraphrases a quote by T.S. Eliot in saying "...there is no greater heresy than to do the right thing for the wrong reason...".

In my mind, MLK was great not just because of the causes he supported and acted upon, but because he did not let the end justify the means. He remained an advocate of nonviolent resistance and his speaking out against the Vietnam War came from a genuine belief that the war was wrong. He did not waver even when his positions were not popular.  This is what integrity is all about.