Tag: Leading Thinking

I am a fairly new second-level supervisor at a small office (20-30 people). The supervisor of the largest branch I oversee just left. The sigh of relief was palpable. She hid it well from me, but I’m now discovering (and employees are finally telling me) about bullying tactics, moodiness and generally poor leadership. How do I stay engaged and ensure that her replacement treats employees well while not micromanaging or breathing down her neck?–Anonymous

Knowing whether a new hire is going to fit your requirements for the position and the organization’s culture is not easy. The situation surely becomes more difficult when the prior leader had more weaknesses than were visible. It is all too easy to become gun-shy and fearful that the new leader will fail, which may lead to micromanaging that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. What can you do?

Allow me to share my SECRET for increasing the likelihood of success for new supervisors:

Selection. First and foremost, hire a supervisor that fits the leadership culture you are trying to support or develop. Figure out, write down and make concrete the culture you desire for your organization. Post the cultural expectations as part of the job description, if you’re allowed. If not, share them with every candidate and ask whether they are willing to commit to supporting those expectations. If so, then their integrity will be on the line. Of course, so will yours, because they will hold you accountable for the same expectations.

Expectations. Discussing leadership culture during the hiring process is a good first step at setting expectations. Discuss expectations again when the person begins work. In addition to ongoing conversations about your culture and how the new hire can contribute to it, demonstrate your own commitment to the expectations. You might consider having a new supervisor shadow you for a few days to see how you respond to challenges. Be creative and find other ways to demonstrate your thinking and commitment to the leadership culture.

Coaching. Setting expectations may be easy compared to maintaining them during an employee’s tenure. Things happen. Challenges emerge. Cultural violations abound. Cynicism breeds easily. One way to combat these obstacles is through coaching. This is less about telling people what to do and more about asking what they’ve done well and what they could’ve done better. Using a growth mind-set for figuring out how to improve and support the organization’s culture is one way to invest in the maintenance of expectations.

Reflection. The idea of reflection should be central to not only coaching but also employee assessment. Ask people if they performed their job or tasks, and they naturally will respond in the affirmative, leaving no room for reflection or improvement. Ask what they did well and what they could have done better, and you are encouraging a growth mind-set. Questions should not be only about the set of tasks in a person’s job description, but also how they have acted with respect to the organization’s values and contributed to strategic initiatives. This provides a richer assessment of the individual’s accomplishments and potential while setting expectations.

Exits. Depending on which statistics are quoted, 40 percent to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Poor match quality is challenging not only for marriages but also for organizations. We shouldn’t think of employees in terms of good or bad. All too often poor performers merely have poor match quality with their position. In the long run, if match quality is low, your organization and the employees will be better off if you part ways. But in the short run, such parting is painful because finding a better match may be costly, difficult and time-consuming. Nonetheless, if you demonstrate to workers your commitment to a leadership culture then you’ll want to help poor performers either get better or find better match quality elsewhere.

Trust. If trust flows throughout your organization, then bad news (and good news, too) is shared with you. If information about the prior supervisor didn’t make it to you until after her departure then you need to invest in growing trust—easy to say, but difficult to accomplish. Create opportunities for one-on-one conversations, so you can get to know people and solicit their advice on how to support the leadership culture.

The SECRET to avoiding micromanaging while staying engaged and ensuring good leadership is to be thoughtful about the culture you want to engender and then invest in the actions needed to achieve it.

Duce a mente

(May you lead by thinking)

Colonel John E. Angevine,U.S. Army retired, reflects on lessons from his experience with tribal leaders in Afghanistan and how it is informing his transition from military to civilian leadership through courses at Brookings Executive Education (BEE). BEE is based at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and managed by Olin Business School. Here are excerpts from Col. Angevine’s essay, “A Military Journey to Becoming a Civilian Leader: Chewing through the Cultural Barrier.”

In my first two months with Brookings Executive Education (BEE), I’ve been learning about the many challenges veterans in government face as they transition from military to civilian life. These conversations remind me of the cultural changes I observed in my last deployment to Afghanistan. There I had the opportunity to observe and work with several tribal clans. It was during these key leader engagements that I became acutely aware of the Afghan cultural diversity applied to thinking and problem solving. This diversity of thinking—exacerbated by the mountainous topography that imposes relative geographic isolation—showcased the clans’ different deliberate approaches to relationship building and adaptability in working with others. Their aim was to increase the likelihood of achieving common goals in an austere environment.

For example, in one village I observed its elders had expressed their gratitude to U.S. military forces for clearing their village of Taliban fighters by presenting a prized, young camel to our troops stationed at the nearby firebase. “Chewy the Camel” served as the village elders’ connection with the American forces, conveying their respect and acceptance of our presence. At first glance, this gift was a surprise. Even so, Chewy quickly proved an invaluable addition to the firebase security between the inner and outer perimeter walls since she was particularly territorial and disliked strangers, as well as a source of much needed entertainment during our down time by chewing on our boots—hence her name.

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Hot off the press! Brookings Executive Education’s 2014-2015 course catalog is now available. We are very excited and proud to have this new tool of communication.

Download a digital copy of the new 2014-2015 BEE Course Catalog

BEE Course catalogIn BEE’s new course catalog, you will learn about our new fellowship program as well as our highly acclaimed degree and certificate programs designed to develop high potential employees for the Senior Executive Service or comparable leadership positions in agencies.

BEE curriculum continues to have a major impact on the way in which government managers lead their organizations. Our Leading Thinking™ framework for executive success is dramatically improving the processes by which public leaders find, frame, and formulate challenges.

Many hands touched this great piece of collateral and on behalf of Brookings Executive Education I would like to say thank you to all who had a part in creating it.

Knowing that there are often new people involved in teams and or decisions, how do you ensure “bee-in” for them rather than just “buy-in”?

I introduced a leadership concept called “bee-in”, which represents a specific set of leadership processes that not only helps with diversity and inclusion but also helps teams build trust and create understanding. Teams that develop these characteristics have deep commitment to each other and to their projects and, as a result, are more likely to successfully discover and implement valuable solutions.

In contrast, asking individuals to “buy-in” implies that they weren’t important enough to be included in the conversation in the first place. Leaders who seek “buy-in” often don’t develop much trust and understanding within their teams and rarely generate commitment to either the project or each other. Worse, some team members may refuse to “buy-in” and work to slow or kill the project. The end result is that projects relying on buy-in rarely succeed in achieving their desired performance goals and may fail entirely.

There is no doubt that changing team membership can cause your team—and project—to unravel and fail. Adding or changing team members can quickly diminish commitment. Without being with the team from the beginning, why would a new team member be committed to any decision others previously made? Questioning prior decisions and injecting different views and preferences can create team conflict that undermines trust, impedes understanding, and reverses prior commitments. Moreover, if a new team member controls a critical resource but is not collaborative or has a domineering personality then team commitment quickly can collapse leaving few options but to fail or to shift to autocratic decision-making. In other words, bringing new people on the team and doing so late-in-the-game can erode “bee-in,” making it necessary to switch to “buy-in” and all that comes with it.

You may want to lead your team using a “bee-in” approach but how can you succeed if your team members change over time? How can you develop and sustain trust and understanding as well as commitment if people are rotating on and off your project? Is there anything you can do to lead in such circumstances or is “bee-in” a naive ideal that simply can’t be reached for some projects?

To develop useful strategies for maintaining “bee-in” it is useful to identify a few common reasons why team members change. All too often:

  1. teams are formed without thinking about what information and knowledge sets are needed and who will be critical to implementation efforts. In other words, not enough thought went into thinking about who should be on the team and hence the initial team composition is chosen poorly requiring future additions.
  2. new team members do not have much knowledge of the project and its history and do not have appropriate expectations about their role moving forward on the team.
  3. project complexity and duration necessitate the coming and going of team members. For instance, complex information technology projects and weapons systems using a waterfall approach to project management can last many years and may necessitate changing team members as various specializations are needed at various times or because of employee turnover.

In response to these common reasons for new people joining teams, three strategies may help you sustain bee-in.

  • First: The most important strategy is to be far-sighted and initially form your team with everyone you will need for the life of the project. For instance, I recommend that you should invite individuals to join the team who (a) possess the relevant information and knowledge that are likely to be needed to formulate and solve the challenge and (b) will be critical to implementation efforts. At first it may seem like constructing such a team is inefficient because those involved in implementing are not needed until much later in the process. You may be concerned that these people will waste their time and slow down team progress thereby harming productivity. Yet, without “bee-in” participation early on, those who you rely on for implementation may become blockers. Indeed, without participation from the beginning these people may never support implementation efforts, which is the worse inefficiency of all.
  • Second: Even if individuals are not formally on a team, it is important to involve everyone in your community by frequently apprising them of the project’s progress and soliciting their feedback. As you proceed with each stage of your project, document each step and solicit feedback from your broader community before proceeding so they have an opportunity to participate. Doing so demonstrates that you respect their feedback, gives them an opportunity to contribute, and keeps them from rehashing past decisions. In essence, involving your entire community in “bee-in” makes it easier to add new people to the team without disrupting it.
  • Third: Projects that last months if not years pose a specific challenge. Wherever possible, I recommend changing the project so that it is short in duration or can be separated into a series of projects each of which can be completed. For instance, waterfall project management approaches that would take up to a decade to design and build complicated information technology systems are giving way to “agile” development approaches that reduce develop time up to 90% by focusing on only the critical product features needed. These new approaches convert one complex project into a series of smaller projects.

In sum, my recommendation is to choose teams wisely so you won’t need new team members, invite broad awareness of and participation from your community so that new team members already are in the process, and restructure projects so that are short enough to maintain team membership. Can you always execute these strategies? No. Nonetheless, I suspect that these strategies can be used more than they are to maintain “bee-in” and increase project success.

Duce a mente (may you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson

I was just reading an article about why the Australian swim team did not do well in the 2012 Olympics. They only won one gold medal whereas in prior years they have had many. The article had a statement I found interesting: “Participants reported that in the zealous and streamlined attempts to obtain gold medals, the delicate management of motivation, communication, and collaboration were lost.” How does a leader accomplish this delicate management especially once it has been lost? We [in government] of course do not strive for gold medals but there is certainly a lack of trust so that even when there is communication people are skeptical.


With furloughs beginning in some cantons of the government, cost of living adjustments nullified for the third year in a row and public servants often vilified in the news, trust is, and if not should be, near the top of every government leader’s organizational concerns. Even if the environment around you and your organization undermines trust that comes from the structure of our political and governmental institutions, the wise leader can still build, maintain, and repair interpersonal trust within their own organization and community. That said, once trust is lost, especially in the leader, regaining it is unlikely except under rare conditions.

When people say that they trust someone, they typically are using a short hand to describe that they expect someone to have the “goods”: good character, good will, and good ability.

  1. Good character comes from the integrity of being true to your word—when you give your word you will follow through and, if for some external reason you can’t, you will let people know immediately and figure out what you can do to make up for it.
  2. Good will means that you predictably care for others and act to support them and do the fair thing even when costly to you.
  3. Good ability comes from demonstrating your capability to achieve successful outcomes for your customers and organization.

Leaders who consistently demonstrate these three goods build a reputation for trustworthiness. Such reputations do not get built over night and therefore, when achieved, should be cultivated and maintained as valuable leadership capital.

While trustworthiness can be cultivated and is durable, it also can be destroyed quickly if any of the three goods become “bads”. I use the word “can” because sometimes decisions and events happen outside of the control of a trusted leader. If people believe that the bad things that happened are not the fault of the leader then trustworthiness of the leader is not diminished. For instance, President Obama unilaterally decided to provide a cost of living adjustment to federal workers that Congress ultimately overruled. If government workers saw the President’s decision as following through on his words of support for public servants, caring for them, and demonstrating his capability for delivering an adjustment but also viewed Congress’ decision as being beyond his control then workers might maintain or increase their view of the President’s trustworthiness. Alternatively, those who view the President’s decision as insincere, offering the increase as a way to force Congress to eliminate the adjustment so that they would look bad, and ultimately failing to deliver a cost of living increase then his trustworthiness would be diminished. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too do increases or decreases in trust depend on how actions and outcomes are viewed by the members of the leader’s community.

That said, people are smart and through repeated experiences with a leader they update their assessment of a leader’s trustworthiness. After losing a little trust, you can rebuild it with constancy of the three goods. But, if much trust is lost, rebuilding it within the same community can be practically impossible as smart people have long memories when it comes to bad actions and outcomes.

As with the Australian Olympic Swim team, if much trust is lost in a leader there only can be two paths forward to rebuild trust—change the community or change the leader. Only through changing one or the other can the gateway and path to trust and trustworthiness be reopened.

For government leaders, many actions and outcomes beyond your direct control are currently swirling around you—deficits, sequestration, continuing resolutions, political jockeying, etc. In these times of uncertainty, change, and undesirable actions and outcomes, maintaining the trust of your community is vital if you are to remain an effective leader. To do so, focus on the three goods:

  • Tell your community what is going on, directly and without delay. Engage them in conversation so they know what you say, what you promise, and what you can’t affect. Doing so will enhance how people view your integrity.
  • Consistently care for your community even when it means that you must sacrifice. Doing so solidifies perceptions of your good will.
  • Deliver successes based on what you say you will do–don’t disappoint or over deliver. Doing so builds your community’s confidence in your abilities.

Duce a mente (May you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson