Keep the Monkeys Off Your Back

The Harvard Business Review classic articles, Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey? explores the management concept of delegation and empowering employees. The ‘monkey’ is the proverbial monkey-on-your-back as a metaphor for a problem, task or challenge.  Here is how the author’s frame the situation:

“You’re racing down the hall.  An employee stops you and says, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ You assume you should get involved but can’t make an on-the-spot decision.  You say ‘Let me think about it.’

Has this, or something similar, happened to you?  It certainly has happened to me, and I’ve taken the bait (or the monkey-on-the-back) more times than I’d care to admit.  After all, isn’t this what we are supposed to do as managers, help remove obstacles in our employee’s paths, and help them focus on their work?  NO!  What has happened here is the person has assigned you a task, which they will expect to have taken care of in a timely fashion — in short, they are managing you.  In the article the authors suggest that what we need to do is help our employees develop their own initiative and problem solving skills.  We need them to NOT bring problems, but rather bring solutions.

In 1974, when the article was written, management styles were more focused on command and control.  It was easy for the authors to tell us to simply give the monkey back and expect the employee to take care of it.  In today’s workplace it is expected we build more of a partnership with our employees.  We need to build trust, and help them develop their skills.  “What do you think we should do?” or “What do you see as the critical elements of the situation?” are good ways to respond.  Encourage them to take the initiative, but also to check in with you at a scheduled time to provide an update.  Avoid giving them a solution — ask questions, and probe how they would address the situation.  Remember their ideas on how to proceed may not match what you would do.  If they are clearly headed for a collision, step in, but otherwise it may be that their path will work best for them.  And if not, it is a good learning moment.

In reading the article, it struck a familiar chord.  I am sure I’ve read it somewhere back in my management studies.  And of course the theme of delegation makes sense.  But how to put it into practice?  For me that monkey-on-the-back image is really useful, as people drop by my office or catch me in the hall, to bring a situation to my attention.  I may not be able to fend of every one of those monkeys, but I am keeping my eyes open for them!

https://hbr.org/1999/11/management-time-whos-got-the-monkey

Keep the Monkeys Off Your Back

General Reflections for the week of 2/15/15

One of the benefits of the MOR leadership program is that the support and engagement doesn’t stop when the in-person workshop is over.  We have a regular series of follow-up activities, which include meetings with the other MOR leadership participants at our organizations, meetings with our peer coaches and with our leadership mentors.  We also are each assigned a week to offer a reflection to the entire MOR leadership cohort.  This is my week to send out a reflection — below is what I wrote:

Greetings ITLP colleagues,

Was it only three weeks ago that we were all together in Palo Alto? Maybe it is the weather, maybe the regular crush of the day-to-day, but it feels like more time has passed. Vanessa’s observation on the challenges of incorporating our leadership lessons into daily practice is mirrored by my own experience. And her advice to focus on small, regular steps, is very helpful.

Support and encouragement from our Yale peer group has been instrumental in getting me on track, applying the techniques. I will admit, it was a slow start. In fact it was only last week, after our first group meeting and a very productive peer coaching session (thanks Lec!) that it became clear how to get myself started. Part of the struggle is I have existing management practices in place. For instance I already have strategies for managing email and work calendars. And feeling comfortable with how those work, it is difficult to see the value in changing current practices. But isn’t feeling uncomfortable, willing to break old habits, one of the challenges we are faced with?

In my role as interim director of the Academic Administration Technologies group I have been holding monthly staff meetings, where we have followed a standard news and notes type of agenda. Which results in me doing most of the talking. Comfortable, but not the most engaging of meeting formats. This week I decided to break out of the old mold, and engaged the team in a current state exercise utilizing the SWOT analysis methodology, focusing on our team, and our relationships with clients and the other IT units. The group is a mix of a dozen programmers and technical analysts, 60% staff and 40% contractors.   And not always the most talkative or forthcoming bunch. But they came alive as we handed out the post-it notepads and got to work sticking ideas into the respective SWOT sections. A lot of good ideas came out with clear themes, and led to a very engaging discussion, with even the quiet people around the table actively participating. It was by far the best meeting I have had with the group. At our next meeting we will break up into groups to identify the 3 – 5 key themes in each section, and focus on action steps we can take together.

With mid-year staff reviews coming up this week with my direct reports I plan to continue to embrace the uncomfortable, and invite their feedback on my own leadership of the group, and their thoughts on how we can work more effectively together. And practice the methods we covered in day one of our Palo Alto workshop, owning my feedback and keeping it specific, descriptive and well-timed.

General Reflections for the week of 2/15/15

A Regular Practice of Reflection

The driver behind starting this blog is my participation in the MOR Associates Leadership Institute (http://www.morassociates.com/morlp2015/session1.html).  Our cohort includes 9 other staff members from the Yale Information Technology Services group (ITS), as well as technology professionals from Cornell, Stanford, MIT Lincoln Lab and Harvard.  The institute experience includes 4 multi-day workshops, individual coaching, and peer coaching, with a strong emphasis on applying the lessons and practices directly in the workplace.  One of the core practices emphasized in our first workshop was being intentional in approaching our leadership roles, and taking the time for reflection on what works well, and not so well.

In the past I have found the practice of maintaining a blog a useful way to focus my attention, and keep me relatively honest in making regular posts. Not that I have ever had many readers, but the public exposure, and possibility that someone might be paying attention, maintains a psychological commitment and deadline.  My promise to you (whoever you are) is to post reflections on leadership in higher education, and my own personal journey/successes/failures, on at least a weekly basis.  I welcome your comments and contributions to the conversation.

One of our cohort, Vanessa, was reflecting last week on the difficulty of making the shift from our workshop week back into the regular workplace.  New practices and goals expressed away from the office can quickly seem impossible once you are back in your regular routine.  Vanessa’s realization was that you can’t try to change everything all at once.  Small, regular, repeatable steps are a more realistic pathway to changing practices and habits.  Which I found very helpful.  For myself, after two weeks back in the office, with goals submission to my coach past due, I was feeling completely disconnected from the workshop experience.  And somewhat desperate as to how I was going to get back on track.  Vanessa’s “small steps” ideas was helpful.  And an encouraging conversation with Lec, my peer coach, really helped me get back on my ‘leadership’ feet.  As of today my goals have been submitted, and I started work on two of those goals.  Not too bad for Friday the 13th.

A Regular Practice of Reflection

Leadership reflections

There is a lot changing in the higher-education environment. And these changes are having an impact across our institutions. In the technology area cloud-based applications such as Workday, Box.com and Canvas are reducing the need for on-site data centers, and the technical staff that supported locally hosted systems. The need for institutionally-supplied desktop workstations decreases as students and faculty prefer to bring their own tablets, smart phones and other computing devices. At the same time teaching is becoming increasingly technology dependent with TEAL classrooms, flipped instruction models and online-based learning. The job of our information technology departments is shifting. The traditional task as keeper of the computer infrastructure is rapidly becoming irrelevant, while our communities increasingly look to us for answers to meet these strategic challenges.

1985, Queens College, New York City is where my own career in higher-education began. In this first phase I worked in operations and event management, gaining experience in a broad range of campus functions – building management, budgeting, financial management, facility planning. When 2,000 people are showing up for a concert at 8pm that evening, and you are responsible for having the ushers, stage crew, custodians, and other elements ready to start things on time, you learn to plan, adapt quickly, solve problems creatively and work effectively with your staff. Designing and teaching classes for the Yale School of Drama and Quinnipiac University, I have first-hand experience with the challenges and frustrations facing faculty. As a graduate student in both an online university, and more traditional physical campus, I also have a student’s perspective. These experiences, and the skills gained from them, inform my work with our Yale campus partners, and my interest in exploring leadership in higher education.

Leadership reflections