On team building & chemistry

I read a lot of stuff online from so-called experts and know-it-alls about the ways teams are composed. You listen to their knowledge, read the books and yet, management theories get thrown out of the window when you work in real life environments where actual people ply their trade.

If I’ve been good at anything consistently across my career it’s bringing together disparate groups of people towards making good things happen. Whether it’s product management, as a boss or that time I led a summer camp band of 9-year olds to their league championship, I’m pretty good at understanding how to get the chemistry right on teams.

This doesn’t mean I’m perfect, because the right mix is fraught with challenges. Nonetheless, here are a few consistent ingredients need to get chemistry right in my own experience:

1. Valuing people
It’s one thing to say you value people, it’s another thing for your work to show it. It’s all about the little things. Whether that’s asking people how their lives are going, to getting their input and asking them how you can help, people notice the stuff you do when no one else is listening. Making a consistent effort shows that you care and after a while, you realize that people appreciate those gestures and it enables you to gain their trust. Instead of you always reaching out to them, they start reaching out to you.

2. Creating the conditions for excellence to thrive
Too often, we think the right way to get people to adapt to a new environment is to badger them into doing things our way. Instead, I try to recognize that people were living life competently before they showed up to my team. So clearly, they must know something. I realize this because it’s often how I feel when I’m part of something new, so I just try to treat them how I’d like to be treated. Asking their input and giving them the type of work they can demonstrate their excellence. More often than not, they show you what they’re made of and the team benefits as a result. Even when others might have doubted them, I don’t spend a lot of time taking too much stock in other people’s opinions of another person unless it’s someone I trust a lot. Too often, those insights are biased and don’t come with the kind of vetted perspectiev you’ll want to base your professional interactions on.

3. Listen to your people
You show up somewhere new and inherit a team. The last thing that makes sense is to start throwing around your weight from the outset. Instead? Making more sense of the landscape and asking people what their own views of things are, is a really good way to get a pulse of what’s working and what’s not working. It helps me advocate for them, but it’s always a way to create a world where you can share how your views align or differ to create a safe space for your teammates.

4. Celebrate the wins
Working hard results in good things. Reveling in that success is good for the bottom line and morale. It’s important to feel like your work matters and that you’ve contributed to something bigger than yourself. Giving people a chance to shine gives them confidence to keep participating and to go outside their depth and engage more with what’s happening at work.

5. Leadership isn’t a spectator sport.
Not every situation lends itself to appointing “deputies” but when there’s a big team to manage, I’ve tried to engage people who are emerging leaders. Whether it’s tasking aspects of the leadership burden and sharing it across to those people or finding projects where those individuals get to lead, it’s a good way to enlist folks who want to grow. Growing talent is scary for some leaders, because the fear is “well I need them and if I empower them, they might leave,” but building a farm team of talent is a way to encourage the next generation of people you hire to want to work for you, because they know they’ll get good experience and be prepared for their next role whether it’s within your organization or beyond.

Customer Experience Starts At Home

In my journeys, I’ve seen the difference in the culture of institutions and a relationship between their success based on how the people working there treat each other. It seems like a simple thing, but it matters.

Since I primarily work with colleges and universities, I notice it more acutely. Outsiders wistfully remember college as a place of warmth and fun, wrapped in a spinach wrap of learning. The reality for most staff and faculty is institutions are like any other job with good days, bad days and excitement for Fridays at 4:30 or 5pm.

In higher ed, we keep pumping money into finding the next great solution but not often enough do I hear that we need to focus on our own houses. Not just the workplace satisfaction piece, I’m talking about the same experience of our customers — students, alumni & other stakeholders — who need positive experiences.

The admissions process changes the consumer climate because not everyone who can afford the product will be admitted. Still, you can see on the faces of the people who come to work everyday whether or not you’re visiting the kind of place that can attract others.

It starts with how you treat each other.

3 things I’ve learned about meetings

Whiteboard with markers

Meetings for a web person can be difficult because often times you’re in a room full of people who have no idea:
1) What you do.
2) How long it takes to do what you do.
3) Need something from you.
4) Want it faster than is often plausible.
5) Will often implore you to cut corners to deliver what they want.
6) But want it with the same quality that would take as long as it normally should.

I’m all about delivering to the customer, but even Amazon doesn’t offer “instant” shipping. There is a process. There are sometimes delays in every supplychain. But when we deal with human capital, we often ignore these details and step our foot on the gas harder in an effort to make them go faster. And it works, because people want to do a good job & don’t want to lose their jobs.

Let’s talk about meetings.

I’ve heard a lot “meetings are how we get things done,” a phrase that makes me cringe. It presupposes that the only way to do work is to get a bunch of people into a room and have them make decisions. This would be fine and ideal if that’s what happened. But in a place with a “culture of meetings,” isn’t as interested in decision-making, but rather than spending a lot of time talking in circles. When there is no cost to people’s time, you can simply schedule a meeting without regard for whether a meeting is actually necessary or not.

Early in my career, I had a boss who was one of my favorite people to work with. I just liked being around her, listening and learning from her. Years later, I’m still waxing poetic about her methods and ways, because she had a deftness with managing people and priorities the likes I haven’t seen much since. I assumed since it was my first job in higher ed, that all supervisors were this way. I’ve come to learn the opposite is true.

Here are three things I learned about meetings over the past few years:

1) Get to the point. Some of my best meetings were simply walking and talking affairs where someone important would be heading to a meeting. “I feel like we’re on west wing when you walk and brief me as I head to other meetings,” is what my boss used to say. What these walking meetings did for me was distill the facts down to a few things that needed to be communicated quickly. She did her part by asking the right questions. Even if we had to follow up later (as we often did) the foundation was set and it was far more useful than a late night email.

2) Everyone has a role to play. Rather than only focusing on the skill participants of every job, you have to assess what everyone’s role is and prepare them for that. Huge meetings where everyone has to participate and drone through an hour or more of information where only 10 or 15 minutes might be relevant to them isn’t always the way to go.

Sports are instructive in helping you understand that everybody has a position to play. When I coached HS tennis, it was often my bottom of the roster players who would make the most progress in a year. I learned this from my own experience as a bottom of the roster player on really good teams, that you need to nurture those players because the top players often want to work and get better — as they have something to aspire to. Whereas the players at the bottom don’t always feel like they have as much to play for.

Everyone has to attend practice, but during that practice they’re not always doing the same things. There’s value in shared experience and also good leadership practice to communicate how pieces of the puzzle can be relevant to everyone within the organization. But a meeting isn’t going to drive home that message by itself.

3. Keep (the meeting) small. I’ve been running meetings since the days of high school where I learned Roberts Rules of Order. Since those days, I’ve seen throughout professional life that not much has changed since those early days of leading meetings amongst high school and college debaters. You need order, but in grown up meetings everyone often feels entitled to speak. “Peacocking” where the need to show ones feathers is prevalent is one of the biggest reasons to keep meetings small, short and topical. In the era of communication overload, there are no shortage of ways to get together. But bringing 50 people to a room to discuss something they’ve only heard about once (or never) is not the way to introduce a new idea or to get maximum impact for whatever you’re trying to roll out.

How many times do big meetings end with “we’ll meet offline about this?” Exactly. Maybe you should start there, rather than begin there?


It’s all about communication. Meetings are meant to help us do the business of our companies, but we can’t do that if all we do is sit in rooms staring at each other (or our screens) for hours, dreaming about how to prioritize our time after all the meetings are done.

There needs to be balance, a flow & respect for the people who participate if you expect your meetings to achieve anything.

A position to fit the player

There’s a fallacy that we create job descriptions to find a specific kind of person. The other night, I semi-jokingly wrote what I thought about job descriptions I’ve encountered in the past few years for social media roles on Twitter. It’s as if you can picture the people sitting around a table, trying to check boxes in an attempt to create this perfect person.

Newsflash: That person doesn’t exist and they’re not perfect.

On the flip side, people seeking roles will often believe that they’re just one job away from the perfect situation. The role that’s going to give them the autonomy, compensation and fulfillment they seek in the workplace. For most of us, this just isn’t a real thing. There are going to be days that you don’t love what you do and that’s okay. Visual artist Chris Martin had a quote I read in Believer Magazine the other day that was instructive on this point:

The point of an artist is to find out what are the flavors that I must work with. Finding one’s freedom is about surrendering to your helplessness. I’m a painter. That’s what I do. And sometimes I’m very happy about that and sometimes it’s just what I gotta deal with.
The missing link for everyone is realizing that the goal should be to assemble great teams of good people. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself. We’re often so afraid that we’ll lose people, that we hire conservatively. Or we want people who stick to the plan, because it gives us comfort knowing there’s a plan, even if it’s a bad plan. Strategy isn’t ancillary, it’s primary and the sooner you realize that you need to invest in gameplanning, the better off your organization will be.

In sports, we see this in a variety of ways. Games evolve over time into new positions that didn’t exist a generation ago. Remember playing volleyball in gym class? You could only score points on a serve, but in 1999 to make the sport more viewer friendly, they completely revamped the sport and even created an entirely new position called a libero. Basketball has five positions officially, but the way people grow and change often results in players who don’t fit their position called “Tweeners” literally people who are “between positions.” In the corporate workplace, these people would simply be without a job.

We don’t hire for value, we hire for people’s ability to adhere to the landscape that’s been laid out for them. It’s not an accident that so many bright minds are going off to form startups or opt to consult. It’s not that they eschew rules, but rather, prefer not to play by an antiquated rule set which doesn’t befit the modern world.

It behooves us as leaders to build teams that can grow with our best people. To encourage them, it can often mean preparing them for their next job. In sports, coaches will start off learning under an experienced leader before going off and doing great things elsewhere. Proud coaches will cite their “coaching tree” of the players they’ve sent off into the wild. We see this at the highest levels of the corporate world, but for middle managers and front-line staff it’s less common.

As we age, it’s harder to make big moves. Consistency, security and added responsibilities trump ambition. Our goals change, too. But it doesn’t absolve us as leaders from creating environments that embrace the skills and talents of those we’ve been entrusted to lead. Learning what makes people tick requires time and an ability to care about something other than the bottom line.

Sports has the time to care about people, but treat just as disposal once they’re no longer up to snuff. Still, we can learn a lot about managing our own teams from taking a look at the playbook of athletics.

Reflecting on bigger, faster, newer in .edu web strategy

Early in my career as a web manager, projects just came to me. I’ve basically established a career going places that other don’t know exist and trying to get them to rethink how they view the web, to strategize their web presence and to better integrate the web into institutional marketing.

After spending a few years consulting, now I’m back within the trenches of institutional viewpoints. While it feels good, there are things about it that I forgot. Most notably, the fact that you can’t institute widespread change overnight and even when you can, it’s not always advisible.

When you’re on a bit of a professional island, with no one institutionally who is tasked with the same role as you it can be lonely. But what’s worse than the feeling of being Tom Hanks and talking to a volleyball is the idea that you often have a lot of weight to your words. People look to you to be the zen master of all things web. While this could be nice for one’s ego if you’re into that, it’s the sort of position that I’m glad I’m equipped to handle after six years of doing this rather than when I first began because I feel far more equipped to deal with such things today.

So what’s to think about? Lots of stuff, really. How do you help an institution visualize itself different. I’ll say that it’s first and foremost not solely about “the web” but akin to looking at yourself in the mirror and trying to honestly assess what your suitors are seeing. That might be a weird way of thinking about it, but they’re very similar. There’s a widespread penchant no matter the size of the college or university to believe almost wistfully in what you’re doing and to imagine no matter how things might be perceived that your way is indeed the best way. Usually, we rely on outsiders — consultants — to tell us those hard truths. But when the hard work needs to be done, unless you have big-time dollars, all of the advice in the world won’t mean a thing. You’ll need to tie your laces and dig deep into your own institutional muck to determine where you are, what needs to be changed and how you’re going to do it.

As I reflect on my own glacial shifts in perspective over the years, I realize there is a time and a place for ambitious agendas. For one, I’ve found that it’s easy to propose bold ideas. Realism sets in and then you have to figure out to decipher coherence out of boldness. Once that’s happened, I find it’s truly about execution. If you can sell a plan to the moon and actually get there, that’s awesome. But without the full weight of a nation behind you, some luck and good timing…you’re not going anywhere. The parallels between a bygone era in our own country and now make this all the more relevant.

A lot of the conversations going on right now — and there are lots of them — in the field of higher ed strategy are about bigger, faster, bolder, better. These are important discussions and findings that need to occur if we’re going to continue to raise the bar. What I need to remind myself often is not to be distracted by these happenings while contemplating the realities of my own sites. Not every institution is positioned to do more now for a bevy of financial, personnel and strategic reasons. It doesn’t make our triumphs or struggles less relevant, it’s just an important reality to face.

I’m fond of warily approaching social media properties, because I realize that not every school really has the infrastructure to support some 3rd party tool. But give how copycat the highered industry can be at times, it’s hard to resist creating official messaging in unofficial places to counter what others might do.

What are folks making?

The 2008-09 Mid-Level Administrative & Professional Salary Survey was released yesterday and the median salaries were posted online. It’s a good resource and something that I wished was online years ago, but couldn’t find. Not a meaty post, but after posting it on Twitter, I thought it might be useful to someone out there who didn’t know where to find it.

Kudos to higheredjobs.com for posting it and clicking on that link will take you there.

Workplace 2.0: Motivating and Managing Millennials

This article was published in November, but it’s still timely and over the past few months I’ve read a lot of blog posts on the web that remind me of it. So even though I wrote it, I figure it might be a good idea to dredge it up again for a whole new set of readers who weren’t subscribing to the blog back then.

What motivates young people isn’t the promise of a distant retirement check thirty or forty years after they’ve given all they have to a company that doesn’t let them have a piece of the pie. The first thing you need to keep in mind is the fundamental idea of ownership.

You don’t have to give up stock in your company, to give a young worker a feeling that s(he) is contributing to themselves, as well as the firm’s bottom line. But you do need to invest in their sense of desire to contribute in meaningful ways to institutions that matter. To them, coming to work is an exercise in mutual benefit.