Part 8 of Leading Generously, already! Thanks to all of you who have liked and retweeted and commented. There are just a few more chapters ahead, and I’m starting to get a sense of my path forward, but I’m really looking forward any thoughts you may have to share, on this or any chapter.
Lift them up, rather than marking them down.
Across this guide thus far, as we’ve considered what it is to be a generous leader, especially in difficult times, we’ve encountered several core concepts: we’ve explored the importance of focusing on the people who make up our institutions, rather than on its functional but inhuman structures and processes; we’ve looked at the importance of cultivating trusting relationships with those people; and we’ve recognized the basis for those trusting relationships in a set of shared values that must be continually re-articulated and to which all must be held accountable. Those three ideas are at the heart of creating an environment in which an organization can function as a community.
That community, however, too often gets submerged in the policies that govern it. These policies are not in and of themselves a bad thing; they’re the mechanisms through which organizations attempt to hold themselves accountable. But they often approach that accountability through regulation, and in particular through establishing means of treating every member of the community exactly the same way.
The impulse that leads to such policies often emerges from a good place: from the desire to create equity, to ensure that the organization operates with a basic sense of fairness. But the problem, of course, is that people are different. They start out in different places, they face different obstacles and have different goals, and simply applying the same uniform policies in the same uniform ways does not result in equivalent outcomes.
Again, this is not to suggest that an institution shouldn’t have such policies, but rather to press its leaders to think about those policies, and the processes through which they’re enacted, in a way that puts people first and that derives from your deepest values. And one key aspect of generous leadership, as we’ve seen, is ensuring that every member of the institution has every possibility for success.
One important means of ensuring that possibility lies in developing processes of evaluation that cultivate success rather than serving as a form of discipline. Processes like these might be described as formative, looking forward to and supporting the work ahead, rather than summative, looking back on and measuring the work that’s been done. As we noted in the chapter on values, this involves shifting the process’s focus from institutionally-derived KPIs to individually-developed goals and pathways.
The team in the dean’s office in the College of Arts & Letters at MSU has been working on such formative review processes within the college. I previously mentioned that these processes ask us to think differently about means and ends, really focusing on our larger goals without overly restricting the kinds of steps that individual staff and faculty can take to get there. This review structure is backed by a goal-setting process called Charting a Path to Intellectual Leadership. CPIL, as we call it (academia does love an acronym), begins by asking us to think about our “horizon goals,” the things we’d most like to be said about us upon retirement, the legacy we’d like to leave behind for those who follow. Horizon goals differ significantly from person to person, but they often focus on the impact of your work on a broader community:
- I want to be known for having established a new field of study.
- I want to be known for having transformed the way our field approaches a key problem.
- I want to be known for having created opportunities for graduate students whose work has changed our thinking in crucial ways.
Reaching those horizon goals requires charting a path that can help lead you there. Along that path there are milestones, which the CPIL team describes as those large markers of success that you can’t fully control. For instance:
- I want to be elected to the executive council of my scholarly organization (so that I can help create the policies that will change the ways we work).
- I want to publish a book that reaches a broad public audience (so that I can help more general readers understand why the work we do in my field matters).
- I want to create a new lab (so that I can build a team of researchers collaborating on the development of new methods).
Among those milestones, of course, are some conventional markers, such as receiving tenure or being promoted, but the key thing to note is that these achievements are not the goal in and of themselves: they lead toward or provide assistance in the pursuit of the goal.
Finally, along the path toward those horizon goals, and leading to those external milestones, are the stepping stones. These are the achievements that lie more fully within our control; they include publishing journal articles in order to get ideas into circulation within a community, or helping to revamp a graduate curriculum in order to provide new kinds of training for future scholars, or any number of other projects that help make those milestones likely.
It’s important to remember, of course, that the stepping stones, and even the milestones, are means to the end, and not the end in themselves. They’re ways of measuring progress toward a goal. But that progress can only be appropriately measured if we actually know the goal, and if we regularly check in to be sure that we’re on the path. And this is what makes the CPIL process formative: it asks each of us to reflect on those goals and why we’re working toward them; it asks us to think about the path we’ve charted and whether it’s leading us in the right direction; it asks us to consider our progress rather than our productivity. And it asks those who evaluate us — whether our supervisors or our assessment committees — to think not just about how much we’ve accomplished but about how we might be supported in setting goals and establishing a path toward them.
Formative processes require very different things of evaluators than do summative processes. They require a willingness to engage with and support the actual individuals involved rather than operating with an abstracted notion of what those individuals should accomplish. There are of course limits to individual staff members’ abilities to operate with their own set of primary goals, particularly in a work environment in which roles are defined and certain basic tasks simply must get done. Even within highly structured environments, however, you can still create the opportunity to work with individual team members to find out how they would like to see their positions develop, what they would like to learn, how they would like to grow. And finding ways to encourage such growth while still making sure that the work gets done can foster an environment in which people have the tools they need in order to innovate, and the engagement they require in order to try.
This is a quite different model of management than we mostly see in workplaces today, and one that requires a real willingness on your part to listen the people you work with, to draw out their interests and concerns, and to think with them about ways to lead them toward their goals rather than yours. To a significant extent, it cultivates people and the relationships among them by replacing management with mentoring.
That having been said, it’s worth stopping to think a bit about how we mentor as well. Mentoring as we practice it — especially in academic spaces — too often winds up looking like a process of self-replication, in which the mentor guides the mentee along the same path they earlier traveled. Learn from my success, we seem to say: do what I would do.
Real mentoring, as my colleague Beronda Montgomery has argued in a wide variety of venues, requires shifting away from this mode of inculcating your mentee in how to achieve your goals, and instead focusing on supporting them as they work toward their own goals. It means helping them as they shape the career they want to have, and not the career we think they should have. And it means operating from a growth mindset, helping to cultivate mentee strengths and improve the environments in which they might thrive, rather than a deficit mindset, correcting or repairing flaws inherent in the mentee.
So rather than leading from a position of judgment, in which we are constantly called upon to assess the work that our colleagues are doing according to our standards, how can we instead lead from support, a forward-looking position that asks us to create the conditions for success in our team as they strive toward their own goals?
Such a shift in attitude toward support has, of course, profound implications for processes of annual review and review for promotion; we’ve explored some of the possibilities in front of us in thinking about how we can create values-based modes of assessment, and we’ll explore some new structures for assessment in the next chapter. But it’s not just a matter of changing the nature of assessment itself; rather, it’s about changing the relationship between those moments of assessment and the ways that we work together more generally. It’s about transforming assessment into an ongoing conversation, one centered around the needs and goals of the folks we’re working with, and how we can ensure that they’re being met. It’s about providing your team with the kinds of support that will enable them to do their best possible work.
You are likely wondering, though, about those members of your team whose goals are out of scope for your unit, or for the work that their role requires. If your business manager really wants to be a web designer, you likely can’t just say “okay, forget the accounts and focus on the website!” The accounts still need to be managed. On the other hand, an unhappy business manager is very likely not a business manager you’ll have for long: they’ll eventually find a more appealing opportunity elsewhere. And if they don’t, their unhappiness could have deep ramifications for the functioning of the team as a whole. So the trick is likely to be working with your business manager to figure out how you might together set some goals and create some opportunities that both augment the work of the team and support their individual growth.
Resolving these conflicts, in other words, between stated roles and individual goals is crucial for the health of an organization. Without question, the organization has its own needs and goals. But supporting individual members of the organization in shaping fulfilling lives and futures is not only key to their personal happiness but to their happiness within the organization. And that, in the end, is key to the organization’s happiness.
But working your way around to a supportive mindset, and escaping the assumption that individual goals have no place within organizational life, and that your role in assessing the work of those who report to you is to judge them according to standards developed by and undoubtedly privileging the needs of the organization — well, that’s a lot. Becoming a truly supportive mentor is likely to require as much work on yourself as it does counseling others. It asks you to think differently about the relationship between the individuals and the organization, and that means convincing yourself that the long-term interests of the people on your team need to outweigh your own. And it requires you to genuinely believe that helping your team members outgrow their roles on your team is a good thing.
That can be challenging, especially when a team works well together. A highly functional team can feel like a well-oiled machine, and the departure of a member of the team threatens to throw everything out of alignment. But here’s the thing: it’s not a machine. It’s people and the relationships among them that make the whole thing work, and when the people aren’t happy, the relationships run the risk of becoming dysfunctional. Supporting the functioning of the team means supporting the work of the people on it, and working with them to develop individual and collective goals that will allow all of you to thrive.