As a long-standing department chair, director of a complex school of education, and associate dean of a large college comprised of many differing disciplinary departments, I have learned over time that keen observation plays an important role in many aspects of leadership, including faculty development and personnel management. Ultimately, effective leaders in higher education need to be close observers of human behavior. They must be able to identify the interests, aspirations, and potential talents—or bright spots—of individuals within an organization and then leverage that knowledge to elevate both the individual and the organization. I have known few leaders to adopt a proactive and positive approach when dealing with personnel issues, but I believe strongly that doing so, at least in many cases, can yield positive results.
[dropcap]As[/dropcap] a long-standing department chair, director of a complex school of education, and associate dean of a large college comprised of many differing disciplinary departments, I have learned over time that keen observation plays an important role in many aspects of leadership, including faculty development and personnel management. Ultimately, effective leaders in higher education need to be close observers of human behavior. They must be able to identify the interests, aspirations, and potential talents—or bright spots—of individuals within an organization and then leverage that knowledge to elevate both the individual and the organization. I have known few leaders to adopt a proactive and positive approach when dealing with personnel issues, but I believe strongly that doing so, at least in many cases, can yield positive results.
A positive, asset-based approach to leadership is grounded in the notion that every individual wants to be understood and valued, and every organization needs to operate at maximum productivity. This guiding premise holds true for all individuals, including the most exuberant and most recalcitrant employees. Validation and support are powerful tools that have the potential to transform the disengaged or disgruntled into contributing and thriving members of a department or college. The result can be a high-powered organization comprised of people who feel their individualism is acknowledged and their broader contributions are appreciated. In essence, what results is a healthy productive organization for all.
Perhaps this asset-based approach to leadership is best understood through metaphor. The following dog training example helps to explain the concept. Looking to dogs as a way to think about human behavior is actually a leadership lesson that is the opposite of the proverbial “herding cats” complaint that typically characterizes faculty in academia. Jonathon Swift’s wise expression that “every dog must have his day” is advice that works as well for people as it does for dogs.
It’s a dog’s world
In the animal world, a well-known simple secret is that the top animal performers, particularly dogs, do what they love and love what they do. For example, individual dogs naturally prefer certain activities more than others. Retrievers, for instance, might choose to chase frisbees over playing with other dogs. When a frisbee-obsessed dog spots a frisbee it becomes laser-focused and insistent. The observant dog owner or handler observes these preferences and then builds on the inherent interest. Once the specific interest has been identified, the next step is for the handler to develop or leverage that interest into potential talent.
After the dog’s specific interest has emerged, the next step is to support and scaffold that natural curiosity into potential talent. The handler might begin by throwing the frisbee and encouraging the dog to chase after it. However, if the dog loves chasing the frisbee but never returns it, additional supports must be put in place. In such a case, the next action might be for the handler to throw the frisbee upside down in order to make it easier for the dog to pick up in its mouth. Then, when the dog starts picking up the frisbee, the handler might entice the dog to return with the frisbee, perhaps providing an additional reward in the form of a treat or praise for a job well done. If more guidance is still needed, a long lightweight line could be snapped on the dog, thus reinforcing the lesson of throw-and-retrieve by gently reeling in the line on the return. Regardless of the level and type of support needed, the dog will soon be on its way to spectacular five-foot-high-leaping frisbee catches because playing with the frisbee is what it loves to do, and all dogs do what they love. Eventually, the reward simply becomes the opportunity to repeat the game.
The outcome of this exercise serves a dual purpose. The dog’s interest in the frisbee has been leveraged into a strength and talent—and, of equal importance, a responsive and attentive pet has resulted from the process. Additionally, the new-found activity benefits the household. The dog has been provided ample opportunities to burn off energy that might have otherwise led to less constructive, or in the case of some dogs, even destructive behaviors. The outcome is mutually beneficial for all.
Although this metaphor in no way meant to imply that people are like animals, when considering top performers, broadly speaking, leaders could learn much from this approach to working with dogs. There are three simple steps for achieving a similar asset-based approach as a human resource strategy.
Step one: Identify the bright spots
People also love what they do and do what they love. The first step of this asset-based approach in higher education settings is to begin with human observation. An observant and astute leader with an asset-based orientation starts by identifying individual faculty interests and potential talents through observations and interactions in various educational settings. In other words, they must seek to find the “frisbee” for each individual. Those observations can then be followed up with discussions about the individual’s interests, well-being, and aspirations. Based on the information disclosed, the bright spots, along with aspirational goals, can be mutually agreed upon. These “bright spot” conversations can also be opportunities to discuss perceived frustrations and barriers but should be unrelated to any personnel committee evaluation processes so as not to be thought of as evaluative or punitive in nature.
Not too long ago, a “bright spot” conversation presented itself to me. I observed a faculty member in our college who appeared to be alienated by colleagues in his own unit. In conversation, he disclosed that he indeed felt alienated and undervalued by his peers. As a result, he was reluctant to participate in department meetings or serve on any committees. He also shared that he had interest and expertise in supporting first-generation student success, a university-wide priority on our campus. As a leader with an asset-based orientation to personnel matters, I believed that we had identified a bright spot for this faculty member. Working with first-generation college students was the “frisbee.” Once the bright spot had been identified, the next challenge was to determine how to support and develop that potential talent.
Step two: Reflect on where to find success
The second step of the process requires much reflection and deep knowledge of the functions and needs of the organization to determine how best to proceed. A leader must have a sophisticated understanding of the support and scaffolding tools needed to create a context for success. I suggest working inside and outside the unit to determine potential opportunities for further growth and development.
Of course, like the targeted frisbee practice, the opportunities must align with the individual’s interests, expertise, and aspirations. With the example of the alienated faculty member above, knowing the area of potential talent, I watched for opportunities to work on broader campus-wide student success initiatives. When the right circumstances presented themselves, both the faculty member and I were prepared to say “yes” to an opportunity that would validate the unique contributions of the individual while also providing much needed expertise in an area of critical need in the institution.
Step three: Leverage individual talent for the good of all
The third and most important step is to determine how to leverage that interest and potential talent to provide opportunities for the individual while leveraging their abilities for the good of the all. The faculty member referred to in the previous steps, having accepted an opportunity outside his unit that provided more recognition, appreciation, and validation for his expertise on a larger scale, felt validation. In turn, faculty in his own unit gained more respect for their colleague because he had garnered the respect of the larger academic community. Ultimately, this individual returned to his department more willing to give back and offer support. In this case, leveraging the bright spot served to renew the individual’s commitment to the unit—a win for all.
In summary, if executed with great care, an asset-based approach to handling personnel matters, and faculty development in general, can be a win-win proposition that cultivates top performers. Individuals want to feel that they are understood and valued by their colleagues, leaders, and institutions. Great organizations need talented individuals. All of us desire to grow, thrive, and contribute to our respective workplace environments. Sometimes, not always, all that is needed is some close observation, careful reflection, and an asset-based approach to discover, support, and leverage bright spots in our human resources.
Dr. Deborah Summers is associate dean of the College of Communication and Education at California State University, Chico.
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