When Your Volunteers Aren’t Getting the Job Done

When a committee of volunteers falls short of expectations, it is frequently because they lack adequate training.

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There are many organizations that rely heavily on the work of volunteers to carry out the goals and functions of the organization. In fact, many of us receive our first lessons in leadership as volunteers in some type of organization.

When an individual volunteers, or is asked to serve, it is usually assumed that he or she understands the ideals and goals of the organization and is willing to support them. Occasionally a handbook or guidebook is given along with a hearty “thank you for serving,” then they go to work. And we see varying degrees of success (or failure).

I have served in organizations where individuals, or sometimes entire committees, were not measuring up to the goals of the organization, despite their best efforts. Common practice dictates that when this is identified, it is time to change out committee members or chairs, or in extreme cases, disband entire committees. Their responsibilities might then be given to someone who is “better equipped” to get the job done.[1]

You may have seen this in your own volunteer service.

There is something wrong with this picture. Very wrong. Common practice is not necessarily best practice. You wouldn’t buy a new car and hand the keys to your sixteen-year-old without providing some serious training first.

If a volunteer or a committee is failing to do its job, then there is a leadership failure somewhere. Not just the committee chairs, but the leaders who oversee the committees,  have failed if a committee is not functioning as it should.

I believe that the following is important to a new volunteer, or even an experienced volunteer who is serving in a new role.

 

  1. Proper orientation. Assure that the mission, vision, and goals for the organization and the committee are understood. Ensure that the volunteer is aware of the organizational culture and history and understands his or her place within the organization.
  2. Job-specific training. A volunteer should understand his or her role in their particular committee. Never assume that because they volunteered, they already get it. Many positions and assignments have what are disparagingly called “oh-by-the-way” responsibilities. In a well-run organization, volunteers should understand what their positions entail before accepting the responsibility. This should be made clear at the outset. All too often, an “oh-by-the-way” is made known only after a failure.
  3. Outline expectations. The training should include explaining any expectations that come with the position. What is required of the member? How will it be measured? How often is performance evaluated?
  4. Mentoring. Just because a committee has experienced members as well as new people, it should never be assumed that mentoring will occur. Yes, many individuals will take this on by themselves, but this should be assigned by the chair, who should try to identify the best members to mentor a new member.
  5. Empowerment. The new volunteer should feel empowered to speak and to act as a part of his or her assignment. Frequently those with less experience hesitate to share new ideas or seek clarification out of respect to those who are “wiser and more experienced.” That should not be a part of any organization’s culture.
  6. Follow-up. It takes a few meetings or a few assignments to get a grasp on the assignment. Questions don’t often arise until after the volunteer has been involved for a time. Make sure that a respected and experienced member is assigned to provide the follow-up and address the questions.
  7. Re-train as necessary. Inoculations require periodic boosters in order to provide effective coverage. They are not good for a lifetime. In the same way, we should provide training boosters as frequently as needed.

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Naturally, training requires time and resources. It requires raising the organization to a higher level. Some leaders are better qualified than others to provide this training. In any organization, all will come with their own gifts and abilities. It is incumbent upon those vested with the leadership authority to ensure that skills and talents are developed and utilized, not only for the benefit of the organization, but for the benefit of the individuals who volunteer.

A good leader of volunteers does not set his people up for failure: a good leader sets clear expectations and enables his volunteers to achieve them.

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[1] I will admit that there are cases where a committee has performed its designated function or outlived its usefulness and should be disbanded. Sometimes this should also occur due to fiscal concerns. But in my opinion, it should never happen simply because there is a perception of poor performance.

Course Corrections Assist in Reaching the Destination Safely

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There is a great deal of attention given to the terms “formative assessments” and “summative assessments” in education circles. “Feedback” is sometimes substituted for “assessment,” but the principle doesn’t change.

Let me illustrate with something familiar to most of us. When we fly from airport A to airport B, we note that the pilot gets us there safely and mostly on time, which we appreciate. Our recognition of the pilot’s achievement is the summative feedback: we are grading his overall performance based on the end result.

We are not frequently aware that even on the short flights, the pilot is continually changing course: adjusting the altitude or the direction of the plane. The plane commonly veers off course due to atmospheric conditions, but based on feedback from instruments, the co-pilot and air traffic control, the pilot brings the plane back on course and lands it safely.

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We don’t berate the pilot because he deviated from his planned course a dozen times or more; we praise him because he made corrections and got us to our collective destination. This is formative feedback: the intermediate evaluations that individually are low-stakes evaluations, but together, they produce a significant result.

 

In many organizations, an annual review is customary. In some of those organizations, this may be the only assessment that an employee receives from his leader. What a shock it can be to feel that one is on course all year, only to find that a five-degree course deviation eight months ago led to being significantly off course. Now a major correction is needed (unless a crash has already occurred) in order to return back to the planned path. Had intermediate feedback been given early on, the correction would have been more comfortable and less noticeable.

How can a leader give a beneficial formative assessment?

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The core of formative feedback for the employee consists of three elements, which can be expressed in three questions:

  1. Where are you right now?

The employee must have a sense of his destination. Expectations should be clarified, as well as checkpoints.

  1. Where do you need to be right now?

As above, if clear expectations are given, the employee should already know if he or she is off course.

  1. How can you (or we) close the gap between the two?

Very often an individual readily recognizes that he or she is off course, but has no idea how to return to the planned path, or must be encouraged to make the correction. This may be the good leader’s most important task!

 

The desired assessment should occur at three levels:

  1. Self-assessment

The leader should empower the employee with the necessary tools and training to self-evaluate. I previously wrote about the Dunning Kruger Effect, which describes the need for an individual to reach a certain level of knowledge and skill in order to properly evaluate their own performance (or others’ performance).

If the leader doesn’t recognize this, then he is failing as a leader. We cannot expect excellence if we do not train for it.

  1. Peer assessment

In team efforts, the employee should be able to turn to a colleague for a meaningful formative assessment. Again, this requires that both individuals have the necessary tools. Empowering the team is particularly critical to the success of peer assessments. They must know that this is acceptable. In a sense, this empowerment is a delegation of authority to all involved, and relieves the leader/manager of a portion of his burden.

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  1. Leader (manager) assessment

Finally, the leader assesses. If the team has a proper understanding of the tasks being evaluated and the intended results, this assessment will confirm the judgment of the individual and their peers. This can be a powerful morale builder for everyone. It also becomes a checkpoint for the leader to assess his efficacy in directing the project.

 

Of course, all of this necessitates that the leader have a presence among his team. The principle of MBWA (management by walking around) lends itself well to providing formative feedback. If a leader remains isolated and doesn’t offer correction until disaster strikes, then trust, confidence and morale will be undermined.

I am not suggesting that the leader micromanage. This is not desirable. But the leader should train, empower and monitor personally in order to see that his team reaches their desired destination; that they achieve their individual, team and organizational goals.

 

A good leader will provide frequent navigational assistance to his team because he wants to see them reach their destination safely.

A Good Leader Leads with Love

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There are many inspirational stories circulating around the internet. Some of them are true; others we hope are true. The following is a summary of one that is true, and may touch the hearts of the most hardened leaders. Thanks to Jemma Garraghan on the Why Lead Now blog for this summary.

Oh, and the story is true. See Snopes. And the complete story can be found at: All Good Things.

Leaders, look inward for the lessons to be learned from this story. I cannot share all the insights you may gain from reading this and pondering it. But I invite you to share any good insights you may have gained. 

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One day, a teacher asked her students to list the names of the other students in the room on two sheets of paper, leaving a space between each name. Then she told them to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down.

It took the remainder of the class period to finish their assignment, and as the students left the room, each one handed in the papers.

That Saturday, the teacher wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet of paper, and listed what everyone else had said about that individual.

On Monday she gave each student his or her list.

Before long, the entire class was smiling. “Really?” she heard whispered. “I never knew that I meant anything to anyone!” and, “I didn’t know others liked me so much,” were most of the comments.

No one ever mentioned those papers in class again. The teacher never found out if they discussed them after class or with their parents, but it didn’t matter. The exercise had accomplished its purpose. The students were happy with themselves and one another.

That group of students moved on.

Several years later, one of the students was killed in Vietnam and his teacher attended the funeral of that student.  She had never seen a serviceman in a military coffin before. He looked so handsome, so mature. The church was packed with his friends. One by one those who loved him took a last walk by the coffin. The teacher was the last one to bless the coffin.

As she stood there, one of the soldiers who acted as pallbearer came up to her. “Were you Mark’s math teacher?” he asked. She nodded: “Yes.” Then he said: “Mark talked about you a lot.”

After the funeral, most of Mark’s former classmates went together to lunch. Mark’s mother and father were also there, wanting to speak with his teacher. “We want to show you something,” his father said, taking a wallet out of his pocket. “They found this on Mark when he was killed. We thought you might recognize it.”

Opening the billfold, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped, folded and refolded many times.

The teacher knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which she had listed all the good things each of Mark’s classmates had said about him.

“Thank you so much for doing that,” Mark’s mother said. “As you can see, Mark treasured it.”

All of Mark’s former classmates started to gather around. Charlie smiled rather sheepishly and said, “I still have my list. It’s in the top drawer of my desk at home.”

Chuck’s wife said, “Chuck asked me to put his in our wedding album.”

“I have mine too,” Marilyn said. “It’s in my diary”

Then Vicki, another classmate, reached into her pocketbook, took out her wallet and showed her worn and frazzled list to the group. “I carry this with me at all times,” Vicki said.  Without batting an eyelash, she continued, “I think we all saved our lists.”

Tears rolled down the eyes of the humble teacher.  We encounter so many people in our lives, and it’s a precious joy to see the good in all those journeys.

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Please note that this is not a call for mindless positive thinking. You don’t need to hold hands and sing Kum Ba Ya in your meetings. That has no place in the real world. Instead, it is a reminder that we cannot lift our teams by putting the members down.

Yes, there are times when correction is needed, but it can usually be given with love. Yes, I really said that. Love is a foundational principle of Steve Farber’s Radical LEAP (that’s Love, Energy, Audacity and Proof). Moreover, it is our team members who produce our bottom lines. Do we show them that we value their contributions? Where do our priorities lie?

And now for the homework. If you gained any leadership insights from this story, take some time to determine how you will apply them. And then go to work and sincerely share the love. As in Sister Helen’s story, the changes may not be immediately apparent, but you will reap benefits.

A good leader leads with love.

To Form a More Perfect Union?

I am of the opinion that the presidential election process goes on far too long. But that is not the topic of these posts.

As I listened to the discussions about the “debates,” it occurred to me that there are two questions I would like to ask each candidate. First: “Who are you?” “Do you have a sense of identity?” “What is it that makes you tick?” “Who is the real you?” And second, “Do you understand and intend to support and live by the bylaws of the organization (i.e. the Constitution of the United States of America)?” “How have you demonstrated that support up to this moment?”

Since these are two very distinct topics, I propose to address them separately. This will deal with the second questions. The first, published previously, is called Your Leadership Compass.

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A good leader knows the guidelines and rules that govern his organization.

Every organization should have written guidelines. Most of my leadership experience is in the non-profit sector. Non-profits are required by law to have a set of bylaws, which are guiding principles for the management of the organization. The same is true for corporations and many other organizations.

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The bylaws or handbook describe how the organization runs, how it is organized, and may include policies and procedures for the organization. It describes the responsibilities of leaders and the various levels, the responsibilities of members, and may describe the steps necessary to becoming a leader.

Best practices dictate that these documents be in place, readily accessible, and followed. The law also has something to say about this. Whether it is a handbook or a set of bylaws, an organization needs to have some written principles to guide its operations. The bylaws should be available to anyone with a vested interest in the operation of the organization.

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The leader is expected to set the standards: he or she must understand and follow the bylaws. He or she should take the lead in respecting the bylaws and encouraging others to do the same.

And if a leader at any level consistently ignores the bylaws, he or she should be removed from his or her position. Through methods described in the bylaws, of course. Failure to enforce the rules leads to confusion and catastrophe.

A good citizen is aware that our Founding Documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution contain the bylaws for the leaders of the nation. We have not outgrown these documents, nor can I remember a vote by the citizens to do away with them. Is it unreasonable to expect our leaders to follow them?

A good leader knows the rules, and does his or her best to play by the rules.

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Your Leadership Compass

I am of the opinion that the presidential election process goes on far too long. But that is not the topic of these posts.

As I listened to the discussions about the “debates,” it occurred to me that there are two questions I would like to ask each candidate. First: “Who are you?” “Do you have a sense of identity?” “What is it that makes you tick?” “Who is the real you?” And second, “Do you understand and intend to support and live by the bylaws of the organization (i.e. the Constitution of the United States of America)?” “How have you demonstrated that support up to this moment?”

Since these are two very distinct topics, I propose to address them separately. This will deal with first questions. The second, To Form a More Perfect Union?, will follow in the next few days.

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A good leader has a sense of identity. That identity is a rock-solid foundation for the leader’s thoughts and actions.

Skilled mariners, both in sea and in sky, learn to chart a course using map and compass and other important instruments. They learn to find true north to guide them in their journey, and they learn to rely on other landmarks as well.

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In a similar fashion, a leader should know how to find his way, even in the midst of storms and chaos. If a leader has no sense of his true direction, he will be unable to chart a course that will lead his organization to safety. Without that sense of direction, he will simply be at the mercy of the winds and currents, driven by external forces.

In a ship, this loss of direction usually leads to disaster. It is no different in an organization that has lost its way.

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If a leader wants to be able to guide his team through the storms that organizations and businesses will inevitably encounter, he must have a true north, an undeviating set of principles and values to direct him. When times are tough, the leader’s internal compass or GPS must be able to detect that true north consistently.

This holds true for all leaders, whether they are leading a small business, a large corporation, a volunteer organization, family, or a nation. It is impossible to stand firm if one does not know where he stands. True leadership must begin with a firm, reliable foundation.

So I would ask each of the presidential candidates to give me a straight answer. What are the undeviating principles that you have built your life on? Can you define them? Are you true to them? Will you continue to be true to them?

My guess is that few of them can give a direct answer to such questions. If that is the case, they are unfit to lead on any level. If one cannot provide a straight answer to questions about character, it would be unrealistic to expect straight leadership.

A good leader has a fixed, constant guiding star, and knows how to navigate by it.

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Take the Lead in Preparing

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Disasters, either natural or man-made, pose a year-round threat to most of us. A good leader will prepare for the unexpected in order to be ready to guide his team through a disaster.

Potential disasters will vary from one region to another. In my area, the greatest threat is posed by earthquakes or human-caused disasters. Wildfires and flash flooding are also potential threats. Hurricanes and ice storms are highly unlikely for us. While we can’t adequately prepare for every possible disaster, we can take basic steps to ensure that we are ready.

There a several steps a good leader can take to help his team be prepared.

  1. Plan

A leader must have a general emergency plan in place. In 30 years, I have experienced two significant earthquakes while at work. This taught me what I need to do if it happens again. Risk assessment is important. I have surveyed each office I have worked in so that I knew the best exit routes and how far from the building I needed to be in order to be safe. This included surveying for overhead power lines and other potential hazards. You don’t want to walk from one hazard into another one. I have rehearsed the process in my mind, but I didn’t stop there.

2. Train

It is important to make sure that your team understands expectations and how to act in an emergency. There will also be concerns specific to each type of team or business.

You will all need to keep your cool and be of assistance to visitors and others who are onsite. Knowing evacuation routes and meeting places is critical. It is also important to know when not to evacuate.

One example: I work next to a major railway freight line. One of our possible concerns is a derailment with hazardous materials. We cannot evacuate if there is a hazardous material concern outside, unless the building itself is in danger.

3. Delegate assignments

Each team member should have a responsibility. For example, someone can take charge of inspecting your facility for potential hazards. Someone can monitor expiration dates on emergency supplies. Someone has to take the lead during an evacuation. Someone could grab the first-aid kit or a “go-bag” on their way out. And someone needs to be designated as the last one out. And don’t forget those who will need assistance.

These responsibilities as well as others that you may identify should be assigned and understood. Even as a dentist and a faculty member, I have a specific emergency responsibility in our clinic. And people respect this uniform!

The managing partner, hard at work.

4. Prepare supplies

When we think about supplies, first aid supplies come to mind first. But other items will assist our team as well. A supply of emergency food and water may be beneficial. A set of clothing and sturdy walking shoes in a small duffel bag can be beneficial if you and your team dress professionally.

5. Regularly update information and training

The prepared leader will have contact information for his or her entire team, and for their family members or significant others. Contact information should include various media types, e.g. email addresses, cell numbers, even social media info. In a pinch, you want to have all the possibilities covered. Communication during and after the emergency is critical.

Think about this: some disasters will occur while we are not at work. It may become important to contact your team to tell them not to come to work in some situations.

Remember also that training is not a one-time event. A good leader will set aside time to retrain and refresh skills, as well as to bring new team members up to speed.

A good leader will ensure that he and his team are ready to face a disaster. And we should think about more than just the human element. What about data backups and important documents? If you plan ahead and make use of available resources, you will be able to face an emergency with confidence.Emergency_Preparedness

Please note that this is meant to be an overview only. Due the variations in leadership situations, businesses, geographic locations and potential disasters, I cannot cover all the possibilities. You must make relevant preparations for your own situation. For more information, checklists, and training materials, see ready.gov, or websites for your state, province, or local disaster agencies or the Red Cross. British Columbia has an outstanding website for my Canadian friends. There are also many commercial entities who can provide helpful resources for your preparedness needs.

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word?

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Language has the power to influence thoughts and actions. The words we use to describe things—to ourselves and others—affects how we and they think and act.

This is a lesson that we should always keep in mind. Either as leaders or as followers, and particularly as parents, our words make a difference.

Words are especially influential when repeated. Repetition forms patterns that become locked into our long-term memory. The Dutch have a saying “herhaling is de toverkracht van de reclame,” which translates loosely as “repetition is the magic power of advertising.” This is a powerful statement. I can still recall many ads from the 60’s and 70’s, when ads were well-written and the dialog and the music were original and focused. This is because of repetition that occurred. Repetition gives ideas staying power.

I also recall many things that were repeated to me over the years, seriously and in jest, both positive and negative. They are etched in my memory. And I can think of some leaders and supervisors who simply dwelt on the negative. They utilized a reverse-sandwich technique in giving criticism. Their failure messages still resound in my head.

The lesson for leaders is that some things bear repeating; others should not be repeated.

Disapproval is far more powerful than approval. It is also more common.

If you have to continually repeat criticisms, maybe you need to take another look at yourself. You are probably an ineffective leader, and it is certain that what you are doing isn’t working. More often than not, the underperforming individual needs some coaching and encouragement, and then he or she will begin to improve.

It should also be taboo to repeat complaints. Complaints suck the energy out of a team. They create apprehension and stifle creativity.

As a leader, the things you should be repeating are encouragement, sincere praise and thanks. And if you must repeat anything else, why not repeat solutions and visions? The failure messages have to go. Your repeated phrases should be validating and serve to guide the individual down the desired path, with a vision of the intended destination.

Repeated criticism and complaints become like the drone note in some musical styles. Are you familiar with the drone note? I believe the drone is one of the main reasons that people don’t like listening to bagpipes. If you drone on and on, people won’t like listening to you, either.

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A great leader is at home on the range, where seldom is heard a discouraging word.

[1] Photo from Kathleen M. Isabell, who notes: A helpful Exit sign on I-94 in western North Dakota directs the deer and the antelope to where they are supposed to play. There are no services at this exit. – See more at: http://www.roadsideamerica.com/tip/8443#sthash.vxgpNZG7.dpuf . There is actually a rehab center at this exit, not an attraction. So where do the deer and the antelope go to play?

What was John Wayne’s take on the Scout Law?

Scouting was a big part of my life. It is where I learned many life skills and began learning how to be a leader. It shaped me, and many of my contemporaries. Because Boy Scouts is founded upon moral principles, and actually believes in standards, it is under attack by those who feel that there should be no moral standards in society. this has already done irreparable damage to the foundations of Scouting, and I fear that it will lead to the demise of a once-great program for youth.

I am reposting this blog post from Bryan on Scouting, from BSA’s website: http://blog.scoutingmagazine.org/2015/08/13/john-waynes-take-scout-law/ because it quotes from John Wayne on what is most important in Scouting: specifically the Scout Law. The principles are timeless. At least if you still believe in principles. I happen to believe very strongly that we need principles as a foundation of a strong society.

What was John Wayne’s take on the Scout Law?

In 1979, dignitaries including President Gerald Ford honored Academy Award-winning actor John Wayne at a dinner hosted by the BSA’s Los Angeles Area Council.

The council named the John Wayne Outpost Camp after The Duke, paying tribute to the actor only a few months before his death on June 11, 1979.

It was at this dinner that Wayne shared his own interpretation of the Scout Law and what it means to him. (This script is from the May-June 1979 issue of Scouting found in our archives.)

“A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent,” he said.

“Nice words. Trouble is, we learn them so young we sometimes don’t get all the understanding that goes with them. I take care of that with my family. As each boy reaches Scout age, I make sure he learns the Scout Law. Then I break it down for him with a few things I’ve picked up in the more than half century since I learned it.

“A Scout is …


Trustworthy – The badge of honesty. Having it lets you look any man straight in the eye. Lacking it, he won’t look back. Keep this one at the top of your list.

Loyal – The very word is life itself, for without loyalty we have no love of person or country.

Helpful – Part sharing, part caring. By helping each other, we help ourselves, not to mention mankind. Be always full of help — the dying man’s last words.

Friendly – Brotherhood is part of that word. You can take it in a lot of directions — and do — but make sure and start with brotherhood.

Courteous – Allow each person his human dignity, which means a lot more than saying “yes ma’am” and “Thank you, sir.” It reflects an attitude that later in life you “wish you had honored more … earlier in life.” Save yourself that problem. Do it now.

Kind – This one word would stop wars and erase hatreds. But it’s like your bicycle. It’s just no good unless you get out and use it.

Obedient – Start at home, practice it on your family, enlarge it to your friends, share it with humanity.

Cheerful – Anyone can put on a happy face when the going’s good. The secret is to wear it as a mask for your problems. It might surprise you how many others do the same thing.

Thrifty – Means a lot more than putting pennies away, and it’s the opposite of cheap. Common sense covers it just about as well as anything.

Brave – You don’t have to fight to be brave. Millions of good, fine, decent folks show more bravery than heavyweight champs just by getting out of bed every morning, going out to do a good day’s work, and living the best life they know how against a lot of odds. Brave. Keep the word handy every day of your life.

Clean – Soap and water help a lot on the outside. But it’s the inside that counts and don’t ever forget it.

Reverent – Believe in anything that you want to believe in, but keep God at the top of it. With Him, life can be a beautiful experience. Without Him, you are just biding time.

Wayne thanked the hosts for putting his name on the Scout camp, adding, “I would rather see it here than on all the theater marquees the world over.”

Leaders Nurture Talent

Develop Talent

As I see it, one of my primary responsibilities as I teach dentistry is to help my students to develop their talents. They come to clinic with a limited skill set, and limited confidence in their ability. Before they are ready to be turned loose on the public, they must expand that skill set, develop clinical judgment, and become confident in their own judgment, because I will not be looking over their shoulders for very long.

I have discovered some keys to facilitating this process:

  1. Get out of the way
  2. Don’t provide all the answers
  3. Expect excellence
  4. Correct with kindness

Get Out of the Way

Herbie Hancock tells a story of his auditions with Miles Davis and his band. Hancock, then a neophyte keyboard player, reported that Davis started off a tune, and then disappeared. The band continued playing. The next day the same thing happened. After a few days of this, Davis invited Hancock to join the band. Hancock didn’t learn until years later that Davis’ disappearing act was intentional. He knew that young musicians might be intimidated by his presence (I would have been), so he eliminated that distraction so they could perform at their best.

It isn’t easy to find just the right amount of supervision. Especially when my students are treating patients, I need to create the right mix of hovering and independence. As they progress and prove themselves, I hover less.

Those we lead need to feel some freedom in order to grow. Too much attention produces anxiety, and stifles creativity as well as growth. Of course, supervision also ensures accountability, and that is vital to our success in any setting.

Don’t Provide All the Answers

Another lesson Hancock learned from Miles Davis was his teaching method. Miles would rarely give a complete answer when a younger musician asked him specific questions about music theory.

I had to train myself not to be the “answer man” when I taught. When a student asks me what to do in a certain situation, my response is usually “tell me what you think.” I will frequently ask “what are the options/” and then “which do you prefer?” It is a rewarding experience to watch students reason through an approach to a problem and to see the light come on as they realize the best solution. We know that when an individual reasons out a problem, he remembers the solution better than if the answer is just handed to him. I also try not to ask these questions in a threatening tone.

Of course, if your crew isn’t adequately taught and trained beforehand, this can be a recipe for disaster. But with the proper background, questioning can lead to additional growth and confidence. Your team will learn to think for themselves, and you will be able to validate their correct thinking.

Expect Excellence

If you have listened to any of Miles Davis’ recordings (Kind of Blue is my favorite, by far, especially the complexities of So What), it is obvious that he had very high standards. He was willing to teach, but he only surrounded himself with top-notch musicians. The results are unmistakable.

As I work with my dental students, I also have the opportunity to work with the best of the best. Admission is extremely competitive, so the standards are high. Some of our expectations are written; some are conveyed verbally. My highest expectations and aspirations for my team of students are unspoken, but they feel it, and most want to measure up.

Along with the basic graduation and licensure standards, I expect consistent improvement from each student, and encourage them to become the best dentist they can be. Some of our goals are individualized, based on each individual’s potential.

In most of our teams, we won’t have the cream of the crop: there will be a diversity of talent and ability. That’s fine. Our challenge as a leader is to personalize expectations so that each individual is competing with himself. This tends to build collaboration and a better team spirit. And there is nothing wrong with team members lifting each other. Of course, there are some areas where the team members should be competing with each other (sales), but the team effort is important.

Business development - Closeup of hands holding seedling in a group

Correct with Kindness

We all lead humans. Mistakes are inevitable. Miles had it easy in that sense. In rehearsals, he could stop everyone and start over. In dentistry, we don’t often have that luxury. Things don’t always go as anticipated, or a student neglects to get advice when he or she encounters the unexpected. In order to develop the talents properly, correction must be given.

On occasion it is necessary to express disapproval and to respond vigorously and quickly. At other times a quick sidebar can be held, out of earshot of the others. But if mistakes are allowed to continue, change is unlikely.

We have been encouraged, following a procedure, to help the students to evaluate themselves, in order to promote clinical judgment. I have found that asking questions is the best way to encourage my students’ self-evaluation skills.

In our teams, the same questions can apply. Questions I frequently ask are:

“How do you think that went?”
“What could you have done better?”
“What will you do differently next time?”
“How could I have eased the process?”
“What did you learn today?”

Questions I do not ask include:

“What were you thinking?”
“Why didn’t you follow directions?”
“Why didn’t you stop and ask for help?”

I prefer to close the discussion with encouragement to do better (perform, make decisions, communicate, etc.) the next time. Sometimes an assignment is given to review technique or practice before attempting the procedure again. In some cases, we will redo the procedure the next time in order to bring it up to standards.

Positive feedback is vital to improvement. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Every artist was first an amateur.” A good leader should provide the necessary support to transform his team into true professionals.

Hard work, commitment, and talent will help to make it happen.

Facilitating Achievement through Setting Goals — Together

Missing the mark

Good leaders set good goals: for themselves as well as for their subordinates. But exceptional leaders set good goals with their subordinates, then help them to achieve these goals. How often do we put that into practice?

Several years ago, as a “middle manager,” I met with my supervisor for my annual review. I was told that my leadership style was too “laid back.” His suggested goal for me? “Be proactive.” I asked him for clarification. His response? “Just be more proactive.”

With this direction in mind, I made an effort to use his vague advice by being more proactive with my people. The only problem was that my idea of proactivity and his did not coincide. I was unknowingly aiming at the wrong targets. This was not made clear until a year later. But the specific targets were not defined; instead, I continued to hear “be more proactive.”

Along with the nonspecific direction, he also gave the impression that I was failing in my responsibilities because I couldn’t meet his vaguely described expectations. I was being set up for failure, and I’m not certain that it was intentional.

A good leader should take a cooperative approach to goal-setting for his direct reports; in doing this, he becomes a facilitator. It is helpful to remember the Latin root of facilitate is facilis: to make easier. Specific goals should be suggested, and resources identified and provided that can assist in achieving those goals.

Good goals are well-defined, have a timeline, and should be measurable. Ambiguous goals will lead to poor outcomes. And as leaders, we should ask ourselves regularly: “Am I making it easier for my direct reports to achieve our mutual goals?” If I am standing in their way, then I cease to be a leader.

On target

We are all familiar with “SMART” goals.[1] This sometimes seems trite, but the principles are sound. If your approach is based on sound principles, it has greater potential for success. Call the goals what you want, but SMART goals really are smart. In general, goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely.

I want to inject a side note here. Inject some positive feedback into your evaluations and reviews. Dale Carnegie reminded us to be “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” Even the poorest performance has something praiseworthy in it. Sincere praise can be an effective way to promote improved performance. One of my high school English teachers used to write “Noble Effort” on the essays that didn’t measure up. I have not forgotten that.

Remember, we are leading people. Look for the good and praise it. Support them at every opportunity. Help them to see their value to your organization; help them to see their worth as individuals.

Bullseye

[1] Doran, G. T. (1981). There’s a S.M.A.R.T. way to write management’s goals and objectives. Management Review, Volume 70, Issue 11(AMA FORUM), pp. 35-36.