Monday, August 27, 2012

Leadership Mechanics: Handling Challenges From Your Team

If you've been an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon any time in the last twenty or thirty years, you've been impacted by Michael Murphy. You might not have known about Michael at the time, but he has held a variety of roles in Student Affairs in that time, so to some extent, much of what happened to you outside of a classroom was under Michael's influence.

When I was at CMU in the mid-to-late 90's, Michael was Dean of Student Affairs, a vast role that included responsibilities for things like housing, dining, and student activities. I could say a lot about great leadership traits I saw Michael exhibit at that time, but one of the things that stood out to me was the way he'd handle students challenging him about various choices made by the administration. I remember one instance as clearly as if it were yesterday.

As a bit of background, at the time, the campus had two dining venues that accepted our meal plan, and they were both awful. Just terrible. For most of my second semester freshman year, dinner each night was cheese fries, because they were so hard to get wrong.

Anyhow, at some point Michael was doing an open Q&A with students, and someone asked, "Why can't we have a McDonald's or a Taco Bell on campus?"

Michael's response was not so much an answer as it was a full treatise defining the pros and cons of having a franchise fast food restaurant on campus. He acknowledged the appeal of having something familiar and consistent, he conceded that it was an option that had been raised and considered on multiple prior occasions, and then proceeded to recite a set of reasons why the idea had been rejected in the past. Fast food menus don't vary, at all, meaning it is easy to get bored very quickly with what's available. Large corporations don't have much flexibility in how an individual franchise works, so the school would have little influence on the operation. It's not clear that the economics of having a franchise on campus would appeal to a major fast food corporation. Putting such a franchise on campus could draw in people from outside the campus community, which is not certain to be the right choice.

Michael was under no obligation to give a thorough explanation of the reasoning behind the choice not to have a fast food franchise on campus. Given his position, he could have simply said, "We've looked at that idea, it wouldn't work, we're not going to do it." I think though, that his goals as a leader were better served by going through the detailed explanation. In particular:
  • He showed the entire audience that he respected their input and responded to it thoughtfully. When you think about it, a group of entitled undergraduates probably didn't deserve that level of respect from a high-level university administrator, and yet he showed the respect anyway. 
  • He demonstrated that he had a command of all aspects of the issue. There's tremendous power in simply demonstrating that, as the leader responsible for such choices, he had given it far more thought than his original questioner had. 
  • He worked to persuade the audience that the solution they had in mind wasn't as simple as they thought. Whether or not Michael convinced anyone about the right choice to make, he made sure everyone walked away understanding that the choice was not black and white. I think this was particularly valuable because Michael treated the audience in a manner appropriate to their intelligence - this wasn't a matter of communicating to them a decision that had already been set in stone, as much as it was a matter of bringing the audience into a nuanced dialog with no clear best solution.
What leader hasn't had the experience of being challenged, particularly in public, by someone on their team who wants to see things done differently, or who is questioning a decision, or just wants to sound off about something that's annoying them? The anti-pattern that happens all too often is for a leader to shoot off something like "It's more complicated than you understand, but what we're doing is the right way," or, even worse, when the leader responds by directly attacking the questioner - a response that usually comes from a place of feeling disrespected.

Here's why this really matters: the leader who shuts down challenges from their team leads that team to abdicate all responsibility for change - what member of a team tries to push the group in a new direction if their input isn't respected by the leader? The ultimate outcome is a team where the leader is the only one ever creating change, because the rest of the team has seen that their own attempts are never treated fairly.

As a leader, it takes a tremendous amount of self-confidence to hear a challenging question, listen to the intent of the person asking it, and respond in a spirit of mutual respect and productive discussion. At the core, I have found that leading in this kind of situation requires the humility to accept that sometime someone will make such a challenge and I will have to say, "There are plusses and minuses to what you're saying, but yes, on the whole I think you have a better way, let's figure out a way to make that happen."

Those experiences have always created positive outcomes for me on teams I have led, which is why I think careful and considerate response to challenges from your team is a critical one of our Leadership Mechanics.

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