Want to Be A Better Leader? Be A More Likable Person. Really.

In a previous post I referenced research in a Harvard Business Review article that found a devastatingly large inverse correlation between lack of likability and kindness among leaders on the one hand and leadership effectiveness among those same individuals on the other hand. In other words, if you are in the lowest quartile for likability, you have a 1 in 2,000 chance of being in the highest quartile for leadership effectiveness. Leaders should probably care about this—and not just because it’s “better” to be liked than not.

The reason likability and kindness matters, and the reason that unlikable and unkind leaders are profoundly less effective, is because of the impact that those behaviors have on the people within the sphere of a leader’s influence.

So, what can you do to improve your likability as a leader? The research suggests the following:

Engage your colleagues and employees from a place of positive emotion.

Leaders who instinctively use the language of optimism vs. pessimism are rated as more likable and more effective. Employees engage projects with more confidence and commitment if they believe their boss believes they will be successful. Conversely, anger and frustration de-motivate employees and make them less effective and more risk-averse.

Commit yourself to the highest integrity.

Interestingly, employees associate likability with integrity. The psychology behind this is that we are more apt to like those we trust and we are more apt to trust those with high integrity.

Focus on cooperation over competition.

Leaders who use and model cooperation are more likeable because they are less threatening. Competition has a place in motivating behavior, but leaders whose primary modus operandi is to pit people against one another are not associated with likability or kindness.

Lead through coaching and teaching

People generally have fond memories of those who have helped them improve, build skills, grow confidence, etc., through mentoring and coaching. This approach also improves a leader’s effectiveness because it improves the employee’s effectiveness.

Be future oriented with a compelling vision

Interestingly, it turns out that one component of likability in a leader is confidence in where the organization is going. In other words, we tend to be drawn to leaders who make us feel confident and comfortable. The opposite makes us feel nervous and worried.

Be open to feedback and change

The research shows that one of the strongest correlations is between likability and openness to feedback and change—and to actively soliciting feedback. This makes sense. Leaders who are arrogant and aloof are simply less likable. They are also perceived as less kind. And, they are less effective because they are more likely to continue pursuing initiatives, strategies, etc., that are inappropriate because they are not open to feedback and changing course.

In short, if you care about your effectiveness as a leader, you can’t ignore how people perceive your likability and kindness. The good news about the Zenger-Folkman findings, though, is that you don’t need to become stellar at all of the options noted above. In fact, they suggest choosing just two of them that resonate most with you and making a concerted effort to do well at those two things. You can add more later over time!

Will Student Debt Take Down American Higher Education?

We know that over the last couple of decades American students have been borrowing more money to pay college tuition, but do we really understand the magnitude of the debt and its implications, not only for higher education, but for other significant outcomes in society?

In roughly ten years, student debt has tripled. It is currently more than 1.5 trillion dollars and will be two trillion dollars (that is twelve zeros) in less than five years. To put this in perspective, if you combine ALL of the credit card debt held by everyone in America with a credit card (over 180,000,000 people), it would only add up to two thirds of student debt. Student debt is also larger, by 400 billion dollars, than all the car loans in the U.S. combined.

It’s not just the amount of debt, however, that is overwhelming. The nature of the debt is also becoming extraordinarily problematic. Here are some examples:

  • Over 70% of all students take on loan debt (currently over 44,000,000 people)
  • The average debt is now over $37,000 per person and roughly 20% of students owe more than $100,000 dollars.
  • The average monthly student loan payment is now over $400 with about 20% of payments over $1,000 per month.
  • The average bachelor’s degree borrower takes 21 years to pay off student loans.
  • 64% of all student debt is held by women, but they earn 27% less than men after graduation.
  • Nearly 40% ($600,000,000,000) of student debt is held by borrowers under the age 30.
  • $100,000,000,000 of student debt is held by people over 60 years of age
  • Half of all borrowers are making interest-only payments (which means they still owe every dollar of debt they started with despite making years of payments)

The scale of the debt problem is so great that it is affecting other parts of the economy and society as well.

The Federal Reserve Board of Washington, D.C. found that an increase in student debt has led to a decrease in home ownership. Controlling for the recession, they found that home ownership for the most indebted students, aged 24 to 32 years of age, declined by twice the rate as for the rest of the population. Relatedly, the Fed Chairman, Jerome Powell, noted that student debt is beginning to weigh negatively on GDP, with research suggesting it could be costing the economy between $86 and $108 billion per year!

Another study predicts that students who graduated from college in 2015 will have to delay retirement until the age of 75, in large part because of the increasing burden of student debt.

And yet another study found that millennials are delaying both marriage and children, in part, due to student loan debt.

So, back to the core question of this article, how might this reality impact higher education? If the student debt bubble pops (massive defaults), it will drastically decrease the availability of future loans, both public and private, while lenders and the government figure out what to do. This will significantly decrease revenues across all of higher education because more than half of all financial aid revenue today is paid via student loans. If that were to decrease even modestly, most institutions of higher education, across all sectors, would simply be insolvent. Clay Christiansen, of Harvard University, has already predicted that half of all colleges and universities in the U.S. will be closed or bankrupt in the next ten years and that is even if the student loan bubble doesn’t burst. His argument is that the underlying financial model in higher education is fundamentally unworkable across the board and that disruptive innovations will accelerate the demise of many IHEs.

How did we get here with student loan debt? The full answer to that question is far too long for this article, but the basic dynamic is that over the last 25 years or so, tuition has increased dramatically (far in excess of inflation) while state funding for education has declined precipitously (shifting the tuition burden from tax payers to students and their families). There was also an increase in the overall student population, and thus borrowers, through 2011, at which point student enrollment began to decline. The shift from public funding of tuition to student self-funding has resulted in massive increases in borrowing. In 2004, total student debt was less than $400 billion. Today, as noted, it is over $1.5 trillion. That happened in only 14 years!

Whether the bubble pops and brings down much of higher education with it or not, the status quo of student debt is simply not sustainable. Something will have to give. It might be massive debt amnesty (paid for by taxpayers) or an entire generation or two may live much of their lives unable to own homes, buy cars, or invest for retirement. Many debtors will default, but will not be able to discharge student debt through bankruptcy. Some others will last long enough to get through 20 years of income-sensitive repayment, then have their balances eliminated (current federal law provides for that)—but it only works if you don’t have any missed payments, delinquencies, or forbearances. And, based on a new trend, some students will actually leave the U.S. and live abroad to escape what they see as crippling student loan debt.

In the interim, if the Education Department and accreditors can manage to get out of the way of innovation, new, disruptive models may come onto the scene that many students can afford without loans. Likewise, industry may fill part of the post-secondary education need at far lower cost. Regardless, the monopolies that have kept traditional higher education afloat for well over a century may have met their match in the student loan crisis.

Want to Fail as a Leader? Ignore Organizational Culture!

Many leaders mistakenly believe that strategy or planning or management directives drive organizational behavior. While those things can certainly influence what people do, particularly in the short term or with discreet tasks, it is the deeply held beliefs and values within an organization that sway behavior over time more than any other factor. And this reality presents a more complicated leadership challenge than most managers realize because so much of organizational culture is implied, below the surface, rather than overt and easily visible.

For example, how many times have you seen an organization proclaim a set of values that says one thing, but notice that the organization actually incentivizes other values in its day to day operations? I recall an organization in my past in which the CEO claimed to value transparency—so much so that he built offices with glass walls as a symbol of transparency. In reality, the organization was so driven by fear that it was the least transparent culture I have ever observed in my entire professional life.

Because culture is so powerful, it can actually defeat even the most compelling strategy or initiative. It can also defeat the most talented managers. Fortunately, the reverse is also true. When you see organizations that are “world class” in some endeavor, those organizations invariably have cultures that support what they are really good at—their core competencies. In those organizations, strategy and incentives and operational plans are aligned with culture—with beliefs, mindsets, assumptions, etc. In fact, research over the last 25 years has shown that alignment of strong culture with strategy provides a huge competitive advantage and, according to Jim Collins at Harvard, such companies are typically six times more financially successful than companies with weak and poorly aligned cultures.

It is important to note that there is no “right” culture, but there is rational culture. In fact, quite different ethos or values can even lead to similar outcomes, but only if the culture is aligned with the objectives. For example, it is possible to deliver great service with a culture that supports autonomy and empowerment in its employees while another organization achieves great service by supporting extreme attention to detail. Those are different cultural values, but they are both aligned with the objective of providing great service.

As noted in this article from the consultants, Spencer-Stuart, one of the reasons that leaders often struggle to effectively align strategy and operations with culture is because most organizations don’t actively engage in dialog about culture—they don’t even possess a shared vocabulary for talking about it. Remember that most of an organization’s culture is like an iceberg, in which what you can see above the water (stated mission, vision, values) is only about 10% of the whole iceberg! Leaders must be highly cognizant of what is below the water line, because that is where the organization lives and where the cultural values that drive behavior lurk. It’s probably safe to say that the vast majority of an organization’s cultural rules are unwritten, although implicitly understood, by the people in the institution.

Because culture has a lot of inertia, it is not easily changed. If a leader determines that some key elements of culture above or below the waterline are counterproductive for the organization, then he or she must be prepared for a relatively long term commitment. You cannot change deeply held beliefs and behaviors with a memo or an all-staff meeting. For example, if a leader realizes that the organization needs to innovate, but is culturally averse to risk, he or she will need to take a comprehensive approach to shifting people from risk-averse to risk-tolerant. That may require an increase in employee autonomy and it absolutely requires that management stop punishing employees for “failure,” if not actually incentivize them for taking risks. And that has to happen repeatedly, over time. In most cases, aversion to risk is actually a manifestation of fear of failure, and that fear is usually deep in the organizational DNA.

So, cultural change is possible, but it is longitudinal and strategic. Culture is built and learned over a long time with great attention paid to what behaviors are rewarded and which are punished—regardless of what values are proclaimed publicly. In order to change culture, leaders must make an equally deep commitment to creating exceptional clarity around the ethos they want for the organization, which in turn must be supported by compelling language and communication, policy, incentives, targeted promotions, modeled behavior, and consistency, even when it would be easier slide backwards. In any high change environment, let alone one as fraught as culture change, people in the organization will be looking for any indication that the “new way” is not real or not lasting. People have a lot invested in existing beliefs and behaviors, even when they’re unpleasant or ineffective. In fact, this element of psychology is so strong that people will often choose the certainty of misery over what they see as the misery of uncertainty. As a result, if you as a leader determine that organizational culture is not aligned with strategic objectives in your organization, and you have the courage to change that, it will be one of the most difficult and long-term things you do. On the other hand, due to the power of culture over organizational behavior, if you don’t have the courage, you will dramatically limit your potential success before you even start.

Lastly, culture is also central to employee retention and success. Recent research found that nearly 70% of failed management hires were due to poor cultural “fit.” Again, this does not necessarily imply that the culture was bad or wrong, but that it wasn’t aligned with the values of the newly hired manager. This has significant implications for how we screen candidates for cultural alignment rather than simply skills or experience or even personality.

Clearly, there are multiple reasons to care about organizational culture—and significant risk if you don’t!

In a previous article I discussed the critical role that macro-culture plays in organizations. Although organizational culture tends to be its own microcosm of beliefs and values and behaviors, virtually all organizations are influenced by the macro-culture in which they find themselves. In other words, the people that make up organizations bring external beliefs and ethos into organizations, which then affect the culture inside the organization. These are often very deeply held values that span generations. They can be influenced by religion and politics and socio-economics and it generally is not wise to attempt to change those values, but rather to determine how the macro culture can be respected and even leveraged to achieve organizational objectives.

Keys to Leadership Success: A Simple Primer

Image credit: Getty Images

In previous posts, I have shared many thoughts on what I’ve learned as a manager/leader over roughly a quarter century. I’ve been asked for a short version of the most salient points, so here it is:

Have Great Clarity On What Success Looks Like

Everyone reports to someone and that person or people have (or should have) a clear idea of what success looks like, for you and your department/division/organization. Make sure that you have clarity from those to whom you report on what they are going to hold you accountable for and what it will look like if you are successful, then plan your priorities to achieve that definition of success. You can always include things that are important to you personally, but relative to accountability, what matters is what matters to those who employ you.

Learn the Invisible Rules of Organizational Culture that Lurk Below the Surface

As the famous management guru of the 20th century, Peter Drucker, said decades ago, culture eats strategy for breakfast. That is true. But the reason it is true is because it is culture that drives behavior—not management directives or mission statements or memos. It is also true that most of the cultural values in an organization are not what you easily see in mission or value statements on your website. Most of the unwritten rules for how an organization behaves are below the surface. Watch how people actually behave and that will tell you what the culture actually supports. If its aligned with your strategy, great. If not, you have a lot of hard work to do.

Make the People Who Work for You Successful

The “higher” you rise in leadership positions, the less your success is about your own technical knowledge or the tasks you complete and more about how effective you are in making the people who work for you successful. This also relates to how you treat people. There is no legacy worth having, no matter how much you achieve professionally, if you have hurt people a long the way.

Have a Plan and Work Your Plan

This may be the most simplistic piece of advice I can provide, but even the greatest ideas are just ideas without clear action plans and focused effort. In other words, really good leaders also care about and are good at execution of ideas, strategies, plans, initiatives, etc.

Integrity and Humility Will Sustain You Over Time

You can certainly achieve short-term wins with “flexible” ethics or by using/abusing people or by saying one thing and doing another. It’s also true that you can operate with unimpeachable integrity and experience failures. But your longevity as a leader, and sustainable success, requires integrity more than just about anything else. As for humility, it’s important because although ego gets attention, you don’t learn from your own ego. It is when we are most vulnerable and humble as leaders that we are the most empathetic and the best listeners and learners.

Of course, the list above is a very small sample of all of the skills and aptitudes and experience that successful leaders rely on to achieve success is ever more complex operating environments. You can see over 40 leadership related articles here. But, as a high level primer, the five items above are a good place to start!

College Enrollments Have Declined for Seven Straight Years and It’s Going to Get Worse

Recent data from the National Student Clearing House Resource Center confirms that the trend of declining college enrollment in the U.S. has now entered its seventh year and the rates of decline are getting steeper. Although the declines are more pronounced in the Midwest and Northeast, student populations have declined in 34 states and that will spread further as high school graduation rates continue to decline as well. And we’re not talking about small declines. While the reduction in enrollments nationally has been about 2% annually over the last several years, in many institutions, enrollments are 20% to 30% lower than they were even ten years ago. We are almost certainly on the cusp of a major shake out in American higher education.

What happened?

Even before the “Great Recession,” birth rates in the U.S. were declining, but during the recession, birth rates declined substantially. The additional GR impact will first affect the most traditional colleges in the early to mid 2020s, then hit community colleges hard a few years later—this is because of the slightly older average age of community college students.

On top of declining birth rates, the economy has steadily improved resulting in low unemployment and job opportunities for students who otherwise might be attending college.

Third, and maybe more importantly, people who would be college students of all kinds have broadly decided that they are unwilling to continue incurring unsustainable debt to pay continually increasing tuition costs. They simply don’t believe the return on investment is compelling enough to borrow the cost of attending college.

There is also a structural problem in much of higher education today, which is that only a small number of college degrees are built around specific job skills that make a graduate immediately employable upon graduation. A few examples are teacher education, computer programming, and nursing. But even degrees such as engineering are typically so theoretical in nature that many graduates are not able to bring value to employers until after a year or more of on-the-job training. It is true that broadly speaking, across the entire population, having a college degree still pays off over time. However, for a substantial number of people, the investment of time and money (often via debt) does not pay off—and in some cases—going to college makes people worse off financially. However, because almost all jobs that provide a living, “middle class” wage, do and will require some form of post-secondary education, most people will have to pursue education after high school–and then repeat the process multiple times over a working lifetime. But for more and more people, that won’t be in a traditional college or university.

So, what does this trend in declining enrollment mean for higher education as an “industry?” And what does it mean for society?

First, there are clearly winners and losers. Large state flagship universities and elite privates are generally doing quite well in the sense that they are still receiving more applications than they have seats. In the elite private IHEs, this can be extreme, with acceptance rates lower than 10% for incoming freshmen. “Second tier” public institutions (the ones that typically have a cardinal direction in the their name such as “Southern State University,” are experiencing significant declines and are at real risk as are small, un-endowed and less selective private institutions. Community Colleges are suffering from lower enrollments too, but they tend to be more nimble and less burdened by the massive overhead of four year state colleges, so some will recalibrate and ensure a place for themselves in the higher education ecosystem.

In effect, we are seeing the gentrification of higher education with the bulk of institutions being relegated to second and third class status, struggling to operate with declining revenues, deteriorating infrastructure and non-viable financial models. And the gap between haves and have-nots at the institutional level is growing. Harvard recently concluded a fund raising campaign that netted over 9 billion dollars, pushing their endowment to 40 billion dollars. In fact, the top 25 wealthiest universities in the U.S. own over 50% of all the wealth held by the thousands of other colleges in the country combined. As with extreme distributions of wealth in society, there are profound implications for higher education as well–particularly for institutions that tend to serve more socio-economically challenged students–because those institutions also tend to be less well off financially as well.

As with any market in which supply outstrips demand, let alone a market in which sales (tuition) cannot cover the cost of operations, there will inevitably be contraction, and potentially severe contraction. In a previous article, I mentioned three critical factors contributing to a tipping point in higher education that would dramatically change the landscape as we know it. Declining enrollment will exacerbate and accelerate some of those trends. However, as also noted in that article, there is actually a bright future for post-secondary education. It will just look a lot different than the system that we’ve had for more than a century.

The part of higher education that we call “traditional,” i.e., 18-24 year old students pursuing bachelor’s degrees on campus, will continue to shrink. Small liberal arts colleges and some mid-tier publics will close. Public systems will merge and end up with fewer campuses. All of this is already happening, by the way. It will just happen faster over the next couple of decades. There will be another round of for-profit closures, but that sector of higher education is getting near the bottom, already having experienced a profound contraction.

Who will thrive?

For the foreseeable future, elite privates and most large public flagship universities will do well. There are a variety of financial, structural, social, and political reasons for this, but Stanford and the University of Michigan will be around longer than anyone reading this article!

Any institutions that provide credentials or programs (degree or non-degree) that lead directly to good employment with limited student debt have a bright future. Such institutions will come in different forms, with different tax statuses (for-profit and not-for-profit), and with different funding mechanisms—some will depend on Title IV Federal aid and some will not. Relatedly, institutions that provide a pathway to professional licensure required for employment will also have a more stable future—at least for a while. Good examples are vocational colleges that provide credentials for trades requiring licensure and just about anything in the health sciences that leads to careers as clinical practitioners. There will also be opportunities for niche operators who deliver “passion” programs, but to survive and thrive, they will have to graduate students with manageable levels of debt.

As noted in this previous article, the reason that the American Higher Education System has been able to continue in a form that has fought off most innovation for over a century is because it is protected by two monopolies—Federal financial aid and accreditation—but even those monopolies are weakening under current market forces.

The stark reality is that most of the institutions of higher education operating in the U.S. today will have to compete for a decreasing number of students, and barring unforeseen demographic changes, lower enrollments will become a structural part of traditional higher education. Some of the decline can be backfilled by even more “non-traditional” adult students, who already make up the vast majority of all college students. There is also an opportunity for institutions that can effectively reach out to the many millions of Americans who have some college credits, but no credential. The basic pipeline, however—high school graduates—will be in decline at least until 2030* or later, which means that a major correction of supply and demand is still in the offing. And this correction is likely to be gut wrenching for an unfortunately large number of institutions. On the positive side, students are likely to find more flexible and less expensive choices as innovation finds its way into certain parts of post-secondary education.

*If current political trends against immigration and international students continue, the declines could be even worse.

Why Organizations Must Embrace (and Redefine) Failure

In most organizations, people from executive leaders to line employees are socialized to fear failure. Although there are a lot of unhealthy values in many organizational cultures, this is one of the more damaging ones. It leads people to hide mistakes, refuse to share bad news, and most importantly, to avoid risk. Not only does fear of failure lead to negative behaviors, it also mitigates against necessary, healthy behaviors.

This very unfortunate socialization has many sources, but at its core is the terrible reality that in many organizations people are often punished for “failure”—the failure to achieve targets; the failure of a new product or technology to deliver desired results; the failure to reach a goal within a prescribed time frame, the failure of an investment to pay off, etc. In such organizations, people learn to “keep their heads down” and do only what they already know how to do, what doesn’t make waves, and what they won’t have to explain to others. While this may be a “safe” way to behave, it is often disastrous for the organization, particular in today’s environment of constant, high-paced change. James Quincey, the CEO of Coca Cola said it very simply: “If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not trying hard enough.” Fear of failure is the bedfellow of complacency.

Complacency is an obvious, but frankly “lower-level” problem. So, how else does the fear of failure hurt organizations?

First, both individuals and organizations learn as much or more from failure as from success. We all know this intuitively, but the cultural pressure against failure is often so powerful that organizations (and leaders) willingly sacrifice critical learning opportunities in the interest of avoiding what looks like failure. Organizations must “fail” in order to learn and the organizations with the greatest capacity to learn and improve are also those with the highest tolerance for (or even encouragement of) failure.

Relatedly, in a highly competitive environment in which much of what organizations do and sell can be commoditized or rendered obsolete overnight, organizations must have a culture of experimentation in order to stay a step ahead of the competition and in step with customers. They must be willing to experiment with new ways of doing things ALL THE TIME. And the most powerful and high return outcomes tend to come from the highest risk experimentation. As Jeff Bezos said in a recent Harvard Business Review article, “If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments.” He would know.

Change for change’s sake is not necessarily productive, but innovation is critical to success. And that may be the biggest casualty of a culture in which people fear making mistakes and failing. By definition, innovation requires “failed” attempts. The greatest commonality among the most innovative people and organizations is that their new ideas fail to work out far more than they hit the jackpot. Interestingly, what may be the most innovative culture in the world, Silicon Valley, rarely even uses the word failure. When something doesn’t work out as hoped, they “pivot” to the next idea or opportunity, using what they learned from what didn’t work. Even venture capitalists know that they will lose money on many more investments than the ones that will pay off. However, they know that it only takes a small number of big winners to compensate for all the risk taken on the “losers.” Even in the most successful organizations such as Apple or Google, we only know about the experiments that worked out—not the hundreds that didn’t.

As a leader, you must support risk taking and thus encourage (yes, actually encourage) “failure.” And importantly, you must actively redefine failure from a discreet event that is “bad,” to a process that is necessary, if not critical. You must not only make it safe to “fail,” you must reward that behavior by celebrating what was learned, then “pivot” to the next experiment!

Post Script

Strangely, I have sat in Board meetings in which Directors or Trustees were almost paralyzed when it came to committing to strategies due to some level of risk. Not long ago, the mantra in most organizations (and Board rooms) was “data based decision making!” While certainly a plus if possible, in today’s rapid change environment, data driven decision making is a luxury and if you insist on waiting to have compelling data to support your decision, by definition, it will probably be too late to realize much benefit—the train will be out of the station and someone else who took the risk early on will already be “first to market” and reaping the benefits—and generating the data 🙂



Everyone, from Line Employees to the CEO, Needs Encouragement

When we think of leadership, most of us think about skills or traits or work related behaviors directly related to whatever results an organization is supposed to achieve: The greater the results, the greater the leader. While there is certainly some truth to that, there are also psychological components of leadership—both how leaders interact with others and how they function themselves. These are things that do not show up in a spreadsheet or a quarterly report, but they are often critical to the health of leaders themselves and the folks they support in an organization. And, for what it’s worth, there is also interesting research on how at least some psychological constructs such as sense of belonging and sense of purpose, affect employee retention and productivity.

So, speaking of the psychological or affective elements of leadership, one of the most important and simple things you can do as a leader is to offer encouragement to your employees. Even the most confident and successful people have moments of self-doubt. The rest of us are frankly more vulnerable than the “most confident” people and have many moments of self-doubt!

There are a couple of really good reasons to look for opportunities to reassure and support the folks you manage. One altruistic reason is that you will make people feel better—less stressed, anxious, etc. A practical and even self-serving reason is that if your employees feel more confident, they will commit to their work more energetically, will take risks, and will be less distracted by doubt. And in more extreme situations, a good pep talk at the right time may keep someone from looking for other opportunities. Unlike a lot of leadership tasks, this one is really easy. You just have to be genuine.

Interestingly (and unfortunately) the higher up the ladder a manager is in an organization, the less likely he or she is to get encouragement or a pep talk, etc. We have this strange belief that senior managers and executives, magically, by virtue of their position, somehow have superhuman strength and invulnerability. The phrase “it’s lonely at the top,” speaks to the fact that the most senior leaders tend to be the least supported psychologically. This is further ironic because C-level executives, for example, tend to experience the greatest stress because they have the greatest responsibilities (both in quantity and criticality). Strangely, despite the clear need, those leaders are the least likely to receive encouragement. This is structural, i.e., if you’re at the top, there aren’t many people above you to offer support, and it is also based on the misconception that the most senior leaders don’t need support and encouragement precisely because they are senior leaders.

The good news is that encouragement can come from anyone, not just a boss. It is valuable regardless and subordinates should feel comfortable to offer words of encouragement to their supervisors as well. However, one reason that supportive comments from someone above are important is because our superiors control our destiny! As a result, if they have confidence in us, we are likely to have more confidence in ourselves.

So, look for opportunities to offer words of encouragement–a quick written note, a pat on the back, a one-minute pep talk—any of these will provide value well in excess of the effort itself.

Post Script: This post is particularly timely because, for a variety of reasons, people (and thus employees) are feeling more and deeper stress than at any time since it has been measured. Research recently conducted by the American Psychological Association found that Americans have hit record highs of stress and anxiety. Similarly, the World Health Organization recently declared that stress has become a worldwide crisis and is “the health epidemic of the 21st century.” There are many reasons for the increase in stress, some of which employees bring to the workplace and some of which are caused by the workplace. Regardless, it has become such a pervasive issue that it is not possible for leaders to effectively run organizations without taking stress mitigation into account (in themselves and their employees). While offering words of encouragement to employees and colleagues is not a stress mitigation plan itself, it does often relieve the stress caused by self-doubt in the workplace and provides high returns for fairly low effort.

Good Teams Are More Valuable Than Even High Performance Individuals

Within all types of organizations, the performance of individuals, no matter how productive, insightful, or connected to organizational goals is rarely more important or valuable over time than the performance of the team or teams that person is (or should be) a part of.

We know this intuitively by watching teams that compete at the highest levels in sports. Those teams often have a “superstar,” but the most successful teams are those in which all the players work well together to make each other better.

Talented people working in isolation often achieve quick wins (or score a goal), but on the whole, are far less valuable than even “less” talented people working well together. As Patrick Lencionci, in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team notes, there is no greater competitive advantage in organizations than teamwork. Why? Because cohesive and well functioning teams create synergies. They have a multiplying effect on the abilities of individuals within the team. They “see” things, all looking together, that individuals do not see by themselves. And most importantly, at any given moment in time, teamwork produces a multiplicity of ideas, approaches, solutions and shared actions greater than even the most capable of individuals working by themselves.

Great teams within an organization represent a competitive advantage because most organizations prioritize and value strategy, technology, operational capital, etc. over people and teams. Virtually every organization says that their people are important or “their greatest asset,” etc., but they often do not operate as if that is actually true. This reality is at least slightly culturally embedded, with institutions in the West being less relational and seeing people as more expendable, or even disposable, than those in the the Middle East and East, but in both contexts, organizations tend to see capital, technology, and strategy as more important variables for success. This reality provides a great advantage to leaders who choose to support and leverage teams for success.

As a result, while it is important as a leader to nurture individuals, and certainly to care about strategy, finance, etc., you and your organization will benefit more if you nurture the growth and efficacy of of people working together.

Things I Now Know For Sure About Successful Leadership

I have been truly fortunate over a long management career to have experienced an incredible diversity of leadership and management opportunities in different kinds of organizations, large and small, in multiple countries, across a variety of structures, missions, business objectives, etc. From my first management position 25 years ago, leading a small department in a rural Idaho school district with one employee, to heading a multinational corporation with thousands of employees based outside of the U.S., I’ve been blessed with learning opportunities most leaders will not have in their entire careers.

I have also been challenged with running organizations in different cultural and nationality contexts and had to decide in what ways I would adjust my own leadership strategies and methods vs. how I would ask the organizations to adapt to me!

Now, in my 25th year of management and 30th year in the “professional” work place, through many failures and successes, I have come to understand several truths that transcend culture or organizational structure or financial model, etc. There are no profound secrets here, but I have both scars and victories that serve to identify what has been most important and what I believe is transferable to almost any leadership context from entry level manager to CEO, in virtually any organizational context. Some of these things relate to leaders as individuals and some relate to organizations. You can also see how “less is more” for most leaders here.

Teams do better, more valuable work than even the most talented individuals.

Therefore, building and supporting teams is key to your success as a leader.

At every level of leadership listening is more important than talking.

Yes, you must articulate a compelling vision and communicate in convincing ways, but your efficacy is based more on what you learn from listening than what you gain from talking.

Mistakes are better teachers than successes.

The best leaders have generally made the most mistakes, and importantly, learned the most profound lessons from those mistakes. Moreover, someone who makes good faith mistakes is taking risks—and growing as a person and a leader.

Results matter but that is not the whole story.

Most people at the top of organizations are there because they are “results oriented” and have a sense of personal accountability. They have consistently achieved objectives over time. However, today’s organizational realities typically present leadership challenges that go far beyond just “hitting the numbers.” See an in depth discussion here.

Make sure you know what matters to your leader(s).

Whether you report to a manager above you in the organization or to a Board of Directors, you can save yourself a lot of grief by knowing what the priorities above you are.

Related: Make sure your bosses and your team know what you are doing.

Almost all of us communicate less well than we think we do. Ensuring that your bosses and colleagues are fully informed about what you’re doing and why, all the time, will head off problems before they happen while also increasing the likelihood that everyone is rowing in the same direction.

Organizational culture is more powerful than strategy or planning or just about anything else.

As the management guru Peter Drucker once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As a leader your success is inextricably linked to your ability to align culture with strategy. Ignore this at your own peril.

Human capital will get you farther than financial capital, technology or even strategy.

In an ideal world your organization or division or department would be well capitalized and you’d be implementing brilliant strategy supported by world class technology, but even if those things are true—and they often aren’t—your ability to execute on plans and strategies, to make change, to innovate, comes from people.

Related: Leading people well pays greater dividends that managing processes.

See the point above. Your colleagues are “force multipliers” for your vision, strategies, operational plans, etc. Focus on what will make them successful and you will be successful.

Related: What you say and do has a bigger impact on your subordinates than you realize.

Be careful. You can empower and hurt your subordinates more easily than you think you can.

Take care of yourself at least as well as you take care of others.

Leadership is stressful and the stakes are high, but the most important thing you can do for your own success is to care for yourself. Get adequate sleep and create space to relax and think. Meditate. Exercise

Integrity will sustain you over time.

You can certainly achieve short-term wins with “flexible” ethics or by using/abusing people or by saying one thing and doing another. It’s also true that you can operate with unimpeachable integrity and experience failures. But your longevity as a leader, and sustainable success, requires integrity more than just about anything else.

Related: Have a personal vision statement.

This is really important and surprisingly rare. Without a “true north” as a person, it is impossible to have a true north as a leader. Take the time to figure out what matters to you and who you want to be. See more about this here.

A surprising part of successful leadership is simply being stable and predictable.

Most organizations today find themselves operating in turbulent circumstances on a regular basis. It is hard to overestimate the value to the crew of seeing the captain calmly and competently steering the ship, particularly in rough seas.

Over time being a decent human being is a far better legacy than being a rich and powerful jerk.

Some of the most “successful” people in business are also some of the worst people in business. However, at the end of the last day, having hurt or cheated or disrespected people in the pursuit of riches or power is worth zero. Living on in those you have helped is priceless.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of the most important things I’ve learned as a manager/leader so far and I have no doubt that I have more important lessons to learn. However, a common thread among the items shared here is that essentially all of them made the list because I made some sort of mistake related to each one at one time or another. In some cases, I just didn’t know how important they were or I ignored them or I thought I could finesse my way around them, etc. Another common thread is that I think they apply across organizational and cultural contexts. I have learned other things that might apply in a traditional, not-for-profit liberal arts college in the U.S., but not so much in a private equity owned for profit business in Latin America. My sense is that the list above applies at some level just about everywhere. I hope some of the lessons I’ve learned are helpful in your leadership journey as well!

Higher Education’s Dirty Little Secret: Most Professors Know Little to Nothing about Teaching

At a high level, to be a truly effective teacher, one must consciously or unconsciously, have a theory of practice about pedagogy (teaching and learning) itself. Imagine for a moment if a pilot had no theory of aerodynamics or a physician had no theory for diagnosis or treatment. Doesn’t seem likely, but that is standard operating procedure for professors in most institutions of higher education.

Surprisingly (if not shockingly), many instructors at the university level enter classrooms every day without any formal training on how their choices and behaviors will support, or mitigate against, learning in their students. The dirty little secret about college level instructors is that the vast, vast majority of them have teaching roles because they have content expertise in some discipline—not because they have been taught anything about teaching. Some have natural proclivities or amenable traits, which certainly helps, but virtually no full-time, tenure track professors outside of Education departments were or are hired because of their teaching expertise or effectiveness. Some colleges and universities do provide occasional, usually ad-hoc, workshops to help instructors improve their effectiveness in the classroom (typically based on isolated tasks such as creating an assessment rubric or writing a lesson plan), but relative to the time, effort, and credentials dedicated to their content expertise, even the most ambitious training programs are comparative drops in a bucket. This would be similar to medical doctors completing training in basic sciences, but receiving no clinical training before engaging with patients!

There really isn’t a comparable situation in other professions (other than when experts in a given field are asked to teach neophytes). It is only in higher education that there is essentially no expectation or requirement that the practitioner have any expertise or credential for doing a large part, if not majority of his or her job. It’s frankly a little disconcerting. Of course, many faculty have spent long hours in the classroom, and through that experience have intuitively internalized ways of doing things that are likely to be more effective than others, but despite many years of such on the job training, most university professors cannot explain even the most basic learning or assessment theory, let alone the neuroscience behind how we make memories, learn, and develop new skills.

One exception to this reality can be found in most online or eLearning classes and programs. The reason for this is simply that online classes generally have a learning management system (LMS) of some kind that requires either instructors or instructional designers or both to make pedagogical decisions as part of the course design and delivery process. Even if professors don’t understand the underlying theory they are at least forced to think about about fundamental questions such as how they will present content and assess student progress, how students will practice new skills and how learners will discuss and process what they are learning. Another place where there is more focus on teaching is in career colleges, where curricula are more applied and instructors are more likely to be professional practitioners in the field being taught. Traditional, campus based courses typically have no such pedagogical/application imperative and professional practitioners are far less valued than those with terminal academic degrees. More on that in another post!

The good news is that a theory of practice, or pedagogy, can be learned by any professor and even remedial training can greatly improve teaching effectiveness. However, the reason that professors rarely invest substantial effort in developing pedagogical expertise is because being an effective teacher really isn’t important on many campuses—and such training is rarely available in any sustained way regardless. This is particularly true in large research universities where getting hired, getting promoted, and getting tenure have very little to do with teaching. The situation is a little better today than say, 20 plus years ago, but in traditional institutions, faculty are still broadly rewarded for research, publishing, and securing grant funding far more than they are for excellence in teaching. As large universities shift to more and more contingent (adjunct) instructors, the overall faculty focus on research and publishing will decrease, but there is no indication that institutional focus on teaching will grow in any appreciable way. Any material improvement will likely have to come from the adjunct faculty themselves.

So, what does this all mean for the institution of higher education and the people, both faculty and students, in it? Firstly, as an educational enterprise, the university is structurally flawed and has been from its inception. This is a global phenomenon. That does not mean that students don’t learn or that college degrees don’t provide value. However, it does mean that most students do not learn nearly as much as they are capable of and the majority of other students are so poorly served that they are unable to complete programs of study. In fact, most people do not realize that in the United States, over the entire history of higher education, the system has failed far more students than it has successfully served. Well over half of all the students who enroll in a college or university never complete a degree program! Even among the minority of students who are successful in the sense that they complete a degree, many of them succeed, not because they have edifying learning experiences, but because they effectively manage (survive) the system for long enough to earn a degree. In fact, in many cases, employers want employees with college degrees, not because of what the students have learned, but because having a degree proves that a person can start, persevere through, and finish a challenging long term project.

How is it possible that a structurally flawed system that fails over half of its constituents has continued to operate without meaningful change for centuries? The simplest answer is because there is no viable, scalable alternative for post-secondary education. That will likely change in the not-too-distant future as more employers in certain fields move away from requiring college credentials and toward industry based credentials. This is already happening in IT/Computer Science and will expand to other technical fields as well. Some disciplines such as those in the health sciences will continue to require college degrees as long as professional licensure for those positions continues to require degrees. If that barrier falls, then so will the university monopoly. Similarly, professions that require graduate degrees will also support the university monopoly in post-secondary education for some time into the future. Whether or not non-university, post-secondary educational models will provide teachers with pedagogical knowledge or not remains to be seen. However, a primary difference that already exists is that such models tend to be competency based, providing a greater likelihood that the learning that students do accomplish is more immediately applicable in work settings. One can debate the relative value of a liberal vs. technical/vocational/professional education, but the same structural flaw applies regardless.

All stakeholders would certainly benefit if university leaders dedicated as much attention to the teaching skills of their faculty as they do to their academic credentials, research, fund raising, etc. In fact, institutions that are forward thinking enough to make pedagogical excellence a core objective and priority will differentiate themselves from the crowd, creating a significant competitive advantage in the higher education market.