I love my job. Among its many positive elements is the opportunity to meet interesting people and learn from their insight and experience. On occasion these encounters even provoke a blog post.
I had lunch the other day with Dave Rothfeld. Dave has extensive business experience including an eight year run as General Manager at Bose and time as VP for Sales at what is now Viacom. These days he does sales management training, consulting and coaching. I was interested in meeting Dave because I have been considering hiring an executive coach.
After more than five years in the Dean’s chair, I think I have reached a level of professional maturity where the right coach could be very helpful to me (My niece Avery, may have nicknamed me “old dog”, but I can still be taught new tricks.) As a leader, it is very difficult to get good developmental feedback and advice. Direct reports tend to tell you what they think you want to hear. It is hard to openly contemplate decisions because people tend to place far too much importance on every word you mutter as they try to read between the lines. In short, it can be very lonely at the top. Having another experienced leader who can give you blunt, honest feedback on your performance and help you think through tough issues without pursuing their own personal agenda can be enormously helpful to both you and your organization. It is essential in this process that you trust your coach and that you have a good rapport with each other. So I was trying to get a sense of whether I thought Dave and I would mesh, learn about his approach, and what it might cost.
As he talked about his experiences and approach, Dave mentioned that he frequently asks people to consider “what’s not optional” in their organization. These are things people must do if they are to remain with the enterprise. As Dave puts it: ” You can be bad at these things, need training, and have the opportunity to improve, but you can’t not do them. If you choose not to do them, you choose not to be a part of us.” He went on to note that, for example, in building an organization that wants to compete on customer service, you can’t choose not to help a customer or send them off to someone else. Helping the customer simply isn’t optional.
I found this to be a simple and powerful insight. In building a culture we have to ask, what’s not optional? In a research culture, you can’t choose not to engage in scholarly activity (even the dean). In creating a culture of engagement, you can’t choose not to have a conversation. In creating a culture of risk taking, you can’t decide to take the safest path and so forth. In academia where people are fiercely autonomous and professors’ classrooms are their castles, agreeing on what is not optional is a tall order. But we can’t define ourselves until we answer the question and hold people accountable throughout the organization: faculty, students, and staff.