During times of rapid and unexpected change, as we are all dealing with now, it can be helpful to get information from an expert to help guide our paths. So, I reached out to Tony Gardner. Tony is on the faculty at the University of Virginia serving as the Director of the Leadership Development program of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
He works in both the public and private sectors to improve organizational performance and manage large-scale organizational change. I was fortunate a number of years ago to attend the Leadership Development Program at the University of Virginia and learned a great deal from Tony, who generously on this podcast episode, shares his expertise about Leadership in Times of Change. (Agardner@highperformanceorg.com)
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This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries and leadership and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations and strategic insights into the profession. During times of rapid and unexpected change, as we are all dealing with now, it can be helpful to get information from an expert to help guide our paths. So, I reached out to Tony Gardner. Tony is on the faculty at the University of Virginia serving as the Director of the Leadership Development program of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
He works both in the public and private sectors to improve organizational performance and manage large-scale organizational change. I was fortunate a number of years ago to attend the Leadership Development Program at the University of Virginia and learned a great deal from Tony, who generously, on this podcast episode shares his expertise about leadership in times of change. Enjoy the show.
Question #1: Tony, welcome to the show. Thank you for talking with me today about leadership in times of change. With so much going on in our world and communities, we need to be tuned into how we can help our organizations navigate through all of this. Can you talk about why this, and what’s going on to make us pay more attention than ever to this aspect of leadership? 01:54
Hi, Adriane. First thanks very much for inviting me to join you today. It’s a pleasure to be here. Turning to your question, it’s no secret that the world is topsy-turvy these days. Many people in different organizations are confronted by the unimaginable, really, having to adjust at home, at work, facing many scary possibilities. People are emotionally on edge and uncertain about the future.
These double-barreled situations with the pandemic and heightened concerns for racial justice and equity have complicated our lives. Truly the pandemic has caught nearly everybody off guard and unprepared. Because the consequences can be very personal and risky it’s disrupted how we think about the businesses we’re in and what we do.
It’s also apparent that virtually every organization faces significant issues related to race and other aspects of equity. People are becoming, more rightfully, vocal about it. And, organizations are unprepared to deal with it well. That issue is complicated, incredibly, by the ways we have to deal with the virus.
So then, organizations are filled with people who want to know how we’re going to get through this, when will it end, what will it mean? The job of leaders, especially in times like this is to help people have hope, to see a path to the future, and to feel supported in getting there.
This means that leaders must be focused on sensing or understanding what’s happening, providing and communicating their support, and as you allude—creating the navigational aids for people to get through these stormy seas.
On top of all this, leaders have to be thinking about how we are going to have to change as a result of what we’ve been experiencing. And yet at the same time, they also have to be dealing with the huge number of ways organizations have to change in the here and now to cope with what’s going on today.
Question #2: Absolutely, thank you so much for those insights. On this show we’ve talked about the difference between leadership and management. What does that mean when we talk about leadership and management in times of change? 04:39
We think of leadership and management as two different kinds of work. The same people usually do both things, but they don’t do it simultaneously. Leadership is future-focused. It’s about defining the desired future, and developing strategies for getting there. Leaders focus on doing the right things, trying to discern the right things and have us pointed in those directions.
Managers focus on doing those things right. Management work concentrates on getting things done efficiently and effectively. Everyone in the organization should have a responsibility to be thinking about what’s best for the future, not just the people at the top. Although those in the hierarchy frequently should spend more of their time doing leadership work. And that leadership work is best done through extensive collaboration among trusted team members, people who get together to think about things.
So directly addressing your question, the fact of the matter is that much more work in times of crises is done in the management arena than the leadership one. That’s because people are responding to the rapid requirements that are emerging, fast-paced changes in what needs to be done now. So as a result, what we are trying to accomplish right now is pretty clear. This turns up, we have to deal with it.
So, turning to management in times of change or times of urgency is what people generally do. As a result, it’s the leadership work that’s neglected. It’s murky. It’s about trying to discern the future. Yet at the same time, it’s often when opportunities can make lasting changes, are most readily available, and doable—but we don’t turn to it.
Question #3: Interesting. So, leadership is imperative when there’s opportunities for change. For our listeners, will you share the ins and outs of that? 07:10
It’s natural in some ways that some find this differentiation between leadership and management confusing. There’s so many ways that people have talked about those two terms over decades and even centuries. So, what might help is to take a few examples of what the differences are between the two.
Let’s talk about one city. It’s not a library example but I think people can understand what I intend by talking about it. The city at the beginning of the restrictions due to the COVID closed down it’s City Hall. They had a ready-made payment transaction for customers to be done electronically except for paying for utility bills. After the restrictions were put in place, then near the date for a final payment, like a quarterly payment or a monthly payment deadline, people actually showed up outside the City Hall to pay their bills in the way they always had in the past. But they found that City Hall had closed down. They hadn’t gotten the word.
This was a management problem of high priority because there they are standing outside the City Hall and the doors are locked. So the people who were working in a few parts of the building figured out a way to deal with the people on the line so they could make a payment. They created a short-term fix that was convoluted. It worked as an emergency kind of thing. It was a managerial fix. It could have worked for the future but it was certainly not advisable.
So what then happened was instead of letting it sit that way people in the City decided to step-back from the short-term fix and they put on their leadership thinking hats. They said, How should we deal with this over the long-term? So, teams decided to switch to electronic-only payments of utility bills for the future and to make that a permanent way of doing it.
Then they said, Look at this building. If you go downstairs there’s this long set of counters. If we in fact take away the need for them, because people are going to pay electronically, what are we going to do with that space? So they created some teams to think about that, virtually, in the midst of the closure. And they decided to move the recreation department into that space. And they also decided to create other community programs. They could actually begin some reconfiguration of the space during the pandemic.
Now that’s stepping back and saying, Here’s an incident. Let’s think about what it means
for the future. That’s leadership work. It’s focused on the future. So you had the contrast between a manager handling it now, and then thinking through for the long-term, What’s the thing we should be doing?
It’s really an interesting example. It’s less useful for senior leaders to believe that they have to come up with all the ideas for the future. This group, for instance, had lots of people thinking about, How should we do this, what should we do for the long-term?
So, you can look around and find that that’s happening in organizations across the country. People who are working in portions of an organization doing specific programs, they’re coming up with new ways to work around the problems coming up with the pandemic, to change the way the systems they use and the processes they use. They’re being innovative in times of the crisis. And the bosses, they’re not thinking about it. They don’t even know sometimes what’s happening. They’re relying on people to do the leadership work that’s appropriate, that the management work is getting done and fixing the problem.
Lots of people are thinking through now, Well, what does this mean for us in the future?
One of the leader’s jobs is not only to be thinking about the future but it’s also how to excite others, how to motivate them, how to help them understand why we should be changing and they should be changing over the long-term. Urging them to try new things out, to build their skills and develop their capacity as the organization goes through inevitable transformation.
If we don’t do this after the pandemic you know what’s going to happen, the homeostatic tendencies of people will push them to return to things as they were in the past and to how they did things in the past. If you want a different outcome than leadership is necessary to build a new normal, that future kind of place where we want to be, that people frequently talk about—this new normal. We’ve got to create it. It just won’t happen by itself.
Question #4: And I know that we might just want to keep some of these innovations post-COVID. We didn’t know we needed them, but here we are. We’re creating new ways of doing things. If you think about it in a certain way it is kind of an exciting time to rethink what we’ve been doing. You talk about in some of your work that an effective, trusting leadership team can play into this kind of work, can you tell me a little bit about that? 13:41
When we’re talking to teams one of the things that their job is, is to evaluate those things which are going on now and say, Which ones of them are ones that we should build on and move into the future, and which ones of them we did temporarily but they don’t necessarily speak to the future for us. It’s this discernment, this evaluation of the things that are going on now and trying to figure out, Where do we invest for the future and where do we say, well we did that then but we don’t need to do it now.
So when teams are working together they have to be real candid in doing this evaluation. Scientific evidence is pretty clear that teams almost always outperform individuals. Some people don’t like to hear that, particularly some people in charge in some places. Rarely is the boss the one who knows everything. Rather teams provide perspective that makes it so the team can outperform the individual. This is particularly the case when trying to do leadership work.
However, science also says that people are very defensive about their ideas and how they see the world. This is how I think it works. This is how I believe it should be. In order to mesh these two concepts about the benefits of teamwork creating diverse opinions to help bring a better solution, and the idea that people are very defensive about their own thoughts. Teams have to create and reach a certain level of trust so that members can confront the ideas of individuals in a way that reduces members’ defensiveness, and opens people up to understand different points of view. To see different ideas, and understand experiences that others have helps us reformulate the concepts that we have held to ourselves as dear, and be open to see alternatives that will work better than just the idea I had. That means that building trust becomes a very important factor in effective teams.
Pat Lencioni has written extensively about why that’s important and how to do just that, how to create this trust level on a team. We do a lot of work with teams to make sure that they have the benefit of thinking through how to build that trust and practicing it.
I suspect that you have probably had books in your library…
Question #5: Absolutely. I know people are going to be looking for them now based on this conversation, which is great. Are there practical ideas for teams that we can examine during times of change? 17:15
There are lots of places to look. I guess technology is the most obvious. We already understand like we never did before the impact of Zoom and the other platforms, where people can work from home, they can meet at a distance. It has kind of revolutionized how work can go in some respects.
Thinking about how people will change when the pandemic opens everything up again, how facilities should be reshaped, how we can take advantage of this technology and not lose the ability to be more in the same room, and have more contact with people. How that will work—that’s leadership work.
If we don’t think about it now when all of a sudden we open up, we’re going to be inundated in trying to make things happen that we’ll be not thinking through the ways that we could plan for that to happen well.
We also could be examining the policies that were put into effect. Some of them cut red tape because we needed to expedite things in the crisis. Some were the processes we used to do things. Some places said, Well, all right now we can do virtual inspections. We don’t have to go out and actually see that you nailed the nail straight, or that the thing was put in exactly right. We can take a picture of it.
So, how are we going to streamline the way we do things in the future built upon the experiences that we’ve had now? Most of which probably worked fairly well, some of which have bombed. And if they’ve bombed, how do we put those aside while we focus on the ones that offer us opportunity into the future?
I think lots of organizations have changed their human resources policies allowing work from home, where before they prohibited it. Many people have found advantages to working at home. So, evaluating each organization, what its view is about how those policies and other things like that would pay off for the future is a really important step. If you wait until this is all over to start thinking about that you’re just going to have a ton of stuff to do all at once.
We should definitely start thinking about that now.
Yeah, yeah. Researching and recognizing how artificial intelligence is going to help us serve customers and make decisions. There’s a lot of research and lots of data on how jobs will be reshaped and reformed based on artificial intelligence and technology. So, if that’s the case we should be thinking about what we’re seeing now, and during this period, which for some people, is more downtime. How can we help them prepare for the future? How can we help them to study for how you could do things technologically differently? What kind of skills could they gain? So that when jobs are changed or some of them disappear people are better qualified to shift into other fields down the road. That work can be done now.
Shifting ways of engaging people, rather than just requiring people to come physically to meetings. City Councils, which alway said, Well you can watch on television but you can’t participate in our meetings, are reexamining whether—Maybe there is a way that in the future we could have people participate in meetings electronically.
So, thinking through that stuff—I remember having been introduced to audiobooks on tape in Arlington’s library thirty years ago. And now, I have over a 1000 titles in my audio.com account. So that shift of how I was introduced to audiobooks than and how I now have these 1000’s of choices right on my phone, that tells me that a lot of the things we’re looking at now have a future for how we will deal with our customers and also how we can engage people, and how we operate.
Question #6: Do you have a favorite management or leadership book, and why? 22:19
I have right behind me many books, my bookshelf. Including of course, some I have not read yet, many I have read partially, and some that I’ve devoured. But one of them I think of as a sleeper, not that it puts you to sleep—but it’s kind of a sleeper book because not many people know about it. It’s not a highly popular book. It is on Amazon and it’s called, Leadership and the Art of Conversation by Kim Krisco. I think of it as a remarkable book. Fifteen years ago I bought one hundred copies. I think I exhausted the supplier at that point. I bought everything he had, to give to friends and clients. At that point the book was published out of India. It’s now available on Amazon with a different publisher. It wasn’t very popular.
It’s about how one uses conversations to create the future. It recognizes that helping people see their future is a leadership responsibility, but it’s only half the job. The other half is helping people let go of the past, and helping them make a shift from where they’ve been to where they need to or want to be.
So, shifting conversations to speak more of what could or should be helps people to break the habit of almost always talking about what they did or how things happen. If you examine conversations the data shows 80% or so of the conversations are about what happened in the past, what’s going on right now, and very little of the conversation is about what could be happening or what should be happening.
So this opens up significant opportunities for people. It really drives positive change in an organization, and I really like the book.
Question #7: Tony, in closing what do libraries mean to you, personally? 24:50
I have a soft spot in my heart for libraries. From the time, I guess in high school where I had a job rebinding and repairing books at the library. You know, putting on new covers, repairing the books that had been ripped apart, getting them back on the shelves—it was quiet work and I did it in the back part of the library. But, I really liked it. I felt useful and I thought libraries were important. So I, my kids, my grandkids have all been voracious users of libraries.
Even now people are transforming those libraries, not only to be repositories of books and computer access points, but as you spoke about a little bit earlier, they’re also learning centers, community resources, and meeting centers where people can come together. Some cities are reimagining their libraries as the living room for the community. Providing them both with the things that people have been great at doing at libraries in the past, but adding varied services for their new patrons as people come to libraries for different purposes.
I think libraries are invaluable in the community.
Tony, you’re a wonderful advocate for libraries and I didn’t know about your hands-on experience with them. I’m glad you shared that story, that’s just marvelous. Thank you.
And Tony, I just wanted to tell you thank you so much for letting me turn to you in this time of high change. We’re all going through a lot right now. Being able to have an expert on the show like you, means so much as we work through this together. I really appreciate you being here with me today.
Well, thank you very much. It’s been delightful to talk with you.
You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at https://libraryleadershippodcast.com/, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening, we’ll see you next time.
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