leadership dot #2489: mission creep

A recent editorial in our local paper lamented how the city has several elementary schools where nearly three out of four students qualify for free or reduced lunches and questioned whether the school district could do more for low-income schools. It caused me to wonder: when did schools become all-encompassing social services?

When I went to school, I was there to receive instruction. We brought our own lunches, made our own fun at home after school hours and received medical care from the doctor. Today, schools are expected to provide resources for health, wellness, mental health and recreation. The districts manage transportation, meals that accommodate a host of allergies and meet nutritional guidelines and post-school child care options. Schools are asked to address a wide range of social issues: bullying, vaping, teen pregnancy, drug education and now, apparently, even poverty.

I think about organizations like the school district and the role that communication plays in their organization. Consider what is required to keep the legislators, taxpayers and other influencers aware of the significant mission creep that the districts face – and the resources that are needed to effectively support them. Similar communication challenges happen in other centralized organizations that take on more and more over time – if they don’t effectively communicate how the scope has grown it’s likely that their tasks outweigh the human and financial assets required to provide all that is expected.

When you think of schools you think of classrooms, but they have become so much more. Is your organization in a similar situation – providing resources well beyond your original charge? If so, start today to repeatedly communicate what you really do so others understand the complexity and depth of what appears straightforward on the surface, and be prepared to draw the line if the scope creeps beyond your ability to provide it.

Editorial: “Data shows Dubuque’s ‘walk’ far from over, April 5, 2019, Telegraph Herald, p. 4A

leadership dot #2476: tasks

When I have an idea for a dot topic, it becomes a task to be done but requires little thinking time. I can usually sit down and write a dot in a matter of a few minutes. But if I’m not clear on a subject and corresponding lesson, I can think about it for hours without ever putting a word on the page. The identification of the content moves writing a blog from a thinking exercise to a task to be accomplished and allows all my energy to be dedicated toward getting it done.

I think everyone is far more productive when working on tasks instead of nebulous thought projects. Instead of ruminating about what I could incorporate into a syllabus, I turn thinking-into-task by putting my short list of options on paper to make it easier to choose what I use. I keep running lists of many things: dot ideas, things to do, gift suggestions, books to read – so that I can select one when warranted (task) instead of generating ideas from scratch (thinking). I try to start on a big project – the hardest part for me – so that what remains is more of a task to finish instead of a more daunting requirement to think about all of its component parts.

Consider strategies that you can incorporate to turn your thinking into tasks. Set up a weekly menu, so the object becomes making dinner instead of spending time wondering what to have for your next meal. Keep a cheat sheet of the clothes you pack for a trip so you know which outfit to wear for the day (task) instead of staring into your suitcase trying to remember what you brought (thinking). Develop a checklist for onboarding of new employees so you can focus your attention on making the experience special instead of spending brain power trying to remember all of the steps.

Yes, there is great value in thinking and allocating time to allow your mind to roam free – and it requires more time and mental capacity than most of us have for routine projects and daily responsibilities. Create systems to minimize the time spent thinking about inconsequential matters so that your brain and calendar are free to ruminate about the really important choices.

leadership dot #2472: chicken and egg

One of our grocery stores has recently added a bank of eight electric car charging stations to its parking lot. According to a 2018 government report, there are only 800 battery electric vehicles and an additional 1900 plug-in hybrids in the entire state – making the decision to dedicate eight prime parking spaces to this purpose seem to be a bit excessive at the moment.

I think that charging stations and electric cars suffer from some of the chicken and egg dilemma – which comes first? People are hesitant to buy electric cars if there are no places to charge them yet incurring the expense and forfeiture of space seems premature if no one is using them.

This same store has recently posted signs everywhere that “park and ride” cars will be towed. If their lot is reaching capacity to the extent that they tow vehicles, it surprises me even more that they took a row off-line for a low-use purpose – aggravating many current customers in the process.

One of the challenges of leadership is to determine a balance between addressing the needs of the present and preparing for the needs of the future. Don’t become so focused on the customers you hope to have that you forget about those you actually have today.






leadership dot #2471: vicious cycle

Shopping malls often get a bad rap for causing the demise of downtowns, but they were started with a more noble purpose beyond pure commercialism.

Architect Victor Gruen, known as the Father of The Suburban Shopping Mall, promoted the concept of malls because he believed that suburbs were missing the gathering space that was previously provided by downtowns. As families moved to the ‘burbs, there was no common area for them to meet neighbors, to walk or to interact as they shopped so Gruen created the indoor mall as a way to bring downtown to the suburbs. He included skylights, atriums, open areas and space for community events as a way to provide not just commerce, but a third-space for gathering.

As his concept became replicated across America, the malls resulted in additional urban decay and decline of downtown shopping districts. Gruen stopped building suburban malls and switched his attention to urban planning – creating “pedestrian malls” and greenways in many downtown areas. His influence is still seen today in many cities.

Through his work, Gruen sought to reverse the effects of what he called “the Vicious Cycle.” The growth of the suburbs initially occurred when planners decided it would be best to have “separation of urban functions.” Previously, everyone lived near where they worked and shopped but planners had the idea that living away from commercial and industrial areas was more desirable, so residential neighborhoods moved away from downtown. This led to a need for more road surfaces, which created urban sprawl, which increased the use of cars and decreased the use of public transportation which further increased the separation of functions.

If you put yourself in the mindset of the people at the time, you realize that those who created suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls did so with the good intentions but obviously had unintended consequences that shaped how we live and work. Ask yourself what we are doing now that future historians will look back on and wonder about our motivation.

Duane Hagerty, ArchiTREK Lunch & Learn: Dubuque’s Urban Renewal, 3/21/19

leadership dot #2467: web

The internet has become so pervasive that we forget all the ways it is infused into our lives. It’s obvious that we’re on the web when we’re using Google or following a hyperlink, but it isn’t until the internet is down that we realize all the other ways we have connected to it.

My printer is wireless. The thermostat. My new washer and dryer have wireless functions. Streaming entertainment. Many security doors and key codes. This blog relies not only on WordPress to publish but also for picture sites, research links and social media posting. We think of the smartphone as its own source of knowledge, but it, too, uses the internet as do Siri and Alexa.

Amherst College lost internet for a week and buildings automatically unlocked, the classroom management system was down, students couldn’t scan their ID cards for meals or laundry and the communication system was crippled.

We are all linked with the invisible connections of the internet and we have come to rely on it, even if we don’t explicitly recognize that we do.

The same is true of other people: we are connected to them and we rely on them – even if we don’t notice it until they are gone.

Take a moment today to appreciate all the webs that envelop you.


leadership dot #2466: holidays

What makes a holiday? I wonder why St. Patrick’s Day warrants aisles of green decorations, dying of rivers and its own section of greeting cards. Who decides what is merchandised and what isn’t?

I think about International Women’s Day that garners a few targeted advertisements and a host of social media posts, but for the most part, is unnoticed. Groundhog Day is designated on most calendars, yet Inauguration Day isn’t. Halloween merits its own stores but Patriot Day has low recognition. The Post Office doesn’t deliver on President’s Day but hasn’t found a way to get an extra day off for Easter.

There seems like many holidays are being driven by commercialization rather than meaning. Why does the United States put more emphasis on St. Patrick than Lewis and Clark, Rosa Parks or Paul Revere?

As you eat your green donuts, enjoy your cabbage or drink your green beer today, take a moment to recognize how easy it is to turn something into a holiday. Use that energy to commemorate another day that is worth celebrating on its merits, not just on its merchandising.

Image by sam99929 from Pixabay




leadership dot #2443: life cycles

While we celebrated President’s Day on Monday, the anniversary of George Washington’s birth is actually today (born February 22, 1732). Washington is a man who understood the importance of stepping aside (see dot 2442) and did so with grace after two terms. He could have easily retained the position and power for many more years but realized the value of transitioning to another.

Washington also understood life cycles of organizations and knew himself well enough to realize that he was best suited to lead in the developmental stage of the country. Organizations all rotate through various stages – startup, growth, maturity, aging – and matching your leadership strengths with the appropriate time in the organization’s cycle allows for peak effectiveness.

Maybe you should become involved in a new venture where you would find much ambiguity and creation. Or perhaps you are better suited for an organization that comes with some structure but has a focus on change vs. an organization that is established and functions with a fair amount of policy and routine.

Life cycles may not be top of mind when you are selecting a committee assignment or new position, but alignment with them will greatly influence your happiness and success. Follow the lead of George Washington and reflect on when it is best to say “yes” and also when it’s time to say “no”.