Tag: leadership

September 6, 2017: the day I disappeared

Yesterday, September 6, 2017, was the first day of classes at UBC Okanagan. I’ve been Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning for just over a year so this is my first real experience with the beginning of the Fall term.

On top of the usual visitors looking for help with their courses, we adopted Canvas as our learning technology ecosystem in June so this is the first term with the new LMS. The Centre was buzzing. Four of the Centre staff plus 3 student workers were consulting with just as many course instructors. People were coming and going, jostling to get around and find chairs to sit in.

And I was sitting 10 feet away in my office, door wide open, doing…nothing? Well, not nothing but I wasn’t sitting out there with a course instructor, troubleshooting course design or learning technology issues. It felt really strange, like I was…unnecessary?

I spent last night trying to justify to myself that I do, in fact, have an important role to play. “…created welcoming space for consultation…”, “…ensured Centre consultants are trained and enabled…”, “…allocated time, resources, personnel to handle peak periods…” And more leadership/management phrases that popped into my head. Nothing was sticking.

This morning, it all became clear.

During my commute to work, I was listening to the latest episode of
Bonni Stachowiak’s terrific Teaching in Higher Ed podcast (highly recommended, btw!) Bonni recounted a time when her students were so engaged in an activity, she felt she’d “disappeared”. I’ve had that happen to me, too. At first, it felt really weird. And then the educator in me realized that’s exactly what I strive for: setting up the learning environment, creating a lesson, preparing the students to engage, and then handing over the class to them to engage, collaborate, and build their own knowledge while I did…nothing.

That’s what happened yesterday. I disappeared. It was awkward. And, I guess, awesome.


Over the last 6 months, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a really great management and leadership training program at UBC Okanagan. Organizational Development & Learning Manager Laurie Mills and ODL Specialist Lisa Frost organized, hosted, and facilitated a rich program that led us through four quadrants of leadership and management of people and tasks.

Leadership and management of people and tasks. (Source: Laurie Mills, UBC Okanagan)
Leadership and management of people and tasks. (Source: Laurie Mills and Lisa Frost, UBC Okanagan)

Now that the program is coming to an end, Laurie asks what stood in each quadrant.

People Leadership: inspiring, engaging, and influencing others

is about initiating and managing change by influencing without authority. Drew Bird talked about what motivates people to do good work:

What Do People Really Want? Does the leader have influence
to make this happen?
to be treated as an individual Green check Wikimedia Commons
to have a voice and contribute Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be valued for their talent Green check Wikimedia Commons
to have some control over their work Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be treated respectfully Green check Wikimedia Commons
to work towards a goal Green check Wikimedia Commons
to learn and grow Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be treated equitably Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be part of something that they value Green check Wikimedia Commons

Nic Tsangarakis reminded us of the power of thoughtful debate and active listening, with a goal of learning.

The more we talk, the more we find we have in common.
The more we talk, the more we find we have in common.

Task Leadership: establishing and pursuing vision and purpose

is about managing transition. Laurie reminds us, “when there’s change, there are losses.” And as William Bridges says in Managing transitions: Making the most of change (2009), transition starts with an ending and ends with a beginning.

Task Management: organizing and resourcing the job to be done

is about identifying and dealing with the many constraints on a task like cost, time, resources, risk, quality, scope. And that the project leader’s role changes and adapts.


From Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002), we read

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. And so the first dysfunction of a team is a failure on the part of the team members to understand and open up to one another. It is an absolutely critical part of building a team.

“Great teams do not hold back with one another. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without feat of reprisal.

“Teamwork begins by building trust and the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

People Management: coaching and developing staff to maximize performance

“Managing people,” Laurie says,”effectively means paying attention to what motivates individuals, how they want to be supported and recognized for their efforts. It also requires skillful communication to navigate and strengthen the interpersonal dynamics that impact engagement, teamwork, and productivity.” She also reminded us that when people are under-performing, it’s possible

  • people don’t know what to do
  • they don’t know how to do it
  • there’s something getting in the way

Laurie urged each of us to stretch out of our leadership and management comfort zone so I’m going to

practice how to let go of your need for order and control, and appreciate the benefits of improvisation. Allow the creativity of the people on your staff to emerge out of unstructured situations. (FIRO Business Leadership Report)


Things I’ve learned about leadership and management

Before I started this program (and this job), I had the feeling that leaders know how to do everything. That’s what you see on TV and in movies, where the plant manager goes and works on the assembly line, when the oil boss goes out and fixes the rig, when the general joins the SEAL team for a daring raid. Leadership and management, then is about delegating those tasks to others so you don’t have to do it yourself, giving you more time to, uh, lead?

I’m coming to the realization that’s not the kind of leadership I want to provide. Instead, I want to make strategic decisions, with input from my team, about where we’re headed, identify who has the skills, and then provide the resources and support for my colleagues to do their thing. They have the skills and expertise (and the motivation to learn) – they need an opportunity to demonstrate those skills and be recognized for their contributions.

Gee, this sounds a lot like the kind of educator I try to be. An educator who recognizes that students come to the classroom with knowledge, skills, and conceptions about how the world works. My job is to draw that out of them and create a safe, supportive, inclusive environment for them to use their strengths to learn my material in a way that’s meaningful and valuable to them. And to welcome them to contribute to the class and bring all of us further than I could go without them.

It’s okay to take time to think before acting or reacting.

Difficult conversations are difficult. The DEAR model (via Glen Sollars) helps you plan (and rehearse) the conversation:

Describe specifically what you want to see and hear
Explain the impacts, standards, rationale, and how it makes you feel (using “I” language)
Ask for their point of view, suggestions, options
Request what you’re seeking for the future, whether it’s compliance, cooperation, or commitment

The Ask stage is powerful. It gives the person a chance to provide more info, share their side of the story, explain themself, make suggestions,…before the leader makes the request. It stops the difficult conversation from being a lecture and replaces it with  thoughtful debate and active listening, with a goal of learning.

I’ve had a chance to use the DEAR approach and I have to say, it worked great. The most important part, I think, was the time I spent drafting the D, E, A, and R before the meeting. That forced me to clearly recall what led to the conversation, identify why “I” cared, find a question that didn’t simply confirm the answer I expected (that is, you can’t ask, “Why do you think it went wrong?” because their honest answer might be, “I don’t think anything is wrong” but they can’t say that without contradicting you! With help from Glen, I went with, “What are your thoughts about […]?”) I also had the time to come up with clear requests. When the conversation happened, I was prepared. I didn’t stumble through it. The person “cleared the air” about the incident. We’re not just back to where we were before the incident – things are stronger now because of this conversation.

A funny thing happened at one of the program’s events. Not funny-haha but funny-odd. And ironic, since the program is about leadership and the event was about inclusion, implicit bias, and recognizing privilege.

It was a workshop with my peers, not a meeting with a hierarchy and power structure. To get to know us, the facilitator asked each of us to say our name and what we do, and to share something we’re celebrating. Around the table we went, people sharing their celebrations at work, at home, wherever. I said I was celebrating the fact that we’d received enough proposals for the conference I’m organizing to put together a rich, full, 2-day program. Immediately, both the facilitator and one of my peers said, “Oh, is that conference on again this year? We usually submit something but we didn’t hear about. It’s too bad we didn’t know…” Professional-me made a mental note to check how we advertised the call for proposals and look for ways they could still participate. Personal-me was knocked back by this declaration of my failure (no imposter syndrome here or anything, nope, not at all…) As professional as I want to be, I shut down. I didn’t engage with the group like I normally would. I reacted poorly, I guess. Great, another failure.

Here’s my point: if you’re the leader and you ask your team to do something risky, like reveal something personal, you’d better be prepared to thank them for the contribution, to celebrate or empathize with them. If you criticize or judge, or permit others people to criticize or judge, you risk that person disengaging for the rest of the meeting, and potentially longer.

Gee, back to educator-me, again. If an instructor creates an inclusive classroom environment where every student feels they are welcome to contribute and a student finally feels so confident that they speak up, and then instructor immediately critiques or belittles them, well, you can be pretty sure that student won’t say anything for the rest of the class. Or the next. Trust is so fragile. It take so much work to build it and so little to break it. Huh, imagine that – there’s a whole paragraph about trust a few hundred words ago. Are you suggesting, Peter, that teaching and leadership have a lot in common…?

Teaching and leadership have a lot in common.

Self-assessments. We did a lot of them.

  • EQ-i2.0 emotional intelligence survey
  • Lumina Spark portrait (that’s the one with the colours…)
  • Strengths-Based Leadership (“StrengthsFinder”) survey
  • FIRO Business Leadership survey

As someone coming from a background in the hard sciences – astronomy, physics, and especially math – I was skeptical about the validity of these surveys and their results. I had to rely on the knowledge that people in the field trust these surveys, that the data are valid, and that the results are patterns based on a lot of data. It’s like I didn’t know the Theorem of Pythagoras but my mathematical colleagues tell me it’s valid to add a^2 and b^2 and compare it to c^2, and that there’s statistically significant evidence that a^2 + b^2 = c^2 in right-angle triangles. So, I’ll trust them and be pretty confident that since 25 + 144 = 169, a 5-12-13 triangle probably has a right angle.

I have the most confidence in the Lumina survey because despite my skepticism, my personalized report says,

You are known as someone who likes to work with facts and solid evidence. You would feel very uncomfortable if you were forced to make quick decisions, without the necessary due diligence and information gathering. You firmly believe in evidence-based thinking and will challenge people who thinking seems whimsical or without foundation [*cough* *cough* learning styles]

My report goes on to say,

You are probably appalled by some of your colleagues who use less systematic techniques and whom you may see as data immune.

You are highly aware of the destructive potential of conflict, and tend to bring out your innate send of diplomacy when you feel a dispute getting out of hand.

Though you tend not to resolve an issue in an outright confrontation, you often try to repair  relations from behind the scenes. Your desire for harmony may manifest itself sometimes as a willingness to say No, and this could lead to over-committing.

You don’t like people who do not take into account other people’s views. You find their communication style to be selfish and uncaring toward the team.

When you’re overextended, you shift from reliable to hesitant: you may hesitate on all further interactions and decisions if the possibility of meeting commitments is hindered.

So…yep, yes, uh-huh, yeah, nailed it, hey how did you get inside my head?

If you’ve done Lumina, you’re probably wondering about my colour. I’m blue, with some blue and more blue, and maybe a hint of greeny-blue. See for yourself:

My Lumina splash is blue with blue and some blue, putting me squarely in the observing, cautious, evidence-based, practical, reliable, down-to-Earth quadrant.
My Lumina splash is blue with blue and some blue, putting me squarely in the observing, cautious, evidence-based, practical, reliable, down-to-Earth quadrant.

There’s a lot more in the Lumina report and the other assessments’ reports. I’m continuing to dig through them, with both skepticism and recognition that there’s a lot there to help me.

Lastly, I learned know that none of this would have been possible with the incredible effort Laurie Mills and Lisa Frost, and the generosity and patience of my cohort. I am certainly much better prepared for the leadership role I find myself in. Thanks, all.

Flipped Leadership

I’ve been in my new job for 5 months – Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning and Senior Advisor for Learning Initiatives at UBC Okanagan. Like everyone new to a campus, I’m learning how things work, who does what, where things are, and that will continue. What’s entirely new for me is being a leader and manager.

I’m participating in a great leadership and management training program. I’m learning a lot about different leadership styles. Our new university president, Santa Ono, describes himself as a “servant leader” and he’s been doing an amazing job making himself visible and available, responding to people, and using his position to recognize the success of the people around him, especially on Twitter as @ubcprez.

(Image freeiconspng.com, animation Peter Newbury)
(Image freeiconspng.com
animation Peter Newbury)

I’ve been developing a different approach. I certainly didn’t invent it but I like to think it comes from my uncommon trajectory of moving into leadership after an intense experiences teaching in an evidence-based, active, flipped classroom. Flipped learning is an approach to teaching that recognizes the incredible value of students working together to solve, analyze, explore, critique, invent,…and that time together in class is precious. In flipped learning, the instructor guides students through a set of tasks to be completed before class – learning background information, examining graphs/diagrams/artifacts/simulations that will be used in class, practicing techniques and skills on introductory problems, recognizing their own relevant strengths and experiences – all things students are entirely capable of doing successfully on their own. In class, the lesson can immediately dive into collaborative, conceptually-challenging discussions and other activities without wasting any time with the transfer from instructor to students of information available elsewhere.

Many of my colleagues are using this flipped learning approach in their first- and second-year undergraduate classes. I highlight “undergraduate” to emphasize the vast difference between the novice students and expert instructor. As hard as instructors try to create opportunities for their students to contribute, the flow of information and expertise is mostly in one direction. “Well, of course,” you’re thinking. “That’s what teaching is about.” And it describes the teaching I did before moving San Diego in 2012.

At UC San Diego, I had the privilege of teaching a course about teaching and learning to graduate students and postdocs. My first attempts followed the expert-teaches-novices approach. Over the 4 years I taught the course, I learned to recognize and then leverage the incredible knowledge, skills, and experience these graduate students and postdocs brought to our classroom. I learned to create opportunities for them to contribute their strengths to our learning community. They learned from each other. They learned from me. I learned from them. They brought skills, knowledge, and experiences to our classroom that I’d never heard of. A big part of “creating opportunities” was flipping the learning so the students had time before class to gather information and recognize their own expertise.

Here’s the thing: those graduate students and postdocs had knowledge that I needed, that we needed, and our class provided me with an way to draw it out of them.

That realization – they have knowledge that I need – is the foundation of my nascent model of flipped leadership. Let me give you a couple of examples so I can help myself remember what happened:

Designing a 400-Seat Classroom

There’s a new building going up here, an expansion of the Library to include many more informal learning spaces for students to gather and work together. There will also be a formal learning space: a 400-seat classroom, the largest on campus. I’m in the group tasked with designing the classroom – it’s really exciting and I can’t wait to see (and assess) the learning that happens in that room. One of my tasks was gathering feedback on the preliminary design from a group of faculty members chosen by the Provost and Deans because of their experience and expertise around teaching large classes. Ten faculty, me, the team of architects, and some IT and A/V folks would meet for 90 minutes.

Here’s what I could have done. I could have brought the faculty together and unveiled the classroom design right before their eyes, getting them excited and inspired about what could happen in that room.

But this isn’t about inspiration – they’re dedicated instructors who have already committed to giving feedback about the new classroom. I needed their thoughtful analysis of the design, not their buy-in to the project. So I flipped the meeting. With input from others in the working group, I created a PPT presentation containing the plans for the classroom. To help them prepare for the meeting, I explicitly pointed out the features we designed into the classroom to support collaboration – features they may have missed because they were unfamiliar with how to read the architectural plan or because of the overwhelming amount of information in the plan. I primed them with a few questions, too, like,

What kind of teaching do you envision happening here?

The large size of the room means it would be difficult for students to read the whiteboards at the front of the classroom. How important is it to have whiteboards?

I didn’t show this presentation at the meeting. Instead, I sent it out as a PDF a few days before we met. I used that email to inspire and excite them to come to the meeting.

At the meeting, my educator skills kicked in hard. I moved around the boardroom tables so we could all see eye-to-eye. I made 11 x 17 handouts of the architectural plan so everyone had something to examine and annotate. I did not start with a presentation that showed them things they already knew. After introductions – it’s important to know who’s in the room, why they’re there, and what expertise they bring – we dove straight into the discussion. I used all of my facilitation and learning community skills: calling everyone by name, constantly watching for body language when someone signals they have something to add, keeping a speaker’s list so the loudest people don’t dominate. I even tossed in “turn to your neighbour and talk about XYZ for a few minutes.” It was exhausting.

Part way through that meeting, I had a revelation that I’m sure I’ll carry with me for a long time. With this position and title of Senior Advisor for Learning Initiatives, I’ve been granted a bit of authority by my colleagues.  With this privilege, they gather together when I call, they come prepared, and they allow me to facilitate the conversation. I’m a little overwhelmed, and definitely honoured, by the trust they put in me that this time together will be valuable and productive.

By the end of the meeting, we’d identified some important characteristics of the classroom and they were excited about the space. The lead architect confided later that she’d never been in a meeting with faculty as successful as this one.

Meeting with the Deans Council

Like many Centers for Teaching and Learning, we run workshops about teaching and learning…and no one comes. It’s apparent that faculty members do not find attending these “one and done” events a valuable use of their precious time. I get it.

I’m working on a series (a campaign?) of events to better support teaching and learning. I’ll save the details for another post. In order to make these events valuable in the eyes of the participants, I need support and promotion from the Deans of each Faculty. I was added to the agenda of the monthly meeting of the Deans Council. The Provost (my boss) who chairs the meeting suggested I write something about my presentation that she’d send out before the meeting.

So here are my options: I write a short email to tell them I have something really exciting to share at the meeting. I carefully craft (and maybe rehearse) a pitch, following well-known symptom-problem-solution or past-present-future arguments. When it’s my turn to talk, I pitch the idea and get their feedback.


I carefully craft a long email, using symptom-problem-solution or past-present-future arguments, laying out all the details of my proposed plan, and ending with, “I really need your input on how we pitch this to the community. I look forward to hearing your ideas.” They read the email before the meeting. When it’s my turn to talk, I say, “Well, what you think?”

No surprise here: I went with the second option. I spoiled the engagement and/or excitement of hearing my pitch. Instead, I gave them all the information and time to think so they could ask probing questions and contribute thoughtful feedback to our discussion.

[Update January 17, 2017:] I was the last item on the agenda of a 3-hour meeting so between the earlier items running long and people needing to get to their next meeting, I only had about 15 minutes with the Deans Council. I gave a very brief overview of my pitch, highlighting the underlying problem that needs a solution. The conversation immediately went to that deeper, more fundamental topic – as I’d hoped. It ended with one Dean saying (as best as I can remember), “It’s going to take more than 15 minutes to discuss the enculturation of the value of teaching and learning on this campus.” And they invited me back to the next meeting. Two weeks later, wary of wasting the precious time I had with them, I hit them right away with my request for some guidance. One by one, they offered advice specific to their Faculty. I left with the information I needed for the next step of my project. Mission accomplished.

They have what I need

You see, whether I’m “managing up” to the Deans, “managing down” to the team in my centre, or collaborating with peers, the audience has knowledge, skills, and experience that I need. My job is to draw it out of them so I can work with it myself or so I can empower them to contribute their strengths to the project. That’s the kind of flipped leadership I’m trying to practice. And practice.

It’s remarkably similar to how I strive to teach. So I guess I was wrong, 1600 words ago, when I said being a leader and manager is entirely new for me.

Final notes

  1. Am I concerned the people in those meetings, and future meetings, will read this and recognize how I operate? Nope, not at all. Just like in the classroom, transparency is critical for engagement and contribution. You can’t just tell students how to do something, especially something unexpected. You have to tell them why they’re doing it, too. I have no problem following the same principle in my leadership.
  2. I’m excited to add a new category, flipped leadership, to this blog and hashtag #flippedleadership to my Twitter feed. I’m looking forward to using these spaces to reflect on and share this entirely new trajectory in my career. And to hearing from you about your leadership and management experiences and approaches.