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2021 Wrap Up Series Part 2 | Transforming Yourself into an Effective Leader

If you’re here because you read the first article in our 2021 Wrap Up series and want to continue your journey into becoming a more effective leader, thank you for joining me again. If you missed the first article, you can read it here -

In the first part of our series, we talked about how supervisors in higher education don’t receive the training and support they need to truly be effective. Not being sure what to do as a supervisor isn’t just frustrating, it creates two bigger problems. First, it makes you doubt you own abilities. Maybe you’re constantly frustrated at yourself. Maybe you’re spending your “free” time trying to improve your time management skills or finding other productivity hacks. Or maybe you have a full-blown case of imposter syndrome. No matter how it manifests, this lack of training makes you feel like the problem is you.

The second problem this lack of training creates, and definitely the one that keeps you stuck in this cycle of exhaustion, is how not having the right knowledge and skills wastes you and your team member’s energy. And energy is your most valuable resource. So instead of focusing your energy on the things that will help you achieve your objectives most effectively, you’re often using it on tasks embedded in systems that aren’t helping you achieve your goals. When problems do come up with members of your team, you spend way too much of your energy stressing out about the situation. If you had the right training, you’d have the knowledge, skills, and systems you need to quickly solve most problems and better yet, prevent them.

That leads us to what I want to talk to today, how your brain actually works. Now you may be wondering what that has to do with getting all of your work done, making sure retention numbers don’t slip, or why you can’t get Bill do pull his weight around the office, but I assure you it’s connected.

As you probably know, we have a conscious and a subconscious mind. What I learned back in the day was the subconscious takes care of things like breathing and keeping our heart beating, so I could focus on the important things like trigonometry or diagramming sentences. Higher education itself is focused on the conscious mind. Come to our college and learn lots of things and solve lots of problems while your heart and lungs work quietly in the background.

But let’s look more deeply at the conscious mind. It can process 40-bits of data per second. It is the home of our free will – our ability to choose one thing over the other. It’s also where creativity and innovation live. When we talk about mindfulness or being present, we’re really talking about being conscious of what’s going on around us. That all seems pretty great. Now how much of the time do you think our conscious mind is running things? Five years ago, I would have guessed somewhere between half to most of the time. In reality, it’s driving the bus – and we’re the bus - 1-5% of the time. If we break that down, that means out of the 1,440 minutes each day, our conscious mind is only in control 14 – 73 minutes. When we’re stressed, it’s more towards that 14-minute end. Is that anywhere near what you guessed?

Now let’s get deeper into the subconscious mind. As I’m sure you guessed, it’s in running the show the other 95-99% of the time. And it can process 40 MILLION bits of data per second. That’s ridiculously fast compared to the conscious brain’s 40 bits of data per second. But why does it need to be so quick if all it’s doing is keeping us breathing and our heart beating? This is where things get interesting and is very much connected to us as supervisors. Our subconscious mind controls all of our autopilot settings, and the programs that run them. All of this has a huge impact on what we do, how we think, and how we feel every day.

Our brain’s #1 job is survival. In order to do that, it conserves energy as much as possible. Why? Because the brain wants to make sure you have enough energy if say a saber tooth tiger jumps out of the conference room closet. If you’ve already exhausted yourself, you’re 100% tiger lunch. To maintain safety, you need to be as efficient as possible to make sure you have enough energy to either kill it with our laptop or run the bleep away. The way our brain maximizes our energy is by figuring out the things it thinks will help us survive and automating them. But just like the autopilot in your car or in a plane, it has to have a program to know what it’s supposed to be do. Since the subconscious mind is so much faster, it’s the ideal place to house these programs. Your subconscious mind is constantly taking in all of that data and looking for cues so it knows which programs to run.

Think about your computer. The actual laptop itself isn’t useful without programs installed. Each of those programs does a specific thing. Take MS Word and Excel. If you need to run some numbers or organize data, you plug it into Excel because that’s what it’s best at. If you want to write a letter to a student, you just open Word. All you need to do is decide what to say. But say you don’t have Excel and you try to run your numbers in Word. Yes, there is some basic functionality, but it’s not going to be nearly as efficient because it wasn’t programmed for that specific task. The amount of energy and time it’s going to take to get the same result is going to be much greater than if you used Excel. And depending on how complex the issue is, it’s possible you can’t even get the result you need at all in Word. If you’ve ever requested a new piece of software from IT because what you have isn’t effective, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The more the software is programmed to achieve specific outcomes or goals, the faster and more effective it is at that task.

This is exactly what’s going on with your brain and your supervisor role. You may have collected some useful bits of knowledge and even some skills related to supervision, but you don’t have the specific programs and systems in place to make it happen quickly and efficiently. Instead, you’re using a bunch of other programs you’ve developed over the years for things like how to get along with people, how you organize your day, and even things related to your specific talents. You’re working hard to pull things from all these other places, so it’s not for lack of effort. It’s just that you haven’t downloaded that specialized supervisor program to your subconscious brain that would make things so much easier. Your conscious brain is doing too much work for you to be efficient and it’s wearing you out.

The other thing you need to know is that you can’t just think something into your subconscious brain. You know all those classes and books you’ve read to improve your life. Just reading them and learning the information doesn’t get it into your subconscious. In order to change the programs you have or create new ones, you need to get it from your conscious mind into your subconscious. First have to use your conscious mind to realize you need a change. That’s why I talked about making an energy log the other day. You need to know what’s working and what isn’t to know what needs to change. Next, you need to get accurate information to make a strategic plan of action. This is the training I’ve been talking about. It’s easy enough to know you need to do something differently, but landing on what that should be is more challenging. Once you have that information, you can start getting it to your subconscious mind.

But how the heck do you do that? There are a few ways, but we’re going to focus developing new habits and systems. I definitely want to talk about how your talents play into this, but I’m going to save that for the next article. The subconscious learns what’s important by repetition, so when we tweak our existing habits or develop new ones, we create new programs. Your habits drive your day. That 95-99% of the time the subconscious is driving, you’re simply performing habit after habit. There’s something in the environment that serves as a cue which alerts your subconscious that it needs to do ____. You do it without even thinking about it. If you’ve ever tried to stop eating the baked goods that Becky keeps bringing in – or stop any habit, you’ve experiences this in action. You’re mid-muffin and suddenly think, “Crap. How did this happen again? I told myself I wasn’t going to do this anymore!”

When you have a set of habits that work together, that’s a system. For example, when you get ready for bed, you have a routine - aka system - that consists of habits like brushing your teeth, washing your face, putting on your pajamas, setting your alarm, watching tv, etc. When your goals or objectives are aligned with your habits and systems, you achieve them effectively. When they aren’t aligned, you waste energy, time, and sometimes other resources. Think about your getting ready for bed system, if after you do those things, you get in bed and pretty successfully fall asleep, then your system was aligned with your goal. But if part of your bedtime routine consists of things that keep you from falling asleep, like drinking coffee, checking your email, etc., you do not have an effective system. In other words, the things that you’re doing so easily and without thought are actually getting in your way.

To show you how this works, let’s do a quick assessment on one of your systems. Pick one of the systems you have as a supervisor. Again, remember a system is really just a collection of habits – so activities - that are connected and work together. Maybe it’s your system for communicating with your team. Maybe it’s your system for checking and responding to email. Maybe it’s your system for interacting with your supervisor. Maybe it’s your system for planning your day. Just pick one and I want to walk you through a way to quickly assess how effective it is.

Once you’ve decided which system you want to focus on, jot it down on a piece of paper or start a Word document. Then answer these questions about your chosen system. Now, don’t worry about being thorough. If you make it seem like this overwhelming task, you won’t do it. I just want you to be able to do a relatively quick assessment, so you can see approximately where you are. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

1. What’s are your objectives for this system? In other words, what’s the point of doing these things? What do you hope to accomplish and why is it important?

2. What are the individual pieces of your system? What are the specific things you do to try to achieve whatever your objectives were in question #1?

3. Are there any points of frustration either for you or other stakeholders, like your team or students?

4. When you look back at your answers for #2, what seems to be the most helpful in achieving your objectives?

5. When you look at your answers for #2, what seems to be the least helpful in achieving your objectives?

6. Would your team or other stakeholders agree with your answers to #4 and #5?

7. On a scale of 1 – 100%, how effective would you estimate your system is at achieving your objectives? Be as honest as you can here, but avoid judging yourself. Like I’ve been saying, there’s no real reason you should have an effective system at this point. After all, when has anyone taught you how to do these things correctly?

· If you said between 0 – 25%, your system needs a lot of improvement. Again, no judgement, it’s just because no one has helped you develop an effective system. When your system isn’t effective, it’s causing a lot of stress for you and your team.

· If you said between 25 – 50%, you’ve got a decent start but the points of failure are holding you and your team back.

· If you said between 50-75%, you have a fairly effective system, but you need to think about whether that system is built for you or your team. We’re going to dig more into talents tomorrow, but we view the world through the lens of our talents. This means we can very easily ignore the needs of those around us.

· Now if you said 75-100%, congratulations! You’re stepping into your role as a leader. But does your team feel like this system is designed in a way that they can never meet your expectations? If so, it might feel like it’s helping you be productive, but it’s actually getting in the way of your team’s productivity.

I know you just assessed one system, but you can use these same questions to start assessing other ones. And really a system is just a set of things that work together, so it can also be applied to the formal and informal procedures you and your team use on a daily basis.

So, let’s wrap this up. Remember, when I talk about systems, I mean is a cluster of habits running on autopilot by your subconscious. When these systems are effective, it means they’re aligned with your goals or objectives, so you meet your objectives with the least amount of energy possible. This leaves plenty of energy to stave off those saber tooth tigers. An ineffective system wastes energy. Maybe it’s wasted doing things that don’t help you get where you want to go. Maybe it’s wasted by over thinking and/or running around getting other people’s feedback on a situation. No matter how it’s being wasted, that’s energy you and your team could be using to achieve other goals. Or perhaps even more importantly, you could stop exhausting yourselves without much to show for it.

Earlier I mentioned that supervisors with ineffective systems lose one day a week of productivity. What would you do with an extra day every week? What could your team accomplish if they were productive for more than 90 minutes each day? I’m not talking about adopting a six-day work week, I’m talking about you and your team getting more done in the five days you have now, so you can actually get caught up, accomplish your goals without running yourselves into the ground. That would be 52 days each year that you’re actually moving towards your goals in meaningful ways, instead of just putting out fires and trying to stay above water.

Now maybe you’re thinking, this all sounds great in theory but I simply don’t have the time or energy to start logging how I spend my energy and assessing my systems. I completely get that. I’ve definitely been caught in that cycle where you’re so stressed and so overwhelmed that even though you want things to change, it feels like the only way it can happen is through magic or an act of God. Or maybe you’re thinking, “Yes, I definitely want to make a change, but now’s not the right time. I’m going to wait until things slow down.”

The problem is, since these ineffective systems are running on autopilot, you’re actually doing more work everyday than you need to do to reach your goals. You’re constantly wasting energy and wearing yourself out in the process. In the worst-case scenario, you’re doing a bunch of things that simply aren’t ever going to get you to your goal. It also means, if you wait until things slow down, you’re going to have to wait a very long time – possibly forever. Can you and your team afford to put so much energy into things that aren’t getting you anywhere?

Now I do want to clarify that I recognize the stress and overwhelm you’re feeling isn’t just because you don’t have effective systems. You’re also being asked to do too many things from external constituents – your supervisor, administration, and even just the pressure you feel working in higher ed to keep adding new programs or committees to your plate. You don’t always have control over those things, but when you go in and start to implement better systems that also means cutting tasks and even programs off of you and your team’s to-do lists permanently. That means only doing those things that are getting you to your goal. It also means being able to more strategically add in those external demands into your systems in a way that minimizes the energy you have to spend on them.

In short, you think you don’t have time because you’re wasting so much energy doing things that aren’t worth doing. When you get training that’s been shown to be effective and you implement what you’ve learned in a way that works WITH your brain, the amount of energy you have to spend each day supervising and getting your own work done drops significantly. But if you stay trapped in the cycle of poor systems, you’ll never get out of the quagmire – especially if things keep going the way they have been in higher ed.

Now in the next segment of this series, I’m going to get into more about how your talents play into energy, habits, systems, and again, why you’re having problems getting Bill to live up to your expectations. We’ll specifically talk about how effective training individualized based on your unique talents. This is especially crucial because unless you factor in how your talents would best adapt what you’re learning in practical, you’re not going to be successful rolling things out. Everyone has different talents, and when you don’t use them productively, you again fall into the trap of wasting energy.

If you have any questions or comments about what we’ve covered, please write them below or shoot me an email at And again, please share with your friends and colleagues.

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