Wacky Creativity from Diverse Teams

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Graphic from Teerath Garg, Pulse, LinkedIn

Once upon a time, in the Milky Way Galaxy, in the Northern Hemisphere, in a time not unlike the present, I participated in a team project that illuminated the value of diverse perspectives in creating new paradigms, discussing solutions, and in ultimately contributing to intellectual capital and economic development in our region. In order to portray this team’s project accurately, it seems appropriate to disclose that this particular teamwork occurred within a very diverse metropolitan population with participants of very diverse backgrounds, intellectual disciplines, and world views—in an institution of higher education.

Admittedly, in the Northern Hemisphere, and probably in the Southern Hemisphere, too, extraordinary illustrations of the value of teamwork are becoming increasingly common in many industries, and among participants globally distant but connected via the Internet. However, I am relating this microcosmos story because I probably know more about it, and working on the team was intellectually stimulating and affirming for future projects.

So, here is what happened. At a small liberal arts college, with the leadership of the president, we decided to encourage the development of a team to compete for grant funds that would help transform the University over the course of five years by enhancing academic degree programs, engaging students more in experiential learning through co-curricular activities, and heightening awareness of career possibilities for students from on-boarding to obtaining professional careers.  Our charge was also to ensure students were gaining appropriate liberal arts exposure and competencies through the college core and then acquiring specialized knowledge in majors, minors, concentrations, and certifications to compete better in professional careers.

Thus, the team’s responsibility was to work closely with faculty, staff, and industry partners to ascertain maximum alignment between liberal arts competencies of the University and those desired in entry-professions—while at the same time strengthening specific academic disciplines. The steering committee that formed to answer this charge was composed partially of persons with specific work functions and those with interest in the project. What was so remarkable about our team of five individuals who formed the steering committee?

Well, for one thing, in terms of variables such as academic disciplines, life experiences, geographical origins, philosophies, and paradigms about solving problems, the five-member steering committee members and their subcommittees brought different lenses to view opportunities.   Possibly, not too unexpectedly, team meetings were characterized by spirited dialogue, wacky creativity, and openness to listening to the perspectives of others.

Agreed upon pathways definitely underscored the team’s diverse philosophical bents, geographical backgrounds, and disciplinary approaches. Measuring progress by empirical analysis was paramount to all members, and the many ways of gathering data were discussed and debated within the team. Participating in each team meeting was stimulating and energizing—unlike some academic committee meetings. Because of the backgrounds of the participants, we were able to expand our individual perspectives and ease pass our comfort zones, to view our opportunities from the combined lenses of a chemist, an exceptional student educator, a mathematician, a seasoned administrator, an external affairs and business community liaison, and a liberal arts/social scientist. At times, it seemed like our perspectives were evolving into 3-dimensional paradigms—with views that encompassed 360 degrees of possibilities, realities, and limitations.

The team project was successful in obtaining grant funds, in heightening awareness of how the University could both enhance its liberal arts curriculum and work with more alignment internally and externally. One major outcome is that the project’s outcomes will augment students’ competencies for competing professionally in a global workplace.

The original steering committee continues to work together, and it has expanded into a larger group of faculty and staff adding to the spirited conversations and stimulating more wacky creativity.

I am just loving it!

Magical Moments—Capturing the Spirit of the Season

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For some Americans and our global neighbors, the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day helps us to rekindle memories of magical moments involving family and friends, or to work hard to create those special moments for our loved ones. Possibly, the magic involves the almost indescribable joy of remembering times when our wishes were granted, or when we granted wishes for others.

Some of my treasured memories include holding a parent’s hand, as we gazed with awe at the elaborate holiday window displays in Marshall Field’s, Carson’s, and Sears stores in downtown Chicago where animated storybook characters came alive and created sparkling fantasies before our eyes. Each year, our family looked forward to strolling down State Street to be delighted by the beauty and artistry of it all.

For others, those memories might include traveling in the family car to a Christmas tree farm in the country to carefully select that special tree for the family, lacing up skates for the first time to glide across the ice at Rockefeller Center or in your town’s rink, caroling while navigating through traffic to visit family and friends, having lunch around a giant Christmas tree while admiring how the miniature lights glow, or carefully arranging old and new ornaments on the family tree.

Each year, perhaps some part of our consciousness journeys back to special times, like when we first watched the enormous, decorated balsam trees with shiny red, blue, and gold ornaments. The holiday season, I suspect, rekindles the memories of magical moments we work to recapture or recreate each year. Possibly, this is why we look forward to the season—another chance to be lighthearted, to create some magic, or to let others know how thankful we are that they are sharing a part of our lives.

Yet, each holiday season, many of us also experience bittersweet memories of those who are no longer with us—reminding us how fragile it all is. If we are fortunate, we relive special moments with lost loved ones by recalling memories or retelling, once more, the stories of special times we shared. Even as adults, some of us still cherish the efforts of our parents and relatives to fulfill our wishes for bikes, skates, train sets, computers, musical instruments, video games, and toys (we now barely remember) under the tree. As we grow from child, to teenager, to parent, and grandparent, our roles might change, and the holidays might become more diffused, but we probably still hope for the magic of wishes fulfilled.

Nowadays, with online ordering available for just about everything, the season appears to require less frenetic running about. Yet, we still devote considerable time shopping for gifts, preparing holiday dinners, and traveling home to visit relatives. Why do we engage in all of this activity? I suspect that there is a spirit or feeling of the holidays that we are seeking to rekindle—the warmth, love, wonder, and magical moments we share/shared with parents, siblings, relatives and friends. At its core, it could be argued that despite its commercialization, the holiday season is still about rekindling innocence, the hope for wishes fulfilled, and granting the heart’s desires of others.

So, here’s to wishing that the Holiday Season brings some profound magic to our lives, helps us get through the tough times, and reminds us that we can create real magic by sharing our lives, and hearts, with others every day throughout the year.

Civility, Tolerance, and Building a More Perfect Union Begin in Family Worlds

clipart-american-flag-3-2Reflecting on what just happened, like many other Americans, and some of our global neighbors, there is a lingering anguish that we have passed through some membrane of civility and tolerance on a macro-level.   Even though some historians remind us that vitriolic, political campaigns and muckraking are not new, somehow that does not make anything better.

However, the streaming barrage of media messages and social media dialogues possibly could have reached a new, almost fevered pitch. Some colleagues also caution that the negativity and lack of tolerance in the last presidential campaign could have long, sustaining effects on our collective psyches and American ideal of working towards building a more perfect union.

Thus, reflecting on “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America” might require some actions in our family worlds. Preamble, Constitution of the United States of America

At its core, it can be argued that America is a nation of families and communities based on family worlds laden with intrinsic values and preconceived notions about the good life. So, possibly, it is time to look inward, and reaffirm, that our family worlds are the building blocks of communities and, depending on the family worlds, the more perfect Union of America strengthens or weakens.

Arguably, family worlds evolve within the larger context of streaming consumerism, political affiliations, dueling ideologies, religious beliefs, and assumptions about what is, and how to obtain, the good life. However, it is in the family worlds that adults model behavior for children. It is also in family worlds that discussions about diversity, tolerance, values, and the individual’s responsibility as an American and global citizen are wrought. Family worlds also help developing adults balance consumerism with seeking a sense of purpose in life that is rewarding beyond consumerism, selfies, and collections of stuff.

Another opportunity for extending the building blocks of family worlds are the workplace worlds. Many adults spend a great deal of their time in workplaces. Over the last couple of months, I have counseled several colleagues experiencing microaggressions and tolerance issues in their workplaces. Unfortunately, stress and workforce/life style conflicts are noticeable in too many of our professional lives.  It is hard to imagine that millions of building blocks fraught with intolerance and lack of knowledge can build a more perfect union.

It would seem that in order to build a more perfect Union, the building blocks of America known as family worlds and workplace worlds need our attention. In the workplace, possibly we can measure the economic value of workplace civility, and employ analytics to determine factors that contribute to productivity and increased individual and team satisfaction.

Maybe, there is an App for developing family worlds and workplace worlds that are building blocks for a more perfect union that can be half as popular as Pokemon Go!

Workforce Teams: Coaching to Enhance Team Effectiveness

Working_Together_Teamwork_Jigsaw_Puzzle.jpgGood winning teams have good coaches. Even though coaches are more commonly associated with athletic teams, as we continue to work in teams in the evolving workplace, good coaches are becoming more critical to the success of many organizations. Some organizations’ leaders prefer teams because an appropriately balanced team can bring with it diverse viewpoints to find solutions and identify opportunities. Further, the team, as a whole, can marshal enormous intellectual capital and innovation in a less hierarchical work environment. With clear direction, most teams can accomplish projects more quickly than individuals working alone.

It is not surprising that most organizations tend to equate success with accomplishing strategic goals in very competitive environments. Moreover, it is becoming more and more obvious that success depends not only on institutional leaders, but it also depends on the daily professional practices of individuals in the organization. Oftentimes, it is winning teams that propel an organization into innovative and profitable futures.

Some organizational analysts believe that, in addition to a team’s effectiveness, working in teams improves overall individual effectiveness and satisfaction. Yet working in teams presents challenges in how to appraise and motivate the performance of teams and individual members.  Similar to athletic teams, a winning team might have a range of stars and members who assist—all needed to win. Moreover, with our expanded capacities for connectivity and extending collaborations in global teams and virtual workplaces, the complexities of appraising or coaching teams magnify. So, just how does the team leader or coach do that?

Well, coaching now seems to be a burgeoning profession, complete with psychological and organizational underpinnings. There are certified coaching programs that seek to produce leadership coaches, life coaches, health coaches, and insightful coaches who can employ motivational tools, strategies, interpersonal skills, and maybe a little personal magic, to help individuals push through barriers and achieve desired breakthroughs.

A colleague of mine just informed me that a successful CEO employed a coach for twenty-five years—makes me wonder what I have missed!

From even a brief review of coaching, it becomes clear that a good workplace team coach shares attributes similar to those of an athletic coach developing a winning team. These coaches 1) make sure everyone understands the team strategies and rules, 2) learn the strengths and talents of each team member to determine who should do what, 3) assess the team’s effectiveness, 4) observe the relationships between behaviors of individual team members and the team’s results, 5) furnish specific feedback about performance in a respectful and supportive manner, and 6) offer specific solutions to maximize the effectiveness of each individual team member—with solutions that can be as diverse as the team members.

From coaching vignettes I have read, good coaching seems to combine exceptional interpersonal skills, the ability to establish rapport and trust, and some knowledge of human psychology. For one thing, it is hard to find a description of coaching that does not describe a good coach as someone who listens well, seeks to understand the individual, and offers the support, assistance, and advice needed to succeed. Moreover, the discussion of workplace performance with coaches is portrayed as more mutually respectful, beneficial, and empowering to the individual than are supervisor and subordinate performance appraisal interactions.

Alas, there do not seem to be one-size-fits-all rules for coaching team members because they are individuals, and there are so many nuances in the workplace across regions, generations, and institutional cultures. Moreover, there are ranges of characteristics and work environments in which teams operate.

However, from my readings and feedback from those who have been coached, the coaching profession is just getting started!

Establishing Intentional and Guided Career Pathways for Students and for Regional Economic Development

As we approach the new academic year in higher education, many of us are keenly aware of the seemingly intractable challenges facing our nation. Some of these are eroding our collective sense of well-being and our confidence in our abilities to achieve a range of goals for students. Thus, it seems more urgent than ever before to undergird the hopes of incoming and continuing students with curricular and co-curricular learning opportunities that will lead to better opportunities for themselves, their families, and their expanded communities.

FMU guidance2Even though I have welcomed new and returning students to institutions of higher education for decades, this year, I especially look forward to constructing guided career pathways through faculty leadership at Florida Memorial University (FMU). Located in the extremely diverse South Florida, FMU, like many liberal arts universities, produces responsible and contributing citizens who will hopefully continue to strive throughout their lifetimes, while illustrating character, leadership, and commitment to lifelong learning.

What is particularly refreshing and transformational about this year is that there is an energized faculty movement to create guided career pathways through curriculum innovation, co-curricular activities (such as early internships and capstone experiences), and collaborations with business leaders to insure that the holistic collegiate experience of FMU’s students fulfills their academic interests and personal upward mobility needs. In order to design guided and intentional career pathways, faculty and institutional researchers are employing regional and national data to identify majors, minors, certifications, and graduate programs that are most likely to lead to gainful, professional employment––and then filling in the gaps.

Like most other institutions of higher education, FMU has its share of student success stories, like the student who, by the time of this posting, will probably have completed her doctorate in radiochemistry. There are also significant numbers of students pursuing graduate study at prestigious graduate schools or beginning their professional careers. However, the faculty-led guided career pathways movement seeks to expose students to more choices for emerging career areas, and expand options in existing areas, as supported by data. These careers are, and will be, important to the economy–careers such as digital communications, cybersecurity, forensics, construction management, and data analytics.

So, as students commence another academic year, it is difficult to not be stimulated intellectually and inspired by this faculty-led movement that is supported by the UNCF and funded by the Lily Endowment. The development of career pathways will also help faculty review and identify specific intellectual competencies and skills that they can measure and certify, as students transition to varied positions and a lifetime of learning to further refine their post baccalaureate competencies and assure their continued professional growth.

Alas, it is time to end this blog and resume preparations for a coming faculty/business leaders forum that will focus on competencies needed by various industries to both guide our renewal as an institution of higher education, and furnish the intellectual capital needed for regional economic development. By this continuous renewal and assessment, we assure our students that they will be ready for the future!

A Recipe For Success in Educating STEM Leaders

Stiffin_Rose MaryGuest blog By Dr. Rose Stiffin, Chairperson, Professor, and Biochemist, Florida Memorial University

Several years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a local science conference. Because it was free, I took my upper level chemistry class. There were only three, so this was not an issue of space, reservations, or anything.

When we arrived, I was glad to see that my students were excited to attend, as this was their first science conference ever, and I was excited because they were. A great day to be had all around, I surmised.

During one of the breaks, an elderly gentleman approached me and introduced himself. Of course, I could not recall his name five minutes later, so there is no way I would remember anything about him now except his age, color, and the words he said to me after introducing himself: “I thought he would be out playing basketball,” indicating the lone young man in my class. The others were young ladies.

Initially, I found his statement amusing, if for no other reason than the young man in question was, in my opinion, short and painfully thin! He did not look particularly athletic to me and I could not imagine him going for a layup or a three-pointer. Then, the true meaning of this supposedly innocuous assumption hit me: my student is black, ergo, he should be out playing a sport. What a leap to make! But that is what this man meant. There were other males there, so it could not have been a place where his gender would have come into question. Could it have possibly been his race? After all, my students and I are part of the vast African Diaspora and the questioner definitely was not.

When I relayed this interchange with my students, they reacted with only vague interest. But I informed them that, because this man’s thinking is not unique, they may face such comments or questions as they travel through life.

One former student obtained a great internship in Texas. He was assigned to do a sophisticated spectral analysis of a molecule. Because his fellow lab worker had never heard of Florida Memorial University, he assumed that the student could not possibly grasp the instrument’s function or data output. He neglected to consider that some of his professors were Drs. Ayivi Huisso, Thomas Snowden, Telahun Desalegne, and me, Dr. Rose Mary Stiffin. I would say our unofficial collective motto is think or sink. The young man did not sink. From that one internship, he got a research paper published with his name as primary author–a distinguishing status that must be earned. He is now an MD-PhD.

When I first started teaching, my one goal was to graduate my freshmen class of science students. After that, I honestly had no thoughts. Just graduate them and see this as a major feat in my life as a so-called role model and mentor. One of the first graduates became a medical doctor. Then, another, and another, and another… In fact, since this first graduate, there have been approximately 95 of them, majoring in (pre) engineering, (pre) nursing, chemistry, or biology who have earned graduate degrees/professional degrees. We have produced engineers, molecular biologists, plant physiologists, dentists, pediatricians, obstetricians, nurses, pharmacists, pharmacologists, chiropractors, and microbiologists working at the CDC.

This means that, on average, we graduate six students yearly who become professionals in their field of endeavor. I’ve built a ‘wall’ upon which I place the names and photographs of these achievers as a testament to future students that ‘if they can, then you can, too.’

Is there a recipe for success? Well, nothing beats hard work, we can all agree on that. Communication helps, not simply with the students, but with other professors as well. If one student is failing physics, but making an A in biology, we discuss the professor’s practices, teaching methods, and how the student is assessed. Rarely has there been a student to fail one class and pass another with an A. Thus, we have continuity in addition to frank discussions. We do focused activities–reading and discussing science, and exploring the applicability of the work–that other universities deem ‘too difficult’ for the students and beyond their capabilities.

One of our former students visited last week. He is doing great. Married, a father, and a much sought-after consultant in the pharmaceutical industry. “To what do you owe your success?” I asked, not considering what his answer would be, just being naturally curious. He said that it was the science and theory he learned here, the ability to think critically, that we instilled in him here. Those were the qualities that propelled him to success. In one form or another, many of the professors here have heard the same words.

Oh, and that young man who should have been “out playing basketball?” He is a well-respected physician. The other two students? They both have their PhDs and are working in STEM/health areas–actively making a difference in the health of thousands.

The Value of Positive Civil Discourse in Making a More Perfect Union

Recently, I have been thinking about the nature, and value of, positive civil discourse while equally pondering the benefits of positive, nonviolent, civil disobedience. In our global village, we notice that few individuals and groups (of the billions of citizens on the planet), are choosing to express discontent and dissonance with political and governmental policies by engaging in violent demonstrations that often result in lost lives.

Even though opposing expressions to political ideologies and policies unnamedare not new, possibly, it is time to review and re-educate ourselves, and others, on the value of civil discourse, broadening our understandings,  and nonviolent civil disobedience that can also result in positive social change without the loss of human lives.

As long as there have been individuals and groups, there have also been disagreements-and sometimes violence to resolve those disagreements.  Some would argue, as societies continue to evolve technologically, it is equally important to help individuals and communities to develop their capacities for civil discourse, by recommending positive social actions that increase civil engagement, improve emotional intelligence, enhance the quality of life, and augment our understanding of global interdependence.

Many of us remember studying American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and reading his 1849 thesis Civil Disobedience in which he contemplated the nature of civil disobedience–highlighting, in his opinion, the right of the individual to resist government action or policies that were blatantly against an individual’s moral values or conscience.  Thoreau’s notion, and practice of, positive civil disobedience eventually resulted in his being arrested for not paying a poll tax.  Thoreau resisted the tax because  it conflicted with his conscience.  He believed that the funds generated from the tax would be used to finance the Mexican War, a campaign which he vehemently opposed.  Thoreau, further, saw the war as a means to expand slave territories in the United States, and he considered such an immoral undertaking.

unnamed-1From Thoreau’s thesis it appears that he is not arguing for no government, but that he is imagining a “State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few were to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it…” Even though it was penned over 100 years ago, Thoreau’s thesis reflects conflicts we continue to struggle with today.  He states further, “It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience.”

Without a doubt, America, and our global communities, have certainly changed a great deal since Thoreau’s thesis.  According to historians of civil disobedience, there have been many more examples of civil disobedience in which people, or movements, have changed policies and improved living conditions for communities, by employing varying degrees of civil disobedience to effect positive social outcomes.

Although they are too numerous to name, some prominent civil disobedience involved Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi (1869-1948), for his role in leading India to independence; Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968), for his role in leading the nation’s peaceful Civil Rights Movement until his assassination; Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) for his role in organizing a labor union to protect the rights of workers; Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) for his role in protesting apartheid which, after his imprisonment of nearly 30 years, eventually led to world recognition, a Nobel Peace Prize, and anti-apartheid improvements; and many more individuals–known and unknown–who have led and continue to inspire non-violent civil disobedience.NOT_hate_Fotor

So, what does this tell us as leaders of organizations, communities, and families?  Some might argue that it is our responsibility to ensure that students, and developing adults, are exposed to stories of non-violent civil disobedience–hopefully to counterbalance the other reports of more violent ways to resolve conflicts that are broadcasted via various news and entertainment media.

As managers of businesses and observers of interpersonal interactions, there are daily opportunities for us to model civil engagement, civil discourse, and decision-making that demonstrates the value of engagement of a broad range of individuals and appreciation of more diverse perspectives. As leaders, we can not only listen to diverse opinions and solutions with respect and understanding, but we can also help others recognize the value of diverse viewpoints.

Ultimately, the family is probably the first place to form meaningful viewpoints about the individual’s responsibilities in society. Possibly Jackson-2_Fotorconversations that occur in family worlds should also encompass strategies for supporting and expressing disagreement in civil and non-violent ways.  Because the family is the basic building block of society, when families actively promote listening, tolerance, civil discourse, and awareness of other cultures, they offer a strong foundation for productive civil discourse and nonviolent positive social action in our larger global communities.

As leaders–be it in our families, our workplaces, our communities, our nation, or anywhere on our Earth–it is our critical responsibility to help each other work towards truly forming a more perfect union, the intention stated in the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America.

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, thesis, 1849

Special thanks to Geri R. Vital, MA