Apr 16, 2010

Leadership lesson - Case of guest speaker organization

I was part of a 3-person committee for the a Darden student club that organized a speaker event for the entire school. I took on a lot of the leg work, but I had not volunteered to be the lead coordinator. Here were a few of the expected results and actual outcomes (there are not comprehensive).

Attendance goal - 60+; actual - app. 25
Audience diversity goal - diverse groups; actual - narrowly defined group of interested students and faculty

What happened? Few things. One was team leader's fault. But, for me, the more instructive lesson is my own complicity in that failure.

First, the team leader never really outlined all the tasks and timeline very clearly. Often, I would have to fill in and send out tasks to the group and get the thing moving. Questions I have:

- Why did the leader never step up? In that light, what was my responsibility?
- What should I have done? Should I have expended additional efforts to grow the leader to energize and encourage him? Or should I have simply taken over the show? I think in this case, he was my peer, so it was up to me to have said something. I failed to fix the issue.

Next, my complicity. Here are the things that most stick in my mind.

- I was asked to reach out to this speaker. I spoke to him and landed the invitation. But, during the conversation, I was not at all impressed with the guy. I should have said something, but when the team leader seemed satisfied with the speaker, I just held my peace. I think part of the failure of the event was because of this speaker's shortcomings. I ought to have stood up if I really cared and wanted to make this event better.
- As with the team leader's shortcomings, perhaps I ought to have been clearer in my expectations and should have engaged the speaker more directly to ensure the program went well by preparing ahead of the event.

These observations bring me to some troubling questions:
- If you want something done well, do you have to do it yourself? But, if you do, you're taking all the blame.
- In reality, you want your team to perform better - both your leaders and your followers - so that outcome will be better than if you organized on your own. But, energizing your peers who 'don't get it' can be draining. What's the solution? Is there some magic bullet for energizing your peers? How do you do this without losing your own energy?
- According to the GE model, you 1) hire right, 2) then differentiate talent & fire under-performers and grow top performers. Would I have fired someone in this case?
- What if I'm not in a position to fire anyone? So, does it always come back to me?
- Perhaps what was missing was incentive structure and accountability structure. How would one build this amongst a peer group?
- Part of what failed was lack of institutional knowledge. SYs didn't really involve themselves much and they didn't show up. Why? Were they merely testing us or were they genuinely indifferent?

Lessons: There are broader lessons to draw beyond those questions:
1. Don't ignore institutional knowledge. Figure out a away to leverage it and transfer it.
2. Inclusiveness and performance. You want to get others involved and make them perform? Figure out a way to (a) get their skin in the game and (b) make performances clear so that you can differentiate.
3. Judgment. This is a tough one. When your gut tells you something is going wrong. Stop, think, talk about it, and make sure you're going in the right direction.
4. Courage. Failure to choose comes from fear. When a tough choice needs to be made, choose and move forward.

Or perhaps I could have applied a different framework. For example:
1. Planning - create the right venue and select the right speaker; perform stakeholder analysis
2. Design - stay ahead of the marketing plan and get folks involved
3. Execute - lead team and coordinate tasks; delegate

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