Do what you do best

Author and researcher Marcus Buckingham challenges community college leaders on how they approach success. (Photos: Adam Auel)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Author and researcher Marcus Buckingham has a simple message for community college leaders: Play to your strengths.

Speaking during the opening plenary at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) annual convention, Buckingham urged college leaders to focus on studying people’s strengths, not their failings. He outlined lessons from his new book, Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World. Under the freethinking research approach, he said, “if you want to understand something, study it in the real world.”

“That sounds obvious, and yet we don’t do that,” Buckingham said. For example, to learn about health, we study disease. That’s the wrong way to go.

“You learn nothing about joy if you study depression, and you learn nothing about student success by studying failure,” he said.

What doesn’t work

Buckingham believes the current approach used to evaluate employees’ performance doesn’t work, because “people are unreliable.”

When supervisors rate an employee’s performance, the rating reflects more about the person who is evaluating than the person evaluated. “That’s a huge problem,” he said.

“A lot of things we know as truths aren’t settled truths,” he added. One of the “lies” he identifies in his book — that forms the bases of our education and performance systems — is that “it’s best to be a well-rounded person.”

In fact, it’s best to focus on one’s strengths, Buckingham said, giving examples from top performers in professional soccer and ballet, who achieved excellence by following their own path rather than what was expected of them.

“You will grow the most in the areas where you already have strength,” the areas “where you have some natural affinity,” he said.

Most learning isn’t a function of getting the steps or the facts right, he said. “Learning is insight. It comes from within.”

And that means helping students find their own voice and creating workplaces that help people learn and grow, Buckingham said. If college leaders wants everyone to be engaged and resilient, they have to find a way to engage them, he said.

Other misconceptions

Among the other common misconceptions listed by Buckingham:

  • People care about which company they work for. Not so, he said; once an employee is hired, the attraction fades.
  • The best plan wins. Actually, Buckingham said, the more detailed a plan is, the worse it is because it tends to be too detailed and inflexible.
  • The best companies “cascade goals.” In an attempt to create alignment, he said, the leader of an enterprise has a set of goals, and those goals are given to each level below him or her. But that doesn’t work because people rarely check to see if those goals are followed.
  • People need feedback. “They don’t,” Buckingham said, noting that companies require performance reviews every year and then ignore the results.
  • People can reliably rate other people. “The only thing we can rate is our own experience. We are horrible at rating anyone else.”
  • People have potential. “There is no way to measure potential,” and it’s not beneficial to label someone as showing little or an abundance of potential, he said.
  • Work/life balance matters most. There is almost never a time when everything is in balance, he said. Everything is constantly moving and changing.
  • Leadership is a “thing.” No one has all the leadership qualities; ”every single leader is idiosyncratic,” he said. Rather than study leadership, “we should study what makes someone give their destiny to another.”

Taking charge

The people who are most effective in their jobs love what they do – and they do that by modifying their job to focus on what they like the most, Buckingham said.

He suggested “spending a week in love with your job,” and paying attention to what you love and what you loathe about it. The activities that you love – “those are your red threads,” he said. “The most productive and effective people take those red threads seriously and weave them into their lives.”

College leaders honored

In opening plenary, AACC Board of Directors Chair Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, said the jobs of community college leaders have never been more challenging or more important. Community colleges, which serve 12 million students, “are the single most important gateway to opportunity for so many,” she said.

AACC Board Chair Sandra Kurtinitis honors this year’s AACC Leadership Award recipients.

Kurtinis presented the AACC Leadership Award to Helen Benjamin, the former chancellor of Contra Costa Community College District (California), and Mary Spilde, retired president of Lane Community College in Oregon and a former AACC board chair.

Benjamin was the first African-American president of a college in the Contra Costa district, a former president of the Chief Executive Officers of the California Community Colleges, and a former member of the AACC board.

Having attended segregated schools, Benjamin credited her success to the African-American mentors who encouraged her, as well as her family, friends and colleagues.

“We never do our best work alone,” said Spilde, who spoke about her journey after arriving in the U.S. with $600 and a full scholarship paid by the government of Scotland.

“Going to college opened so many opportunities for me,” Spilde said. “We must create sanctuaries and a safe harbor for all our students.”

AACC President Walter Bumphus highlights the importance of Alamo Colleges receiving the Baldrige Award from the U.S. Commerce Department.

AACC President Walter Bumphus lauded the Alamo Colleges District in receiving the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. It’s only the second time a community college won a Baldrige Award; Richland College in Texas won in 2005.

Former Alamo Chancellor Bruce Leslie said the award not only recognizes organizational excellence, but also the system’s significant progress for students.

We are no longer the county’s “best-kept secret,” Bumphus said. “Community colleges are receiving the recognition that is long overdue.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.