Learn from Everything: A Conversation with Leadership Expert Mark Sanborn
By: Steve Gratz
Leadership is key in business and in education. Those of us in education understand the critical importance of the education leader in every school district and school building. While contemplating this blog post, I wanted to focus on the importance of leadership regardless of the industry and your position within that industry. As a result, I decided to reach out to my friend and leadership guru, Mark Sanborn, and ask him a few questions.
Mark and I have been friends since the 1970s and lived together as members of Alpha Zeta fraternity at The Ohio State University. Today, Mark is an international bestselling author and noted expert on leadership, team building, customer service and change. You can learn more about Mark at his website.
During my career, I have had the opportunity to be a personal coach to more than 200 individuals. A vast majority of these individuals have gone on to secure leadership positions, not only in education but also in industry. With the shared passion for leadership, I decided to ask Mark a series of questions on being a leader and leadership. Although the questions I asked Mark are fairly broad, they are transferable to those of us in education.
1. If you were beginning a career today or were still early in your career, what would you do differently? What advice would you give to those in that stage of life today?
Happily, I wouldn’t do anything differently. My strategy those many years ago is valid today: try lots of things. Get as much diverse experience as possible. More often than not, we find our true calling through experience — trial and error — rather than contemplation. You don’t find out which foods you like by thinking about them but by trying them. The same is true with career strengths, likes and dislikes.
2. What is the greatest change you've seen in the workplace since you began your career? Does that change the way you lead today? If so, how?
The greatest change is the complexity of business and life. We’ve always faced change and challenge, but technology has been one of many factors that has dramatically increased complexity. We are deluged with information. Nobody can know everything there is to know nor even hope to keep completely up to date. That means leaders need a carefully designed learning strategy that includes trusted experts and sources to help fill in the blanks, the things we don’t know.
3. What three words might people use to describe you as a leader?
The more accurate answer would come from those who have experienced my leadership, but based on feedback I’ve gotten, those descriptors would include erudite, intense and funny. I invest much time in thinking and learning (hence erudite). I’m very focused on what’s important (hence intense). People who don’t know me well would be surprised to find I’m a prankster who finds the humor in almost everything (hence funny).
4. You seem to write a lot about your experiences with others and what you learn from them, such as you did in “The Fred Factor.” What would you hope people most learn from you and your work?
I hope people learn how they can learn from everything they do and observe. That’s how I was able to extract good ideas and lessons from my encounters with my postal carrier Fred Shea. G.K. Chesterton said, “The world will never lack for wonders, only wonder.” If we stay interested, curious and engaged with life, we can keep continually learning and growing.
5. What is the hardest thing you have to do as a leader? What have you learned that has helped you in this area?
One of the hardest things I’ve done as a leader is let an employee go who was a good person and conscientious employee but not the right fit for the job. The person didn’t have the skills or demeanor to succeed in the role that was required. Employers and employees need to recognize that all jobs are role specific, and being good isn’t enough if the employee isn’t the right person for the job. I’ve learned the importance of clarifying what is needed in a position and to determine if a possible candidate is just a good employee or the right employee for the job.
6. What one business or leadership book would you recommend to young leaders, besides one of your own, to help them in their leadership?
There are many excellent books on leadership, but I’d suggest “Good to Great,” because Jim Collins does a great job of showing how the leadership piece fits into the bigger organizational puzzle. I like his take on Level 5 Leaders and that his book is based on quantitative research.
7. What motivates you personally to get up in the morning? What is it that keeps you pushing for more personally or professionally? How do you continue to find inspiration in life?
For me, it comes down to faith, family and friends. Those three aren’t the icing on the cake — they are the cake. If you are clear in your beliefs and care for the relationships that matter, the rest follows. After that, I am about combining purpose and profit. Making money is easy, but making money by being of larger service and benefiting others is a blessing. I feel fortunate in my work to be able to do both.
I encourage you to reflect on the questions I asked Mark and think about how you would respond to the questions. This would be a great activity to share with other school leaders in your district.
Dr. Steve Gratz is senior executive director of the Center for Student Support and Education Options at the Ohio Department of Education, where he oversees creative ways to help students in Ohio achieve success in school. You can learn more about Steve by clicking here.