Mary Nikola, an expert on leadership, management and organisational development at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the US, speaks with the Perishable Pundit ahead of her interactive workshop at the London Produce Show and Conference 2015
We’ve been writing about Leadership for a long time. Indeed, in the early days of the Pundit it was an important focus for many industry members and we wrestled with the subject in pieces such as these:
So when we learned that Mary Nikola, who we have worked with for years in arranging the student group from Rutgers for The New York Produce Show and Conference, was available to come to London, shepherd a student, and speak in her area of expertise — Leadership, Management and Organizational Development — we were thrilled. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:
Q: You bring important skill sets to the London Produce Show. At Rutgers, you’ve implemented leadership strategies, organizational development interventions and programming for faculty, customers, and stakeholder groups for the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. In addition, for 12 years you’ve directed the New Jersey Agriculture Leadership Development Program, a two-year initiative for New Jersey’s farmers and agri-business professionals.
How will you translate your expertise and inspire this international produce industry forum, filled with a bastion of strong leaders across the supply chain? Tell us about your presentation…
A: My workshop is titled, “The Challenge of Leadership.” In the session, I plan to address the difference between managing and leading, and share the latest research on what followers want in a leader. I’ll bring in the research of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, linking that research to specific skills for leaders to engage in. I like to use a famous saying: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten”.
Q: That’s a stimulating quote to jump start discussion. You describe the session as a workshop. Will you be encouraging audience participation?
A: Right now, my initial plan is to open up a dialogue about leading and managing and to ask the group, what does it mean to be an effective leader? How do you define management, and how do you define leadership? My objective here is to eventually distinguish between managing and leading. They are not the same thing, but there is an overlap; managers lead and leaders manage.
Sometimes you’re doing both simultaneously. It’s like driving a car and listening to the radio. You’ve got the capacity to do both, but I want people to understand they’re different. When taking care of things today, this is management function, but when you’re thinking five years from now, or even six months from now, visualizing what this could be, that’s when you’re leading, thinking innovatively and creatively.
For instance, when Jim Prevor and his colleagues got together and started talking about the London Produce Show, that was a leadership function. I have a Vice President here who I was working with for years, and clearly his strength was in leading, but when it came time for implementation — let’s get down to the nuts and bolts and the implementation — that was really a management function.
He liked to come up with the concept and ideas and bring it together, and then move on to the next project. So you surround yourself with good managers that can assist you in your project. And there are people who are great at management but can’t dream up the idea, or see the forest for the trees. That’s just not their thing or it’s too hard for them.
Some people can do both; some people just excel at one. But that’s important for people to know because you want to pull to your strength and, understand, I’m not good at math, so I need to surround myself with people that are good at math.
Q: Why focus on the Kouzes and Posner’s research?
A: This is solid research. Nothing has come around the corner yet that’s better than this. We’re looking at a model of leadership that’s been proven and demonstrated consistently over the past 30 years of practice and scrutiny of research, quantitative and qualitative data, involving well over 350,000 people, and hundreds of personal interviews.
This has been the one model that has undergone the test of time. And every year it’s updated.
Q: So your workshop centers on this quintessential research by Kouzes and Posner? In other sessions at the London Produce Show, speakers, including John Stanton, Miguel Gómez and Brad Rickard, will be sharing their own research on different topics. How will your session unfold?
A: I’ll have a handout of the course description and learning objectives on the agenda. I have an activity we’ll do during the session to define leadership. The topic has been studied about 75 years, not as long as management or biology. There is considerable research, but lack of consistency on the definition of leadership. It’s not definitive, so there is a lot of wiggle room.
We want to create a working definition with the group they can live with for the purpose of our session together. Generally I like to define leadership as the capacity or wherewithal for an individual to influence or inspire followers; to motivate or cajole others to willingly follow. If you’re following because you’re forced to or because of your father, your teacher or your boss, that’s not the kind of leadership we’re talking about. We’re talking about someone who gets on board because they think you’re doing the right thing or you’re going in the right direction and they are willing to follow.
The next real chunk of the session we will discuss is what does it mean when the follower says I’m on board, sign me up, I’m interested in what you’re doing and where you want to go. We’ll look into the research that’s been done by Kouzes and Posner on what are the top leadership characteristics followers say they want in a leader?
There’s about 25 to 30 years of research done, and about 350,000 participants in their database. What I’ve done is taken the top characteristics and printed them out on index cards with their definitions.
I’ll give everyone a deck of cards with the top 20 characteristics, and ask attendees to pull out your top five. Those 20 are important, but which top five are most important to you? It’s a nice interactive group activity.
Q: Considering the talent and diversity in the room, this should get interesting…
A: Sometimes, I’ll ask people to turn to the person sitting next to you, in front of you or behind you, and see if you agree on the top five. The idea is to pull from the group. And then I share what the research is showing, so we can start to synthesize the results. So characteristics would include being ambitious, broad-minded, caring, competent, cooperative, courageous, dependable, determined, fair-minded, forward-looking, honest, imaginative, independent, inspiring, intelligent, loyal, mature, self-controlled, straight-forward and supportive.
My key learning objectives are to differentiate between managing and leading, and if you’re no good at leading, you need to know that so you can surround yourself with someone who can fulfill that role. Second, I want to identify the key leading behaviors, and if I have time, describe key elements of influence. We have a lot to cover in a 45-minute session. This would normally be a two-day workshop.
Q: Will attendees leave with action-oriented steps?
A: It’s a training, application session. We take the research of others proven to be valid and statistically relatable. It’s the same as the guy doing research on blueberries or strawberries, and translating it to deliver to the public.
This is the model of extension to translate the best research into practical application for people sitting in on the workshop. The big thing about training and development is adults want information that is immediately useful. We don’t even listen to the information we can’t use.
Adults come in with preconceived notions; anything we cover or teach needs to relate to experiences they’ve already had. It’s not like their mind is an empty vessel. They don’t want theory; they want practical applications. Some might have learning disabilities, eyesight or hearing problems; everyone doesn’t have the same tools at their disposal, whether it’s about botany or leadership. How do you help people hear information and connect it? When people walk in, they have preconceived ideas.
Often, change is going to be awkward and a little uncomfortable. I’ll do a closing exercise that exemplifies this, involving one small change people need to make.
This is not a lecture. My format and delivery style are more collaborative. In typical row seating at sessions, people only interact with the speaker. So it’s better to have an open “U” set up where people can see each other face to face, because leadership is networking and building relationships with the people around you.
Q: Do you find sometimes in sessions that people may be hesitant to participate or ask the first question?
A: When it’s an open U, I can connect more with people and facilitate the discussion. With adult learners, part of the experience is pulling from what they already know, and building on it together as a group, rather than just having someone come in and say, here’s the research, this is what the deal is, and goodbye. That’s not the process. It’s about discovery and engagement.
So, once they have the set of cards, and pick their top favorites, I share what the research says. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong or right. It’s from the 350,000 participants in the data base. The question is what traits in a leader are important to you?
Q: Is it industry-specific, or culture-specific? For instance, could there be a different emphasis on the top leadership traits if you are a produce grower versus an investment banker, or if you’re working in China versus the UK, or in the U.S., for that matter… Wisconsin versus New York?
A: That’s a good question. My work has focused a lot on the produce industry in New Jersey, the family farms, and generational retail businesses. I just got Kouzes and Posner’s latest research report on the UK, which will be interesting to discuss at the show.
There’s also the idea of collectivism versus individualism. Some societies are collectivist, like Japan and China. They believe in teamwork, and don’t try to outdo each other. In the U.S., we’re all trying to climb that corporate ladder.
It’s fascinating to see how that plays out. I can also share Geert Hofestede’s research on the five dimensions of culture — time-orientation, short-term versus long term; another is power differential…etc. What Kouzes and Posner’s research is showing in the UK might have implications for other countries as well.
Q: Could you give us a preview of the UK findings? Does it shed any new light on the overall picture?
A: The London report, titled, “The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership,” builds on the body of Kouzes and Posner research, basically presenting the same information on leadership qualities, with similar challenges to those around the world.
What the researchers find is these characteristics transcend across borders, cultures and generations, regardless of industry or geography, public sector or non-profit, and despite individual differences of age, ethnicity and gender. The five practices of exemplary leadership have consistently been found related to positive employee and organizational outcomes.
Q: Could we go back to your use of the word “follower”? Is getting someone to be a follower necessarily a good thing? For instance, couldn’t it be desirable for a leader to have people under him or her, willing to challenge and keep the leader on his or her toes, rather than following blindly? To be a follower can sometimes have a negative connotation…
A: That’s a valid point. Maybe follower isn’t always the best word to use, or could perhaps offend. When everything is said and done, communication and tone is key. When we’re leading, we are painting the picture, choosing words to appeal to the audience. How do you deliver the message? Here’s the path, now how do we communicate that path?
I can expound on a study done by Howard Gardner on the eight signs of intelligence, and who’s in charge. It wasn’t as expected. In order to move up the rank and file is social intelligence, the ability to bond with people, whether or not a brilliant scholar. When you look at kids early on playing in the sandbox, and you see the kid sharing his toys, that kid has a sense of social intelligence.
Q: So future leaders can be spotted at an early age… Would you say many leadership qualities are innate?
A: When you think of leadership experience at its best, when we watch other people, they’re not always the best. It’s better to focus on those who have excelled. I tell people to think of a time when you were involved with someone, or personally observed or admired someone that did a good job. You want to pull from personal experiences or something you’ve done.
When I ask this, often people start giving examples of good management, rather than leadership.
Q: Could you give some examples?
A: Management is about administration, running the show, focused on structure, organizational charts, job performance, and mechanisms to control a situation.
Management gives rewards, perks such as shorter workdays and casual dress, as well as sanctions. A manager is interested in the bottom line. We have a deadline, getting things done on time. We imitate past successes, it worked that way, we’ll repeat the process.
Leadership is about being innovative and conceptual. Instead of motivating by rewards, buy in to the intrinsic value, not because you’re getting the new office, get hooked by inspiration, and by trust. I think she has a good idea, and I’m willing to leave my job to go with this new start up. Leadership is not bottom-line thinking.
Very often, in evaluating workshops and similar enterprises, people look for relevance in the most short term kind of way.
This is a mistake. The most valuable thing a person can do is develop their own capacities. To discover one’s inner leader is not a trivial matter, and it can have life-altering properties.
For a business, to invest in the enhancement of its team members is probably a more meaningful and useful investment than almost anything else.
Yet, businesses often don’t invest in this way, fearing that the newly minted assets will walk out the door and keep their training with them.
We hope you’ll come and participate in this workshop and many others.
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