Building Infrastructure for Engaged Leading

Cyril Oberlander, Dean of the Humboldt State University Library, recently took Roger James and me on a tour of the library. It’s impossible to capture in words how inspiring he and the library were to us.

In the most recent HSU Library Annual Report, Oberlander stated, “HSU Library provides information resources and curates many outstanding opportunities to investigate, inspire, and invent.” In the last five and a half years he and his staff have transformed the library from the traditional “collection focus” to an “engagement focus”.

So many elements in the HSU library engender engagement. The floor-to-ceiling shelves of books were moved away from windows and against walls so that pathways of light now stream into large open spaces. Consciously designed places offer environments for both individual and group study. More than 150 movable whiteboards and walls are arranged around tables, chairs and computers to encourage collaborative study.

Even though we toured the space during the hush of holiday break, many of the boards remained filled with the thoughts of students from multiple fields of study, e.g., diagrams of mitochondria, notes about death and dying, and a drawing of an exceptionally cute bear with a word bubble exclaiming, “You’re almost there!”

For all the extraordinary opportunities for engaged learning at the library, please check their website. Here are a few that grabbed our attention: a flight simulator built by students; a Makerspace where students can design, prototype, create and get feedback on physical and digital projects; and a Brain Booth for taking brain breaks.

External Infrastructure 

Oberlander’s innovative library got me thinking about the external and internal infrastructure for engaged leading. External infrastructure refers to how the physical space is designed and how people use it. Most tech companies have been experimenting with various forms of physical infrastructure for years. For example, in one of our client’s offices, there are no walls. Regardless of one’s place in the hierarchy, everyone works in rows of back-to-back cubicles. People interact by standing up and talking over the low walls or huddling with colleagues nearby. The meeting rooms have walls of glass and are stocked with all the equipment anyone needs for an in-person or online conversation.

For many organizations, modifying physical space might be cost-prohibitive, but managers can always manage by wandering around, making spontaneous and informal connections with people. These relationships are also part of an organization’s infrastructure. In addition, you might reconfigure one light-filled, comfortable room or space for collaborative learning or creative problem-solving. Ask yourself, “Does our external infrastructure invite engagement?”

Internal Infrastructure

Internal infrastructure includes the intentions, state of being, and behaviors of a leader. An influential aspect of Oberlander’s leadership is his intention to focus on engaging students of all ages in learning. He is shaping the external infrastructure of the library, along with its staff and programs, to carry out that intention. Oberlander’s intention and the physical infrastructure of the library are influencing students’ actions that in turn creates new possibilities for learning.

The neuroplasticity of the human brain enables us to modify our internal infrastructure and resulting behaviors. If you want to create more engagement in your organization, how might you go about doing that? Being engaged requires being actively and consistently involved. How much attention do you pay to modifying your internal infrastructure so you can engender engagement?

Modifying your internal infrastructure requires paying attention to your state of being, your feelings and emotions. Because feelings and emotions are contagious, it’s helpful as a leader to know what’s going on inside you so you know how you might be affecting others. This is not about denying feelings or emotions or trying to push them into what you want them to be. By noticing your internal state without judgment and with kind curiosity, it often changes.

Noticing your emotions allows you to make choices about your actions. For example, if you are feeling anxious, pause and ask yourself, “What am I anxious about?” Understanding the source gives you the opportunity to do something about it. This doesn’t need to disrupt your day—it takes less than a minute to pause and focus your attention inside and explore what’s going on in there. Take another few seconds to pay attention to the sensations of your feet on the floor and the breath moving in your body. This will calm the anxiety and build new pathways (i.e., infrastructure) in your brain that diminish the current anxiety or might prevent it from arising in the future.

High-engagement Leader Behaviors

The last aspect of engaged leadership infrastructure I want to highlight is your behavior as a leader. With practice, you can strengthen particular pathways in the brain so engaging behaviors become part of how you function every day.

Two behaviors stand out as high-engagement behaviors. First is listening. In any situation—like a meeting or when you are practicing managing by wandering around—what percentage of the time do you spend talking vs. listening? Along with listening, what kind of questions do you ask? Ones that focus on the content or task, others that explore process or how things are getting done, or questions that build relationships. Here are a few examples:

  1. Content or task questions: “What’s going on with the project? What do you think are its most important goals?”

  2. Process or how questions: “How are things going in your area? What’s helping or getting in the way of people working together to achieve project goals?”

  3. Relationship questions: “How are you feeling about the project thus far? Are you getting what you need from me? What else do you need?”

The questions you ask and the emotional tone in which you ask them influence people’s desire to engage. To expand your repertoire of useful questions, I highly recommend Marilee Adams’ “Change Your Questions: Change Your Life.”

To close, I want to return to the HSU Library and its inspiring Dean. Oberlander has developed an external and internal infrastructure to increase engagement. For example, when Roger and I arrived he greeted us at the door and asked us what we wanted to know or see. We said we wanted to know what was most exciting for him. His enthusiasm was contagious. I nearly skipped my way back to the car pondering how soon I could get back to the library.

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