Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Corner (Ecological) Office

I had read this book awhile ago, but Kendra just got to reading it, so we've had more of a chance to chat about it lately.

In ecology, there are a lot of nuts and bolts to master. Statistics, experimental design, the literature...Our discipline is not a quick one to master. Yet, when you get to the highest levels of the functioning of the discipline, success has less and less to do with the nuts and bolts than the more sociological aspects--basically how to get people to work together. As a scientific society, we recognize this a bit--we have fellowships for interacting with the press or Capitol Hill, but not with each other. It's unfortunate, too, because the failures and dysfunction are costly yet utterly preventable.

Any airport bookstore is filled with similar topics, but the best book I've found that provides advice on how to be a leader is Adam Bryant's The Corner Office. Bryant writes a weekly column for The New York Times Sunday Business section called The Corner Office. Weekly, he interviews a CEO of a different company and asks them essentially the same questions. When did you first have to manage people? Where did you learn to manage people? How do you hire people? What recent insights do you have on leadership? Almost every week the column is interesting and there are a lot of people who have thought carefully about how to manage people. The book is a compilation of his interviews to date.

There are many lessons in the book. There should be. Leading and managing is complex and just one thing wrong can trip up any project no less corporation. You have to take care of people and let them know they are appreciated. You have to provide a vision that can be easily translated to day-to-day activities. You go to the lowest levels for unfiltered information and to learn all the aspects of work that surround you. You have to be fair and even. You have to appreciate failure.

William Bond and I were talking about similar issues on our trip through Afri-homa. He remembered his first year at UCT. He said that his department use to have a brilliant chair. William described how after his first year--a year consumed by teaching courses for the first time along starting a research project--his chair found him and said, "Good job, William. You made it." And you could tell how that one recognition meant a lot to him.

So much dysfunction in any group, whether a project, a department, or a scientific society, comes from not feeling appreciated. And it costs so little for leaders to appreciate others and let oxygen be consumed on more important issues.

There are a host of other aspects of being a leader of a team that need to be carried out well. Bryant might not nail them all, but there are stories in there worth learning that help advance our discipline as much, if not more, than the latest statistical technique or meta-analysis.

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