Monday, November 23, 2020

Diversity as a Core Value = Social Progress + Organizational Productivity


Diversity as a Core Value = Social Progress + Organizational Productivity

Mark Katsouros

November 23, 2020


It is human instinct to favor the company of those who have similar backgrounds to ourselves and think like we do, whether it be out of “comfort,” self-validation, or just plain mental laziness.  But, when it comes to growth, learning, and problem-solving, this is hardly a formula for success.  In fact, people who hire a bunch of others who are just like themselves are paying a bunch of money for no real gain, and risk an overdose of confirmation bias.  The best, most productive teams are made up of diverse individuals with very different origins, backgrounds, experiences, and thus approaches.  They appreciate each other's differences, learn from each other, supplement each other, leverage each other’s strengths, and truly create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I recently read a piece from the World Economic Forum, “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 4.0” (from where the image below came), that fully supports this philosophy.  The piece discusses both the social justice aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion (the moral and legal imperatives), as well as the often-forgotten economic imperative—that diversity, equity, and inclusion are essential, not just to social progress, but also to team performance, organizational productivity, and the overall economic vitality of an organization.  And, while this may take some team-jelling time to develop, the data supports the positive impact of diversity on team performance:

As this piece explains, “Successful organizations are powered by the diverse opinions, skill sets and life experiences of their employees.  To tap into the full potential of human diversity, organizations need to hire diverse talent and create an inclusive working culture underpinned by a fundamental sense of belonging, fairness and equity, enabling people to bring their ‘full self’ to work.

Having a sense of belonging at work means that the work environment provides high psychological safety and employees can bring their full selves to work without fear of judgement.  Employees feel comfortable expressing their opinions and ideas freely, and are appreciated for their unique contributions and recognized for their accomplishments.

Inclusive organizations take wider responsibility not just for the impact they have on their employees’ lives but also on the broader communities in which they operate, working towards social justice and equity for all.”

Indeed.  However, diversity should not be confused with core values alignment.  This might initially seem like a fine line, but it is not.  Core values center around attributes, not experience.  Authenticity and genuineness, balance and thoughtfulness, compassion and empathy, continuous growth and improvement, creativity and innovation, honesty and transparency, integrity and trustworthiness, kindness and selflessness, and, indeed, respect for others’ opinions and appreciation for diversity—these may be formed out of experiences, including highly varying ones, but they are attributes that represent values.


Another piece I recently read, Cristian Grossmann’s “3 Ways to Use Value Alignment to Increase Business Success,” addresses this well:

“According to a recent Glassdoor survey, values and culture top the list of employee satisfaction factors.  So increasing your employees’ awareness of value alignment will give them a deeper understanding of the company’s purpose and their guiding principles.  This connection inevitably leads to increased engagement.

Leaders should always ask themselves ‘what are the values of my organization?’  They should have a firm grasp of those core values.  If leaders of the company don’t appear to believe and exhibit company values, employees won’t either.  Leaders need to authentically embody the values they want in their organization and their team.”

My long-held belief:  The most exciting, productive, rewarding, and successful work environments hire for alignment of values and diversity of backgrounds/culture/experiences, knowledge/skills, and overall strengths.  One must hire with this approach to maximize both individual employee satisfaction and the team’s/organization’s collective success.  Talk about a win-win!


Mark Katsouros was the Director of Voice & Video at the Pennsylvania State University.  He is now a free agent, looking for another exciting opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and in the world.  Mark can be reached at “mark@katsouros.com”.



Saturday, November 14, 2020

Yesterday Was a Good Day


Yesterday Was a Good Day

Mark Katsouros

November 14, 2013


Yesterday was a good day.  Yeah, I know it was Friday the 13th, in 2020, but I've never been one for superstitions.  I ran five miles first thing in the morning (self-care), made progress on starting a talent roster for those among our recent RIF who would like to be included on such a thing (http://talent.katsouros.com), was visited at my home by two colleagues/“ex-employees,” and received several “How ya doing?” calls, texts, and emails from other colleagues/ex-employees.   One of my colleagues, after reading some of my recent recommendations (http://home.mchsi.com/~katsouros/resume/full-resume.pdf#page=19), simply said, “Damn, that’s some testimonial goodness, man!”  I couldn’t agree more.  And it’s been awfully nice to be on the receiving end of so much supportive outreach and gratitude, particularly from members of the teams I had the privilege of leading over the last decade.

I also had several companies and universities reach out to me about some good opportunities, and had a very deliberate conversation with my wife and son about what we want out of the “next step,” as interviews mount, references are requested, and opportunities are becoming real.  I’m not one to leave someone in the lurch, meaning that I’m not going to commit to a new gig, and then “uncommit” because an overall better opportunity comes along soon afterwards.  This is a difficult balance to strike when one finds oneself unemployed during a global pandemic.  To turn down a serious offer under these circumstances because it’s not the optimal fit/opportunity requires thoughtful introspection, optimism, self-confidence, and faith in the future.  Lucky for me, I possess plenty of these things, a large support network, and an abundance of good fortune.  I’m confident all will be okay.  And I look forward to the next opportunity to tackle new challenges, develop others, innovate, continue to learn and grow, and make new meaningful connections.  Yesterday was a good day, and I am truly a lucky man.


Mark Katsouros was the Director of Voice & Video at the Pennsylvania State University.  He is now a free agent, looking for another exciting opportunity to make a difference in people's lives and in the world.  Mark can be reached at "mark@katsouros.com".



Thursday, October 1, 2020

Thank You, Best Wishes, and a Small Parting Gift


Thank You, Best Wishes, and a Small Parting Gift

Mark Katsouros

October 1, 2020

This is dedicated to my son, Max - Always look for the good.

 

The pandemic has created some truly unprecedented times.  On September 30, 2020, Penn State Information Technology had to implement a management Reduction In Force due to crushing fiscal challenges.  Unfortunately, many of my outstanding colleagues and I were permanently laid off.  This piece is actually an email message I sent to my staff the following day.  It seemed to be much appreciated by my staff.  I received so many beautiful notes of kindness and appreciation from them.  Some forwarded it to others in and outside of our organization.  One even suggested that I share it publicly—that this "gift" was worth sharing more broadly.  So, here it is, verbatim.  I hope others may find it helpful.  And, of course, at least at the time of this posting, I'd certainly appreciate any and all IT leadership job leads.  😊


Sent: Thursday, October 1, 2020 2:02 PM
To: voice-and-video
Subject: Thank You, Best Wishes, and a Small Parting Gift

Folks,

As I hope you know by now, I was part of the PSIT management RIF yesterday and permanently laid off.  I cannot even begin to articulate what a sincere pleasure and professional privilege it has been to work with all of you.  Never have I been a part of such a hardworking, talented, kind, fun, and funny team, nor so privileged to be given the helm of one.  You folks accomplished SO MUCH, often with constrained resources, and I hope you are as full of pride as I am about that.  And I hope you had fun, or as much fun as you could in such unprecedented times.  If any of you ever need anything in the future, I hope you won’t hesitate to contact me.  Not sure if I’ll be able to keep my PSU email, so my personal email is simply “mark@katsouros.com”.  Of course you can always call/text me on my mobile.

I don’t remember if I ever got the chance to share my “Seven Reasons for Being” with you folks (or even just some of you more casually), but I don’t think I did.  (Planned on doing so formally in a V&V Staff Meeting someday, particularly if anxieties got high and times got really tough, which unfortunately sort of snuck up on me.)  So, I hope you’ll indulge my doing so now.  Let’s call it a parting gift.  The genesis of this is from early in the pandemic, and amidst all the other chaos of our times—democracy’s decline and political unrest worldwide, systemic racism and police violence, climate change and global warming, drought and massive wild fires, etc.  My then-17-year-old son looked us in the eyes one night and, clearly troubled, simply asked, “What’s the point?  What’s the point of all of this?  What’s the point of any of it?”

He, of course, was talking about life—particularly life in these strange and stressful, and struggling, and troubling times.  I gave most of these to him right then and there, but I also thought about his troubling question over the next couple of days that followed, and I came up with my formal list of “Seven Reasons for Being,” which I gladly shared with him (and which he seemed to gladly receive).  They seemed to calm him down, and remind him of the big picture, and of our humanity—the really important stuff, the importance of which only grows in times such as these.  That list was as follows:

  1. Learn and grow.
  2. Be creative and create.
  3. Demonstrate kindness, always.
  4. Find purposefulness.
  5. Have fun.
  6. Find love.
  7. Seek adventure.

Of course I had long, drawn-out explanations of each of these, with plenty of examples, but I’ll spare you all of that verbosity.  I think you get the point.  Focus on the important stuff—the humanizing stuff.  The stuff you’ll remember, and for which you’ll be remembered by your loved ones and maybe even by your colleagues.  Yes, these things have broad applicability, even at work, where you spend a lot of your waking hours, throughout much of your life.  I hope you’ll find this list helpful.  As helpful as my son seems to have found it.  As helpful as it was for me to make it and remind myself of these things, perhaps yesterday more than ever.

Best wishes to you all, as colleagues and as friends.  Thank you again for everything—all you do for Penn State, all you do for each other, and all you’ve done for me.  Stay safe and well.  And please do keep in touch.

We (still) Are!

Sincerely,

Mark

Mark Katsouros

Director, Voice & Video

Penn State Information Technology



Mark Katsouros was the Director of Voice & Video at the Pennsylvania State University.  He is now a free agent, looking for another exciting opportunity to make a difference in people's lives and in the world.  Mark can be reached at "mark@katsouros.com".


Friday, August 28, 2020

Maximizing Zoom Performance from Home / when Bandwidth is Constrained

Maximizing Zoom Performance from Home / when Bandwidth is Constrained

Mark Katsouros

August 2020

 

This piece was written specifically for Zoom users at Penn State University, but most of the tips and best practices identified here are applicable to most any cloud video collaboration platform—BlueJeans, Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, etc.—and to most every enterprise leveraging a work-from-home paradigm.

If you’re joining/leading Zoom sessions from home, and/or have constrained broadband connectivity (particularly in terms of upstream bandwidth, which is quite common), here are some things you can do to mitigate performance issues:

  • Turn off the competition:

o     Close other applications on your device that may be utilizing precious bandwidth (not to mention CPU cycles) during your Zoom session, particularly upstream bandwidth.

o     Same goes for other equipment in your home.  You may have to ask your son to do his gaming, or watch Netflix, at another time!

  • Within Zoom:

1.    Turn off HD video – Providing video in HD resolution requires significantly more bandwidth, so consider turning it off when the quality of the image you're sending isn't critical.  To turn off HD in your Zoom client:

a.    In your desktop Zoom client, click Settings (the gear icon).

b.    Click Video in the left-hand menu.

c.    In the My Video section, uncheck the box beside Enable HD if it is checked.

2.    Turn off your video entirely – Virtual background or otherwise, video consumes a lot of bandwidth, and typically isn’t as critical as audio.

3.    Consider using a phone (landline or cellular) for audio.  You can still join the meeting visually by computer (for yourself, per bullet immediately above), but don’t join with audio from that device.  (Just close the “audio conferencing” options window when it appears, or you risk feedback.)  You may also want to consider using the Cisco Jabber client (or whatever “soft phone” client may be available at your enterprise) on your computer or smartphone for audio.

4.    Co-host/Helper – If you have content to share, consider asking a better-connected, or on-campus, helper (co-host) to do that sharing, or consider using online collaborative documents rather than screen sharing.  Certain services, like Microsoft Office Online Documents and Teams, Box Notes, and Google Apps, let multiple people open and edit files in a shared paradigm.  These services can use less data than streaming video, while still allowing everyone to see changes in real time, or close to it.

5.    Don’t use a VPN during your Zoom session, unless you absolutely need it (for instance, if you’re trying to share content from an asset only accessible from within the University Enterprise Network).  The Cisco AnyConnect VPN will route Zoom (and Teams) traffic directly to Zoom (and Microsoft), but may still create a performance hit.  (If you’re connecting to the Libraries via the LIASVPN AnyConnect profile, you’ll want to at least switch to the ISPtoPSU profile, if not switch off the VPN client entirely, since all LIAS traffic flows through Penn State.)  The GlobalProtect VPN also routes Zoom (and Teams) traffic directly to Zoom (and Microsoft), but is presently only available to provisioned faculty/staff and will likely create a performance hit.  (Again, consider #3 above.)

6.    Test your bandwidth via “http://speedtest.psu.edu” (or “http://speedtest.net”, if you’re at another enterprise), including if you are using a VPN.  You should have at least between 1 and 3 Mbps of upload speed (depending on video format) for a reliable Zoom videoconferencing experience.  See Zoom’s bandwidth requirements for details.

7.    Cellular vs. Internet – If your available cellular bandwidth is better than your Internet/Wi-Fi bandwidth (sometimes the case, especially with today’s 4G and 5G cellular networks), consider joining your Zoom session from your cellular device’s Zoom client.  (You may need to turn Wi-Fi off.)  While this is not optimal for content sharing, it may provide an overall better video experience.  (Cellular data rates may apply.)

8.    Go into the office – If all else fails, if you have a need to share content from your device, and/or if the meeting is critical, consider going into the office / on campus.  The University Enterprise Network provides robust connectivity in both directions, and being on campus obviously negates the need to use a VPN.

9.    Zoom clients – We strongly recommend running the Zoom desktop client (vs. the Zoom web client) to improve overall performance.  Additionally, because you may often be running Zoom from somewhere on campus (and the University Enterprise Network), we strongly encourage users to install the Microsoft Installer (MSI) version of the desktop client on their Microsoft Windows machines.  The MSI version of the client contains information—files, registry data, shortcuts, and so on—that may improve performance on campus machines/networks, such as traffic prioritization.

 

See Penn State IT’s Remote Work Technology FAQs for additional work-from-home tips.



Mark Katsouros is the Director of Voice & Video at the Pennsylvania State University.  The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they just might be, as PSU is a pretty awesome institution.


Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Up to You

“Try not to get too bent out of shape.  It’s just a job.  Or is it something more?  Because, honestly, it’s mostly up to you to make something entirely awesome out of it.”

—Mark Katsouros

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Mentoring: Love and Invisibility


Mentoring:

Love and Invisibility

Mark Katsouros

September 13, 2018


Ever have one of those mornings where you realize you’re just going through the motions?  You know, you wake up, go for a run, shower, head to work, look at the calendar on your smartphone, and head to your first meeting?  This is how my day started yesterday.  Admittedly, I was tired (after getting up before 5am to go for a six-mile run in the dark).  Funny thing is that I realized, in real time, that I was just going through the motions.  This doesn’t happen to me too often, but I suppose we all occasionally fall into a pattern of mindless, barely purposeful movement.  Then a cool thing happened…

My first meeting of the day happened to be a Penn State IT Mentors final face-to-face meeting.  (I serve on the organizing committee, having been a mentor in the program since its inception four years ago.)  Right from the start, it was an energizing meeting.  We had a round-robin of testimonials from both mentees and mentors (who I had proudly helped pair), and what the program had meant to them—what they learned about each other and themselves, the networking opportunities, and the real growth opportunities discovered and forged.  We had some VIPs there to speak, including our Sr. Director for IT in Finance and Business, David Gindhart, and our VP of IT and CIO, Michael Kubit.

Dave spoke of the parallels between leadership and love.  This was extremely interesting, and really hit home.  One definition of love is giving something to others with no expectation of anything in return, of any real self-gain—the mother who’s really tired and has to get up early for work in the morning, but stays up all night watching over her sick child, or the stranger who volunteers, before or after a long day of work, to cook and serve others at the local food bank or drive a senior citizen to a medical appointment.  And one definition of a leader is one who gives something of him/herself to others, with no expectation of recognition for doing so.  This is often called “servant leadership,” and it’s something to which I subscribe and aspire to embody.  Give credit, take blame, help those around you succeed, even shield others from the bull and politics we all inevitably encounter on occasion.  If we all did this every day at work, imagine the kind of workplace we’d have.  But I had never quite thought about it in the context that Dave so eloquently provided.  Leadership and love.  It really is quite the striking parallel.  Dave talked about change, referencing the significant organizational change that is underway across Penn State IT, and people’s fears about change and the unknown, and their need for, yep, love.  We talked about how easy it is to view change as negative, and scary, but reminded each other that change should be contextualized much more positively.  Change is opportunity!  For growing, learning something new, and NOT going through the motions.

Then Michael spoke, first adding to the great conversation that had just occurred, but then listening to the program participants in the room speak on everything from the IT Mentors program to change to leadership.  It was a wonderful discussion, and a wonderful reminder of how important it is for leaders to be great listeners.  He reminded us of the incredibly important role IT plays in the University’s mission.  And he said something that triggered a lot of thinking on my part about another parallel.  He talked about how the best leaders are “invisible.”  Much like the context Dave had just provided, Michael reminded us that the best leaders promote the success of others—that the best outcome to which we as leaders can aspire is to push our colleagues and customers, and employees, and peers, into the limelight of success, while we remain invisible and ready to do it again, and again.  What could be greater, and point to more success, and purpose, and self-fulfillment, than that?  Finally, he reminded us of the importance of balance, of taking care of, not only others, but of oneself.  (Suddenly, I was proud of myself for making the time to run early that morning.)  Oh, and the thinking that it triggered on my part?  I thought about another interesting parallel:  That the best, most useful, most compelling IT should also be “invisible.”  That it should just simply ENABLE, as effortlessly and as intuitively, and as reliably, as possible.  Our mission is teaching, research, and service.  We Are…  Scholarship, and global problem-solving, and community!  And the IT underpinning all of this should be just that—an easy, and enabling, and out of the way (yes, invisible) underpinning to the greatness that is our mission and purpose.

Needless to say, by the end of our meeting, I was no longer going through the motions.  Nor was anyone else in that room.

So, yeah, love and invisibility.  “Who would have thunk it,” as I brushed my teeth and put on my shoes yesterday morning? 


Mark Katsouros is the Director of Service Design & Development at the Pennsylvania State University.  The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they just might be, as PSU is a pretty awesome institution.



Monday, August 28, 2017

My Top-10 Leadership Lessons: From My Hindsight to Your Foresight


My Top-10 Leadership Lessons
From My Hindsight to Your Foresight
Mark Katsouros
August 18, 2017

For 30+ years, I’ve been leading people, and I’ve had some great leaders, and some not-so-great leaders, myself.  These are the most important lessons I’ve learned over that time period (and, believe me, I’m still learning):
  1. Do what you say you’re going to do.  Be careful about sharing half-baked ideas that may be misconstrued, but default to transparency.  Above all else, demonstrate trustworthiness.  Without trust and integrity, you will not survive as a leader.  Heck, you may not survive as a human.  Live your values and ensure they’re aligned with those of “the business,” otherwise you’re in the wrong job or, more accurately, working for the wrong employer.
  2. Be accessible to, and genuinely, authentically, deliberately care for, your people.  If you can’t do this, you’re simply not qualified for people leadership.  This requires emotional intelligence and empathy.  These are learnable skills, but you have to desire them.
  3. Provide the vision (“the what”) and empower your folks to find the road to get there (“the how”), helping them manage hurdles (removing hurdles for them) without micromanaging them.
  4. Don’t do “more with less,” but rather do either “less with less” or “more with more.”  This means that you have to prioritize and/or justify additional resources with data.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t do everything you reasonably can to optimize and constantly improve efficiency, but, let’s be real, the calculus of doing “more with less” is that you’re eventually trying to do “everything with nothing.”  Align with strategy.  Insist on resource sustainability.  For example, approved CapEx, to stand up a service, without approved OpEx, to run/sustain it, is deadly.
  5. Demonstrate humility vs. hubris.  Give credit and take blame.  Pro leaders know which pronouns to use, and when.  (Hint:  Default to “we” unless talking about blame, which should always be “I.”)
  6. Aggregate viewpoints vs. dictate decisions.  This is why diversity is so critically important.  It is our differences—our different cultures, experiences, knowledge, perceptions, and perspectives—that help create the most complete views and ultimately foster the best decision-making.  And there’s a balance between building consensus and making reasonably prompt decisions.  The key is to be clear up front about the process (e.g., “voting” vs. “advising”), and to own your decision, especially if it turns out to be the wrong one.  (See #5 above.)
  7. Teaching is learning, and growing others fosters self-growth and a culture in which people want to work/stay/perform.  Coaching (helping your employees come up with solutions on their own) and mentoring (helping your employees leverage your experiences and learn from your mistakes) are inherent responsibilities of leaders.
  8. In any profession, but perhaps most especially in IT, subject-matter expertise demands constant evolution/training.  So, stewardship of skillsets is part of our overall resource stewardship responsibility.
  9. Help your folks maintain a healthy work-life balance.  Work ethic and job passion are great, but performance has to be sustainable.  Happy, healthy, balanced employees are your best performers.  Burned-out employees are obviously your worst.  And YOU’RE at least partly responsible for which one each becomes.
  10. Even with balance, you and your employees spend an inordinate amount of time together at the workplace.  Help your employees have some fun there.  I’m not talking about forced platitudes here, but rather simple perks that demonstrate you care (e.g., leaving a candy bar on someone’s desk for his/her birthday, or bringing donuts to a project meeting), genuine celebrations that help build team comradery (e.g., an annual picnic), team recognition events that sincerely show your gratitude, and simply injecting humor (without overdoing it) to keep things light.  Tell stories, help people relate what they do to something positive, make fun of yourself.  Humor reminds us that we’re human, fosters humility, and provides a far healthier emotional outlet than, and can even replace, conflict and workplace politics.

Ultimately, your job as a leader is integrity, empathy, vision, strategy, portfolio management, prioritization, resource optimization, humility, knowledge aggregation, employee stewardship/empowerment/recognition, overall sustainability, and aligning employee growth aspirations with the needs of the business.  Sure, it’s a long list, but your employees and the business need all of these things.  Don’t let them down.

Mark Katsouros is the Director of Service Design & Development at the Pennsylvania State University.  The opinions expressed in this article are his and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they just might be, as PSU is a pretty awesome institution.