Finding Hidden Gems, with special guest: Dr. Bret L. Simmons

In a previous interview with Mark Babbitt, I mentioned that this blog started out as an assignment in Dr. Bret L. Simmons Personal Branding class (UNR MBA Program). As the class wraps up, I did have the pleasure of getting Bret to agree to an interview himself and in these next two (not last) posts, my interview with Bret represents the finale of the interview series for his class.

While I was recently on the Big Island of Hawaii for one of my own projects, over the video conferencing service Zoom.US, Bret and I talked about the different projects he manages each semester, what he tries to instill in his students, fine tuning over the years, and this transformational period we’re in right now when it comes to social media. Here’s how it went.

Elton: “So, as a professor that juggles three different classes each semester, what is the system that you have in place that is effective for you, to keep it straight in your head. And also for it to be effective for the students as well?” Business

Bret: (Laughs out loud!)

Elton: “What? Is that too general?”

Bret: “So, it looks like I have a system, and I do. But, I am by nature emergent and not really well organized. So for the courses I have to impose structure on myself. Interestingly enough, all three classes I teach are taught entirely differently. The 720 class (Organizational Behavior) is the most structured. It’s very much show-up, listen to a lecture, participate now and then and take some exams.”

“The class you’re in, 726 (Personal Branding), is very unstructured. Show up at the beginning of the semester, learn how to do all this stuff, and then go do it, produce a product during the semester. And as you know, it’s impossible to grade all that content. So it really relies on that self-accountability system and that’s the only way to do it. There’s just no way I can review forty students complete content every week.”

Elton:  “And at that point, honestly, you should be to where you shouldn’t have to.”

Bret: “No, no I shouldn’t. People should be self-monitoring and providing self-feedback is my philosophy. You should be doing it for yourself, not doing it for me. Then, you’re self-reporting on how you’re doing and I do put some structure around the reporting system. But for those that are doing the work, the reporting system is a non-issue. The reporting system only becomes an issue for those that aren’t doing the work. It only constrains those who are not self-authorizing, accepting responsibility, and doing the work.”

Expert’s Input: I want to interject something briefly here to really drive home what Bret is talking about. In a piece by D. Deubel titled A Classroom’s Hierarchy of Needs, he builds off of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and relates them to the classroom. I will leave it to you to read what the bottom four of the pyramid are but the fifth is Self-Actualization. And in the piece there is a quote that reads: “Teachers cannot be leaders until they understand that students are no longer obligated to follow them.” – Phillip Schiechty. From my experience in Bret’s classroom, I would be comfortable in saying he has crossed the line from teacher to leader. Now, back to the interview, we were talking about the difference between the classes (projects) Bret manages each semester.

“Finally, 772 (Changing Environments of Business), it’s entirely different too. It’s an output based class but a different structure. I try to teach courses that I want to learn something in. So, I want to learn something about social media, and change so I teach 726 and 772. And I’m actually thinking of ways to reinvent how I teach the basic 720 course so that I can learn more new things. I do learn new things every semester but I’m looking for a way to radically reinvent that course. Radically.”

Elton:  “So what you’re telling me is that you have three different projects and you’re treating them as such.

Bret: “Yes, I approach each as a unique stand alone. So, this is my most challenging semester because there are three very distinct things and I have to totally switch gears during the week.”

Elton: “Walking from door to door pretty much?”

Bret: “Yes.”

Elton:  “Like you said, you’re going to try to radically change the 720 course, for the benefit of yourself and for the benefit of the students, because when you’re benefitting from it that’s when that teaching can be effective for the students?”

Bret: “Yep, yep.”

Elton:  “So, these changes or non-changes, how does that carry over if you see something like a red-flag? Where you’re saying ‘I need to stop doing that, or I need to keep doing this.’ Is that something you can incorporate in the summer, change and bring it in softly?”

Bret: “Well, I don’t think you can do it mid-stream. Because once you decide on a course of action and you develop a syllabus, it’s kind of a contract. But at the end of it, then I can reflect back and I make changes next semester going forward.”

Elton:  “In keeping with the change process, with the professor/class reviews that we do and the end of each semester, do you kind of look at the extremes not necessarily in the middle? About where the students are and how they feel about the class?”

Bret: “You know, interestingly enough I give very little weight to the severe complainers. Because really, they are complaining because they had to do the work essentially. The ones I really pay attention to are the ones who find the positive things about the course. Because I believe every course I teach is overwhelmingly more valuable than it is a pain. There are some small things that need to be tweaked but is the entire course a disaster? No. I have enough confidence in what I’m doing to know that’s not true.”

“So, where I find the biggest gems is among the people who are finding the bright spots but then also saying: ‘You know if you would do this a little bit differently it would work a lot better.’ That’s the more valuable feedback because it’s coming from a more credible source, for me anyway.”

Elton: “And then they are seeing something not only that might be tweaked but also offering solutions at the same time?”

Bret: “Right. And for the most part, the people that speak in that voice actually really wanted to learn something, but maybe something got in the way of them learning something. The other people, they just wanted to get the grade and if something got in the way of them making the grade, now they’re pissed and they’re just going to take it out on me.”

Elton: “I find that in the projects that I work on, if a guy comes to me and says: ‘You know, this is awful. But let’s find a way around it for the betterment of the project.’ That is very effective in not only getting my attention, but also in getting it addressed.”

Bret: “Yeah, you could treat each comment as a signal but you need to look for a pattern of comments over a number of semesters. And when you see a pattern, when taken together, that can be treated as a signal. But individual comments that you’ve never seen before should only be noted and not necessarily reacted to. You should watch to see if a pattern emerges in the comments. Then, as it emerges as a pattern, and it looks the same when looked at in different ways, now you’re got something you can really act on.”

Elton:  “Right. Similar to what I’m finding as I go through these courses, the answers are in the numbers, the data doesn’t lie. If you’re able to record and chart those data points, that’s where you’re really going to find the answers and that process applies to a lot of different things.”

Moving on: “In each semester, is there something that you try to instill? Beyond the objectives of the course, beyond why the students are there? Is there anything you want the students to take away when the semester finishes? Something positive? Or do you leave that to them? Let them chose to take something positive out of it?”

Bret: “Yeah… well that’s kind of my approach to all of it is you’re going to get out of it what you put into it. And I try for that to be a message that comes through each course. That: ‘Don’t just chase the numbers.’ I’m just here to put the structure in. As you approach this material you should figure out what the potential is for you and what you could learn from it and go beyond the simple structure that I have provided. And so hopefully, every semester I’ve created a course where people have the opportunity to do that. Most people don’t; most people are focused on the grade: ‘What do I need to do the make the grade? How do I get the grade?’ And that’s not just their posture towards class, that’s their posture towards life. It’s hard to get the message across.”

Elton:  “Right.”

Bret: “But every semester, some people get it. But it’s not many.”

Elton:  “This really reminds me of the conversation I was having with Mark Babbitt. When we were talking about the role of a facilitator. Talking about giving them the tools, creating the channels and then walking out of the room. Then, it’s when they start coming to you, and say ‘Hey! We did it! But we tweaked it, we made it even better. We really improved on what you allowed us to do.’ So that role as a facilitator, I really see that being a part of your role in a big way.”

Bret: “Yes. For most of my classes that’s what I’m trying to do. For the 726 and 772, it’s a lot more of the facilitator stuff. 720 is again the most structured because it’s ostensibly the first course people are going to take in the MBA program.”

I think that’s enough for today. We got into a very honest and candid discussion on Bret classes (projects) and how he manages them each semester. What he tries to instill in his students plus a little on the fine tuning aspects from semester to semester. Tomorrow, we’ll get into a very specific incident that I witnessed in one of his classes plus we’ll talk on this transformational period we’re in right now when it comes to social media. So, stick around for some more expert’s input, and more insight into this leaders effective handling of his projects.

Image Credits: Sketch and photos by author

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