Higher ed leader communication: An evolution is underway
While most college and university presidents agree that projecting confidence and a certain level of authority goes with the job, the way we communicate has changed since the coronavirus pandemic.
Good leadership and effective communication in the era of COVID-19 requires us to present our ideas more thoughtfully and interact with our colleagues, students and communities in new ways. It also means providing greater transparency and sometimes admitting that we don’t have all the answers at a time when our understanding of the virus and how it affects our campuses and programs continues to evolve.
In every conversation with university colleagues, alumni, and students, in particular, I have gained new insights on what is working best during this pandemic and on specific challenges that need to be addressed.
As a university president, I have also learned that the way we lead may not have changed that much during the pandemic, but the way we communicate as leaders has evolved significantly. I would encourage my counterparts who are also leading universities to consider just how vital timely and candid communication can be when so much seems to have gone sideways in our society and in our world.
Here are six ways communication is evolving at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.
1. Embracing change
Due to the pandemic, we migrated the programs of more than 2,000 students enrolled in our undergraduate and graduate programs—classroom and other hands-on programs—to online and remote learning.
Whether a freshman at our 1,200-acre residential campus in Rindge or a future health care leader studying at one of our academic centers in Lebanon, Manchester or Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or in Goodyear, Arizona, our students are a source of inspiration, which is at the very core of the New Hampshire spirit. We knew we needed to tap into inspired thinking as we moved quickly to make the transition a swift and effective one.
I would encourage my counterparts who are also leading universities to consider just how vital timely and candid communication can be when so much seems to have gone sideways in our society and in our world.
That required accepting the ongoing need to change and embracing new ways of communicating. Indeed, the one constant among those of us who lead higher education institutions in this global crisis is that change—and the unknowns that go along with it—impacts even our best planning. And it will continue to do so as we all seek to establish new ways of teaching, learning and working together in the months ahead.
2. Preserving our community’s ‘social fabric’—online
As the threat, scope and duration of the pandemic became clearer, it became evident that vacating our campuses and moving teaching to a remote platform could have torn apart the fabric of a campus community. I knew that my focus needed to be on preserving the social fabric in a way that could be structured to a new concept of community. That meant staying out in front of communication to anticipate what people would need to know and being honest about what was unknown.
Our university quickly established a website focused on COVID-19 that offered crucial information both for internal and external audiences. It provided a central resource and continues to update, clarify and inform.
As we considered our needs to communicate effectively—both individually and organizationally—we recognized that we needed to leverage videoconferencing quickly and universitywide. We embraced Zoom technology almost immediately as a useful tool to continue to do our jobs and to preserve our social fabric.
We asked all of our vice presidents to arrange a series of Zoom meetings with their staff and faculty members. These meetings were a way for me to touch base with employees during a time of great uncertainty—with no predetermined focus beyond connecting and providing an opportunity to talk.
These early check-in sessions were designed to maintain our social fabric, from talking with each other and asking questions to providing honest answers and making eye contact. I cannot stress how much this helped everyone—perhaps me more than anyone. I wanted to thank employees and encourage and empower them to stay on track and remain focused on teaching, learning and working in all the best possible ways, while balancing family duties, home life, and learning about how to stay safe and healthy.
We also expanded on our virtual approach to connect with other individuals and groups, such as our alumni base, engaging more than 200 people in small-group video chats over six weeks. This outreach to alumni represents one of the rare silver linings within the pandemic. It provided an opportunity to help people reconnect with each other and the university. (In many cases, old friends and roommates who hadn’t seen one another in more than 20 years renewed connections.)
3. Sharing, prioritizing information
Holding a series of virtual forums has been a learning experience for our university community. It reflects correspondence with context in the best possible ways, with the exception of face-to-face contact.
Pursuing a series of video conversations—informal talks in the early stages of the pandemic and more structured meetings and universitywide forums now to provide updates—has informed my leadership and key decisions in new and valuable ways. This outreach provides information that otherwise may go unshared in the typical and traditional meetings of the day or as emails that may go unsent or unnoticed in a colleague’s cluttered inbox. For me, it means being able to present unwelcome news as well as good news, and to ask and answer questions that relate to challenges and opportunities.
This approach has proven to be a productive use of my time and it has promoted better organized institutional communication. The university’s senior administration now holds a Monday morning communications meeting to help all of us prioritize our messages (and stay on the same page) as we connect with those who are seeking our help and guidance. These Zoom chats also help us develop good planning so we don’t duplicate messages or clog the university’s social media accounts with information or messages that overlap or lose their relevance.
4. Expressing care, concern
For university leadership, it is more important than ever to be emotionally present when we communicate. College and university presidents and chancellors need to acknowledge directly and upfront that people are suffering, though it may feel awkward to approach a conversation from this perspective. But doing so will put our constituents at ease and it can help people meet us halfway so that they can really hear us.
As I have engaged in more online video communication with members of my extended university community, I quickly realized that the most important thing I can do is to allow myself to express my care and concern about our community and to lead with that. Being honest about caring very deeply is a powerful resource.
This helped me when I needed to communicate to students that they would not be returning to campus after spring break and when I explained to the senior class that we were postponing our 2020 commencement. We talked about what we can’t do right now and about what we can do—and offered an honest assessment of what we will seek to accomplish as we move ahead.
5. Empowering students
For many years, America’s colleges and universities have encouraged our students to take control of their educational pursuits as they plan to take control of their lives and their futures. I have thought about that in every one of our online video conversations, particularly those involving students, and I have considered how to empower them to have more control in these challenging times.
I have found that one of the best ways to do this is to welcome those who are interested to weigh in and participate in our long-range planning process for moving the university beyond the pandemic. I have invited anyone who wants to be involved in our scenario planning sessions to join a designated working group. I have invited faculty and staff, members of the student government organization, and others to participate to help ensure the group sessions won’t be just pragmatic; they will be focused on real-world challenges and solutions.
Through video conversations, I have asked working group members to consider that our university continuously seeks to evolve in new ways to better serve our students, the employers who hire our graduates, and our communities within New Hampshire and Arizona. I ask them to imagine an institutional response and to identify what new needs may likely emerge that a Franklin Pierce education may address.
These honest conversations are a two-way street, and they yield insights and ideas that may not have been offered otherwise. They reflect transparency and result in a larger and more candid selection of input and helpful information. When we talk about imagining what a reopened campus might look like, a student weighing in on access to specific buildings, a parking matter, or a residence life issue can help us better anticipate and even see around corners, in some cases.
Read: We are all ‘essential’
6. Being open (and reassuring)
I cannot reassure everyone that the reopened university will look just as it did before we closed the physical campus and moved instruction online. I can, however, honestly reassure everyone that we are making decisions based on the best information we have available and on best practices in pursuing good ideas and opportunities for innovation whenever possible.
In being transparent, it is important for university presidents to feel comfortable saying “I don’t know” rather than advancing a false sense of confidence to constituents. Be open, even when you don’t have all the answers. You can be reassuring, but overconfidence can undermine credibility. Listen and gain good intelligence from those who are willing to provide it.
This strategy will give you a clearer picture of your changing university. It can also help you avoid rushing to decisions as you lead your college or university through the troubled waters of the pandemic and toward a better post-coronavirus future.
Kim Mooney is president of Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, New Hampshire.
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