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Why Effective Communication Matters Now More Than Ever

Leadership and stewardship of institutional resources are especially challenging in times like these. To manage them most effectively, college and university officials need to know whether they are communicating with their faculty and staff colleagues as efficiently and productively as possible. Clarity of communication is an especially important matter now as boards and executive teams meet to make pricing and budget decisions for next year (See more about pricing, budgeting and associated messaging in the next Insights).

Too often in frantic, fast-moving times, important strategic conversations are ineffectual, delayed or even forgotten. While many of us are already struggling to keep our New Year’s resolutions, we should never forego a resolution to evaluate and improve communication. At a moment in which our nation has embraced a transition that placed a premium on thoughtful and persuasive communication, we can all heed the reminder of its power and importance in governing our own administrations.

Here are three suggestions for improving communication within your institution:

  1. Manage meetings better and hold fewer of them.

Managing meetings well is no trivial matter. How executive teams conduct their interactions may indicate how well – or even, in some cases, whether – their organizations will survive this economic downturn. 

Poorly run meetings can have terrible consequences, especially now, when efficient allocation of resources is essential. Every one of us has suffered through interminable meetings that lack precise objectives or actionable outcomes. One true story is of a department head who loaded up his meetings with so many undeveloped ideas and unspecified actions items that his direct reports simply chose among a jumble of possibilities and did only what they wanted. He then spent the first part of the following meeting wondering why people weren’t doing what he had asked.

By contrast, well-run meetings can deliver immediate, tangible results and therefore save time and money, encourage fresh thinking, synthesize disparate parts into a cohesive whole, and sharpen decision-making. Changing what happens in meetings starts by being mindful of how you currently design and manage meetings and then choosing to change things for the better. In our roles both as client facilitators and contributors, we at Maguire Associates have thought long and hard about the attributes of great meetings.

Five steps we embrace for ensuring more productive meetings are:

  • Question whether a meeting is needed in the first place. Are there better ways to gather input, consider options and make a decision? Is the subject matter for the meeting truly important, or is it simply urgent without commensurate importance?  Does your strategic plan already provide the operational guidance needed to make a decision without an endless series of meetings? (See Insights Bulletin #3.)  
  • Test the conclusion that a meeting is warranted by developing a proposed meeting agenda. What two or three specific objectives – and no more – do you wish to address in the meeting and why?
  • Invite all – but only – the right people to the meeting. Most major challenges facing colleges and universities today are systemic and transcend any one department, which means that collaboration across silo boundaries is a necessity. At the same time, beware of having too many cooks in the kitchen.
  • Identify an appropriate facilitator for the really important meetings. Good facilitators know how to connect and synthesize varied opinions, which can make the difference between success and failure. Facilitators also help overcome the distractions of personalities and politics that can otherwise diminish a meeting's effectiveness.
  • Conclude each meeting by reviewing and confirming agreement on the major outcomes. Ensure that each participant understands what has been decided and his or her specific role in its implementation. Ambiguity can be costly, especially when the margin for error today is slimmer than ever. There should be great clarity around action items, division of labor and timetables. Distributing a written summary within days if not hours of a meeting is both very useful and an important demonstration of leadership.
  1. Encourage dissent and model clarity in communication – don’t go to Abilene!

Professor Jerry Harvey of The George Washington University underscores the pitfalls of imprecision found in poorly run meetings and other ineffective communication. In his classic story of the Abilene Paradox, Harvey tells of a family that collectively chose to drive a great distance to a diner in Abilene, Texas at which, as they later found out, none of the family members actually wanted to eat. This is a story of a group of otherwise smart people deciding to do something that not one of them individually thought was a very good idea. 

When participants are not encouraged – by appreciation and positive acclaim – to offer differing or even opposing views, a “go along to get along” mindset can fester within work groups. It is in these imprecise, subtly unsupportive and even fear-based environments that the Abilene Paradox occurs most frequently, exposing executive teams to the risks of dubious, ill-conceived decisions that few of their members actually did or will support.

Encouraging dissent comes easier for some than others. At a different institution, a president convened an offsite meeting of his management team to prepare their institutional values statement. During discussion of the importance of treating colleagues with respect, he disagreed with one manager’s definition of “respect,” flew into a critical rage, and abruptly ended the meeting.

Examples of unfortunate approaches aside, there is no better time than right now to invite openness and embrace precision in all interpersonal, print, digital and electronic communication.

  1. Listen to your team and your markets.  

As they meet right now to make pricing and budgeting decisions, the best executive teams will be mindful of how important it is to listen carefully to one another – to truly listen. Listening well sometimes means being willing and able to step outside one’s own point of view to understand a colleague who may look at things in a different, albeit helpful, manner. There is a wealth of diverse perspectives within each institution just as there are colleagues whose contact with prospects, students, parents, and alumni enable them to deliver fresh viewpoints and invaluable feedback.

Consider reaching out to colleagues at other colleges and universities, too, not to disclose proprietary information, but to note specific trends that institutions might share and solutions you both might utilize. If you belong to a consortium of colleges, keep close tabs on key indicators such as application volume and deposit rates. Pay close attention to the trade publications, too, and create easy mechanisms for your colleagues to share and comment on the most useful articles.

By soliciting feedback and listening to it carefully, institutional leaders can apply increasingly greater levels of knowledge and insight to their decision making. After all, knowledge continues to be the most potent antidote we have found for countering the inevitable fear that people are feeling these days.


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