Communication strategies for community college leaders

NECC President's Running Club meets weekly to run the campus, and also participates in the college's annual Campus Classic 5K. President Lane Glenn (#51) at the start of a recent race. (Photo: Northern Essex Community College)

Community colleges are vibrant, constantly changing, critically important institutions.  We are where the action is in higher education today, right? The pivotal intersection of high schools and universities, welfare and the workforce, immigration and assimilation.

Pick your transformation — we are right there in the middle of it.

So it’s no great surprise that we have high expectations for community college leaders at every level. When you are out on point, you are expected to be a planner, a budgeter, a problem solver, a team builder and, above all, a communicator.

But at a time when we are all stretched thin doing more with less, and besieged by a constant stream of communications from every direction, what is the best way for a community college leader to effectively communicate what matters the most?

In Leading Change, Harvard business professor John Kotter illustrates this challenge mathematically: He estimates that the total amount of communication reaching an employee in a three-month period in most organizations (including colleges) is around 2,300,000 words or numbers.

From Kotter’s experience consulting with large corporations, he estimates that the typical communication regarding a critical issue or new vision for change in an organization is delivered in 13,400 words (one 30-minute speech, one hour-long meeting, one 600-word article in an internal publication and one 2,000-word memo).

As a result, some of the most important things happening at your college are probably being summed up in .0058 (less than 1 percent) of all the communication your faculty and staff are receiving.

Tool and techniques

There is no one right way for college leaders to communicate with faculty, staff, students, community stakeholders and others. But there are some effective tools and techniques to consider to ensure that whatever you are doing is getting your messages through.

First, consider these three important principles of communication:  Clarity, Consistency and Frequency (CCF).

To stand out in the mass of media we are all bombarded with each day, your messages must be Clear — people have to understand immediately what you are saying. At a minimum, this means not rambling, avoiding jargon and sticking to a few main points.

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Next, in order for you to be a credible communicator, your messages must be Consistent — told the same way each time in speeches, emails, open forums, blog entries, Facebook posts and, yes, tweets.

And finally, your messages must be Frequent — told again and again and again. This is where organizational communication often falls short (as Kotter illustrated). It is never enough to communicate an important idea once, through a single medium, and assume it was equally received and understood by everyone.

With these three principles in mind, consider two other broad questions:

  1. Why are you communicating?

Form follows function, right? So if you are going to determine what form your communication will take, you need to decide what functions it is serving.

A few important functions you might want to consider include:

  • Engaging faculty, staff and students on campus
  • Engaging community and business leaders, elected officials, financial supporters, and others off campus
  • Sharing a bit about yourself and making a personal connection with people you may not get to see and talk to every day
  • Focusing attention on important topics or issues
  • Advocating for causes or resources
  • Promoting your college
  • Building community
  • Recognizing achievement

You don’t have to limit yourself to only one of these functions, but making a deliberate choice about which ones you are serving will help focus your communications and, importantly, help you make the next choice:

  1. How will you communicate?

For nearly 10 years, retired North Shore Community College President Wayne Burton wrote COWs, his “Communication of the Week,” an email to all faculty, staff and students that included brief updates on important campus topics and the occasional story about his children and his chickens.

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And one of my favorite thinkers and writers about higher education, Matt Reed (formerly known only as “Dean Dad”), writes “Confessions of a Community College Dean,” a daily blog site for Inside Higher Ed that includes commentary on current events, engages college professionals in dialogue and exchanging ideas, and occasionally grapples with the joys and challenges of parenting kids.

Whatever you do, I suggest you:

  • Choose your commitment. Don’t try a “COW” if you know you won’t be able to write weekly emails. But a blog, your own college Facebook page, or an ongoing series of photos that illustrate the accomplishments and challenges of your campus and leadership life on Instagram? Doable.
  • Choose your audience. Related to “why,” be sure you are clear with yourself about who you are writing/photographing/blogging for. You may find yourself using different words, stories and styles, depending on your audience.
  • Be authentic, and communicate in your own “voice,” whatever that is. Don’t fall for the myth that leaders have to be “formal” and carry the weight of gravitas. Be serious in purpose when you need to, and obviously don’t write, say, or photograph anything that will embarrass your college. But leaders are people, too. We tell jokes, have passionate opinions and occasionally shed tears — and any of those may be part of your unique “voice” when the time is right.
  • And while you’re speaking with that “voice,” be sure to share who you are as well. Practice self-disclosure. Chances are, the people you like and trust the most are those you know more about than their work responsibilities and titles. The same goes for you. Find ways to appropriately share your hobbies, your travels, your history, and, yes, your family — they are all part of who you are and how you lead.

A start and a new voice

Five years ago this month, about a year into my presidency at Northern Essex Community College (NECC), I sent an email to all of the faculty and staff at the college, as well as our board of trustees, foundation board, alumni and community leaders and supporters.

It began like this:

I’m a great fan of Garrison Keillor, and enjoy tuning in each week to “A Prairie Home Companion” to hear that, “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.” So with considerable affection for one of America’s great storytellers, I’d like to let you know that–

It’s been a resilient week at Northern Essex Community College…

That introduction was followed by a few paragraphs about three topics: an effort by the Massachusetts governor to reorganize the state’s community colleges; a rally near one of our campuses in support of the city of Lawrence that involved me and many of our faculty and staff; and a downhill skiing slalom competition my then eight-year-old daughter and I entered (she won a bronze medal in her age group!).

And that email was followed by 117 more or less “weeklies” in which I shared events or issues that seemed important from the week before, along with sometimes silly and sometimes touching stories about my daughters, who I called “Big Sis T” and “Little Sis Z.”

In the process I managed to use, adapt or just plain make up 116 different adjectives to describe what kind of week it had been for the college, the community and my kids.

The “weeklies” were informal, sometimes a bit rambling, and, with a couple of exceptions, purposefully optimistic.

Last year, Garrison Keillor retired as the host of A Prairie Home Companion and Big Sis T and Little Sis Z were getting much older. It seemed time to make a change. Some of my pieces had already been picked up by local newspapers and magazines, and by Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle for Higher Education, so I decided to go in a more public and 21st century direction.

As I wrote in the first post on my new blog site:

Besides being a happy dad, a college president, and a devoted lover of words and writing, I am also a runner, who starts most days with a three to five mile stretch of the legs along the Merrimack River. A few years ago, as a way of meeting more students (and getting out of the office at lunchtime) I started the President’s Running Club at NECC.

When it came time to order shirts for club members who were running in the annual Feaster Five Thanksgiving Day race in Andover, my assistant, Cheryl Goodwin, suggested a motto for us:

“The President’s Running Club: We Run the Campus!”

It seemed a perfect phrase not only for the runners in the club doing laps around the campus, but for all of us at the college, whatever our role (or pace per mile).

Leadership in higher education works best when it is encouraged and shared — when everyone helps “run the campus.”

With all of those ideas in mind, and so many important topics in higher education for us all to keep exploring, this week I am launching Running the Campus, a new blog devoted to “stories and perspectives on leadership, higher education, and going the extra mile.”

Each of these ways of communicating has involved careful consideration of those three important principles: Clarity, Consistency and Frequency, as well as thought put into why I am communicating and how I am communicating that, I think, is true to my “voice” and who I am, and focuses on important stories and perspectives on leadership and higher education.

Check it out, and when you’re ready, share your Communication of the Week, your blog post, your Insta or whatever you decide to use. Because leadership in higher education really does work best when everyone helps “run the campus.”

About the Author

Lane A. Glenn

is president of Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts.