Three Ways for College Presidents to Communicate and Lead Going Forward

A familiar Chinese proverb instructs: “To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.”

The current situation in higher education defies that enduring wisdom. Change arrived suddenly, with little regard for institutional history or might. In this respect, all colleges stand on relatively common ground. All college presidents, to a degree, have become new college presidents.

It might be tempting in this moment of great uncertainty to think that successful colleges/presidents will be those that summon deeper reserves of managerial will or command with greater “corporate turnaround” intensity.

More likely, how you and your college navigates this public health crisis and its aftermath will come down to something as fundamental — albeit elusive — as how effectively and artfully you communicate.

Every college has crisis communications plans in place, and these plans have served everyone — especially students — well through the initial weeks and months of this crisis. We know that eventually, the urgency of this moment will give way to larger questions that will require a different kind of communications mindset and strategy.

In ordinary times, such a strategy would seldom rise to the attention of a president. As long as key revenue indicators — enrollment, gifts, grants, partnerships — appeared healthy, a president would not bore into details such as keyword priorities, digital publication analytics or the nuances of storytelling and brand voice. The necessary shift in mindset would never become a mandate.

But these are far from ordinary times. Here are a few presidential considerations on how to leverage the power of communications to move and inspire an institution — students, faculty, alumni, donors and partners — forward.

Rethink Stakeholder Sorting

Historically, higher education audiences sort by simple data sets (SAT scores, FAFSA indicators, location, degree type, graduating year, giving record, net worth). Now is the time for a president to challenge his cabinet and key departments (enrollment, institutional research, alumni, development, marketing) to reimagine stakeholders along a different (cause/effect) axis.

For example, prospective students with an interest in medical and health research careers, alumni working in a broad range of health sciences, and partner corporations and foundations form one of many potential adhocracies. Communicating with and about such a group will change the way you operate and communicate.

Be more Socratic.

College presidents tend toward Socratic inquiry by nature and necessity. By modeling a higher questions-to-statements ratio, you will begin the process of mining for deeper insights and help to normalize the internal climate of the organization.

You can set the expectation that good questions – and the details that surface — matter now more than ever. By doing so, your cabinet and their direct reports can see that the road forward will not be strewn with blame, but with a persistent search for the best answers to support the overall cause.

Tell the better story.

Assume that anything that signaled “momentum” prior to this crisis has far less relevance going forward. Recent capital campaign success or improvements in student quality, however welcome, carry less promise than they might have otherwise. Resist chasing a lucky break or buying gigabytes of enrollment search names to address a new set of challenges.

Author Jim Collins (Good to Great; Turning the Flywheel) describes disciplined people pursuing a disciplined response:  “the process resembles relentlessly pushing a giant heavy flywheel, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough and beyond… with the same creative intensity that made (the organization) great in the first place.”

A case can be made for designating your digital communications efforts as that flywheel. As fundraising consultant Jim Langley writes: “True philanthropy is not about money, nor amounts given… It is the clear-eyed conviction that sacrificing a measure of one’s individuality is a worthy investment in a world more worthy of vesting one’s self in. So much of the hopes of humanity then, you see, hinge on preserving a healthy measure of true philanthropy.”

For colleges, an ability to use the power and reach of fully optimized digital publications, fueled by high-fidelity content, allows you to connect the college’s specific value to a philanthropist’s specific concerns and passions.

The gap between the best and most productive college flagship publications — a handful of outliers — and the great majority of college magazines and news sites suggests that much value (for reputation building and more) has been left on the table.

Only the college president can reframe a truly great flagship magazine and story telling operation from that of a cost center to one of a mission/vision/reputation/brand/value engine.

Your college has a core reason for being that extends far back in time, well beyond this current crisis and many others that preceded it. The source of your institution’s renewal — and the key to leading others out of the current confusion — lies with telling the better story to a far wider and more engaged audience.

Before anything resembling progress, there will first have to be change. By changing how you communicate, you will begin to turn the flywheel and signal to internal and external audiences an ability — individually and collectively — to adapt to a changed world.