The Good Communicator

This is part two of the blog series focusing on the skills required for headship in today's changing world.  

Jim Mooney and I continued our conversation (see the preceding blog) about the challenges of leading and managing independent schools. We discussed the nature of a group of “competencies” important for leadership success. In doing so, Jim and I move from the general issue of competence to the specific traits, skills, and habits associated with good leadership. The first of these is the importance of effective and encompassing communication. Jim pointed out that the subject is essentially endless, “everything ties into communication,” so we needed to keep our discussion focused specifically on effective practices for school heads, not an exploration of the wide world of communication issues and challenges.

Besides, I said, the contemporary communication environment is not just an educational issue. For instance, the business world is energized about the subject lately, in which a number of books are attacking empty jargon, windy memos, and unclear acronyms (i.e. Message Not Received, by Phil Simon). Of course, no particular area has cornered the market on poor communication: in our world “eduspeak” has proliferated since at least the 1970’s (take a look at “Let’s Drop the Education Buzzwords” by Levi Folly) and it would be a long, involved conversation to cover all the language disconnects that education/educators promote for the sake of advancing their mission.

That said, Jim and I want to focus on leadership communication. Achieving the skill of written and spoken clarity and effectiveness, while avoiding jargon, abstract and unclear language, should be a top priority for a head of school—and Jim emphasized that developing a sense of when, where, in what manner and to whom to communicate is as important as the communication itself. Every educational community wants to be in the hands of a woman or man whose words and vision underscore the values and progress of that school; yet individually, constituents want a personal, prompt, clear, and effective connectedness with that leader. Thus, using the variety of communication vectors presently in play, from old school public speaking to contemporary digital expressions and touches, the contemporary headmaster must have impressive flexibility and sound judgment to fulfill both roles. In short, for every head of school a critical challenge is communication management. Below are some guidelines, rules—call them what you like—for forging the enviable reputation of an effective, trustworthy communicator.

1. Email

Good communication starts early, that is, first thing in morning. While the world of digital communication is remarkably crowded—Skype, Facetime, Twitter, G-chat, etc.---email is the coin of the realm for most headmasters. Sure, exercise, have a cup coffee, or whatever gets your mind going, but get the emails out of the way before everything else starts. Try to set up a schedule for checking during the day, and generally avoid checking late at night (or risk a poor night’s sleep).

I was always perplexed that a few of my head colleagues rarely acknowledged receiving an email from me. Most I know respond promptly (within a time frame of five minutes to twenty-four hours, depending) but a few either took forever (without excuse) or never responded. And the few who did not respond were consistently very slow or very silent in all sorts of communication. Jim was more emphatic: acknowledging every personal email, even with a one-word response (thanks, okay, agree, etc.) is a useful discipline. Doing so cements to others your reputation for communication reliability.

For the most part, heads of school are very good about managing emails—or have someone very good who manages email for them—but thoughtfulness about doing so is important. Jim pointed out the hard realities about emails:

  • Emails are “for the record” and can be reference points later
  • Emails, as we all know, are easy to forward, copy, blind copy, or otherwise go beyond the intended recipient
  • Emails are especially helpful for quick acknowledgement, transactional, logistical, or confirmation purposes
  • Emails do not replace letters, notes, or other more personal/formal notes of sympathy, gratitude, or congratulations, but the expediency of an email can complement other forms of communication
  • Emails should generally avoid emotion (especially anger), sarcasm, accusatory or judgmental language directed at other people (see letter “b”)
  • Emails may be declared “confidential” in the subject line, but don’t count on it

All that said, we would admit that for both of us managing email was challenging and a career long enterprise. And yet for all the potential negatives, we would also insist that a thoughtful, carefully written email can be one of the most valuable tools available to a head of school: well crafted, informative, even persuasive emails can be quite timely, read by literally thousands of constituents, and—if the “voice” is authentic—can enhance a headmaster’s reputation as a good and effective communicator.

In my case, when Hurricane Sandy took out electrical power in a large part of the Mid-Atlantic for ten days in the fall of 2012, my frequent emails to the parents and trustees—sent rather painstakingly via smart phone—allowed the community to continue in a more or less normal manner despite the various hardships. In the end, in the midst of destruction and slow regional recovery, our school never shut down (the only one in New Jersey not to do so) because the parent body was reassured that holding classes and trying to adhere to a daily structure was the best thing for their children. The emails were critical to that reassurance.

2. Who, When, Where

Of course, effective communication goes far beyond managing emails, returning phone calls, and writing gracious appreciation, congratulation, or sympathy notes. The successful headmaster communicates not only in variety of ways but also to a variety of people and groups—and pretty much on a regular, though not tiresome, basis. Think of it, as Jim said, a bit like a rephrasing of the golden rule: you should communicate the way you would like people to communicate to you. Specifically, insofar as possible, a good headmaster tries to be proactive with others so that groups or individuals do not feel blindsided, uninformed, confused or left out when issues arise. While it is impossible always to escape occasional unhappiness with regard to communication, head of schools can usually avoid being perceived as a poor communicator if she/he keeps in mind and tries to follow a few guidelines.

  • Whether decisions are large or small, straightforward or contentious, communication issues need consideration. Generally, always test your thinking out with at least one—and usually more—person who has shown to have both good judgment and willingness for offering an honest response. This “testing out” may be very brief, but is invariably a good idea.
  • The more important the issue, the wider the test audience should be, including a plan for the next steps to be taken for effective communication.
  • Review all groups or individuals that would be well served (and serve well) by being brought into the communication circle
  • Consider the best mode for communication—digital (i.e. email to the trustees or parent body), personal (either calling a meeting or phone call), or coming from someone other than the head of school, etc.
  • There are certainly times when the head of school must stand up and address the community (or the faculty or trustees) about an important issue, and once that decision is reviewed and made, the head should usually do that as soon as possible.
  • Always remember: how a communication is presented is as important as the information/decision being communicated. Handled poorly or without thoughtful presentation, even good news communications will create problems, the necessity for explain further, and confusion among the recipients, thus losing the positive impact of the message. And if a headmaster struggles delivering a positive message, then bad news communications are especially challenging.
  • When responding to a problem, keep in mind that communication should seek to break out of a circle of constantly reviewing the causes and even blame, but instead seek ways to be as transparent as required, honestly acknowledging the situation, and mapping out positive steps to resolve the problem and move forward. (It is amazing—and disheartening at times—how a minor issue becomes a major problem because leaders fail to grasp that open and honest communication, including admission of an error, can stop the negative progress of as problem.)

Jim and I agree that at the root of many problems in our work as heads of school tended arise from or be exacerbated by incomplete, inappropriate, inadequate, or poorly prepared communications. When we look back at many of our most challenging moments, we could see that had the communication issues been better handled, more thorough and timely, more candid and straightforward, or more inclusive and respectful, then the eventual problem—while not completely solved—might not have been as difficult as things turned out. Yet, there is a learning cycle for headmasters gaining skills in effective communication, and this blog sought to address that process.

Indeed, the other two topics—decisiveness and inclusiveness—are the “children” of communication, not separate from that topic. A head of school who has forged a reputation as an effective, trustworthy, and emotionally intelligent communicator probably enjoys successful activity with regards both to inclusive leadership and decision-making. Even so, the meta-responsibility of every headmaster is to align the various constituents with an institutional vision, both articulating the vision for a school’s best “self” as an educational community and serving as the hand that focuses the telescope that peers into the future. This essential alignment requires the head to clarify two functional areas: what is being done daily to reflect the school’s values, and what thoughtful planning is ongoing to assure the school’s forward progress. As a wise headmaster of ours once said to Jim and me: if school is not moving forward, then depend upon it that school is falling behind.

We shall consider this alignment challenge separately in the future blogs.