Robert Smith says being a leader is like sailing a ship: The goal is to reach a particular point while navigating through rocky
waters, but sometimes you have to steer away from the goal to approach it from a new direction. As president of Slippery Rock
University of Pennsylvania, Smith is sailing those rocky waters as he prepares for a 20 percent drop in enrollment over the next
eight to 10 years as the number of traditional college-aged students in the area decreases. But despite the anticipated decrease,
Smith is continuing to encourage his 1,000 employees to work toward goals that achieve the university’s vision, reward those
who move the vision forward and keep the $120 million budget on track. Smart Business spoke with Smith about how constant
communication and focus on the vision help a leader navigate through the storm to reach the destination.
Live your vision and communicate it every
day. You’ve got to be a good listener, as
well as an advocate for your vision and for
the direction in which you’re heading.
The vision has to be vivid enough that
people can express it in their own terms. If
you’re reading your vision statement off
the back of your business card because
that’s the only way you can remember it,
you don’t have a vision that’s embedded
within your organizational culture.
Keep communicating it, and you’ll hear
whether or not it comes back to you.
Listen, don’t talk. You need to be out in the
work force to hear others tell you what
they are doing and to see if their language
and actions are aligned with your vision.
Believe in your vision. The hardest part of
a leader sustaining a vision is that they’ve
got to absolutely believe in their core.
There will be way too many times in
which challenges will be thrown in front of
you, obstacles will occur and frustrations
will happen in which your commitment to
the vision may be the only beacon pointing
to the way out. If you don’t have that kind
of passionate commitment, you’re going to
waffle and give up.
You have to believe that this is the right
direction. Own the vision as your personal
belief in what the company can be. If you
don’t believe in it, you can’t advocate it.
The vision is what keeps the leader going
when no one else seems to be on board. If
you don’t own it for yourself, it will fail you
in your time of need.
Vision has a dimension to it that is pure
faith, and faith is that, in spite of these obstacles, this is worth the organization achieving. You either believe in that or you don’t.
Don’t make the vision all about you.
Organizations will respond if they believe
that the vision is in the interest of the
organization. If they believe that the vision
is in the interest of the promotion of the
CEO, they’re not nearly inclined to support
Listen to the language choices of leaders
as they express their vision. If they’re
using, ‘I want,’ ‘I see,’ ‘I think we,’ and don’t
get to, ‘We are about this,’ or ‘Here’s what
we’re doing.’ It’s not right. There has to be
inclusiveness to that.
People don’t care what you know until
they know that you care. Leaders who
shape the vision as a personal gain do not
have a vision for the company but for
themselves. Employees easily recognize
that and might obey, but not follow. When
the employee sees the personal conviction the leader has for them and the company, they can ignite their own fire from
Start out with success. As leaders communicate the vision, they have in mind what
are going to be some successful projects or
steps toward achieving that vision early on.
You need to have some very successful
projects that are almost guaranteed success because success breeds success.
Find an initiative that has a short turnaround so that people can get immediate
feedback of success. The initiative or project has to be a real issue, but simple
enough that execution is not overly complicated. Then employees can see it, and
they get on board.
Be open. The leader has to be open to sharing data and financials. There are lots of
great stories of successful leaders who
have opened the books to employees and
let them see for themselves that they were
facing difficult times rather than simply
trusting, ‘Because I said so.’
Involve people in the analysis of those
data. Encourage their interpretation of the
data and reach a certain consensus of what
strategies are going to be necessary to
effect a continuation of the vision.
When others have the data to see for
themselves their progress toward goals,
they can self-direct their planning and execution. They can see the progress as well
as failure and can more easily make corrections when the data suggests that a
strategy might not be working as expected.
They see the big picture of the budget and
the issues the entire organization faces,
and that helps create greater buy-in for the
changes that are necessary.
Reward those who achieve success.
Nothing builds on success better than tying
your vision to performance and rewarding
on it. I can go out there and say, ‘Here’s the
vision,’ and I can paint it in a vivid way, but
if there’s not execution, it’s a wasted effort.
The cold reality of achieving the vision is
to build on performance that is measured
against that vision. Vision without tie-in to
performance is a hallucination.
People like to be part of a winning
team. So even though you’re the second-string place kicker, if the team’s winning,
you’re going to feel a greater motivation
and a higher spirit yourself. Even though
you’re not playing every down and you
may not be the highest-paid person,
there’s still an internal satisfaction of
being part of success.
That generates higher performance, as
well, because when you are called in, you
don’t want to let the rest of the team down.
HOW TO REACH: Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania,
(800) 778-9111 or www.sru.edu