Head of the class Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

Sharon K. Hahs doesn’t want to lose sight of the big picture at Northeastern Illinois University. To minimize distractions at the university, which has a budget of more than $127 million, Hahs places reminders in different places.

“Inside my little door that I open to get some of my materials in my office, I have pasted the university values,” the university president says. “They are also hung in beautiful banners on my wall. The strategic plan is on my table … and I actually do pause every now and then and read some of these pieces.”

Hahs has to keep focused on those goals if she wants to have integrity as a leader and communicate a consistent message.

Smart Business spoke with Hahs about how to lead with integrity and deal with failure.

Q. How do you lead with integrity?

You want to start with trying to figure out what the big long-term goals are for your particular assignment, your role, your company, whatever it is you’re leading. Then think about where the difficulties in the path are and, really, you work on communication skills. Because, sometimes there is a difficult issue and you’ve made your decision one way and everybody thinks it’s because you lied to them last week — how you communicate the need to have made the decision sort of as a surprise or differently or whatever, that’s where the integrity I think will come in.

Q. How can you improve communication skills?

You try to communicate in as many different ways as you can. We do town-hall meetings here. One per semester for faculty and staff, once per semester for students, once for our other campuses, and we combine faculty and students on our other campuses because they are smaller.

Town-hall meetings have two or three little things in it. They have, ‘Hello, I’m here. I’m glad to see you.’ Every question is welcomed. The second thing is, as long as it is done according to the university values, and I actually quote out about our communications and our values and our respect, and then, occasionally, there are two or three information items, and then it’s open.

I would say, of an hour of a town-hall meeting, more than 45 minutes is whatever people wish to ask. That’s a forum, and it’s a way to realize, ‘Wow, everybody else thinks I was thinking this way, but, in fact, I’m not.’

I eat almost every day in the cafeteria. Some days I have business lunches and other things. You tend to eat with people that you know are going to be in the cafeteria, but, in fact, I try to move around. Also, make it known, if you want to eat lunch with me in the cafeteria, just let me know and we’ll work out a day and a time.

So, you have the written word, several forums, you have oral, several forums, and you have walking around.

You spread it all out, and you always ask, ‘Is there any other way I could help with communication?’ Sometimes you get a new idea, and sometimes it’s one you’ve already done several times. I don’t think you can overcommunicate though.

Q. What advice would you have to communicate better?

Ask those around you how your communication might improve. See if you have a written style or an oral style that there is one element that drives people nuts, if somebody is willing to tell you that. You have to have a good climate. Ask others how they see the possibility of improving. If you don’t have good grammar and structure and all those things, then that is certainly something you want to work on.

Another piece is to read other folks’ communications and see what you like about it.

Q. How do you go through the feedback you get?

I seldom do anything by myself. I can. I’m very capable, I feel good about it — but (I bounce) it off of either one or two vice presidents because the topic might be appropriate. We have a group of 10 or 12 that we call the president’s council. So, those are where I bounce ideas most. Then I bounce ideas off folks at lunch, which could be just about anybody.

So, bouncing ideas off and then distilling to, ‘OK, this one makes a lot of sense. That one we’ve already tried. That one is not me.’ You have to be authentic in what you do. So, that’s where we kind of distill down to what we should try.

Q. What is a pitfall to avoid when being a good communicator?

You need to remember you never have all the answers. If you end up communicating that you think you know the answer before it’s had a wide audience that can get you in trouble.

Q. What advice do you have for dealing with failure?

If it’s really failure, and it isn’t actually always failure, but it’s an opportunity to learn and improve. Sometimes failure is like a dead end — it’s over, it’s done, it’s not happening.

But, most of what we do, if it hasn’t worked out well enough, we come at it differently or, in the end, we still work on whatever that was. It’s an opportunity to learn and improve.

One of my favorite people that I worked for years ago, he said, ‘Today’s news in the newspaper is lining the birdcage tomorrow.’ It’s that notion of, ‘The world didn’t end. We’re going to be fine.’ Yes, these things happened, but stay with the big picture and stay with the long horizon. Take your lumps, learn and move forward.

How to reach: Northeastern Illinois University, (773) 583-4050 or www.neiu.edu