David Hodge Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2007

The best teachers are the ones who are always learning. It’s a universal truth of leadership that David Hodge says he has seen proven time and time again in his years as an academic administrator. Hodge, who has been president of Miami University in Oxford since summer 2006, says the best leaders are always seeking input — always tapping the potential of others in the organization. And he says the only way you can do that is by reaching them, which means you must have finely tuned and well-polished communication skills — and you must use those skills to challenge your people to think. It can be a difficult task when you’re leading an institution of 4,000 employees and more than 20,000 students, as Hodge does. Smart Business spoke with Hodge about how good communication gets employees involved in setting the course for an organization.

Start building a fire. I’ll give you a quick story about how this works. I was meeting with a group of classified staff in May at a half-day workshop. I gave to them a story — it probably never happened, but it doesn’t really matter. A group of visiting executives were wandering one of Boeing’s plants, and they came to a custodian. They didn’t know the person was a custodian, but they asked him, ‘What do you do here?’ And the custodian responds, ‘I build airplanes.’

I thought, ‘What a great statement, what a great story that demonstrates what you’d like people to think about what they do.’ So I turned to our group and asked, ‘What do we build?’ It was a rhetorical question. I wasn’t looking for an answer, but almost immediately from the left side of the room, someone said, ‘We build students.’ But no more had that person stopped speaking than someone from the other side of the room said, ‘We build the future.’

There are classified staff doing what is usually most of our more routine jobs in the university, and they got it. And others in the room are agreeing. So I don’t know if it’s more to teach or unleash the passion that is in people, but I think that I love that story because it says so much about our staff and how the bigger picture is part of what motivates people.

Communicate in more than one way. You have to have multiple ways of communicating. There is no one absolute way. People will listen to certain kinds of messages, and other people listen to other kinds.

Some like to read things, others like to be told things, some like to be in a meeting and have a conversation back and forth. So for the message to be heard, you have to say the message over and over again in multiple ways, in every way possible.

Know what your core message is, and say it again and again. Use examples to illustrates those core messages every time out. Examples might be praising somebody or drawing attention to somebody else.

A mistake many leaders make is they’re afraid that they’ve already said something once and thinking that people are going to get bored if they say it again, simply to say it again. However, first of all, we’re typically talking to different groups all the time.

Secondly, all good messages need to be repeated over and over and over again to reinforce that notion. Each of us has our own ‘a-ha’ moments where we finally get it. That just takes time and a relentless commitment to communicating the core messages. You can’t be afraid to keep communicating, even if you’ve said the message once before.

The second point is all of us deepen the level of learning and our level of understanding by continuing to grapple with the same core issues. There is a superficial level of what is the mission of your organization and what is your identity if you can give a one- or two-sentence answer in all of that. But for us to feel that in our bones and to understand how each of our actions actually plays a role in that is a continuing process of discovery. That’s why core message plus an evolving set of examples leads to a deeper understanding of who we are, where we’re going and how we each can make a difference.

Make communication a two-way street.

You have to ask good questions to get good feedback. Setting up a complaint box or suggestion box is a pretty ineffective way to do that.

You have to be with groups of people and ask real questions. I come back to that example with the classified staff when I asked, ‘What is our product?’ and I didn’t think about it as a real question but a rhetorical one. But the more we ask questions, the more chances people will have to actively think about something.

Telling people stuff is a very passive process, and we know that it doesn’t lead to very deep learning. But posing questions that we’re trying to solve together, the literature is overwhelming that it is a much deeper level of learning, plus you get commitment and passion and vision.

It’s about active versus passive learning, right there, that dichotomy. You can see this in teaching all the time. You get up there and just lecture to people, their brains are not engaged in a deep learning way. It’s a very superficial learning. Even if they’re not given a chance to answer the question, if you pose it in a way that everyone in the room is wrestling with the question, you’ve gone a long way toward achieving active learning.

HOW TO REACH: Miami University, www.muohio.edu or (513) 529-1809