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7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

Every moment he is on the job, Andrew Roth carries two of his best communication tools with him.

They’re called shoes.

Roth, the president of 180-employee Notre Dame College, says there is no substitute for getting out of your office and interacting with your employees as often as possible. In-person engagement of his employees is central to his communication strategy.

“You need to be accessible to the people you serve, however briefly,” Roth says. “You need to get back to them with an answer to their problems. You need to respond.”

Smart Business spoke with Roth about how you can use your feet to become a better communicator.

Q. What are some keys to effectively engaging employees?

There are two big ways of doing that. One is to stay on message, not having a flavor of the month. We’re constantly looking at our vision as building one of the finest comprehensive baccalaureate colleges in the Great Lakes region. A component of that is as a Catholic institution and as a residential college.

I said that in my inaugural speech six years ago. The focus changed and is now slightly different, but in every opportunity I get, every speech I give on campus, we come back to the vision. The message might be tweaked as times change, but the core message doesn’t change.

The second way I try to do it is every group I meet with, I try to talk to them about this in terms that would be of interest and appropriate to them. So when I’m talking to the faculty, we’re talking about education and classrooms. When I talk to the maintenance guys, I talk to them about how it’s important to maintain an institution that is worth what we charge for it, that our facilities are up to snuff. When I talk to our coaches, I talk about the need to recruit competent students, responsible campus citizens and athletes who can compete in that order.

So the answer is two parts: one, stay on mission, and two, when speaking to different constituents, articulate the mission and vision in terms that are appropriate and focused on their needs and interests.

When you know what you stand for, you don’t really have to give a lot of thought each time you’re called upon to talk. Make sure that you understand your organization’s mission and vision, so that you’ve internalized it and can articulate it. You want to internalize it to the point that you don’t really have to think about it. Then, take every opportunity, no matter where you are, to talk about the mission and vision. Every setting is a chance to reinforce the mission and vision.

Q. How can a leader take proactive steps to engage employees?

I’m a firm believer in getting out of the office and walking around among your people, because of all the clich├ęs you hear. It is lonely at the top, and it is very easy to get caught up in your office. You can always find a ton of things to do as the organization blithely goes on around you. So you have to make it a point to get out and walk around. I walk to the coffee shop every morning and get my own coffee. I stop at different offices along the way and just kind of wander about.

There is nothing more valuable than walking around, seeing things with your own eyes and asking questions. When people give you ideas or suggestions as you walk around, give them feedback. Do whatever it is you said you would do, assuming the request is meaningful and appropriate.

That’s the great advantage of getting out of your office. It gives you a breath of reality and a realistic vision of what your people are accomplishing as well as what they’re struggling with. Sometimes, even when you’re in a position like mine, you lose perspective on how good of a job and how comprehensive of a job the people at your organization are doing. It is re-energizing for me, particularly during the school year, to walk around. It can be astonishing walking into a nursing lab to see what is going on there, going to a choir practice, the academic support center, the gym, the dining hall, and all of it gives you a tremendous sense of the breadth and scope of what you are doing. It also gives you the opportunity to have a real appreciation of some of the issues your people face. Their problems and challenges become real, not something abstract.

Q. If someone says he or she doesn’t have time to get out of the office, how would you respond?

If someone were to say to me, ‘I just don’t have the time to get out, know and understand my own organization,’ I’d ask them, ‘Are you managing your calendar or is your calendar managing you?’ Because what could be more important than knowing your own organization, what is going on and how it’s happening? I understand that there is a perspective that a leader has to have versus the perspective of someone down in the trenches, so I’m not saying that you should spend all day in the trenches. But you do have to spend some time down in the trenches so you get a sense of what those folks are up against.

You really need to take a look at your calendar, and take a good, honest look at whether every item on your calendar absolutely trumps getting to know what is going on in the organization. For most people, the answer should be self-evident.

How to reach: Notre Dame College, (216) 381-1680 or www.notredamecollege.edu