Ms. Communication Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

M. Valeriana Moeller has heard all of the opinions, and she wouldn’t mind hearing them again.

Generations of leaders have spilled ink all over how-to books for the right way to describe organizational communications, but Moeller does it with a simplicity that belies the work she does in dealing with a few thousand employees and more than 20,000 students as president of Columbus State Community College.

“We talk, and we get people involved,” she says.

And so Moeller has had conversations with everyone she can to better understand the issues she needs to work on and help create a working vision for CSCC. Along the way, Moeller, who will retire in June 2010, has led CSCC to massive growth — it has become the largest community college in the state, added additional programs and built partnerships with four-year universities.

Smart Business talked with Moeller about how you figure out your skill set and how you can get information from all sides while staying on track.

Create an atmosphere of improvement. I meet with my team weekly and then I meet with them individually, and they also know that any time they need anything they can come to me. Sometimes it’s, ‘This is what’s happening; I need to bounce this off you,’ and we go and we talk about that.

I will also tell someone, ‘This meeting, this presentation, whatever, let’s talk about how it could have been better and how did you feel about what you did.’ You just have to engage people into talking and letting them know that everything is not a do-or-die situation, but that there’s room for improvement and we want everyone to be better. I want feedback when I do things because I want to know where could I have been better.

Build consensus without getting off track. The best advice I’ve ever received is to stay focused because in a leadership role in a large organization like Columbus State there are many things happening all the time. There are people happy with what you’re doing, there are people who don’t like what you’re doing, and it’s very easy to allow those external factors or even internal ones to distract you from your goals. I always say, ‘What is it that I’m trying to accomplish?’ You move forward, and you keep saying, ‘This is the goal,’ and you move forward with that. It doesn’t mean that you don’t listen to what people have to say because that’s always important. You’d hate to be going down a road and someone is trying to tell you there’s a block further up and you didn’t listen only to get there and have to turn around.

You listen to other people, and sometimes someone is saying, ‘That’s the dumbest thing you are doing,’ and then you have to say, ‘What makes you say that?’ And maybe it’s just not been explained well, so it’s a matter of communication. And sometimes people are repeating back to you what they think you told them and what they repeat back is not what you told them. And you have to take some responsibility for that and say, ‘Maybe I didn’t communicate this the way it was to be communicated.’

Now, sometimes there are people who want you to do things that are not part of your mission. I get people saying, ‘Why don’t you offer baccalaureate degrees?’ Well, that is not our mission, and in the state of Ohio we’re not allowed to do that. And sometimes they want to have a debate on this, well there’s nothing to debate. Whether I even agree with them doesn’t matter, I don’t get to do that here. Now, sometimes you’re trying to pursue something, like when we’re building facilities, and someone says, ‘They’re going to put the door over here; do you realize what that will do to the movement of people through the building?’ So you have to go look at that or have someone look at that, and say, ‘Putting the door there is not the best thing; go change that.’ So it’s always trying to move forward. You don’t say, ‘You don’t know anything about doors, forget it,’ or, even if you didn’t agree, you check it out and say, ‘You know, we looked at it, and it might not be the best option, but we don’t have a better one.’

Figure out your skill set. One of the things that’s very important for any president or CEO is to spend some time reflecting on the things that you do well and the things where you’re not as successful as you’d like to be. Be honest and candid with yourself and then say, ‘OK, is this something I can learn or is this something I really am not going to be good at?’ Some of us are introverts, some of us are extraverts and we just are, that’s part of what really makes us, that’s the part we love, and that’s the part we also know doesn’t serve us well. So you have to be honest with yourself and say, ‘I’m not very good at this and I am going to hire someone who is very good at this.’

Hire for a complementary fit. I strongly believe that you have to have a passion for what you’re doing. In our case, we are a community college; we serve many students who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college … so you have to have people who are committed to our mission. So I hire people who are committed to the mission. I want them to have the skill sets that they need to have to do the job, and then I look for people who will complement my skills. I’m not good at everything and so I want people who think differently from me, and then we can debate and dialogue about what needs to be done. I find that I really don’t want everyone to tell me, ‘Yes, Val, let’s go.’ I want someone to challenge the new ideas, come up with new ideas, so we can think outside the box. That creates a good team where people respect each other and bring up new ideas, and then we talk about it and move forward.

How to reach: Columbus State Community College, (614) 287-5353 or