Beverley Pitts says a collaborative approach to leadership can be a good thing. But it can’t be the only thing.
Ultimately, leaders need to move with a purpose, particularly when communicating. It’s something Pitts has taken to heart as the president of the University of Indianapolis, which generated $86 million in revenue in fiscal 2008.
You have to project a focused message and give employees a sense that you have a competent grasp of the material you are communicating.
“People want to have a sense that the leader knows what she is doing, and that there is a sense of comfort in someone seeing the big picture,” Pitts says. “Sometimes leaders women leaders in particular get attached with being collaborative, which is a good characteristic to have for any leader, but leaders have to project a sense of confidence and directness that you know what you’re talking about.”
Smart Business spoke with Pitts about how you can gain the trust and confidence of your employees with direct, focused communication.
Speak specifically. When you speak, you need to be sure what you’re talking about. I’m a journalism teacher at heart, and that is some of the best training anyone could ever have because you learn to be specific, direct and objective. When you’re projecting confidence, people want to know that you know what you’re talking about. As an example, in the economic situation we’ve all been in over the last many months, many university folks had a feeling of uneasiness. We weren’t sure how many students we’d have. When I talked to the faculty, I told them, ‘This is the budget, this is where we are, this is what we need to do, here are the factors that are affecting us.’ You show them the decision-making process that is being used, so you show everyone that somebody at the helm knows what is happening and how you’re going to handle it.
Don’t talk in platitudes and broad generalities. That’s usually what leaders tend to do, giving everyone the pep talk that we’re all in this together. To an extent, you want to do that. You want to project a sense that this isn’t a unilateral decision, but that’s really a different issue altogether. But you still want to speak in terms of specifics. You want to give people accurate information with a sense of confidence and understanding of the implications of that. That’s perhaps the best thing you can do in the development of your leadership.
Know your audience. I have a lot of talks with my senior administrators, and we talk about communication all the time. It might be one of the most important skills you can develop in others.
I often tell them to think about what people want and need to know. We have had some difficulties communicating with our technology folks on campus. It’s sort of two different worlds with faculty and technology. So I told them to really think about what kind of information the technology people need, why they need it, why does it matter to them from their perspective, and build communication from that.
I try every time I communicate to think about that. When I’m talking to students, what in their world do they need to know? They don’t need to know everything. They need the answers to the questions they have at the moment. When I’m talking to faculty, why do they need to know something? Is it going to affect their own futures or tenures or the direction the university is going? So as we are considering communication in leadership roles, I always emphasize the fact that you have to know your audience. Always recognize that you’re talking to an audience, and they are going to receive the information through their own eyes and ears, not yours. Be cognizant of the audience, and tailor your message to meet their needs.
You discover the needs of your audience by talking to them. You get to know their concerns and fears, their level of knowledge or exposure to something. Get to know the bottom line of what matters to them. I spend a lot of time creating small, informal environments where people can talk to me. I have coffee conversations where I put coffee out and anyone on campus is welcome to come, from the maintenance staff to secretaries to faculty members. We did this recently during the financial crisis because there were so many rumors and so much misunderstanding of what the effects were going to be.
Keep working at it. Communication and connecting with your people is something you have to continually work at because it is so easy to slip away from it, to do your work in your office and not get out within your organization. You have to plan times to have that interaction.
When you think about what you have to do, you set goals for yourself, and that communication and interaction has to be one of them. If you’re going to be an effective leader, you have to do this because you’re going to lose everyone. I have a couple of opportunities a year where I can speak to the entire campus community. Those opportunities are pretty rare, so if I don’t plan these kinds of things, I’ll quickly lose touch and not be a very effective leader.
The other thing I do (is) send periodic community e-mails, so I’m providing once every couple of weeks an overview of stuff that is going on. Somebody might have gotten a new major grant or another new opportunity presented itself, things of that nature. Sometimes you’re talking about problems and sometimes you’re talking about good things, but that voice is always there. I also like people to send me e-mails back. If I find something that is of concern, if I get feedback that indicates that I’ve hit a hot spot, I’ll go look into that. It’s sort of an electronic way of keeping your office door open.
How to reach: University of Indianapolis, (317) 788-3368 or www.uindy.edu