Robert J. Birgeneau has a lot to think about when he opens his mouth.
He’s got 15,000 employees at the University of California, Berkeley — not to mention 35,000 students — who have a lot riding on what he has to say.
“It’s a complicated business model with income coming from many directions and no simple product,” says the university’s chancellor.
The key to making it work to support the university’s $1.8 billion budget has been the application of basic corporate leadership principles. Birgeneau talks to his senior leaders, he talks to people who are further down in the organization and he talks to his customers — in this case, the students who come for an education.
“I must have a clear vision for Berkeley and that must be based on a fundamental set of principles, which the people around me clearly understand,” Birgeneau says. “People must have absolute confidence in your integrity.”
Smart Business spoke with Birgeneau about how to make sure you’re conveying the right message to your employees.
Be humble. Don’t micromanage. For the people who work for me, when I say, ‘You’re responsible for this,’ I want them to come back to me when they are doing important things to confirm that they are going in the right direction. When they are successful, I make sure that they get full credit for it.
Be humble about what you’re not good at and hire around you people who are good at it. Give them full credit when they accomplish things that you on your own couldn’t accomplish. When things go wrong, be prepared to take the blame yourself. The worst thing, and it happened to me in my career when I was in a dependent stage, is something goes wrong and the person you report to says, ‘Well, that’s not my fault. He did it.’ I never do that.
Encourage participation. I send out almost brutally honest e-mails that go to the entire student body and to the entire staff about what our thinking is, what our strategies are, where we think we’re headed and how we’re trying to address issues.
Try not to overdo it, because people will just press delete. But every time there’s a really important issue, which I think the community needs to know about, I send out an e-mail that goes to every employee.
I explain to them that it’s important for me as the head of the institution to know what the people on the ground are really thinking and what their issues really are and I just want them to tell me honestly.
Be articulate. Speak to people in language that they can understand. If I’m writing something for an op-ed that is aimed at the New York Times, that will be different than an op-ed going in the student newspaper. If I’m sending out a message that is going just to the faculty, if the English isn’t perfect, I’ll get criticism from the English department. So I may take more care stylistically for a message that goes out to the faculty than one that goes out to the community as a whole.
When we’re sending out general messages, we spend a lot of time trying to make sure the messages are as inclusive as possible.
I have advisers around me. I am a physicist myself. My closest adviser actually happens to be an expert in medieval French, but also is excellent at administration and budgets. My second-in-command is a social scientist who is also an expert in Russian politics. I try to have different kinds of expertise in the immediate area around me. Before sending out messages, I run it through these people.
Try not to sound scripted. When I started as a university leader, I did not do this very well. Frankly, a couple times I saw myself on television giving a scripted speech and I said, ‘That’s awful.’
I had one program, which was a full half-hour that they kept running at midnight to guarantee it would put people to sleep. I learned by hard experience that this is not easy, so I actually got lessons from a person who specialized in techniques of giving scripted speeches so they don’t look scripted.
Read the script in advance to be sure it says what you want it to say and to be sure you can speak passionately about what’s in the script. There are techniques in memorizing parts of the sentence. Never have a sentence that is longer than 15 words. You memorize the first five words so you speak them looking at the audience. You look down and read the next five and simultaneously memorize the final five. Then you look back up at the audience and say the next five.
It doesn’t look as if you are reading something that’s written down as a script because you’ve looked directly at the audience and said two-thirds of the words directly to them.
Watch yourself. This advice came from Chuck Vest, who was president of MIT. When I was deciding to take on a senior leadership position, he said, ‘I have two pieces of advice for you. No. 1, being president of the university is not a job; it’s a life. No. 2, even when you’re off the record, you’re on the record.’
If you’re the head of a major institution, you’re always on the record. There are so many times where people get caught. When you’re in a leadership position, the microphone is always on.
How to reach: University of California, Berkeley, (510) 642-6000 or www.berkeley.edu