Common language Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2009

James T. “Jim” Harris III works hard to make sure his vision is clear to everyone in his organization.

The president of Widener University says that doing so is critical to keeping the focus on accomplishing objectives and keeping with the school’s strategic plan.

For Harris, that means getting 1,500 employees — 950 of which are full-time — and more than 6,000 students on the same page. To do that, you have to repeat the vision often through words and actions and by making sure that everyone understands how he or she fits in to the mix, Harris says.

“Repeat it again and again in a variety of different ways,” he says. “Every time you put out a brochure or a publication or I speak in public or when other members of the senior leadership team talk about where the university is going … people talk about what our ultimate vision is.”

Smart Business spoke with Harris about how to convey to your employees how they fit in to and embody your vision.

Get employee buy-in. You get people to buy in by rewarding them for the behavior that supports the mission. For example, we’re now retooling our performance management system so that every employee will eventually be evaluated based on their work and role in enhancing the university’s mission.

You have to help employees understand how to set goals that are mission-driven and help us accomplish our ultimate goal.

The other way to do it is to provide feedback, help them see that their own goals can be accomplished by helping the university accomplish its goals. They have their own goals both in their office and they might have their own personal objectives that they’d like to accomplish with their career, and if you can help them find that — and there are ways that they can do both — I think that you can be more successful.

Offer rewards. You reward people by providing them with opportunities for growth.

So you promote from within when appropriate, and reward those people who have done a good job.

You also reward people by providing them with opportunities to grow through professional development. We’ve identified people every year that go through certain seminars or workshops during the summer to renew themselves and to understand better how they can contribute to the future direction of the institution and to our mission.

You reward them both in material ways, that their salary increases are associated with their merit and accomplishing goals that are tied with our mission. You reward them by recognizing behaviors that are aligned with the mission.

One of the things that we started doing a couple of years ago was something called Faces of Widener. Every week, we put out a new face of an employee who is doing something to advance the university, and we highlight them on our Web site. I think that helps people feel good about the university and where we’re heading.

Create uniform ways to tap in to employee goals. One thing that we’ve done, for example, is that we have started using common language and common experiences for the administration, staff and the faculty. Through the president, through the dean, through the administrative staff and now also through the support staff and others on campus … we all have a common language.

We’re having people develop their own personal mission statements. We have the same language, such as people understand when I say, ‘A win-win situation,’ what that means.

By using common language and then looking for opportunities to demonstrate that, because I use that language, it helps people to believe where we’re going and buy in to the kinds of things that we’re doing.

Preach and embody your vision. Part of it is through a constant communication of all sorts.

So we use the Web site. That comes out in something called What’s up @ Widener. I have town-hall meetings about every six weeks, every two months, where faculty and staff are invited to come in, and we present on issues the university is facing.

And then we also do it through letters, through our magazine, the traditional ways. You need to keep communicating in all the various ways that are possible and available.

It seems to me that there needs to be a balance. I don’t think there’s any one way.

It goes back to the way that people learn. Some people learn better by reading, some people learn better by hearing. And I think, as a leader, we need to recognize that people will absorb information better or differently, so we need to find different ways to get that information out.

The key is if you want the institution to move in a particular direction, the leader needs to become the living embodiment of that change.

For example, we’ve talked about civic engagement and how we prepare students to be involved in our democracy. So I think it’s important as the leader that I demonstrate that by doing things such as being involved in community activities.

It’s being the living embodiment of the mission of the institution and that people see that by what I’m doing they can do similar things.

How to reach: Widener University, (888) 943-3637 or