Robert Smith Featured

8:00pm EDT September 27, 2007
Robert Smith says being a leader is like sailing a ship: The goal is to reach a particular point while navigating through rocky waters, but sometimes you have to steer away from the goal to approach it from a new direction. As president of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, Smith is sailing those rocky waters as he prepares for a 20 percent drop in enrollment over the next eight to 10 years as the number of traditional college-aged students in the area decreases. But despite the anticipated decrease, Smith is continuing to encourage his 1,000 employees to work toward goals that achieve the university’s vision, reward those who move the vision forward and keep the $120 million budget on track. Smart Business spoke with Smith about how constant communication and focus on the vision help a leader navigate through the storm to reach the destination.

Live your vision and communicate it every day. You’ve got to be a good listener, as well as an advocate for your vision and for the direction in which you’re heading.

The vision has to be vivid enough that people can express it in their own terms. If you’re reading your vision statement off the back of your business card because that’s the only way you can remember it, you don’t have a vision that’s embedded within your organizational culture.

Keep communicating it, and you’ll hear whether or not it comes back to you. Listen, don’t talk. You need to be out in the work force to hear others tell you what they are doing and to see if their language and actions are aligned with your vision.

Believe in your vision. The hardest part of a leader sustaining a vision is that they’ve got to absolutely believe in their core.

There will be way too many times in which challenges will be thrown in front of you, obstacles will occur and frustrations will happen in which your commitment to the vision may be the only beacon pointing to the way out. If you don’t have that kind of passionate commitment, you’re going to waffle and give up.

You have to believe that this is the right direction. Own the vision as your personal belief in what the company can be. If you don’t believe in it, you can’t advocate it. The vision is what keeps the leader going when no one else seems to be on board. If you don’t own it for yourself, it will fail you in your time of need.

Vision has a dimension to it that is pure faith, and faith is that, in spite of these obstacles, this is worth the organization achieving. You either believe in that or you don’t.

Don’t make the vision all about you.

Organizations will respond if they believe that the vision is in the interest of the organization. If they believe that the vision is in the interest of the promotion of the CEO, they’re not nearly inclined to support that vision.

Listen to the language choices of leaders as they express their vision. If they’re using, ‘I want,’ ‘I see,’ ‘I think we,’ and don’t get to, ‘We are about this,’ or ‘Here’s what we’re doing.’ It’s not right. There has to be inclusiveness to that.

People don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Leaders who shape the vision as a personal gain do not have a vision for the company but for themselves. Employees easily recognize that and might obey, but not follow. When the employee sees the personal conviction the leader has for them and the company, they can ignite their own fire from that flame.

Start out with success. As leaders communicate the vision, they have in mind what are going to be some successful projects or steps toward achieving that vision early on. You need to have some very successful projects that are almost guaranteed success because success breeds success.

Find an initiative that has a short turnaround so that people can get immediate feedback of success. The initiative or project has to be a real issue, but simple enough that execution is not overly complicated. Then employees can see it, and they get on board.

Be open. The leader has to be open to sharing data and financials. There are lots of great stories of successful leaders who have opened the books to employees and let them see for themselves that they were facing difficult times rather than simply trusting, ‘Because I said so.’

Involve people in the analysis of those data. Encourage their interpretation of the data and reach a certain consensus of what strategies are going to be necessary to effect a continuation of the vision.

When others have the data to see for themselves their progress toward goals, they can self-direct their planning and execution. They can see the progress as well as failure and can more easily make corrections when the data suggests that a strategy might not be working as expected. They see the big picture of the budget and the issues the entire organization faces, and that helps create greater buy-in for the changes that are necessary.

Reward those who achieve success.

Nothing builds on success better than tying your vision to performance and rewarding on it. I can go out there and say, ‘Here’s the vision,’ and I can paint it in a vivid way, but if there’s not execution, it’s a wasted effort.

The cold reality of achieving the vision is to build on performance that is measured against that vision. Vision without tie-in to performance is a hallucination.

People like to be part of a winning team. So even though you’re the second-string place kicker, if the team’s winning, you’re going to feel a greater motivation and a higher spirit yourself. Even though you’re not playing every down and you may not be the highest-paid person, there’s still an internal satisfaction of being part of success.

That generates higher performance, as well, because when you are called in, you don’t want to let the rest of the team down.

HOW TO REACH: Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, (800) 778-9111 or