Celebrate success and you may surprise yourself in the process, says Charles Dougherty, president of Duquesne University. Every April,
the nationally recognized scholar asks his team of deans and directors for a list of their yearly accomplishments. And every May, he is
astonished when the responses come in. Though Dougherty employs a variety of communication tools to tap into the pulse of the university,
he is always surprised by the breadth of success that results from 2,700 creative employees and an annual budget of $205 million. Those
results reaffirm the mission and a collective sense of progress, Dougherty says, and he shares them at the school’s annual convocation to
close each year. Smart Business spoke with Dougherty about e-mail, Einstein and how to get input during strategic planning.
Be receptive to various forms of communication. We have a lot of communication
tools these days, everything from formal
memos to e-mail. E-mail has become quite
democratic in the sense that a sophomore
history major has no compunction in writing the president of the university and
unloading about what’s on his or her mind.
I’ll get reports of votes from a department meeting, or I’ll read the minutes of
a school committee on something and
begin to see where the drift of opinion is
going on certain topics.
I try to make myself present on campus. I literally walk around a great deal,
allowing people to stop me and tell me
what’s on their mind. It’s important to
the person who just told you something,
and it puts a real face on who we are.
People feel closer to the strategic direction of the university when they walk past
and think, ‘There’s the president,’ and particularly if they can stop and say, ‘You know
what? I was sorry to hear that we’re doing
X, Y and Z,’ or, ‘I was hoping that maybe we
would take this opportunity to do one, two
Stick to the plan. Strategic planning is one
of my most important jobs. What’s
important is to make the plan real.
We have a detailed implementation
document. We know at any given time
who’s responsible for what. We have a
sense for the cost of the things we want
to achieve. We have timelines.
We revisit that on a regular basis. We
sit down and look at that, making sure
we’re still on board for achieving what
First of all, it reinforces the overarching
vision. Where are we trying to go? What
are we trying to achieve? The second
thing is, when you’re actually working on
the plan, and you can show people successes relative to the plan, there’s a real
sense of forward motion. People feel like
that’s what you said you were going to do.
Get input while planning. Many plans
begin as a shopping list: Everybody has an idea, and the ideas all get listed.
At one point (during the planning
process), we hadn’t made what I would
regard as hard decisions, which is to say,
prioritizing certain areas. No one wanted
to say, ‘My area was more important
than someone else’s area.’
So I asked everyone to give me a list of
the top 10 strengths of their programs.
That gave me then 100 strengths. I
reordered them and organized them, and
I showed that there were five or six
areas identified as strengths. Therefore,
they were university strengths.
From that, we took some areas and
said, ‘Over the next five years, we’re
going to emphasize ethics, we’re going to
emphasize leadership ...’
(It’s) democratic in a way. Everybody
had input. We got a long list of things
together but then had to make some choices about which were going to be priorities.
Don’t overrationalize. It was Einstein who
said that if we were fully rational, we’d
never make a decision — we’d always
wait another day hoping for more information to come in.
We can’t do that. Events will shape us if
we don’t make decisions. There comes a
point where you simply have to say, ‘I
think I understand enough. I think I’ve listened enough. I think I’ve heard sides of this, and a decision simply has to be made.’
You can’t paralyze yourself with trying
to get facts if a decision needs to be
made. You either make the decision, or
you lose the day.
Be receptive to criticism. If I’m moving in a
direction that is not likely going to work
out for what I want, then I have somebody
else who can tell me that and can do that
without fear of negative consequences.
No one likes to be told they’re making
a mistake, but a leader has to have people around them who are capable and do
that on a regular basis. In any complex
organization, every leader makes some
It starts with not overreacting when the
person brings you a problem, particularly
an unexpected problem and a bad one.
One of the things I learned from people I
believe were effective leaders was, when I
came in with a crisis, there wasn’t screaming, there wasn’t yelling and there wasn’t
blaming. There was cool, calm deliberation about how do we move out of this crisis and repair the situation.
Try to do that. Try to contain emotions
when there’s a problem of that sort. That
builds a kind of trust that allows somebody to say, ‘You know what? I told him
that last week, and we’re still friends. I
think I can tell him he’s making a mistake this week, and we’ll still have an
effective working relationship.’
Recognize success. There are so many
people doing creative things at various
levels that I find it useful to drop a handwritten note to somebody congratulating
them for something. Send them an e-mail.
Call (them) up and say, ‘I heard you
just published a new book. I’m looking
forward to seeing it. Congratulations,’ or,
‘You were named employee of the year.
I’m looking forward to acknowledging
you at the convocation.’
Those little acknowledgements to people mean a great deal.
HOW TO REACH: Duquesne University, (412) 396-6000 or