Communication and Respect: Establishing an Environment for Innovation to FlourishGregory Fowler | Vice President of Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer for COCE, Southern New Hampshire University
Given our emphasis on using innovation and student-centered approaches, it is no surprise that SNHU is a place where there is always a great deal happening. Our continued commitment to our mission—to make high-quality education affordable and accessible to as many students as possible in a way that empowers them to succeed—comes with a never-ending challenge to rethink what we have done well and not so well, and to improve upon both.
For that to happen we have to create a team, a culture, and an environment where those working for our students feel as valuable as our students do.
When SNHU became one of only four colleges in America to be designated a Great College to Work For for 10 consecutive years this year, we were asked how we balance our various stakeholders’ interests while ensuring our teams feel valued and continue to strive for excellence.
It’s really not a secret. It’s communication and trust and always working to improve both.
Those efforts were front and center this year when we held our annual academic meeting for all full-time faculty and staff in COCE Academics, bringing in the teams from all across the country to focus on our theme for the year: a leader in every seat. That phrase sums up what is at the heart of our work—that leadership is a responsibility and a requirement of every employee.
This isn’t a definition of leadership that focuses on telling others what to do; rather it is about demonstrating leadership in the responsibilities and accountabilities that every team member has and expecting the university to communicate and work with you as a leader in your sphere of influence.
A team mantra is to treat all employees the way we want them to treat our students, not only because we want to emulate that behavior but also because being an innovator means we don’t have everything figured out yet. We need to be honest and transparent about that and we are learning as we progress. We are all, in fact, students in this way.
What does this mean for how we interact? First, all team members must work at being effective communicators. When I was young my mother said to me, “God gave us two ears and two eyes but only one mouth for a reason.” One of our key expectations is that every employee/leader focus more on listening and seeing than on advocating for their point of view. This is essential when you are literally working with five different educational models—hybrid, online, accelerated, face-to-face, and competency-based. Preparing but then making your first priority in a meeting to understand what matters to the others in the room provides the space needed to identify common ground and not assume every issue on the table is a zero-sum game.
Academic senior leadership also hires people who are smarter than we are in their given areas and treats them accordingly. One of my favorite interactions is “Teach Me Something I Don’t Know” sessions, where a member of my team (maybe a direct report, maybe someone further down the management line) spends an hour with me teaching me new things. Topics have included the difference between API and LTI, building blocks from various LR vendors, differences in CBE models, and validity of assessments. They walk me through fundamental concepts until I know enough to be able to make decisions. At the same time we trust and empower them to make decisions. Our job is to make sure they know where the North Star is and the direction we are headed, then give them the freedom to chart the course in their areas.
One thing I thought I would not like when I started at SNHU was the lack of closed offices. For two decades I had operated in an environment where the walled and isolated office was a status symbol, so when I moved into a space where at any given time someone could peek around the corner or peer through the glass with the “are you busy?” look, it took some getting used to. But over time the noise and rhythms of the office have become like a familiar piece of music. I listen and can tell the mood of my team as they are interacting; a walk around the floor and I can feel if the buzz in the office is excitement, anxiety, or frustration.
That listening includes lots of dialogue, not just one-way feedback. The leadership team has to be willing to look in the mirror regularly and consider if we are holding ourselves and allowing the team to hold us accountable. Do they have the resources and support they need to figure out the next evolution of higher education? Do some (ourselves included) need further development to be more effective?
To get brutal honesty from the team requires a rapport that breaks down the barriers so common in academic institutions. There is no secret formula for this: The accumulation of simple things creates a space of trust. I have worked in spaces where employees walked on eggshells because the leadership would walk by them deep in thought with their heads down and it was interpreted as either they were mad or there was something to stress about. Some of the biggest leadership successes I have had were issues resolved by a person I said hello to opening up about a concern they thought I wouldn’t care about but were willing to share because I engaged them first. In an innovative space we also must be open about our failures and mistakes, which in turn provides space for those who work for us to learn from their failures and move forward.
One of the academic team’s top priorities is to always know what is going on in the higher education industry. We are well aware of how easy it is to shut the doors of the ivory tower and pretend the outside world is not changing. A quick read of any national educational news will reveal how administrations and faculty are blindsided by financial, governmental, or demographic changes that have major consequences for the institution. It is the responsibility of every team member at every level to keep us all aware and to reflect on how what is going on impacts them in the short and long term.
Transparency is a good thing. When we make decisions we are better able to explain them because we have kept them in the loop on factors involved. Are we or are we not building MOOCs? What are the impacts of tuition raises and/or discounting? Should we work more with vendors or OER? What outcomes matter to our various stakeholders? How do the academic decisions we are making impact our business models? Everyone has a right to know the pros and cons and to have their voices heard.
Active listening, honesty, transparency, and safe spaces to fail and learn from it are all part of our formula for success. This is a journey rather than a destination, however. Within a week of the Chronicle announcing the Great Colleges to Work For, our leadership team had begun analyzing the responses to see where we can get better. Our willingness to listen to each other, to honestly self-reflect, and to inspire the team by supporting them and being transparent about our strengths and opportunities for improvement is what enables us to keep innovating and designing for the next evolution of higher education.
Author Perspective: Administrator