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3 Steps to Creating Guiding Principles for Your School

By sharing a clear picture of who they are and what they stand for, business schools can meaningfully connect with their community and stakeholders.

Communications professionals often talk about the importance of shared language and repetition. Simple, concise, easy-to-understand words and phrases—said often—tend to stick. We just saw the prime season for those communications ideas to play out with the U.S. general election campaigns. Of course, brands we all know have perfected their messaging over many years.

Business school leaders would be wise to apply these same ideas to their schools and programs. At the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, we implemented a set of three guiding principles for the undergraduate program that have had a positive impact on our culture in many ways. I was inspired to begin this process after attending a conference at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business a few years ago and learning about their “Defining Leadership Principles.” I knew our students and program would benefit from something similar.

In fact, I believe all business schools should create their own set of principles. It’s not an easy process, but it’s a worthwhile one. Drawing on our recent experience in developing guiding principles, we’ve come up with three steps to help other schools start crafting theirs.

1. Ask, “What is authentic to us?”

This deceptively simple question is the first step to focus on. In order to fully answer the question, you need to mix critical self-reflection and insights from staff, faculty, students, alumni, donors, career recruiters, and more. Engaging with those, in particular, who employ your graduates can be helpful, as this group of people knows what is unique about the students from your school, and how they compare to students from other schools. Their insights into those differences—in technical skills, communication, ability to collaborate or work in teams, for example—will provide you with a guide for answering the question of authenticity. Your staff and faculty also are sure to have accurate perceptions of your students: who they are, what drives them, and what they need to be successful.

As part of this step, remember that it’s OK to realize there is a gap between where you are and where you want to be. Ending the information-gathering phase with the recognition that you have room to grow is a sign that creating guiding principles can be the bridge you need.

2. Three is key

Once you have an understanding of what makes your school or program unique, it’s time to find the right words to articulate those aspects. Your goal is to develop principles that are meaningful and sound good—not principles that sound good but are not meaningful. Doing the latter will instantly be recognized by your community as inauthentic. The principles should also be concise. Longer phrases, or even sentences, lack sticking power and risk ending up on a shelf gathering dust.

Additionally, aim to make your principles inspiring, catchy, and poetic. Expect that members of your community will each read into the principles what they want. Initially, I struggled with this concept. But I came to understand that principles that are more precise would be more constricting over time. Broader principles allow for new members of our school to consistently come to their own understanding of the meaning.

After coming up with five or six options, I met with my leadership team to whittle the principles down to three. Why? Let’s review “the rule of three,” which traces its origins to Aristotle’s Rhetoric and the dramatic unity of time, place, and action. Three items—be they words or actions or deities—can create a simple, memorable, and complete pattern or concept. For the purpose of this exercise, we can look to a marketing theory, attributed to E. St. Elmo Lewis, that successful copywriting attracts a reader, then interests the reader, then convinces the reader.

3. Spread the word! (Then do it again, and again, and again)

The true test of these principles is not how they sound on paper but how students, faculty, and staff internalize them and turn them into actions that drive their lives forward.

You need to be ready to share the principles at every opportunity, with examples of how they’re being used. If you’re doing it correctly, you’ll feel like a broken record.

One audience to pay particular attention to when getting these principles off the ground is faculty. For business school leaders who came through the faculty ranks, this suggestion is likely no surprise. In step one, I mentioned that you should include faculty in formulating your principles. If you can, keep faculty a part of the process. Regardless of their level of involvement, you can easily help faculty evangelize on your behalf: supply them with the words and materials they need, share ideas related to the principles, and use your space (physical or virtual) to post the new messaging.

We know our principles have made inroads with our community. Student awareness has grown from 20 to 60 percent over just two years, and we are attracting students who appreciate these principles and find in them opportunities to grow in meaningful and fulfilling ways.

I wish you success and am eager to learn about the processes and principles implemented at other schools.

Raj Singh, associate dean of the Undergraduate Program and Arthur R Upgren Professor of Finance, University of Minnesota‚Äôs Carlson School of Management Raj Singh is the associate dean of the Undergraduate Program and Arthur R. Upgren Professor of Finance at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.