Communicating With Strategic Intent

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Monday, October 25, 2021
By Matthew Waller
Photo by iStock/cagkansayin
Why conveying information without a purpose might not convey much that’s meaningful at all.

Successfully leading a college of business, like leading any organization, requires effective communication. No surprise, right? But as dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, I have quickly discovered that there’s more to effective communication than merely sending messages that other people receive and understand. Effective communication also requires strategic intent.

A.G. Lafley, the former CEO of Procter & Gamble from 2000 to 2010 and from 2013 to 2015, once pointed out that effective communication helps leaders find and share the answers to five key questions. Who are we? Where do we play—what’s our market? How do we win? What capabilities or resources do we need? What management systems do we need?

Those are strategic questions, and it takes a strategic approach to find and share the answers. So as the communicator-in-chief at the Walton College, part of my job is to make sure that all our faculty and staff have or can get the information they need to effectively play their roles in living out our mission, vision, and values.

More Communication Is Not Necessarily Better

For a business college, of course, communication comes with some unique challenges and considerations. At the Walton College, for instance, we operate with a shared governance model, which means faculty expect to know what’s going on and to have input on certain decisions. A business college also has a broad range of stakeholders, internally and externally, which means that one-size-fits-all messages don’t always work.

Not long after I was appointed dean in 2015, I recognized that a good bit of feedback from faculty and staff centered on issues that involved communication. At first, this seemed odd. Like most business colleges, we had no shortage of meetings. How could anyone not know what was going on?

In response to this feedback, we increased the quantity of emails coming out of the dean’s office. In fact, every day either I or my associate deans sent out some sort of email, often several pages long. Eventually, we realized we’d gone from one extreme to the other, overwhelming people with too much information. We dialed it back.

Along the way, we realized we were spending a great deal of time “communicating,” but our efforts weren’t always effective. Even though we were sending out many messages, most lacked a critical component: strategic intent. We discovered that good communication isn’t just about communicating more. It’s about communicating better.

Different Methods, Different Purposes

I knew it was vital for us to listen attentively and respectfully to others, practice procedural justice, and transparently and clearly share information whenever possible. But we also needed to define the reasons and purpose for what and how we communicated.

One of the first committees I created with my leadership team was tasked with exploring ways we could communicate better with the college. We started by making a list of our communication methods; next, we identified the primary and secondary purposes for each method.

Good communication isn’t just about communicating more. It’s about communicating better.

The first step was easy. We came up with a long list of the methods we used most for our internal outreach and narrowed it to a top eight. These included collegewide emails from the dean’s office, town hall meetings, faculty and staff meetings (two or three per year), breakfasts and lunches with the deans, weekly executive committee meetings, executive committee minutes (shared after each meeting), college standing committees such as those dedicated to student scholarships and promotion and tenure, and task forces set up temporarily to address particular goals.

The second step, however, was not as straightforward. It was at this point that we discovered our weakness: Either no one knew the primary purpose of each method or different people defined each method’s purpose differently. In other words, we knew the mechanisms we used for communicating, but we weren’t sure how those mechanisms were supposed to work.

Three ‘Buckets’ of Communication

To clarify our collective confusion, we divided our purposes for communicating into three buckets: explanation, engagement, and decisions/recommendations. Then, we assigned each mechanism a primary and secondary purpose.

Explanation. When we used methods for which explanation was the purpose, faculty and staff could expect to learn things like what was going on in the college, why we were engaged in various initiatives or endeavors, who was filling certain roles, why various decisions were being made, and how we were trying to accomplish aspects of our mission and vision. These types of communication might include our emails from the dean, faculty and staff meetings, or executive committee minutes.

Engagement. Methods meant to promote engagement—such as our town halls and lunches with the dean—would involve people in the decision-making process by including their feedback, input, and points of view. These methods would seek to build collective wisdom and knowledge through discussion and debate. And they would provide opportunities for faculty and staff to share insights and opinions on important topics and decisions.

Decisions/recommendations. Finally, methods meant to set the direction of the college would include our executive committee meetings and our task forces. Some faculty and staff meetings, where we might be voting on particular initiatives or changes, might also fall into this category.

Once we defined the purpose of our different methods, our next step will come as no surprise—we communicated the purpose of our communications with the college. We created a task force to outline the approach we would use to convey our new structure, which the executive committee then reviewed and edited.

Then, I sent an email to the college and asked for input before finally presenting our new communication structure at a faculty and staff meeting. Because we added structure to what had been unstructured messages—and then shared that structure with everyone—we made sure that people knew what to expect.

By setting expectations clearly, we addressed many communication issues that faculty had brought to my attention when I first became dean. No longer, for instance, did people complain about the lack of decisions that came out of faculty and staff meetings, because they now knew those meetings had a different purpose that almost never involved decision-making.

Communicating with strategic -- Sam Walton College
For each of our methods of communication, we have determined our primary purpose, our secondary purpose, and whether we want to invite feedback from our community.

Not only that, when we communicated strategically as a college, our messages served a well-defined purpose. We made sure that each message supported the goals that we all had agreed were important to achieve.

Personal Communication With Purpose

In addition to clarifying the strategic purposes of our collegewide communications, I also now think and act more strategically about how I personally communicate as the dean. At times, for instance, I am very direct: Here’s the information you need to know. Here’s what I need you to do. At other times, I am intentionally subtle. Either way, I am deliberate about not only what I say but how I say it.

Consider our executive committee meetings. Their purpose might be to make decisions and recommendations, but our meeting minutes are to provide explanations of those decisions to our faculty and staff. As an individual leader within those meetings, I often say things that everyone in the room already knows and understands, only because I know that faculty and staff will read the minutes. I want to make sure I share any information that would be new to our faculty and staff or reinforce any messages I want them to hear again.

I now think and act more strategically about how I personally communicate. I am deliberate about not only what I say but how I say it.

I might take this approach to underscore the importance of our commitment to a policy, like Title IX compliance, or indirectly address a false rumor spreading across campus. Or, I might simply let everyone know that we as an executive committee are aware of, are discussing, and care about issues that are important to the faculty and staff.

Messages That Matter to the Mission

A business college can never fully serve its purpose when its key stakeholders are not well-informed about what’s going on and why. To keep everyone on the same page, academic leaders must consistently and intentionally think through the points they need to get across and how they want to share a message. They must know who will receive the message, what recipients will do with the information, why it matters to each stakeholder group, and how they would like recipients to respond.

Only then can they craft well-designed communications that are more strategic, purposeful, and, ultimately, effective. And effective communication, with every member of an academic community, is a critical part of moving any business school closer to fulfilling its mission.

This article is based on Waller's book The Dean’s List: Leading a Modern Business School.

Matthew Waller
Dean, Sam M. Walton College of Business, University of Arkansas
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