3 communication skills the best senior administrators share

Kristin Tyndall, editorKristin Tyndall, Senior Editor

Think you've got what it takes to be a president or other high-level administrator? We recently reviewed the research and personal narratives in our archives to identify the common skills great campus leaders share.

One trend that immediately jumped out: time and again, college presidents and other leaders said their most useful skill is effective communication. As higher education changes, there's more pressure on campus leaders than ever before to communicate with the range of stakeholders they serve. According to the American Council on Education's American College President Study, tasks related to communication are among those that presidents spend the most time on.

Here are the three types of communication skills that senior administrators need to be successful.

1: Public relations

Higher education faces an image problem, as Yale University President Peter Salovey noted in a recent op-ed. Just over half of Americans have a positive view of higher education, according to two recent surveys. Contributing to this skepticism are stubborn myths about the cost and value of a degree.

Public relations is a big part of the solution to the image problem, Salovey argues. Campus leaders must take every opportunity to explain the truth about the value of a degree.

These trends help explain why the burden of public relations responsibilities on presidents has grown dramatically in recent years at both four-year and two-year institutions. That shift has been reflected in changes to the traditional path to the presidency. As presidents' external responsibilities have grown, the pipeline has shifted from provosts to deans, who typically gain more experience with public relations and fundraising in their roles.

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2: Team motivation

One of the most important roles of senior administrators is motivating their direct teams, as well as the broader campus community, to accomplish strategic goals.

Sometimes, keeping the team focused on your institution's mission means being willing to say "No," says Tom Rocklin, recently retired vice president for student life at University of Iowa. They need to reject "shiny objects" that don't help the school achieve its goals. They need to assess problems and determine what's truly an emergency—and what isn't. They need to be skeptics who ask questions and get all the important details of an issue before making a decision.

At other times, motivating the campus community means surrounding yourself with people smarter than you, giving them enough freedom to figure out solutions on their own, and then thanking them publicly when they accomplish great things, according to Allison Vaillancourt, vice president of business affairs and human resources at the University of Arizona

A president must also know when and how to break down silos to get things done. When a problem arises, "some people are very into 'we've always done it this way,'" but effective leaders don't get stuck in that kind of rigid thinking, says Mary Evans Sias, director of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities' Millennium Leadership Institute.

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3: Crisis communication

In ACE's survey of presidents, more than 21% of respondents said they felt unprepared in the area of crisis management during their first presidency. The climate of skepticism toward higher ed fuels increased scrutiny of senior administrators' actions during a crisis. And the rise of social media means that students and the public expect a quick response to every issue.

The best approach is to proactively create a plan for how you'll communicate with your staff in the event of a crisis, according to Ellen de Graffenreid, director of communications at the Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University.

The first step should be to assess the severity of the problem, she recommends. Then, be strategic about how much information you share with your team, focusing on the facts that are publicly known and including any relevant context, such as compliance rules. Finally, be sure to express gratitude for the individuals on your team who work late into the night dealing with a crisis or preparing a big announcement.

Related: Your guide to defining staff involvement with student activists

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