Category Archives: stakeholders

Hit the ground running – maybe not!

Bull in a china shop photoYou nailed the interview, you got the job and now it’s time to prove your value – full speed ahead! Peter Daly and Michael Watson, authors of The First 90 Days in Government: Critical Success Strategies for New Public Managers at all Levelsencourage leaders to take a different approach to successfully navigate one of the most treacherous transitions you will face – starting a new job.

The pressure to deliver results – fast – can backfire and end up looking like the proverbial bull in the china shop. Making a lot of noise, causing a lot of action but not demonstrating your ability to lead and succeed.

To avoid a crash, Daly and Watson describe five crucial subjects or themes that  new leaders need to understand before they charge forward. This will require structured on-going dialogue with your boss that they call “the five conversations:”

  1. The Situation Conversation – discover how your boss perceives the current standing or status of the overall organization and your unit. Your goal is to ensure a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities you face.
  2. The Expectations Conversation – define, clarify, and perhaps, negotiate what success looks like for you in your new job.
  3. The Style Conversation – discuss and determine how the relationship with your new boss will work. How do you each prefer to communicate, what boundaries exist, how are decisions made, and how frequent do you need to interact to ensure trust and success.
  4. The Resources Conversation – determine what resources are available, what you believe you need, confirm how resources are allocated and begin negotiating to ensure access to critical resources.
  5. The Personal Development Conversation – mutually identify opportunities and expectations for continual development to ensure success in your current and future roles in the organization.

In reality these will not be distinct one-time conversations but they are a framework to help new leaders strategically approach the transition to a new role. This is a time that it is “all about you!”

Todd Thorsgaard


A balancing act!

balanceStewardship and fundraising is a delicate balancing act for leaders in higher education. And it is easy to crash!

A 2014 doctoral thesis from Penn State provides details on what drives donors to contribute to higher educational institutions and how leaders can utilize stewardship to build donor relationships and generate additional resources for their colleges and universities. You can download the thesis here if you are interested.

The author shares a 2011 story of a large donor who felt ignored and halted his $7 million dollar donation. The donor actually asked for money back and for his name to be removed from a building that was already completed. That is a big crash!

The researcher found that donors in higher education have a unique connection with the school, potentially as an alum or due to a family or community connection, and this influences the type of interactions they expect when they donate. While much of the responsibility for donor relations resides with the development area, leaders can make a significant difference.

The top strategy for nurturing donor relationships focuses on treating them with respect. Leaders can support this by actively:

  • thanking donors
  • communicating with donors even when not soliciting money
  • looking for opportunities to give donors private attention or private time

Building relationships with your development area, offering leadership support, and spending time with donors will help leaders be better at overall stewardship in higher education – and avoid any painful crashes!

Todd Thorsgaard

Stewardship means change!

houston“Houston, we have a problem….” is how Jane Wellman, higher education finance expert, describes the reality most public higher education institutions are facing today in an Inside Higher Education report. Minnesota State Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, at his final board of trustee retreat, reinforced our need to take action to respond to the “tectonic” changes our system is facing if we are to be stewards of the resources we receive from the public and our students and their families.

Stewardship, or long-term sustainability, in higher education requires more than carefully watching how we spend our money. Former interim president of Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Avelino Mills-Novoa, implores us to change from training our students how to fit into our colleges and universities to actually changing our colleges and universities so they fit our students!

This type of stewardship demands that we challenge ourselves and our teams to tackle issues that we have not been willing to address in the past. At a previous organization where I worked at we used the term “sacred cows” to open up dialogue with all employees. What existing practices, policies, procedures, work habits, leadership styles, infrastructure, labor agreements, ideas, or traditions need to be examined and potentially given up or radically changed to allow us to serve our students and communities as they deserve to be served?

A cross-functional workgroup representing stakeholders from our campuses and the system recently identified five potential recommendations to ensure our financial sustainability. It included students, union representatives, campus leaders, and outside experts. As you read through the report you will see that a number of sacred cows are identified. As leaders in higher education, setting the stage for your teams to examine and discuss these recommendations is an example of stewardship.

  1. Act as an enterprise
  2. Consolidate the delivery of core functions
  3. Build partnerships that prepare students for a successful college or university experience
  4. Adopt more creative and flexible labor practices
  5. Re-calibrate physical plant and space capacity

What are your reactions to the report? Are there other sacred cows for us to challenge and change?

Todd Thorsgaard

Is the customer always right?

customer always rightI imagine this isn’t a revelation to anyone who has ever worked with another person – no one is ALWAYS right – not even the customer. On the other hand, we know that customer satisfaction in higher education is the greatest predictor of retention and completion. (Schreiner, 2009) And a core component of satisfaction is the service students perceive they get from their college or university. Our students, our customers, may not always be right. But their success, and our success, is dependent on the service we provide and their satisfaction with it!

Neal Raisman,  author of Embrace the Oxymoron: Customer Service in Higher Education defines customer service in higher education as how students perceive their return on investment in:

  1. Financial rewards – will they find a field of work or service that provides security?
  2. Emotional rewards – do faculty and staff treat them with respect and consideration?
  3. Associative awards – do they feel accepted and a part of the institution?

The day-to-day interactions that your people have with students, whatever their role, will determine first how accepted students feel, and second how respectful the overall campus experience is for each student.

Laurie Brown, a communication and customer service consultant, encourages leaders to focus on the following seven attributes of customer service when coaching and developing people to meet emotional and associative expectations:

  1. Accessibility – is it easy for students to navigate the institution and processes?
  2. Availability – are people and services available when needed?
  3. Affability – are students greeted warmly and with genuine concern?
  4. Agreeability – do your people have the skills and support to find creative solutions and not say “NO?”
  5. Accountability – are your people empowered to take action and coached to be responsible for solutions?
  6. Adaptability – is your institution staying current and responding to the issues that are relevant today and tomorrow?
  7. Ability – have you continued to develop your people so they can serve students?

No one is ever always right, but we can always help our students feel accepted and supported!

Todd Thorsgaard

Are you my customer?

are you you my motherDo you remember the children’s book, Are You My Mother?  The story of the young bird asking, over and over, the critical question, are you my mother? I believe that leaders in higher education need to push their organizations, and their people, to ask a similar question over and over. Are you my customer? And we can learn from the young bird to not restrict who we consider a customer, even internal customers!

The traditional structure and hierarchy in higher education often identifies groups as faculty or staff or administrators. And even further, we tend to divide ourselves into colleges, departments, bargaining units and divisions. Then you can add in shared governance. All of these push us to not view fellow employees as customers who have legitimate needs that we can serve. Over time this approach makes it harder for each group of employees to actually do the job we are all here to do, deliver a high quality education to our students in higher education, or in general, to provide a high quality product or service to our external customers.

As Martinez, Smith and Humphrys highlight in their book, Creating a Service Culture in Higher Education Administration,excellent external customer service is achieved through a team of people who deliver excellent internal customer service.”  The starting point is to ask the following three questions about our own colleagues and co-workers, even if they are in a different bargaining unit or on the opposite side of campus!

  1. Who are they?
    • do you rely on their work to do your job?
    • do they rely on your work to do their job?
  2. What do they want?
    • what information, resources, data, documents, materials, or support do they need from you to do their job?
    • what do you have that can help them serve the students they work with?
  3. How have they changed?
    • are you meeting their current needs?
    • how have their customers changed?
    • what is different in their work?

Asking these questions, and truly listening to the responses, will build the foundation for collaboration and enhance our institutions ability to provide the high quality education we all want to deliver to our students.

Todd Thorsgaard


Where to start? The middle perhaps?

trumphillaryNow that I have your attention, lets talk about customer service in higher education.

Based on the current presidential campaign in the United States the middle ground appears to be an impossible dream! However, I want to share an article with you today that encourages us in higher education to seek out the middle ground on customer service, even if we have some concerns about labeling students as customers.

Ricky L. Boyd, director of the Shaw Air Force Base Program at the University of South Carolina, reviewed the research on the pros and cons of customer service in higher education and suggests that we “all agree to disagree” (my words) and focus on the “basic tenets of the customer-service paradigm that could and should be utilized in higher education settings.” (Boyd, 2012) His work isn’t revolutionary but he does a nice job of translating the usual corporate-speak of customer service to a more familiar higher education language.

Tips for the Middle-Ground of Customer Service

  1. Treat students with dignity and respect (a basic human necessity and right.)
  2. Give students clear directions on how to solve their problems and issues (students are in school to learn – not to go on unnecessary wild goose chases to find answers for operational issues.)
  3. Be responsive to students and their families (being true to your word means a lot!)
  4. Give timely answers to student’s questions and regular feedback on their progress.

Boyd also translates Ken Wallace’s 15 Principles for Complete Customer Service to seven principles that appeal to a middle-ground approach in higher education.

  1. The success of the institution is dependent upon providing high-quality service to students – students affect the bottom line.
  2. Employees need to be reminded that every single one of them (faculty, staff, administrators, front-line, back-office, etc.) is in the business of serving students. Students deserve to receive assistance to meet their legitimate needs.
  3. Perception is reality. We need to understand our students and what is important to them.
  4. Each student is unique and has unique needs.
  5. Treat students the way you would want a member of your family or a good friend to be treated.
  6. Do it right the first time.
  7. Solicit feedback from students in all areas and truly listen.

All in all, it seems like this middle ground will be easier to find than our political middle ground. Our colleges and universities have an opportunity to help students get the most out of their academic experiences. It will take deliberate planning and action to expand customer service from just the student services functions to the work that everyone on campus does.

That is something I can vote for!

Todd Thorsgaard

Customers? In higher education?

Blazing Saddles, No Stinking Badges scene-8x6At times higher education seems to be channeling Mel Brooks, “Customers? We don’t need no stinking customers!”  We have students that need to be educated. In fact, the term “customer service” can lead to a full debate on the merits of considering students and their families as customers or descriptions of how many students are “bad” customers. At other times you will hear reasoned dialogue describing the value of treating students as customers or well thought out concerns detailing how higher education is different.

Despite this angst in higher education we will take time during June to highlight the value customer service can have for leaders, in higher education and in other fields. At Minnesota State Colleges and Universities customer service is a crucial element in the role leaders have as managers of people and services. We define it as:

  • demonstrating a positive attitude
  • listening attentively and respectfully
  • responding effectively to internal and external customer needs, requests, and concerns
  • exercising creative problem solving

While I hope we get some good dialogue and I would enjoy some lively banter I believe strongly that we can be better educators and provide better opportunities for our students if we focus on “helping students make the most of their experiences on our college campuses.” (Boyd, 2012.)

Todd Thorsgaard

Is your message getting heard?

message heard“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
— George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday, I was reminded yesterday again why it is so important for leaders to communicate an important message multiple times and in multiple ways. A couple weeks ago a vendor had sent all our 31 institutions invoices billing them for the next year of service, even though our contract with the vendor expires at the end of September. I thought I had done my due diligence by sending out a clearly-worded email message letting HR directors know that they should not pay the invoice. I followed it up with an announcement in our HR newsletter, just to reinforce the email message. Still, I shouldn’t have been surprised yesterday when I got a call from a campus asking whether they should pay the invoice or not.

People are bombarded with thousands of messages a day, so it’s no wonder they may miss an important message if it only comes across their desk once or twice. In fact, my colleague Todd is always fond of saying that we as leaders should think of communicating important messages “8 times, 8 ways.”

It’s easy to blame the listener for their inattentiveness. However, it really is the job of leaders to make sure that their message is clear, consistent, and frequent enough to not only catch the attention of their audience, but to stick. If I’ve communicated my message, but it hasn’t been received or heard, then as one of my favorite playwrights says, the communication is just an illusion.

Today, I’m going to follow up with additional communication strategies to make sure that none of those invoices get paid in error. What strategies do you use when trying to get your message heard?

Anita Rios

Speak to the heart

nelson-mandelaIf you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela,

This may sound like a paradox but I am going to suggest that the way to a person’s heart is through their brain. At least when it involves communication!

A powerful way for you to communicate through the distractions and noise at work is to share your message in a way that goes to the heart of your people and engages their passion around the work they do. Yet for the message to get to the heart it needs to be recognized by the brain. Or as Nelson Mandela said, “in their own language.” The problem is that each of us have our own brain and our own language! Our brains influence our individual thinking preferences which then drives how  people “hear” or “don’t hear” what you are saying.

I have found an approach that is powerful and easily recognized by all brains called the Whole Brain model. Based on over thirty years of research it identifies four thinking styles and describes communication preferences related to each style:

  • Analytical style leads to communication preferences:
    • Facts only, no fluff
    • Accuracy
    • Brief
  • Experimental style leads to communication preferences:
    • Metaphors
    • Overviews
    • Conceptual
  • Relational style leads to communication preferences:
    • Informal
    • Expressive
    • Conversational
  • Practical style leads to communication preferences:
    • Detailed
    • Step by step
    • Thorough

When your message is delivered in a style that your people prefer they will better hear you and take your messages to heart. This basic model opens up a world of strategies for you to increase your communication effectiveness. A few to start with include:

  1. Step back and self-assess what style you prefer and begin to utilize the other styles in your messages.
  2. Listen to your team members and the styles they use for clues to their preferences – then mirror their style in your 1-1 communications.
  3. Share important messages multiple times utilizing multiple styles.
  4. Incorporate multiple styles into each message.

Todd Thorsgaard



Want to cut through the noise? Listen

not-listening-Tshirt“The big miss for most leaders is that they fail to understand that the purpose of communication is not to message, but to engage – THIS REQUIRES LISTENING.” –Mike Myatt, author, Leadership Matters

Happy Labor Day! Hopefully, you’re relaxing and recharging today on our national holiday set aside for recognizing the contributions that American workers have made to our country. Just in case you’re checking your email or social media, I thought I’d give you some food for thought.

As leaders, we often think of communication in terms of getting our message heard in a sea of competing messages. We create communication plans that outline important messages. We compile lists of key stakeholder groups and determine the most effective modes of communication such as email, newsletters, video, presentations or speeches. However, as Mike Myatt points out the primary purpose of communication is not to message, but to engage.

Following that logic, one of the best ways to cut through the noise may be to listen. Seems counterintuitive, right? Well perhaps not.

Think of the best leaders you have encountered in your career.

Were they the ones who spoke most eloquently or persuasively, focusing primarily on getting their message heard? Were they the leaders who spoke most of the time during a meeting expecting others to listen?

Or were they the ones who actively listened to their employees and stakeholders? Were they the leaders who were genuinely interested in hearing others’ perspectives and ideas and demonstrated that they heard by asking good questions?

In my experience, I’ve found the best leaders I’ve known are those who actively listen and engage others. Early in my career, I was lucky to work with a leader who was very careful not to dominate meetings by speaking too much. I talked to her once about it and learned that she purposely sat back and let other people speak first. Being very aware of her positional power, she didn’t want to dampen the conversation by putting her perspective on the table first. She drew out the quiet people and she asked good questions. It probably helped that she was an anthropologist first before moving into academic leadership. She was greatly respected by the university community for her strong leadership. From her example, I learned that really great leaders listen more and talk less.

In our workplaces, people want to feel heard. They want to feel valued for their contributions. It may seem overly simplistic, but the most effective way to help people feel heard and valued is to listen. Employees and stakeholders will be more likely to listen to you, when you are actively listening to them. I think it’s a sound strategy for cutting through the noise. What do you think?

Do you have any practical advice for leaders who are practicing listening more and talking less?

Anita Rios