Building Candor

Becky Morehouse

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The pandemic which has so rattled higher ed (and society) has required that colleges and universities rethink some of their most sacred shibboleths and ask and answer some very tough questions.  

In my blog, Three Questions will Lead to a Bright Future, we posed three questions:

  • What is the thing we do best that other colleges will not or cannot do, and that is in most demand in the marketplace?  
  • Are the students who are demonstrably interested in the thing we do best of sufficient number and sufficiently resourced that they will provide the financial resources we need to survive?  
  • If  we are committed to this group of students and it is not large or affluent enough to sustain us, what other sources of non-tuition revenue can we aggressively pursue?  

Questions such as these will help you clarify the issues and opportunities that are ahead of you.  

But as important as it is to ask and answer these and related questions is the need for honesty and candor when doing so.   

For too long, too many campus leaders have either been unwilling to ask the right questions or unwilling to listen to the answers.   

COVID has changed all that.   

Long-ducked questions are now being addressed.  

But don’t overlook the importance of candor. Without candor, there is little chance that the right information will be communicated, the right insights considered, and the right decisions made.   

As with many things, creating an atmosphere of candor begins with leadership and the senior team. If they don’t seek and value candor, there is little likelihood that anyone in the trenches will.  

Five important things a leader must do to create an atmosphere of candor:

1. Tell the truth. 

Wise leaders tell everyone the same unvarnished story. Once you develop a reputation for straight talk people will return the favor.   

2. Purposefully seek and value diverse opinions.

Make sure you carefully listen to different groups of faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors, and others so that you have the richest possible understanding of the issues and opportunities that are ahead.   

3. Encourage people to speak truth to power. 

It is extraordinarily difficult for people lower in a hierarchy to tell higher-ups unpalatable truths—but that’s exactly what higher-ups must know, because often their employees have access to information about problems they don’t. Create an atmosphere for people to be courageous. 

4. Reward contrarians.

Your college won’t innovate successfully if you don’t learn to recognize, and then challenge, your own assumptions. Find colleagues who can help you do that. Promote the best of them. Thank all of them.   

5. Set information free. 

Most organizations default to keeping information confidential when it might be strategic or private. Default, instead, to sharing information—unless there’s a clear reason not to. This will contribute to transparency.   

If you need help answering the tough questions, please drop me an email. Not only do we have significant in-house research and decades of higher education experience, but we can easily design a research study specifically for you.  

Want to learn more? Schedule a free consultation today.

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