#10 Communications Lessons Learned from My Students

by | Aug 2, 2008 | Blog | 0 comments

Papers are read! Grades are in! Now I can reflect on what I learned from my students in the organizational communications session I taught this summer as part of EDDL 911: Organizational Behavior, Change and Systematic Reform in the new Ed.D. program in Educational Leadership at San Francisco State University.
The students were all working professionals in the educational field, such as grammar school principal, community college administrator, and IT director for a school system among other jobs. Communications is not part of their formal job description. Yet, they recognized the value of organizational communications, especially viewing communications not as a campaign but as an ongoing, disciplined process.
In talking with them in class and reading their papers, I came away struck by their insights, which differ from ones I often experience in corporate settings:
1. Communications enables success, but it is only one lever. For instance, one student made the point in his paper that the school district’s strategy was not getting traction primarily because the strategy was ill-conceived. The wrong people using incomplete data came up with a bad strategy that they then communicated poorly. He did not blame the communications for all of the district’s woes.
In a corporate setting, so many people like to point the finger at communications being responsible for the poor results. For example, salespeople were recently complaining to me that their company lost a big customer because of poor communications between the client relationship manager and the customer. When I probed, I also learned the customer was concerned about cost, service and quality.
2. Face-to-face communications is key. All 13 students embraced face-to-face communications as a necessary ingredient to reach out to their key stakeholders, including teachers, students, staff members, parents, and others in the community. While I did emphasize the importance of F2F in my lectures, I was pleasantly surprised to find out the extent to which they are already using it. Through their stories, they recognize that they need to engage in regular dialogue with their stakeholders, especially if they expect action and changes.
By contrast, in so many companies these days, leaders almost shun face-to-face. The excuses range from the workforce is too remote; face-to-face takes too much time, is too expensive, and too hard to set up; people prefer technological alternatives, and whatever. Yet, most of the feedback I review from surveys shows that people still want some in-person communications.
3. Communications mistakes can set you back, but if you take corrective actions quickly, you can gain more ground faster. One student devoted a large portion of her paper talking about some recent communications snafus she and her teammates accidentally made when announcing a controversial issue on campus. They had done what they thought was extensive communications planning, but hadn’t considered the possibility of receiving negative feedback or anything going wrong.
As part of their plan and actual communications, they gave individuals two options for sharing feedback: e-mail and a website. But no phone number. And in reading the torrent of e-mails, they quickly learned that people wanted to talk to somebody, even if just to rant to an answering machine. So they quickly set up a phone message line to take calls. They also started scheduling face-to-face forums to address this topic. They publicized these new actions through flyers, which they posted on campus. They also sent out an auto-response e-mail message with this information. And they updated the website. Their audience members responded well. No, they haven’t come around to love the controversial actions. However, they are expressing appreciation for the opportunity to share their point of view and be heard.
From my perspective, it was refreshing to experience someone sharing her mishaps so openly and being vulnerable. This is someone who believes in continual learning, including learning from her mistakes!   
And last but certainly not least, the three students who e-mailed me their papers showed expertise in naming their documents. The names were all distinctive plus they included their last name, not mine, in their naming convention. This action showed they understand the importance of being customer-centric and guaranteed that I wouldn’t accidentally overwrite their paper when saving it. (See blog post #6 ALMOST SUCCESS! Yet still looking for a client-centered document name….)
My thanks to my former colleague, Dr. Mitch Marks, now an Assistant Professor of Management in the SF State Business School, for asking me to teach this segment for him.


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