Communications Audits: Let your cage be rattled.

Back before we called it disruption, I called it “rattling cages.” Originally defined as annoying behavior, rattling someone’s cage means getting their attention in order to get something accomplished. Maybe this seems less relevant to you because you are already doing exceptional work despite a high volume of meetings and to dos. The cage rattling is relevant to you. Shifting your focus and letting others influence your priorities can be a means for taking your own already high contribution to the next level.

Which one are you?

  • Are you annoyed when an outside expert gets your attention? Or do you embrace the unexpected idea because the result might be worth any potential disruption?
  • Do you discount a proposal because you were already planning to do it but just hadn’t gotten to it yet?
  • Are you committed to continuous improvement and always thinking ahead? Or do you shrink from guidance that stretches you beyond your own experience and impressions?
  • When you have a problem, or when you suspect you might, is getting advice the first thing you do?

Understanding communications audits.

If you lead a communications team, when’s the last time you stepped back and thoughtfully evaluated why your team does what they do?

A communications audit can help you answer these questions:

  • Are we doing work that is valuable?
  • Can we stop investing time in tasks that don’t really benefit anyone?
  • How do we prioritize projects and initiatives we could be involved in?
  • Do we have the right number of people in the right kinds of roles?
  • What should we do to gain support from the executive leadership on our campus?

In 2006, Michael Stoner wrote a blog post that referenced a Communications Consortium Media Center paper on communications audits by Julia Coffman. Strategic Communications Audits, written in 2004, offers an excellent overview for a leader who needs to understand and conduct a strategic communications audit. It’s a classic.

How to get started.

Go to Google.
At a minimum, research on the web can inform your path. Find out what others in situations similar to yours are thinking, planning and solving. Keep two things in mind: 1) You can make whatever case you want to make with your search results. Reading blog posts and white papers that support your current position and shying away from content that rattles your cage is not the best approach. And 2) You are interpreting what you read and sometimes translating what works for Fortune 500 company to the .edu context. Fresh ideas from outside .edu can be good and/or not applicable enough.

Create a visiting committee.
Ask a few individuals you respect to audit your team’s work. Pay them a small stipend and cover the costs of their travel to your campus. To begin, outline your goals and challenges for them, and share relevant research and background. Next, let them meet (in person) with your staff and a sample of those you and your team work with in other departments. The visiting committee’s discovery work, summarized in a report, should include recommendations, considerations, and points of action for you.

Hire a partner.
Identify a consultant who can bring higher ed experience to the table. I’m proud of mStoner’s focus on sustainability. Our deep understanding that it takes people and process to sustain communications work is one of the reasons I hired mStoner when I worked at William & Mary. People and process is the simple answer to sustaining your team’s work. But you’ll need to wade through a lot of complexity to get to that simplicity. Perhaps a collaborating with a partner is the best option for doing that.

Look for asteroids.

You need your cage—it represents your purview, your sphere of influence, and the resources you control. You can do exceptional work in your cage; but occasionally, let it be rattled.

One of my former bosses described unexpected ideas from outsiders as asteroids – for him, they were transformational projects that we couldn’t pass on. He embraced the opportunities, and because of my time working in his organization, I look for asteroids. You should too.

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Ready to Roll: Expanding your team.

It’s 2014. If you have the chance to expand your team, what skill sets should you add? I address this question in Ready to Roll, a feature I wrote for CASE CURRENTS. In case you missed them, part one and part two also appeared on this blog.

Expanding the team
What one or two positions should you add, if possible, to your communications and marketing team? If it were up to me, I would find a professional writer and a person who knows how to identify metrics and measure results.

Writing is vital to almost every communications and marketing activity. Content that engages, inspires, and romances your audiences is at the core of every communications channel and platform. Whether they’re written for a 140-character tweet, a 90-second video script, or a 1,500-word article, words are the tools you use to describe your institution and its brand, communicate its value, and speak authentically to its audiences.

At the same time, measurement is important to demonstrating the value of your work and the success of the institution’s brand. We need to get deadly serious about focusing only on the work that aligns with our communications and marketing goals and achieves the necessary results.

Your team’s goals come from an overarching strategy; your metrics are defined by what your team needs to accomplish. Determining upfront the measures of success for each project or initiative your team undertakes is essential. For a video, that measurement might be the number of views or the amount of time viewers spend watching the video. For an email marketing campaign, indicators such as open rates and click-thrus will help determine your message’s reach and identify where to make adjustments.

The challenge for most communications and marketing leaders is not being overwhelmed by the seemingly endless number of possibilities, ideas, issues, and projects they need to address or want to pursue. Keeping up is always difficult—and it always will be in a rapidly evolving culture of communication. Leaders must stay focused on the options and opportunities they have to further develop and execute their strategy, while making sure their teams are consistently telling the institution’s brand story to key audiences. The people who have the potential to adjust and enhance their skill sets today and be ready for what’s on the horizon five years from now are the ones most likely to succeed in bringing value to your team.

Let’s use 2014 to concentrate on goals, messages, and audiences rather than platforms and tools. By year’s end, I hope to see many more centralized, multidisciplinary communications and marketing teams successfully engaging and leaving long-lasting impressions on their target audiences.

Hiring for potential
When I offer someone a job, it’s mostly because I think that person has potential. If you’re lucky, you’ll find someone who has the experience and the skills that match the job and the potential for whatever comes next. But when I have to choose between skills and potential, I’ll choose potential every time.

Throughout my career, which includes working in human resources, professional development, and organizational management, I have regularly hired people who did not have the prescribed educational experience or specific skills referenced in a job description. Why? Because what you really need is a team of smart, curious, talented, energized, passionate, and committed individuals. You can teach people the software programs your team uses. They will gradually come to understand the higher education environment. You can give people time to learn some of the specific tasks within a job. But they have to bring their potential.

How do I know when someone has potential? I look for people who:

  • Show interest in a variety of topics and ask a lot of questions in a conversational way.
  • Give an honest assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Freely admit when they’ve never done a particular type of work but tell me why they can learn it or figure it out.
  • Speak confidently about their contributions in previous jobs without seeming embarrassed.
  • Like to work alone, like to work collaboratively, and like to learn from other people on the team.
  • Want to fill their workday with a mix of duties, responsibilities, and projects.
  • Can think critically, assess situations, and present solutions to complex problems.
  • Are able to build on the ideas of others.
  • Have held a wide variety of jobs. This may include work experience gained during high school or college. A diverse employment background demonstrates knowledge of different kinds of people and professional environments.

If you’re not convinced, think of it another way. People with potential become the employees you can send anywhere. They’re the ones who can attend any meeting and always contribute productively to the discussion. Taking it a step further, these exceptional employees can go unprepared to a meeting of strangers but still discuss an unfamiliar topic or issue, ask appropriate questions, and make worthwhile suggestions. These individuals have the skills to adjust to new tools, changing platforms, and a communications and marketing environment we can’t imagine today. We need them on our teams.

Read more from Ready to Roll:

Copyright 2014 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Ready to Roll: Centralize wherever you can.

It’s 2014. Is your communications and marketing team prepared to succeed? I address this question in part two of Ready to Roll, a piece I wrote for CASE CURRENTS. In case you missed it, part one also appeared on my blog.

Centralize wherever you can
I understand that alumni relations is different from sports information, which is different from development communications or enrollment marketing. Still, we all know that silos on campuses make it difficult to implement an integrated approach to communications and marketing. Frequently, even our central communications teams have the magazine staff members working in one place and the web team somewhere else. Organizing the people responsible for communications and marketing into a single, cross-functional, multidisciplinary team encourages holistic work and a consistent focus on institutional goals.

Ideally, you want a centralized communications and marketing team that blends capabilities across mediums and disciplines. More specifically, you should ignore the artificial boundaries between print, web, and social media. By placing content at the root of everything you do, the perceived barriers between communications channels will disappear. Then, designers will design for print, web, and social media. Writers will do the same, creating content for everything from print publications and websites to video scripts, tweets, and Facebook posts. Technologists will understand web architecture, content management, and how to integrate content from multiple web-based tools and systems.

During my time at William & Mary, we established a creative services unit by combining the skills and talents of the web team and the publications office. Bringing these two units together broke down the silos that separated our work and helped us approach projects in a more effective, centralized manner. This approach made sense for our projects as well as employees’ professional development. For example, graphic designers who had previously done only print work began participating in web design projects. Experienced web designers mentored them throughout, which helped the print designers gain skills in this area.

I’ve seen and experienced the institutional barriers and political challenges that can hinder this kind of holistic thinking. I still observe it on campuses in my consulting work. But we should use the current crisis around shrinking budgets, fiscal accountability, and growing expectations to gain support for centralized multidisciplinary teams. Often, such teams can save money by replacing more costly outsourcing efforts and add value by bringing on staff members who understand and are more invested in the institution’s brand. They also can reduce the duplication of effort that occurs when people work separately toward similar communication goals. The work of a multidisciplinary team is generally better—both organizationally and in terms of the final product—because members have the advantage of close and consistent communication between creative, editorial, and technology specialists.

Collaborative projects often contribute to people’s professional development. When individuals from different disciplines rally around the work, the experience of acting as a team encourages people to learn from their colleagues.

Next Monday, January 27, 2014, I’ll publish more from Ready to Roll. (Read part one.)

Copyright 2014 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Are you ready to roll in 2014?

Last fall, I had a fascinating conversation with Theresa Walker, senior editor for CURRENTS magazine at CASE. The conversation led to an article entitled, Ready to Roll. Over the next couple of weeks, with the permission of CASE, I’ll publish the piece I wrote for CURRENTS here on my blog.

Today’s higher education communications and marketing landscape is in a constant state of change. Tools, priorities, and expectations shift rapidly. Institutions face challenging public perceptions and questions about the value of a college degree while also encountering disruption within the field of higher education itself. Audiences expect increased accountability and engagement on their terms. Social media and digital communications have altered how, when, and where conversation occurs.

This demanding and ever changing environment has led communications and marketing leaders to a new reliance on specialists. There’s pressure to add content strategists, information architects, user experience designers, brand managers, search engine optimization analysts, and social media coordinators to their teams. Having any one of them would be beneficial, but a campus’s budgetary realities and staffing limits often require communications and marketing leaders to make hard choices about what to do without.

Most of you likely lack the staff to adequately address the growing number of specializations in these areas, but you still are still responsible for producing and carrying out an effective communications and marketing strategy. So how can you be certain that your team’s skills are up to the challenge (and will continue to be five years from now)? What should a communications and marketing team look like in 2014? And what changes can you implement to help your team work more effectively?

Hallmarks of effective teams
As a higher education consultant and someone who spent two decades working for Virginia’s College of William & Mary, including as the former director of creative services, I’ve led and worked on a variety of teams. I understand that institutional goals, resources, and priorities all influence the composition of communications and marketing teams, but I believe those that are most effective ones share the following characteristics.

Leaders who takes risks. The best leaders understand the importance of taking calculated risks. They’re willing to think differently and pursue an unusual course, but they back up their decisions with data. Some risks are minor, such as replacing a 30-page print piece with a beautifully designed postcard to drive prospective students to a website. Others take more courage, like running a social media campaign to increase admissions yield during a time of declining enrollment.

Despite the mainstream acceptance of social media, many campus leaders remain skittish about using a less-controllable channel for official communication. With social media, the tools used to deliver messages become part of the message. Feedback and judgment are immediate, public, and potentially far-reaching. When I led the communications effort for William & Mary’s search for a new mascot in 2009-10, we used social media to engage and be transparent with our audiences. We established trust with audiences early on, which encouraged and increased participation. Risk is inherent in contemporary communications strategy; success will not happen without it.

Members with varying viewpoints. Filling your team with people of all ages and backgrounds ensures multiple perspectives. The broader the mosaic of talents and views, the richer the ideas and solutions the team will produce. Alumni who work in communications and marketing units at their alma maters are a valuable resource because of their deep knowledge of, commitment to, and firsthand experience with their institutions. Longtime campus employees, who often feel like alumni themselves, can help navigate teams toward incredible results while skillfully negotiating potential political land mines. Meanwhile, young professionals aren’t yet jaded by a history of stalled or failed projects; they contribute ideas, energy, and knowledge worth capitalizing on. The best way to nurture a team of people with different perspectives is to give them problems to solve. Then, bring them together regularly to brainstorm options and develop solutions.

Passion for their work. Employees who are passionate about what they do motivate the rest of us to take on challenges and work harder. Their enthusiasm usually indicates a desire for success, which pushes them to achieve results that exceed expectations. They often make the case for avoiding the safe vanilla approaches that will work for everyone )but inspire no one) in favor of choosing riskier, yet informed, options that will generate excitement. One of my current website consulting projects with a large university system is breaking the mold because the team understands both the risk of doing things differently and the potential of pairing dynamic storytelling with home page navigation that encourages audiences to take action.

A mix of general and specialized skills. All team members should be strong communicators with expertise in a particular discipline, but they should also possess at least a baseline understanding of core areas such as messaging, writing for various mediums, design, photography, videography, web technology, and project management. These core areas are essential to implementing effective strategic communications and marketing plans. Today’s writers need to understand search engine optimization just as designers must understand the mobile web. Team members should focus on creating a successful product regardless of the platform. On any given day, a talented writer may draft a blog post, update content on a web page, write a photo caption, prepare a video script, and compose a tweet.

Flexibility. By that I mean they should be:

  • Comfortable with change.
  • Able to build relationships.
  • Supportive of the convergence of media, communications channels, and platforms.
  • Enthusiastic about daily professional development opportunities.
  • Committed to collaboration and excellence.
  • Excited to experiment with new communications tools.

Next Monday, January 20, 2014, I’ll publish more from Ready to Roll.

Copyright 2014 Council for Advancement and Support of Education. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Passion (for the work) leads to incredible websites.

Many, many times, it’s a love fest between the mStoner team and the campus teams that engage us. True passion for the educational mission combined with demonstrated passion for the website work we’re doing together are essential for incredible results. Why? Because large campus-wide initiatives are overwhelming and complex and mired in consensus decision making. There is a temptation to default to the choices that anyone will support in order to make headway. Without passion for the work, you might follow the steps but end up with less than incredible results.

Enter the passionate people. These are the individuals who insist that we work harder, take risks, and frankly, shoot for the moon. Passionate people follow the process but they also have the end result in mind. And for them, the end is something to be proud of; the end is something that makes those who don’t know their institution passionate about it all the same.

Speaking of campus teams, I was inspired to write this post after a Gchat with one of our clients. Late one afternoon, we were informally ruminating about decisions to be made and details to be nailed down. We were even doing a little hand wringing about the range of opinions coming in from stakeholders. We were talking about how we’d go about making the right choices for the new campus website. I think we were both a bit worried.

Then, the client I was chatting with wrote, “Well it’s the passionate people who make or break projects. The indifferent ones can do the work but they won’t make the difference.”

There it was. The true statement. Do you agree? I do and here’s why: Communication on the #higheredweb is about using storytelling, compelling messages, and clear information to influence individuals who have other choices. To stand out, you need to vividly and clearly represent your college or university. To get to the clear and vivid, you need to let your passion for and understanding of your institution seep into your consciousness. That way, you know incredible creative when you see it. That way, you know extraordinary copy when you read it. And, because you have passion for the project, you aren’t satisfied until the institution you love is right there standing out in that big, beautiful jumble of HTML and .jpg files and fonts.

Passionate people come in many forms. There are surprising number of alumni working on the web, marketing, communications and IT teams we partner with. This is a bonus because the depth of their knowledge of and commitment to the institution is more nuanced. Fortunately, teams also include long-term employees, people who’ve spent many years on the same campus. These individuals often feel like alumni themselves and they can help you navigate toward the incredible because they know where the skeletons are buried. Finally, don’t ignore the team members who are in the early stages of their careers; they are the most consistently passionate about their work. Capitalize on this; listen to their ideas and be influenced by younger individuals who aren’t jaded by your own history of stalled projects and possibilities.

I suppose there’s the risk of being blinded by love. Don’t let the passion for the institution and the work cloud your view. You need data, you need deadlines, and you need decisions. After all, your passion for the institution should be grounded in what you learn from stakeholders and target audiences. Use your passion the right way: to make sure all are heard, to insist on the best, to make a decision that won’t be popular with everyone.

Start a love fest on your campus, show passion for your work!

You know people don’t come out of a box that way, right?

Mentor is a real person, not a buzzword. Coach is a slam-dunk metaphor for manager. Managing people means you are responsible for helping them along. You know people don’t come out of a box as exceptional performers, don’t you?

Yes, I know that individual (and team) performance is influenced by the knowledge, skills and abilities of the person in the job. (My own KSAs come from 16 years in human resources and compensation management.) I am also certain that knowledge can be increased, skills can be learned, and abilities can be developed and enhanced. I think you know where I’m going: the manager of the people must develop the people after they come out of the box. You can’t just pull them out of the box, drop them in the chair, and walk away.

First, the good news:

If you work in higher education (or for a non-profit), you are in luck. Your environment is filled with realities that drive you crazy but actually serve as employee development opportunities. Think about it this way:

    • There are never enough staff to do the work and there’s no budget for new positions. This means you can assign people to new projects and new initiatives because you are asked to accomplish them with the team you’ve got.
    • Power is decentralized and units are siloed. This means you can get away with letting people work on a new thingamabob that is both challenging and skill-developing for them without asking for permission.
    • Merit pay is unlikely. This means you have to motivate your team with the non-pecuniary. (How’s that HR term working for ya?) Offering fun projects and even committee work can be super professional development opportunities for people on your team.

And, the bad news:

For some of you, developing people means discomfort. Yes, you will need to speak directly and specifically about the improvements you need from the individuals you supervise. If this feels uncomfortable to you, get over it or change jobs. Giving clear feedback about changes that will enhance performance is what you are paid to do as a manager.

For all of you, this means carving out the time to give feedback when it is the most useful. If someone on your team made a presentation but wasn’t fully prepared, say so. Soon. Might be the day of the presentation if the topic comes up naturally; but the feedback should definitely come within a day or two. If you manage people, you are busy, I get that. Make the time for coaching, regardless. If you aren’t going to put time toward managing the team, change jobs.

I’ll close with the best part:

When managers focus on people development, they can hire the right people, not just the people who have the right experience. I have intentionally hired many people who did NOT have the textbook experience or background referenced in the job description. Because, really, what you want is to hire smart, curious, talented, energized and committed people. You can teach them to use whatever software your campus uses. You can help them understand the higher ed context. You can give them the time to learn the specific tasks of the job.

Don’t expect to pull people out of a box, fully assembled. Here I must reference:

Closing my eyes for a mental moment, remembering all the mentors who influenced (and still influence) me.

In the category of not as easy as it looks: Being Boss.

Spoiler Alert: I’m not mincing words on this one. Steel yourself for stronger bolder language than usual from me and enjoy the post.

Today is National Boss’s Day. Despite its Hallmark holiday status since 1979, I wouldn’t say that National Boss’s Day is part of popular culture. Instead, complaining about a boss, movies about hating your boss, and leaving a job because of the boss are the common ground we work within. Today, even though #BossDay is not trending, I stand up for good bosses (there are many!) and also assert, “It ain’t as easy as it looks.”

From the start, organizational development, leadership and management have been a career focus for me. Thinking back, I realize that I have introduced the concept of celebrating National Boss’s Day to several of the teams and organizations I’ve worked with. And, I’m glad I did. I have fond memories of celebrating with some of my favorite bosses and I quoted several of them in a March post on this blog. If you have a good boss, celebrate it. Make sure your boss knows that you appreciate what they do for your team.

So here’s the question: Why do we love to hate our bosses?

The fact is, we all have a boss, right? Well, faculty don’t…moving on. Today, I suggest that this universal practice of complaining about the boss is rooted in the idea that we all think we could do a better job at being boss. Again I say, “Being boss is not as easy as it looks.” Let’s examine three default complaints about the boss and I’ll show you what I mean.

  1. The boss is not fair.
    Often, this impression comes from a feeling that someone in the organization is getting something you aren’t. Frankly, my lens on this one is like that of a parent. “Yes, I am treating you differently than your brother. You and your brother are two different people and what you need from me is not what he needs from me. Be glad about it.” Case in point, there are people I’ve supervised that put so much pressure on themselves to perform that I’ve talked to them about reducing their expectations of self. Conversely, others have needed a direct conversation about how much I needed their increased contributions to the team. At the end of the day, we actually want our bosses to use a more customized approach.
  2. The boss doesn’t listen to my ideas.
    Often, this impression is just plain not accurate. It may be true that the boss didn’t follow through on your idea but that doesn’t mean the idea wasn’t heard. When you’re the boss, people regularly come to you with suggestions for the problems you face. They often describe your problems as, “Easy. All you have to do is ____.” I like to give the boss the benefit of the doubt; I assume that there is information or detail I don’t have about a situation. Without complete information, my easy solution might not be the right one. BTW, the worst thing you can do is to stop expressing your ideas. I have watched people do this as a way to get back at the boss for not accepting an idea or two. It is your job to have good ideas, to share them with the boss, and to realize that you’re not the only one in this universe.
  3. The boss doesn’t understand the work I do.
    Often, people have a mistaken impression that, in order to supervise a [occupation here], you have to have worked as a [same occupation here]. To quote Vice President Joe Biden, “With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey.” (Note: if you don’t know what malarkey means, then substitute BS.) It’s amusing to me that, at the same time we don’t want to be micromanaged—another regular complaint about bosses—we think the boss must be able to do our jobs before earning our respect. The right kind of boss, and I hope we are all trying to be that kind, can manage anyone. I can name several web programmers and sys admins who would serve as references for my bossiness, and I am not an exception. Leadership is not the sole claim of any particular discipline or job type. We all need bosses who lead, not people who can do our jobs when we take a day off.

Sincerely, I know that there are some bad, bad bosses out there. I’ve worked for them and I am keenly aware of how much they can ruin a job or an organization you otherwise love. My point is make sure your expectations about the boss are as fair as the expectations you hope the boss has about you. And, as importantly, look in the mirror and examine your own motivations and perceptions.

Cheers to my mStoner boss, Voltaire Miran (@vsantosmiran). His name isn’t the only thing cool about him.