Trusted school leaders understand that clear communication is essential in making connections with all of the school’s stakeholders and coordinating the many elements involved in successfully leading a school. However, ensuring that clarity is taking place with all stakeholders requires a diligent commitment to five components that serve as the foundation for clear communication. They are as follows:
1. Vertical & Horizontal Coordination
Within any organization, including schools, there are elements of both horizontal and vertical coordination among stakeholders. In other words, the trusted leader ensures that clear communication is taking place with both those whom they directly work alongside (i.e., horizontal coordination) and those above and below in the organizational structure of the school (i.e., vertical coordination).
In the corporate world, the coordination of horizontal and vertical communication within a given organization looks very different based on the organization’s work and product. For example, in a manufacturing organization, there is minimal use (or perhaps even need) of vertical communication. However, the work and product of a school look very different from a manufacturing organization. The effective use and coordination of communication both horizontally and vertically can make the difference between a healthy and vibrant working and academic environment and an environment filled with distrust, discouragement, and lack of corporate or shared vision and purpose.
2. Core Values
Decades of research has shown that providing clear communication is an opportunity to build trust with all stakeholders. However, that level of trust is founded in clear school communication that flows from its core values. Thus, school communications must be credible to be effective and to be trusted. That credibility starts with authenticity. Celebrating successes and providing good stories draws the community into a supportive role, only if the stories ring true in reflecting the school’s authentic beliefs and values.
3. Quality Deliverables
Trust through school communications is also produced and founded upon the quality of those communications. School leaders who do not invest in the quality delivery of their communications do themselves a disservice. They may have the greatest programs, the most talented and gifted teachers, and state-of-the-art facilities, but if they do not invest in high quality and professionally designed communication tools (e.g., emails, web sites, posters, newsletters, videos, PowerPoint presentations, etc.); then their message will be diminished. Whether we like it or not, all of our visual, print, and e-communications are competing to be seen. Daily we are all exposed to thousands of print and electronic images and messages through television, radio, computer, and mobile devices. To be heard or seen amid this world of information overload, we must invest in quality communications, whether it is with our staff or to the entire school community, to cut through the fog of constant and continual messages.
Communication is a discipline of effective and trusted school leadership that does not receive as much focus as it should, especially as many school budgets are often limited and stream-lined. When developing the overall annual school budget, significant investment needs to be made in graphic design, web-site and email management, public relations development, and all areas of visual communication (e.g., hallway signs, bulletin boards, student communications, staff notices, parent and community newsletters, web sites, community event posters, and all-school emails).
4. School Brand
One of the most vital communication roles to parents and the broader school community is intentionally creating a school brand. Branding impacts everything from student enrollment to attracting quality faculty and staff to garnering public support in campus development projects. A positive brand makes all the difference in what used to be referred to in the marketing world as “Top of the Mind Awareness.”
Before my education career, I produced a touring theatrical production that featured magicians, comedians, mimes, and various artists. Community groups, youth organizations, and military bases would host our show in a local high school auditorium, a performing arts center, or a military base theater, promoting the event to the community as a family-friendly night of entertainment. It was a great experience living “on the road,” and I certainly enjoyed those years of working in “show business.” However, I learned very quickly that to be successful required focusing just as much on the quality of the “business” as on the quality of the “show.” Our production required managing and maintaining a stage crew, performers, office support staff, transportation, and over seven tons of equipment. The financial cash flow required to sustain all of these elements meant we needed consistent tour schedules to be cost-effective. It was through this experience that I first learned of the importance of good branding.
Believe it or not, to have a career in “show business” does not require being famous (in the celebrity sense), but rather having “top-of-the-mind-awareness” with those to whom you are marketing your show. In other words, you need to be a “big fish in a little pond” by focusing on a small and clearly defined market and designing and delivering your advertising based upon the needs of that target market. Identify what they need, and then develop your brand to meet their needs. Thus, when individuals within those target markets are considering an event, your production comes to the top of their minds. Well, just as this was a successful strategy in show business, I’ve discovered the same is true with effective school communication to stakeholders.
In creating school communications that the school community will care about and read, it is far more important to focus on parents’ important issues than on issues that are important to the school’s internal operations. We believe parents should be interested in many topics, but concentrating on issues they indicate as areas of concern or celebration will go much farther in developing a supportive parent community and developing trust in your leadership and your school brand.
5. Strategic Communication
I could say much more about school communications to the broader community, but this applies to the faculty and staff’s supervision. The quality, intentionality, and delivery of communications to those we supervise are equally important to communications outside the school campus.
One graduate course I completed for personal, professional development was entitled, Improving Instruction through Strategic Conversations. It was a course on clear communication with faculty and staff. The course identified four types of conversations that need to be intentionally planned and consistently used:
1) Reflective Conversations that are non-judgmental and provide an opportunity for faculty and staff to provide input on whatever the issues may be.
2) Facilitative Conversations that are data-centered; considering together with the faculty or staff member what we should conclude from the data we have regarding any given issue.
3) Coaching Conversations where we come alongside the faculty and staff members and help them come to conclusions and discover their answers to issues.
4) Directive Conversations where we as leaders at times need to set very clear and firm expectations and consequences.
It is through our communication skill level that we develop deeper levels of trust. Perhaps the most valuable truth in this area that I’ve learned within school administration, and that I encourage other school administrators to embrace, is not to shy away from dealing with difficult conversations and issues.
We must also seek feedback on school communications from those to whom the communication is directed. Reflecting, evaluating, (and measuring whenever possible) the communication effectiveness will always help improve and enhance future communication. And finally, providing frequent and open opportunities for feedback is another strategy for developing trust in your leadership.
©Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved.
- Gunther, Vicki; McGowan, James; Donegan, Kate. Strategic Communications for School Leaders
- DeSieghardt, Kenneth S.. School Communication that Works: A Patron-focused Approach to Delivering Your Message
- Arneson, Shelly. Communicate & Motivate The School Leader’s Guide to Effective Communication