How to be a visionary leader

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How to be a visionary leader

As colleges and universities face increased scrutiny and financial uncertainty, strong academic leadership and a unifying vision are more critical than ever.

But contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a senior leader on campus to shape your institution’s vision.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, Ron Ashkenas and Brook Manville, co-authors of the HBR Leader’s Handbook, share the three ways anyone in an institution can have a hand in building an organization’s vision:

1: Volunteer to share your perspective

While presidents and provosts are often tasked with crafting the vision for their institutions, “good senior leaders know they are missing critical information,” write Ashkenas and Manville. “[T]hey are far removed from customer experiences, operational realities, and the hopes and dreams of people working for them.”

Therefore, gaining insights and experiences from faculty and staff can help senior leaders connect with the students and families they work to serve, suggest Ashkenas and Manville. “Raise your hand to volunteer your own perspective in this kind of collective problem-solving, and not only will you begin developing your vision-creation abilities, but you’ll also learn from others who are working through some of the same problems that you are,” they write.

2: Adapt the institution’s vision to make it more relevant to your staff

If you don’t have the opportunity to help craft your institution’s vision, you can still mold the vision to make it more tangible or practical for your team or department, note Ashkenas and Manville. For instance, if your institution’s vision revolves around supporting and graduating more low-income or first-generation students, you might shape a vision for your facilities team around how campus facilities support student success efforts.

“This kind of smaller-scale vision-crafting will benefit from the same kind of broader perspective that more senior leaders themselves will want to seek,” write Ashkenas and Manville.

Also see: 7 visionary college presidents, according to Carnegie Corporation

3: Launch your own vision that can move up to the president

Sometimes a strategic vision emerges from the bottom and makes its way up to the senior leadership, note Ashkenas and Manville. “[T]he relentless need for continual innovation in today’s operating climate may just give you the opportunity to promote new ideas from your own local experiences that can demonstrate potential for broader growth and even reinvention in your [institution],” they add.

How to communicate vision more clearly

But how can you prepare for and get involved in these “vision-building moments?” Here are four tactics Ashkenas and Manville recommend:

1: Ensure you understand your institution’s vision and why it matters. Don’t confuse “vision” with your institution’s “mission,” “values,” or “strategy,” warn Ashkenas and Manville. An institution’s vision is “an aspirational picture of future success,” and unlike the mission or values, it’s updated frequently to inspire new levels of performance, they write.

2: Look out for ways to contribute. There are several ways to strengthen your “vision-muscle” both within and outside of your institution, note Ashkenas and Manville. For instance, outside of campus, you can develop a vision at your neighborhood association or faith-based organization.

3: Collaborate. If you find a vision-building opportunity, look for ways to share the process and decision-making with others who might have a different perspective, advise Ashkenas and Manville.

4: Observe the vision-building process. You don’t have to be on the front lines to learn how to build an effective vision, write Ashkenas and Manville. For instance, you can study the visions of other institutions, talk to leaders about the visions they have crafted over the years, or even just watch the vision-building process.

“As you see and understand organizational visions of other companies, divisions, or teams, you’ll better understand what makes for a successful one—which you can then bring to the next opportunity in your own organization,” write Ashkenas and Manville (Ashkenas/Manville, Harvard Business Review, 4/4).

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