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Difficult Discussions: Achieving Results Through Skillful Communication

December 2014

By Patrick Cullen, Associate Vice President, AACSB International

Business school leaders are responsible for moving their institutions forward in the face of a shifting environment, changing expectations, and new demands. In this context, the ability to lead effectively and initiate change is required throughout all areas of business schools—not only in the dean’s office. This calls for the development of leadership capacity among the next generation of leaders, while simultaneously expanding the capabilities of current leaders.

As faculty members move into leadership roles in their school, they often encounter situations and problems that require a set of capabilities for which they have not been well prepared by their prior education and experience. AACSB research has found that one of the most difficult aspects of the transition from a traditional faculty role to one of leadership is the discomfort experienced by individuals who are, in effect, making a transition in their professional identity from a scholar and teacher who relates primarily with an academic discipline to a leader who must represent the interests of the school rather than any sub-unit. Many of the deans, associate deans, and department chairs we have interviewed identified this transition as a critical step in the path to effective leadership.

The successful navigation of this transition from a traditional faculty role to one of leadership requires a set of capabilities that include strategic thinking skills and the ability to persuade and influence in a low-authority environment. In this context, many interviewees highlighted effective communication skills as one of the most important capabilities to develop, which can result in uncomfortable or difficult conversations:

“You are there to move the institution forward. Sometimes that means you need to have uncomfortable conversations. You might make some people terribly unhappy. You need the courage to be able to do that. I don't think we are trained for that.
Sometimes we hesitate to have those uncomfortable conversations, which is a problem.”

“Learning how to say 'no,’ with explanation and good communication, but at the same time with a certain firmness—that is sometimes difficult, especially when the request is very reasonable.”

The importance of effective communication skills is compounded when we consider some of the potentially uncomfortable aspects of the transition from a faculty colleague role to that of a leader with certain executive management responsibilities. How do you discuss with a faculty member who is no longer a productive researcher the opportunity to engage in more service? How do you explain to a faculty colleague that a non-research-related project is not consistent with the strategy of the school? More broadly, how do you say “no” to reasonable requests for which the required resources are unavailable?

AACSB’s interviews revealed that coaching, assessing, and evaluating faculty require special communication skills and a collaborative way of thinking. In response, AACSB, with Professor Jackson Nickerson of Washington University’s Olin Business School, has created Developing Leaders and Impactful Communication. This seminar provides coaching communication techniques as well as opportunities to practice these skills and gain experience in holding difficult conversations and reaching positive outcomes through role-play and simulations. Through these techniques, current and future academic leaders can gain the necessary skills they need to preside with confidence and success in a multifaceted, ever-changing business school environment.