Leadership Strategies to Enhance Faculty and Staff Buy-In
Often academic leaders’ responsibilities focus on mobilizing faculty and staff to respond to current and forthcoming institutional challenges. The impact of two years of COVID-19 institutional disruption has created an environment where old, familiar ways of operating are no longer viable. Significant changes are called for—changes that require broad support and involvement. Building, maintaining, and enhancing faculty and staff buy-in for needed changes are now at the very center of academic leadership.
Acknowledging that there is no one way to build faculty and staff buy-in, we have found many of the following strategies to be effective. Institutional characteristics and circumstances coupled with individual skills and style will dictate leader behavior. Building buy-in demands that all are involved so the effort is viewed as “ours”—not a forced response to the leader’s singularly articulated plan.
When we have been most successful, leadership is akin to conducting an orchestra, directing a theater troupe, or coaching a team; it is not about demanding a specific response or strategy. Checking one’s ego at the door is a critical prerequisite.
Six steps in building buy-in
Building faculty and staff buy-in for needed change usually requires elements of the following six steps. Success depends on the leader understanding the importance of each step and using intentional leadership strategies to achieve necessary outcomes.
Step one: Understand and appreciate the institutional culture
Institutional change does not occur in a vacuum but at a specific point in the life of the institution. It is critical that the leader understands the current concerns of faculty and staff and is knowledgeable of institutional history and current processes, procedures, and priorities.
Leadership strategies: Interacting with faculty and staff in both formal and informal settings provides insights into their perspective the current state of affairs. Individual meetings and unit meetings in their space are useful strategies. Listening is a powerful tool. Allowing faculty and staff express their concerns, issues, and “grievances” without the need to immediately respond or rebut is a necessary beginning. Making sure you understand how matters are currently conducted is foundational to building the need for and commitment to change.
Step two: Build a shared understanding of the problem
Absent a common understanding of the institutional problem to be addressed, building an effective solution becomes problematic. The leader needs to implement a process whereby all involved have an opportunity to study the issues and arrive at a common understanding of the situation.
Leadership strategies: How problem-defining data is presented and analyzed will frame any plan forward. Several strategies have been found to be helpful. A packet of problem-defining data including (a) status data (where we are today), (b) trend data (where we have been and might be going absent any change), and (c) comparative data (what we look like compared to significant others) needs to be created. Experience suggests that the absence of any of the data sets will become the topic of concern, avoiding the larger issue of problem definition. Additional items that the data packet might include are articulated institutional goals and anecdotal examples.
Strategies for the presentation and analysis of the data packet are important. All stakeholders should receive the same information at the same time. Opportunities to discuss, reject, or add additional information should be encouraged. The leader needs to set the tone that this is a problem to be identified; not a time to assign blame. Each stakeholder should be encouraged to comment and reflect on how they feel the data will affect them. This opportunity is best conducted prior to any process to build a common definition of the problem under review. It is helpful for the leader to summarize, seeking consensus across the unit.
Step three: Build a set of possible solutions
It is not unusual for several potential solutions to emerge. By developing a unit-wide set of solutions, a sense of ownership to solve the problem can emerge.
Leadership strategies: Buy-in is the result of shared understanding and commitment to solve the problem at hand. While the leader will have their own thoughts and plans, it is critical that all the stakeholders be invited to offer solutions and needed actions. The leader can include their ideas with the balance of the ideas presented.
Step four: Select a preferred plan
All key individuals involved need to develop and agree on a focus and plan. A common direction will undergo broad buy-in and action.
Leadership strategies: The leader will need to facilitate a review of each of the proposed strategies with all the key players participating. The leader may select familiar tools—such as a SWOT analysis, scenario creation, or simple pluses versus minuses—to guide the conversation. Consideration can be given to choosing parts of several proposed strategies, creating a plan that includes the best of several strategies.
The leader will need to develop a consensus for the preferred strategy. Sometimes it will occur naturally. In other cases, some form of ranking will be needed. One method that appears to strengthen consensus is to list all alternatives and invite each member to select three preferred options. This approach will provide the group with an analysis of concurrence without the creation of winners or losers. Once developed, a second round of analysis may be needed to arrive at a strategy the enjoys broad support.
Step five: Build an action plan
Once all key individuals agree on a strategy, it is time to develop and announce a plan for implementation.
Leadership strategies: The leader will need to facilitate the creation of the work plan. Again, involving all the key individuals to complete the plan in the same forum reinforces the shared nature of the undertaking. To the extent possible, all involved should have an assigned task with appropriate expectations, time frames, and deliverables. Identification of needed tools and resources should be part of the action plan, as should needed approvals.
The leader should make the plan available to all for prompt review and comment before announcing it.
Step six: Constantly review and revise
Periodic review of project progress should be part of the action plan.
Leadership strategies: The leader needs to periodically visit each participant and get their assessment of progress. They should encourage needed modifications and communicate these to the rest of the team. Obtaining agreed-upon needed resources and approvals is a priority for the leader.
The leader should celebrate progress to solve the problem and communicate it to the larger institution.
Two issues frequently texture buy-in efforts: dealing with faculty and staff who cannot or will not agree that there is a problem worthy of their attention and constant communication with senior administration. These matters require the explicit attention of academic leadership.
Dealing with faculty and staff who do not agree with the need for problem identification or solution
Broad-based and effective faculty and staff buy-in to tackle an important institutional challenge does not require total participation. In some cases, individual faculty and staff or a cluster of them may resist the initiative with varying levels of objection. Their efforts to derail or stop the initiative can be both an annoyance and a challenge to the academic leader.
Several strategies are available to the leader. If the leader is aware of dissenters’ concerns and issues, they can develop a thoughtful response. Showing respect for and understanding of their position (without agreeing with it) is a critical beginning strategy. Always including the dissenters in the conversations and data review and inviting alternative solutions and group critiques of their position are available responses. Generally speaking, defensive responses or administrative edicts are not helpful—though totally understandable. Keeping the process public and data based and the solutions stakeholder created should guide the academic leader’s strategy.
Communication with senior leadership
Unit initiatives to solve problems occur within the overall institutional environment. College and university leadership is critical to the success of the effort. A clear responsibility of the academic leader is to fully brief central administration on the problem and strategy to address its solution. As part of their “institutional scan,” the leader needs to understand the mission and current priorities. They need to discuss with central administrators any nonnegotiables or other concerns that would texture a solution. Matters that would require prior approval must be identified.
The role of institutional leadership in the process needs to be discussed at the outset. How institutional concerns, nonnegotiables, and other worries are to be introduced need to be discussed. A useful strategy is to include them in the data packet.
The academic leader needs to confirm a mode of communication with central administration. A “no surprises” ethic should guide the process.
Building faculty and staff buy-in doesn’t just happen. It requires an academic leader to understand the process, be flexible in its implementation, and show patience with those involved. When successfully implemented, the results are viewed as a collective triumph—a hallmark of successful academic leadership.
Charles P. Ruch, PhD, is retired, having served for over 40 years in academic leadership positions including as president of Boise State University and the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Cathleen B. Ruch, EdD, is currently assistant dean of humanities, arts, and sciences at Bismarck State College.