A recent phenomenon practiced by a number of successful businesses, but almost unknown at colleges and universities, is the creation of a position known as chief listening officer (CLO). The CLO is responsible for monitoring what people say about the company on social media so that complaints can readily be addressed and new trends can be capitalized on. That type of position holds a lot of promise for colleges and universities as well. Although we often have people assigned to promote the institution through social media—such as reaching out to prospective students on Facebook or using Twitter to send out regular messages in the president’s name—very little is being done to observe what others are saying about our programs.
A chief listening officer could help counter the damage done by an angry student who, upset over the treatment he or she received at the school or unhappy about a poor grade, posts spiteful remarks online. People are much more likely to use social media to comment about their bad experiences than their pleasant ones. And a single negative remark can counteract dozens of compliments and expressions of gratitude. (Have you ever decided not to buy a product through Amazon.com because you found the three negative reports more compelling than the hundreds of five-star ratings? That same experience occurs when prospective students and their parents are looking for schools.)
At the institutional level, CLO duties could be combined with other responsibilities assigned to a staff member in an office of community relations or marketing. At the college or department level, these functions can be performed by a student worker very inexpensively. Students spend a great deal of time online anyway (and love the idea of getting paid for something they do for fun) and can search through hashtags and observe trends very quickly. While they can be assigned the task of spotting opportunities and noting complaints, it should be up to the staff to decide how best to respond in each of these situations. A student wouldn’t be able to make a commitment that might help eliminate a problem or understand all the implications that might be involved in an attempt to benefit from a positive trend.
Nevertheless, while this standard type of CLO is very useful for a college or university, there’s another aspect of this term that’s important for academic leadership. Serving as a chief listening officer should be among the expectations we have for every administrator at every level of an institution. Too often academic leadership is presented only in terms of developing a vision, pursuing that vision through strategic planning, assessing the progress that’s being made, and performing midcourse corrections as necessary. The mental image many people have of academic leaders is that of guides at the head of a mass of followers, showing them the way and expecting them to keep to the path laid out by their visionary leader.
The truth, as we know, is far from that mental image. Leading a department, college, or university is a complex, often messy task. Very rarely does anyone follow an academic leader simply because he or she is expected to. They do so only when they’re convinced that the direction in which they’re moving is preferable to remaining where they are right now. Even then, there’s a great deal of grumbling and backsliding. Academic leaders almost never lead the pack. They work alongside members of the faculty and staff, encouraging them, answering their questions, explaining the perspectives of those above them to those who report to them, and advocating for the needs of those who report to them to those above them.
For that very reason, every academic leader also needs to be the chief listening officer of his or her area. In business, the primary stakeholder groups are two: the customer who buys the product and the investor who owns shares of the company. In the academic world, the stakeholder groups we serve are legion: the students, their parents, the community, the faculty themselves, accrediting associations, government entities, professional bodies, and scores of others. Each of these stakeholder groups has different needs that they describe using a different vocabulary and expect to be addressed in different ways. The only way to respond to them effectively is to start by listening, and that means that they have to see the role of chief listening officer as part of their job description.
An academic leader who is also a chief listening officer would make it a priority to understand the perspective of the faculty, staff, and students in his or her area. The academic leader as CLO would also understand the point of view of higher administrative levels, the governing board, and the legislators. He or she would know how to explain the needs of one stakeholder group to another in language that it can relate to. When invited to meetings, the chief listening officer wouldn’t consider every occasion an opportunity to make a speech. Instead, he or she would observe what others said throughout the meeting, making an effort not to cast judgment but rather to understand why each speaker approached the issues as he or she did.
Academic leaders who function as chief listening officers create opportunities for others to present ideas or concerns to them. They maintain an open door policy as much as possible and regard listening to others not as a distraction from their “real work” but an essential part of their real work. They resist the urge to jump into a conversation too quickly, understanding that the person who is speaking may prefer a sympathetic ear to attempts to make the person feel better or to solve the problem. They know that not every problem is solvable and not every complaint requires action. Through having listened to many different people in many diverse situations, they gain a sense of when they should intervene aggressively, when they should practice “strategic non-engagement” (i.e., making a conscious decision that doing nothing is the most effective course), and when their response should fall somewhere in the middle. They regard even “blowing off steam” as a productive activity, offer sympathy where it is desired, and provide advice only when it’s explicitly requested.
Being a chief listening officer is, in other words, simply part of being a good academic leader. Monitoring social media is an available practice for someone in your area, but that someone need not be you. Learning to listen—truly listen, not pretending to do so as a leadership strategy or to make a good impression on the person who’s talking—can be among the most valuable skills that any academic leader can have.
Jeffrey L. Buller is dean of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida at Florida Atlantic University and senior partner of ATLA: Academic Training, Leadership & Assessment Services. His latest book, Positive Academic Leadership: How to Stop Putting Out Fires and Start Making a Difference, is available from Jossey-Bass.