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We are bottom-up communicators who work in a top-down industry. 

Our institutions rely on the town hall and the mass email to disseminate big news. Yet, our job is to mine the trenches for stories to share with the world. And as our budgets continue to shrink, we must be increasingly agile in how we juggle what our institutions expect from our teams as communicators with how we empower them as people. We don’t just want them to do great work. We want to retain them, too. 

According to a 2016 report conducted by Cornerstone OnDemand and Ellucian, 69 percent of higher education institutions surveyed admitted to struggling to retain top staff and 41 percent reported above average staff turnover rates. According to the study, the key to staff retention comes down to engaging them in authentic ways. At those institutions with the lowest self-reported staff turnover, staff recognition programs, leadership development opportunities and team building activities ranked as the three most effective retention initiatives. 

They say, “Where there is friction, there is fire.” But where there is friction, there is also opportunity. Working in a top-down environment doesn’t mean we can’t build (and retain) bottom-up marketing and communications teams. You might just have to get a little creative. Here are three out-of-the box ways to empower your people to do great work—and stick around, too. 

Create an environment where creativity is valued 

When the going gets tough, the tough sure can make beautiful things. 

As an assistant dean at Temple University’s College of Liberal Arts, my team began calling itself “The Skunk Works”—taking a cue from Lockheed Martin’s top-secret division that radically disrupted aircraft design in the 1940s. 

When we felt hammered by workload and internal politics that were outside our control, we decided to make beautiful deliverables. We built a yield website from scratch. We made a paperback book for alumni. We even produced the college’s first-ever annual report completely in-house. We didn’t ask for permission—we gambled on having to ask for forgiveness. Yet, leadership eventually recognized the value and got on board. We worked late and stretched ourselves thin, but we coalesced as a team. The best part? Each idea came from a different employee, which empowered everyone to speak up, regardless of our top-down culture. In time, each team member felt comfortable bringing new, out-of-the-box ideas to the table. Title didn’t matter, because good ideas flew. 

It took two years of iterative wins—and eventually the Skunk Works became part of our workflow.

Get to know your staff in a different way

You don’t have to sing kumbaya and practice trust falls to get to know your team. Even the Myers-Briggs Type indicator has its flaws. But have you considered figuring out your team’s Enneagram Types?

The Enneagram is a tool you can use to understand how you interact with the world, internalize challenges and, ultimately, develop as a person and a professional. By learning your type (there are nine), you can gain powerful insights into what makes you tick and how you deal with others. All nine types are points on a circle, and they are each connected by “wings.” By learning the types (or numbers) of your teammates, you can learn how to work better as a cohesive unit. 

For instance, I’m a One, known as “The Reformer.” A leader on my team was a Nine, known as “The Peacemaker.” Ones confront conflict head-on. Nines naturally avoid it. The harder I pushed in tense situations, the more withdrawal I encountered. We came to an impasse. Through learning about our Enneagram types, we found a way to move forward as partners. We planned a daily morning phone call to fix our communication issue—and it worked.

The best part: You don’t need an outside specialist to consult the Enneagram. Just Google it and go.

Restructure team meetings to foster collaboration 

If you’re not inviting key players from other departments to attend your team meetings, your team meetings aren’t working for you. According to a 2015 Salesforce survey of knowledge workers, 86 percent of respondents admitted that lack of collaboration was responsible for workplace failures. Team meetings shouldn’t be a weekly reminder of the rigid lane you must navigate. They can be the horizontal that cuts through all verticals.

While we work in top-down silos, our team meetings are opportunities to communicate across borders and build the organizational tethers we need—marketing teams should meet with enrollment management, admissions, academic advising, and academic affairs regularly. By inviting advising staff to our team meetings, we were able to access data we didn’t know existed and ramp up our undergraduate admissions efforts—which led to increased enrollment. 

Opening your meetings to others not only fosters collaboration, it might be some of the best internal PR you do for your staff. It’s as much a communications tool as it is a teamwork tactic. When others see what your employees actually do, they’re more likely to invest in them as strategic partners. 

The point isn’t to offer your employees contrived opportunities to bond; it’s to facilitate those rare moments of honest and free affirmation of value and empathy—to foster communication from bottom-up to all corners of your institution. 

If you do that, beautiful things will come. 

Joseph Master is the executive director of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He serves on the Board of Directors for the College and University Public Relations and Associated Professionals (CUPRAP). ​

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