• Allan J. Mucerino

COMMUNICATION AS A CRITICAL LEADERSHIP SKILL

All leaders must possess excellent written and oral communication and listening skills with an openness, honesty, and respect for the opinions of others in order to establish excellent working relationships.

In the information age, communication in one form or another is sent, received, and processed in great amounts every day. Every exchange has the capacity to deepen the connection between the parties (or do the opposite). Given that, it is crucial that every exchange is honest and thoughtful. A useful metaphor for me is the “send” button. I have observed many leaders who metaphorically hit “send” and violate Leadership Rule #1: DWYSYAGTD.

Doing what you say you are going to do is the cornerstone of effective communication. Without it, a leader’s words are as empty as a cliché.

That is not to say that every word should be measured. Authenticity and spontaneity are equally important. While effective communication is a learned skill, it is more effective when it’s “real” and reflects the core values of the communicator. But the truth is effective communication is not as much about speaking or writing as it is listening and creating an environment where everyone feels safe to express ideas, opinions, and feelings, or plan and problem solve in creative ways.

To that end, I have aspired to shorten the long lines of communication by building a culture of collaboration in every organization I have led. Creating extensive collaborative networks and empowering them with data-driven decision-making authority is among first actions I strive to put in place wherever it was I led. As an example, I institutionalized Professional Learning Communities at every level of the organization as a principal and then as a district-level administrator. I created position such as Career Pathway Connections Specialist, Parent Involvement Specialist, and Director of Accountability, Assessment, and Research to facilitate collaboration between the district and local business partners, parents, and feeder districts, respectively. I've assigned Instructional coaches to schools sites to foster the development of collaborative teaching teams. All of these networks extended well beyond the confines of the district to include external partners and stakeholder groups. The fruits of those efforts are documented in my first LCAP, a process and product that became a catalyst for change in the Union High School district that I led. I built the capacity of all district stakeholders from the school site level up through the policy makers to ensure the entire system focused its resources on what the District values most: student learning.

The entire process provided a platform for transparency at a crucial juncture for the Board and the organization at that time in my career.

As a veteran principal, I have communicated with all stakeholders in a myriad of circumstances. I have presided over graduations, presented at conferences, written countless letters, policy manuals, and strategic plans. I have communicated with audiences ranging from US, state, county and local boards of education to higher education, where I serve as an adjunct professor in the doctoral program at California State University.

Three professional experiences in my career have provided me with significant tests of my communication skills.

First, while serving as a high school principal, I led the process of building an on-site stadium amidst an outcry from the immediate neighboring homeowner association. The experience of leading public hearings throughout the California Environmental Quality Act process proved to be critical in my growth because of how politicized it became.

Little did I know then how valuable an experience the stadium project would prove to be until I experienced my second significant test in Centinela when I became the face of the district and the de facto leader of the organization during a period of great change. In this role I worked closely with the Board and staff in helping to restore a solid decision-making process, and the reputation of the district. In the process, I earned the trust and respect of even the most vocal of activists to ensure the Board and district could remain focused on serving students. I learned that positive outcomes are directly proportional to the level of communication, both verbal and non verbal. Reacting appropriately to the emotionally driven, verbal and nonverbal cues allowed me to build meaningful relationships with the Board and key members of the community.

The third test was in my role as Chief Negotiator for the District’s negotiations team. I have learned that the ability to exchange ideas is a key element when negotiating, and the ability to listen and understand is complimentary to that exchange. Body language, facial expressions, movements, gestures, eye contact, posture, voice tone, even muscle tension and breathing must be interpreted in context to ensure no meaning is lost in translation.

Superintendents work with Boards to set direction for districts through policy. In historically top-heavy organizational structures common in education, a priority for me will be developing a strong school district communication strategy to flatten management hierarchies to ensure that all stakeholders are involved in working toward a common goal.

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