Communication in Complex Organizations


Dr. Relly Nadler: We are really excited to have Ken McConnellogue with us. The title of our show is Communication in Complex Organizations. From the commonplace to crises, we are communicating all of the time. With Ken, we want to give you some tips on how to communicate better, especially in complex organizations or if there is some crisis going on.

He is the Vice President for Communications at the University of Colorado. Ken has worked in higher education communications for 25 years. He has worked with university presidents; his background is as diverse as a US Senator, corporate attorney, career academic, multi-millionaire businessmen. He has worked with elected and appointed governing boards.

Ken is responsible for the communication and media relations for Colorado University’s four campus systems. They have Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver and Schultz Medical Campus, with 63,000 students, 32,000 employees. His primary responsibilities are with the University’s president, the Governing Board of Regents. You can image all the issues that come up that will go through his desk and his process of how we communicate.

Before his work in higher education, Ken was a newspaper report with various newspapers in Colorado and he has been a freelance writer for a variety of magazines and provided radio essays for NPR and other public radio stations.

Communication is so critical and I think Ken’s role is critical for any leader and any organization whether you have a professional like Ken, or someone on their staff can help. So Ken, welcome to the show.

Ken McConnellogue: Thanks, I’m happy to be here.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Can you give us a little background about from a leadership standpoint, who has influenced you the most in your life?

Ken McConnellogue: I think a few people leap to mind. My background was in journalism. I had some great journalism faculty and mentors who steered me and my career. I would say the common thread with these people is that they were very demanding and very exacting in that field. As a result, they made me a strong writer and provided the basis for me to be a strong communicator.

In my current career, I have been really fortunate. The last two university presidents I’ve worked for have just been great. Our current president, Bruce Benson, has been president of the University of Colorado for nine years now. He came to the institution from a political background and a philanthropic background. To say he was a non-traditional president just puts it mildly. He been a very successful business man over his life. He didn’t need to do this. He came to the institution because he loves it and he wants to move it forward. I really admire that about him.

His predecessor was Hank Brown, who was a former United States Senator and Congressman. These are the people who you don’t equate with university leadership positions, you typically think of an academic. What these folks have done is really bring a powerful, different perspective to my work in communication, but also how the university operates.

I have been very fortunate to have these people affect my life.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Say a word, then, about getting into the communication business. You sound like you started off as a newspaper reporter. How did you move from that into then actually being on the senior teams at the university? I know the University of Northern Colorado before you got into Colorado University.

Ken McConnellogue: At the time I was in the newspaper business it was very much a funnel of you started at a smaller paper and you worked up to a bigger paper, and then an even bigger one, and then maybe if you were lucky, in our market, you got to write for the Denver Post or the Rocky Mountain News. That has changed considerably.

Along the way, in my career, I had the chance to get into higher education which really attracted me because I like being part of an enterprise that really changes people’s lives, fundamentally.

I started out at the University of Northern Colorado. I had the nice title of Senior Writer-Editor, which was great because I was the only writer-editor, so it felt good to be Senior. I worked my way up the ranks there. It was a relatively smaller institution with about 10,000 students. The advantage for me was that I got to do a lot of different things. I got to learn a lot of different things. Part of it along the way is just learning the higher education culture, which I would suggest is far different from most organizational cultures.

I was fortunate to have what I describe as some modest talent. The ability to be in the right place at the right time and to take advantage of some dumb luck.

I left Norther Colorado as a Vice President and have been one at The University of Colorado for the past 11 years.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg:  Before we get into these really exciting case studies I have a question for you about dealing with senior leaders. There’s often a gap between what people say and what people want to hear. When you think about what people want to hear, what are some basic principles that leaders should hit.

Ken McConnellogue: You know I think the first and foremost, Cathy, is be honest. You are right. People often, in these positions and leadership positions, are guarded in what they say and in some cases, rightfully so.

I think if honesty and integrity are the basis for how you speak and communicate, you won’t go wrong there. Again, that doesn’t mean saying everything that leaps to mind. But people very quickly see through when someone is being insincere and I think that doesn’t serve you well.

My advice to people is to be true to yourself and be honest to the greatest extent you can.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: On the other side of that conversation, when you are influencing leaders on how and what for them to say to the university and to their constituents, what are some of the biggest oversights or mistakes they might be making? How do they resonate with that? How do they take that? Do they get it and do they actually admit that?

Ken McConnellogue: You know, I think people who have risen to the level with the people that I work with, are smart people who surround themselves with people who know their business and they listen to people. That doesn’t mean they always agree—far from it. But, they listen. I view part of my job in a lot of cases, telling the boss something he doesn’t want to hear.

What he does with that – that’s why they are the leaders of the organization. They get to make those calls and they get to go with their instincts or their gut, or their data, whatever the case may be.

I view my job as to give them the broad lay of the land. If you say this, here are the potential impacts of it.

One of my bedrock things is here’s how this is going to play in Peoria. One of the continual tensions, I think, in our organization and probably all organization is the tension between the legal department and the communication department. I’m fortunate here in that we have a great general counsel at the University of Colorado.

His job is to prevent us from being sued, generally, or to put us in a position where we are not spending time court.

My job is the court of public opinion, so sometimes those two don’t mesh quite so, but I think it’s important to have those discussions.

Having an environment where you can have those discussions is critical. For me as a communications professional, having a seat at the table is just as critical. The boss isn’t always going to listen to what I say, but I always feel like I am able to have my say and that’s important.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Kieran is with all the leaders of the organization, talking about all of the different issues that come up. I love what you said Kieran about your court is a court of public opinion. You having influence with them, there’s a lot a stuff in the literature now about pre-framing. Robert Cialdini has got a book called Pre-Suasion. The whole premise is how you start something is how you succeed. From our friend Dr. Rudolph, there in Fort Collins and married to Dr. Luckner also their at the University of Northern Colorado; some of the research on harsh start-up verses soft start-up.

What are some of the ways that you would start a conversation just for them to get you to listen to them?

Ken McConnellogue: I think the first step is you have to know your leader. You have to know what they respond to and how they want to hear things. I’ve had presidents who want to hear every little detail of how you believe a situation will play out. My current boss wants you to get right to the point. Knowing how your leader wants to receive information is critical in how you present it.

You have to tailor your approach to that. At the end of the day, my job is to protect and promote out university’s image and reputation and what flows from that is our financial assets as well.

You also have to think about the leader as a person and the organization. Certainly, they are intertwined to a great degree, but not completely. How I try and frame things is, what’s best for the university. If that’s my starting and ending point, then I think I’m doing good.

Leave a Reply