By Ali Abel
We’re profiling Calgary’s inspiring 2018 Gold Quill winners! The third chat in our series is with Sarah McGinnis from the Schulich School of Engineering at the University of Calgary, for the project Energizing Engineering Leadership, which won an Award of Merit in the Leadership Communication category.
Can you share a brief overview of your winning project?
Energizing Engineering Leadership demonstrates how leadership communications can enhance reputation and preserve an organization’s impact even during tough economic conditions. Over three years, the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering promoted efforts supporting student success, fostering diversity and research that makes a difference within our school and beyond.
The campaign helped spark new initiatives and resulted in the school’s highest-ever enrolments, new award winning outreach programs and supported millions in renovations funding.
The University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering was poised for the biggest expansion in its history back in 2014. A new $158.3 million complex was being built. Enrolments were set to increase by 400 students. Then, oil prices plummeted and Alberta began a three-year economic downturn. This occurred at the exact time the engineering school was undergoing a leadership change, making the need for effective leadership communications vital.
Through the development, launch and socialization of a new strategic plan Energizing Engineering Leadership, the Schulich School of Engineering had two main business objectives:
- Internally, the school needed to establish a new leader and build employee engagement.
- Externally, the school needed to build its reputation with government, donors and potential students to support our new building and expanded enrolments.
So far, Energizing Engineering Leadership has been a 3-year effort to bring our strategic plan to life. It included leadership communications training, targeted events, digital and print content, new employee communications channels, and benchmarking research to inform future tactics.
Thanks to effective communications, the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering emerged from a downturn with a more mobilized employee group, stronger reputation, and a crystal clear focus on its direction forward.
What did you feel most proud of in this project?
All organizations have a strategic plan, but all too often that plan is placed on a shelf as soon as it is finished. For us, the strategic plan was just the beginning. It launched a whole new way of sharing our story.
Energizing Engineering Leadership began with a series of launch events, segmented by target audience, to share our vision and to encourage our internal and external communities to become champions of its focus on student success, fostering diversity and high-impact research.
It was accompanied by a specialized employee e-newsletter and corresponding web and social media roll-out to begin sharing our story with as many of our target audiences as possible.
The strategic plan launch events proved so successful that several other units on campus began using a similar model to showcase their own plans in the last couple of years.
What was a key challenge you faced with the project?
Like any non-profit organization, the key challenge was to provide the most effective communications possible within limited budget and staffing.
Over the span of this project there was a complete staff turnover for the communications team. Even with these personnel changes, the communications supports and messaging remained largely consistent over time due to the framework set out by the original strategy.
What made this project creative or innovative?
While we are exceptionally proud of the work done on our campaign, it really was a matter of focusing on communications fundamentals. As a university engineering faculty, we operate as a story within a story.
Having a clear strategic focus, one that also directly relates to the strategic focus of the entire university, was key. Using every opportunity we could think of to showcase the strategy – be it through events, web stories, speeches, newsletters, social media posts and more – helped us live our vision.
By not being overly prescriptive of our goals within our strategic plan, we were also able to encourage bottom-up solutions from within our school.
Some of our most exciting achievements came as a direct result of members of our engineering community pursuing an idea they could see clearly tied in to the school’s main goals. Watching professors, staff and students create new outreach programs, launch new initiatives or establish new student supports was a true pleasure. Their successes, in turn, offered new opportunities to communicate about our overall vision again.
What’s one word to describe this project?
Energizing Engineering Leaders continues to be our guiding strategy until 2020. Each year we add to our supports for leadership communications, seeking new and research-informed strategies to continue to share our message and to address communications opportunities as they arise.
For instance, what began as a means to enhance internal communications around moving into our new space through weekly dean’s messages has become a new internal communications channel. What started as a one-time progress report and year-end event will now be an annual occurrence.
As we examine research and track our results, we continue to look for ways to build new processes to formalize our leadership communications and ensure that everything we do as a school aligns with our main goals.
Who were the team members involved?
This project included members of the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering Marketing and Communications Team and the school’s senior leadership from 2015 to 2017, including:
- Sarah McGinnis, Manager of Marketing and Communications
- Lisa Jeannet, Digital Specialist
- Nicole Dunsdon, Communications Specialist
- Michael Platt, Media Relations and Communications Specialist
- Marion Iwanyk, Marketing Communications Specialist
- Lisha Hassanali, Media Relations and Communications Specialist
- Nikki Reimer, Digital Specialist
- Bill Rosehart, Dean
- Bethe Andreasen, Director of Business Operations
Congratulations to this winning team! Last but not least, a huge thanks to Sarah for her time responding to our questions!
To learn more about Gold Quill click here.