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Lead, Follow, and Get Out of the Way: 5 Ways to Drive Enrollment Growth
Cristy McNay

An old adage says we should know when to lead, follow, or get out of the way. As a head of school, you must not only be adept at doing all three, but also comfortable discerning the most effective approach in helping your school achieve the outcomes you seek. In some situations that could be as a leader calling the shots and making the plans, other times as a follower who takes direction to enact a plan, and on rare occasions a bystander who supports up and coming leaders to make their way.

Whether you are leading, following, or moving aside to let your teams succeed, make sure you consider how you can best serve those tasked with filling your school.  Your admissions team is likely your school’s top source of revenue, but they often lack the clout or authority to affect meaningful change. Empowering them means recognizing the team’s importance and backing them with your full support. Read on to learn about the top ways you can empower your team to drive enrollment growth at your school.

1. Let your experts be experts. 

Keep in mind that you hired an enrollment manager to lead your school’s admissions and enrollment endeavors, which means in some instances, you may have to get out of their way. If you’re doing it right, you have built two-way trust with them. They deserve your respect and the autonomy and authority to act on your behalf. Barbara Kellerman, an expert on followership theory, stressed that employees have knowledge that impacts an organization’s ability to achieve success, and leaders who do not listen to them “do so at their own peril.”  

You and your enrollment leader likely have different personalities, viewpoints, and insights — and that’s a good thing. Lean on that when it comes to making big decisions about the strategy for your school—even those that fall seemingly outside the purview of the admission office.

Do you really need a STEM program? Are parents interested in an IB program over Advanced Placement classes? Are your students happy? Chances are, your admissions director has some insights on these questions (and more) because of the relationships they’ve built with current families and the conversations they are having with prospective families. Follow their lead by giving them an opportunity to share those anecdotes in instances where you may not have the full picture. 

2. Embrace change.

When given the opportunity to make positive change and grow, all too often I see schools that would prefer to keep the status quo because, well, "That's how we have always done it here." Even more disconcerting are those who keep positive change at bay because of one person—usually a longtime staff member—who may not want it. Rather than help one person to grow, the entire school community is stifled. This often leads schools to wonder: Why is enrollment down? Why can't we raise enough money?

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Too many leaders do not know when to get out of the way of progress. I recently spoke with an admissions team looking to streamline their processes to benefit both parents and staff. In addition to tremendous savings of time and money, the changes they sought would bring the school into the 21st century and ensure efficiencies that would break down silos and create a true team mentality across multiple departments. Unfortunately, their leader feared that the change would cause upset for one employee who was not interested in learning a different way. In the end, the discomfort of one led to the abandonment of growth for many.

The fact is, if you are not changing, you are dying. Enacting real change—the only true path to growth—requires both discomfort and an orchestrated effort. As Bernard Dumond, President and CEO of Catholic Vitality 360, readily states, “Growth and comfort cannot coexist.” Don’t let fear stifle your school’s chance of success. When you are offered an opportunity to grow, make sure you do not dismiss it for the wrong reasons. 

Growth and comfort quote

3. Remove roadblocks.

Barriers to successful enrollment growth come in the form of faculty pushback, office politics, struggles for power, uninformed personnel, and a lack of support from leadership. Simply having a strategic enrollment management plan is not enough and the days of families and students choosing you based on reputation alone are gone. It is the collective effort of all stakeholders that differentiates your school from your competitors. If everyone isn’t rowing in the same direction, your enrollment will suffer.

Ensure that your faculty and staff not only understand the value of the enrollment manager’s work, but that they also do not become an impediment to it. Leaders teach employees how to engage with one another. A leader who models respect for the role an admissions director plays in keeping the school in business will set the right tone. We are all on the same team, after all.

Enrollment management is a tough, never-ending job — especially in a world that changes as quickly as ours does today. Make sure your admissions office feels supported and cared for — whether that be providing funding for professional development opportunities, enrollment management software that gets them out from behind their desk and away from tracking prospects on paper, or ensuring both their voice and perspective are heard at your next board meeting. You want them to have the tools they need for success and the authority to affect positive change at your institution. 

4. Keep the lines of communication open.

Intentional communication is key to empowering your admissions office  and strengthening your enrollment. It’s not enough to say that you have an open-door policy. You must set aside time each week to meet with your enrollment leader. Whatever is happening at your school, good or bad, your admissions director needs to know. 

In turn, they usually have a pulse on both the external and internal “word on the street” and what they learn is very important to you. Make sure your admissions director’s feedback, insight, and gut instincts are factored into your decision-making. As you scale the mountain, gather perspectives from the team climbing with you. This helps you steer clear of obstacles and see the best path to take. If communication lines are broken, you could be steering your school on a course for disaster.

Two-way communication means you are making time to listen and be heard. Consistent meetings are also a great way to show your dedication to your admissions team. They let everyone else on campus know that enrollment management is a key priority for you. Avoid moving these meetings around, cutting the time short, or showing up late. Of course, school emergencies or big donors take priority, but the time you set aside is valuable to you and your admissions director who has likely kept a running list of things to share with you.

While every person cannot be in every department meeting, awareness of the ripple effect when choices are made is paramount to a school's success. School leaders should continually seek accurate information so they can make effective decisions rather than quick fixes that may have negative, long term effects.

5. Avoid creating islands.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: schools that keep their admissions directors out of key leadership discussions are probably under-enrolled. Why? By leaving enrollment leaders out of pivotal decisions and conversations that absolutely affect their work, you create silos and hinder communication. Your admission office is selling your school, the activities and classes you offer, and the mission that guides you. When things change and you do not keep your team informed, you put them in an unenviable and awkward position that could lead to disappointment and retention concerns down the road. 

Too many schools create a chasm between the work in admissions and the work inside classrooms. This may be unintentional, but be mindful of including your enrollment manager at leadership team meetings and board meetings, as well as conversations about setting tuition and students at-risk of leaving. 

Remember, you have hired an expert who will act on your behalf. However, if they are not fully aware of the issues or your stance, you are putting yourself and your school at risk for misunderstandings and disappointment. More and more enrollment managers are moving into headships or president positions because they have the knowledge to view the school as a high performing machine with dependent parts, rather than a system of silos with independent functions. Make sure you support this mindset so it benefits your school. 

How do you avoid the isolation and silos that plague underperforming schools? You lead the way with your planning and your actions. EVERY faculty and staff member must have admissions and retention responsibilities in their job descriptions. Ensure they understand their role in planning and executing admissions events, building community with current students and families for retention, and achieving the institution’s enrollment goals. The days of “You do your job, I’ll do mine” are long gone and that message needs to consistently come from you. 

Don’t be afraid to model how to be a follower. The greatest leaders pitch in to help with everything from setting up tables for an event to checking in families at open house. One of my favorite quotes about leadership is from Steve Phelps, former president of Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, CA. He said, “People pay attention to what leaders do more than what they say. Everyone should be involved in enrollment management . . . not just the enrollment people by themselves.”

Key Takeaway

If enrollment was bursting at the seams or retention wasn’t weighing on your mind, you wouldn’t be reading this right now. There is a reason admissions is important to your school — it provides the vast majority of revenue you need to live out your mission.

Empowering your enrollment leader to affect positive change at your school requires the president or head of school to lead, follow and get out of the way — and know when to do so. Next year may be too late to make the changes needed to achieve your enrollment goals. The time is now. What are you waiting for?

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With 11 years of experience as a director of enrollment management and advancement in private schools, Cristy brings extensive admissions and enrollment expertise to her role at Finalsite. Her master's thesis focused on stemming enrollment loss in Catholic schools, and her doctoral dissertation focused on internal communication practices at private schools and the capacity afforded to the enrollment manager to positively impact enrollment growth. She lives in Newbury Park, CA and loves spending time with her husband, daughter, and son.

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