The Politics of Enrollment Management

August 8, 2018 Kathleen Ngkaion

Office politics is a phrase often uttered with an air of disapproval, even distaste. At its core however, it is simply a way of building and leveraging relationships to help achieve professional and institutional objectives. Consciously or subconsciously we all follow unwritten norms that determine to whom, when and how resources are distributed (Laswell, 2005). Recognizing the scarcity of institutional resources -- time, finances, energy, manpower -- we can reframe our idea of organizational politics from the Machiavellian, backstabbing caricature portrayed in pop culture to an essential skill every good leader should have in their toolkit.

Understanding the importance of organizational politics in enrollment management is one of the topics from USC’s Leadership in Enrollment Management Certificate program that resonated most with me  To paraphrase David Kalsbeek, we are tasked with integrating our institution’s mission, policies, programs, and practices to achieve optimal enrollment, working school wide to effect change. The challenge is that schools do not change easily. Getting things done comes not only from exercising one’s authority as an enrollment manager, it also requires political influence. Organizational politics help us expand our sphere of influence beyond the domains defined by our organizational structures.

Political savvy comes naturally for some people. For others, it’s a skill that needs to be learned. I belong to the latter. This year, I commited to mindfully incorporate the following action items into my professional practice:

Get out of the office. This may sound like a no-brainer, but when I’m juggling applications, open houses, assessments, board reports, and a million other responsibilities, it’s easy to focus on the tasks at hand and lose sight of the bigger picture. I need to be mindful that what’s happening outside is just as important as what happening inside my office.

Nurture existing relationships and purposefully seek new connections. I truly enjoy working with my colleagues and I know that I have built up goodwill. I want to capitalize on that to build a network of peers and influencers who will publicly back my agenda. Ultimately, I want -  and need - allies and mentors who are not only my supporters but my advocates.

Put my hand up for projects I find compelling. Why would I want to add more responsibilities to my already full plate? When I enjoy what I am doing, it is not a burden but a welcome break from my usual routine. There is a social aspect to it too. Often, projects are collaborative, providing opportunities to develop alliances with people outside of my usual circle. The fact that a successful project increases my visibility within the organization is a great bonus.

Be aware of the dynamics of framing and power of information. Kalsbeek says that framing (intentionally setting the context for any decision) is key to influencing results. I need to be mindful of the assumptions, traditions, and values  decision makers hold towards an issue so that I can reframe the paradigm to support my desired outcome. Conversely, the dynamics of information is being mindful of what, when, with whom and how I share data. Learning to posit questions and present information persuasively are important political skills.

Consider the optics. Optics, the awareness of how perception influences reality,  is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the political arena. Kalsbeek describes the same when he says that we must be mindful of how language, symbols, and ceremonies trigger emotional support. Optics go beyond vanity, they're an instrument for getting results. An example of this in my workplace is how I am careful to be seen as a member of both educational and operational leadership teams. When educational leaders see me as a peer, rather than simply an administrative leader, it facilitates their buy-in when I ask for their support for an enrollment issue.

The line that separates good and bad politics is intent. Used effectively, organizational politics is about “using power and influence as a way of getting things done in an environment where other ways and means may not be sufficient.” Knowing how to get things done and then having the political will to do it is key to successful enrollment management leadership.

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