A Head Start: 5 Tips to Prepare for Enrollment Success as a New Head of School

July 20, 2022 Hans Mundahl

Congratulations to the new and recently appointed class of heads of school—many coming from the enrollment management ranks, including Eric Barber, Walnut Hill School for the Arts (MA); Christian Donovan, Friends School of Baltimore (MD); Julia Breen Wall, Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart (NJ); Dr. Mary Halpin Carter, St. Luke’s School of New Canaan (CT); Quentin McDowell, Mercersburg Academy (PA)!

Know a New Incoming Head of School?
If you know a colleague stepping into a new head of school role, let us know who so we can recognize them in future communications to EMA Membership at members@enrollment.org.

As new heads of school prepare to step into their roles, they face many unknowns, and EMA is here to help demystify the leadership role with regard to enrollment success. As a new leader in your school, allow yourself time to identify what’s working well and where there are opportunities for change. When you apply that concept to the work of enrollment management, you’ll need to understand a number of key factors that drive your school’s enrollment success. At EMA, we feel strongly that all heads should understand that there are many levers that drive your school’s enrollment and our Enrollment Management Spectrum is a visual display of those areas.

So first things first—as a new head do you know who is in charge of each of these levers in your school? If not, it is critically important that you identify who is responsible for delivering in each of these key categories. 

Next, we know that it will take time for you to build political and social capital in your school. One way to begin to establish a team-oriented approach to enrollment success is to assemble the team you have identified for ensuring goals are met and regularly convene them around shared planning. By bringing together those responsible for financial aid, new student recruitment, your school’s academic and social programs, etc., you will communicate the importance of working across natural divisions in a school towards a common, shared goal of filling your school with appropriate students, which allows you to fulfill your school’s mission. 

At EMA, we’ve been fortunate to hold an annual Head’s Institute and to work with a small group of school heads at our monthly heads meetup that is open to all heads. As a result, we are curating the advice of heads of schools who’ve been in your shoes and who have navigated change to ensure that their school remains successful. Here are some of our favorite insights and tips from experienced heads of school who have been where you are right now: 

1. Listen and learn. 

As a new head, your instincts might be telling you to step into the job and start making changes. While you will certainly want to implement new processes and innovative programs, experts advise pushing the pause button. Instead, view your new role as a journey—one that will take time to prepare for and one that will require expert navigation and teamwork. Use the valuable moments that you have before and immediately after joining your new school to explore the school’s history and mission, study how things—and people—work, and immerse yourself in all the activities and organizational culture experiences. Demonstrate your commitment early on, to the school, in order to build the needed trust to allow you to implement change.

Getting acclimated provides a critical opportunity to learn first, act second. As Mary Halpin Carter, Ph.D., incoming Head of School at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan, Connecticut, puts it, “People want their school to thrive, and they have so much optimism when a new head comes in. They’ll tell you what the most important problems are to solve.” So be sure to make the space to ask them about those problems and to hear their ideas around solutions.

2. Build relationships. 

Focus on cultivating relationships from day one, especially if there’s change management on the horizon. “There’s no substitute for developing relationships,” says former head of school turned search consultant, Tom Olverson. “One of the simplest ways to do it is to ask people what they think—and then be quiet. If people know their leader is listening to them and their opinion is valued, they’re much more likely to become an ally in the change process. I don’t think you can substitute anything for the work of building relationships. You’ve got to do it, whether it takes three months or six months.”

Center your relationship-building around listening. Craft three to five open-ended questions and make them part of every conversation as you get to know the students, parents, board, executive leadership, faculty, and administrative team. Asking the same questions across constituencies will provide an invaluable range of perspectives on key issues. 

Start by establishing strong working relationships with your leadership team. (See our earlier note about including all of the people responsible for enrollment success on that team). They will be vital allies in helping faculty, administration, students, and parents understand the vision and navigate change. 

3. Set priorities. 

As you have initial conversations, common themes will emerge. It’s the head of school’s job to set priorities and establish clear goals. Collaborate with your team to map out a strategic plan, making sure to keep the focus on what’s important along with what’s urgent. Don’t be afraid to tackle the challenging, important problems, Carter advises.

“I had a wonderful trustee who was an entrepreneur, and I asked him about how he implemented his strategic plan,” she explains. “He said the first thing to go after is the ‘burning platform,’ likening it to an oil company. When there’s a platform on fire, it’s pretty clear what you have to do first. But it’s amazing how many people skirt around the ‘burning platform’ because they’re worried they don’t know how to do it. Just get started.”

Implementing change is never easy, but it can be especially difficult when you’re new to the head role. Olverson explains, “It’s incumbent upon a new head to go back and understand the history of the school to find those unique elements and create a thread that can be pulled forward as a framework for change.”

4. Communicate. 

At first glance, this one seems obvious. But don’t overlook or minimize how vital consistent, straightforward communication will be to your success as a head. Prioritize communication to not only keep all audiences engaged and informed but also to demonstrate the type of open, ongoing communication you expect from others.

Building a solid foundation of communication will serve you well when you’re leading change. “You should not use your authority to force change. You need to make the case with compelling reasoning and information,” says Carter. 

Making the case for change includes sharing and reinforcing information in a variety of different forums, but effective communication is never one-way. Leading change is about inspiring others by communicating the challenge and collaborating to address it. 

“What my colleagues and I do is set the vision and remind everyone of the principles, but then, the people working on the initiative fill in the details,” Carter explains. “We live in a time where leaders can’t possibly know everything there is about a subject. You have to trust your team.” 

5. Get started. 

Once you’ve laid the groundwork by building your knowledge, cultivating relationships, setting priorities, and consistently communicating, it’s time to implement your strategic plan. Break major initiatives into phases and celebrate as you achieve each milestone along the way. And don’t forget to include self-care among the milestones. Taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional health—and encouraging others to do the same—is vital for keeping energy up, reducing stress, and creating strong interpersonal relationships.

“It’s not about what you want to do or what you did at your last school,” Carter notes. “It’s about what does this community need, and ask for, and what fits. Then, look at all of the initiatives in your strategic plan and put the puzzle pieces together so that you don’t bring in too much change too fast. What happens over time is it all adds up, and the successes fire people up for the higher cost and more challenging initiatives.” 

Resources for New Heads of School

About the Author

Hans Mundahl

Hans Mundahl is the Director of Professional Development at EMA. He has been an educator since 1995 when he first stepped into the classroom as a Fulbright exchange teacher in the former East Germany. Since then Hans has done just about every job possible at an independent school from teacher to administrator. Most recently Hans was the head of school at a K-8 day school in central New Hampshire. Hans’s spare time is usually spent with his family but he is also passionate about the outdoors and protecting the environment.

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