3x3: Managing a Head Transition

3x3: Managing a Head Transition

When a new head is announced, it can bring on feelings of excitement, anticipation, and worry. How can enrollment and admission leaders approach a new head transition in a manner that will promote open communication, positive feedback loops, and cooperation? Judith Arnstein, director of admission at Lake Forest Country Day School (IL), Ella Browning, director of admissions at Mid-Pacific Institute (HI), and Cary Mauck, director of admission at St. Christopher’s School (VA), recently welcomed new heads to their campuses and share their experiences and strategies for ensuring a smooth transition.

How did you bring your new head up to speed on your school’s enrollment goals and challenges?

JA: When our new head joined four years ago, the most significant issue facing the school was declining enrollment. A combination of changing demographics, challenging economics, and an unclear value proposition created a nearly perfect storm. The fact that the school’s most significant competition—highly ranked public schools—charged no tuition added to the complicated picture. All of these challenges were evident to our new head before he accepted the position. Additionally, I had assumed the responsibility for admission, financial aid, and marketing at the same time, so we were learning together. In advance of his arrival, I developed a comprehensive market analysis, including demographic analysis, competitive landscape, and historic enrollment/retention data. This information provided a great starting point for strategic discussions. Open discussion and creating a rapport supported by trust was the first order of business. Our head recognized that spending time on enrollment was critical, and he was open and available. Many discussions surrounding the school’s strengths and strategic approach occurred, as well as lots of listening—to alumni, existing parents, former parents, grandparents, and community members. Looking critically at the situation—defining the good and bad—allowed us to think strategically, and both create a plan and be on the same page as we moved forward.

EB: It was important for our new head to understand the history of the school’s enrollment and for us to share the school’s enrollment process with the new head. In the last 15 years, Mid-Pacific went from a middle/high school with international boarding students to a preschool-to-high-school that no longer had a dorming program, but a homestay program for our international students. In our first meeting, it was important to use our past reports to show the trends over the last 15 years. The use of good data also told the story of our current enrollment goals and challenges. The results opened up an ongoing dialogue with the new head. These early meetings and the consistent communication between our admission office and the new head helped us to build a healthy working relationship.

CM: I began admission discussions with my new head in the spring, a few months before he officially arrived on July 1st. These discussions centered around the enrollment outlook for the upcoming school year and focused on what challenges were still in front of us and what goals were going to be most easily obtainable. While these conversations did not go into great depth regarding all aspects of our admission world, it was extremely important to have various spreadsheets of detailed admission data available to give a historical perspective to the various challenges our school is now encountering. While I shared a number of anecdotal stories about our school’s admission history, I found that the best way to help my new boss understand our goals, successes, and challenges was to provide him with years of historical data that supported these various topics. And, the fact that he was a former admissions director made this detailed data extremely relevant to every discussion we had.

What strategies/tactics have you employed to ensure a smooth transition for you and your team?

JA: Our strategies and tactics are guided by a simple tenet: provide every family with the best possible experience. We fondly refer to this as the “Nordstrom approach.” Because we compete in a market where the competition (excellent public school) is free, the level of attention required to work with a family considering a significant investment in independent school is high. This method was somewhat different from the one used at our new head’s previous school. Fortunately, he immediately understood the value of this approach and appreciated the nuances of delivering the type of experience that would warrant a $250,000 investment, when there were viable free alternatives. In addition, we were fortunate that our new head was an accomplished and charismatic public speaker who was immediately relatable to families from all areas and backgrounds. We strategically disseminated an abundance of outbound marketing introducing the new head to surrounding communities and leveraged his positive public presence at every turn, which generated significant buzz in the community and created a virtuous cycle. We know that 80 percent of families find their way to an independent school through word of mouth and creating that positive word of mouth was critical to increasing enrollment. We spent time refining and redirecting marketing efforts to telegraph a strong value proposition. In addition, we created targeted financial assistance programs to attract alumni, children of educators, and local military personnel.

EB: The strategies and tactics I have used to ensure a smooth transition for my team and myself are centered on open communication, long-range planning, collaboration, and shared leadership. It is essential for the team to understand our enrollment goals and the goals of the new head. The team naturally understands our enrollment challenges, but they also need to understand some of the challenges the head may face. The use of integrated planning brings the team together in order to develop united enrollment goals. Empowering each team member to be a part of the goal setting creates a collaborative admission environment. It is important to build a trusting relationship with each other. As our team works to meet our goals and challenges, it is essential for me as director to communicate to our head the progress our office is making.

CM: While our new head had been an admission director at another school for 10 years earlier in his career, I found it very helpful to share with him how we market and explain the unique strengths of our all-boys school. In particular, a large part of our initial meetings after his arrival were focused on what events our team had scheduled for the upcoming admission year and what his role would be at each of these programs. These discussions included various members of our admission office, which gave us all an opportunity to figure out as a team the best way to introduce and utilize our new head throughout our entire admission season. These conversations also allowed us to combine his past admission experience with our team’s experience, which laid the groundwork for everyone to have a smooth transition into the busy fall season. And as already discussed, many of our collective, final decisions were based on each member of our team providing our new head with relevant admission data. Sharing the year’s admission calendar, our marketing materials, and a variety of anecdotal and statistical data in early meetings with our new head helped us to reconfigure some specific goals, while ensuring a smooth transition for everyone.

What advice would you offer other admission and enrollment leaders who are about to welcome a new head?

JA: A change in headship is a great time to take stock of the admission office. Research the admission process at the head’s previous school and reach out to colleagues there to gain insight into how you might be able to improve the admission experience by leveraging the new head’s unique talents. Be open to suggestions regarding existing programming and trying new approaches. Most of all, spend time getting to know the new head so that you develop a relationship and the trust required to do the job well. My head’s office is right across the hall from mine, and one of my greatest joys is being able to catch his eye from a meeting with a prospective parent and know that he recognizes that he should join our conversation. When you have that type of relationship, prospective families will quickly understand that everyone in the school is on the same page and are committed to creating an environment where students will soar.

EB: From the beginning, it is important for your admission/enrollment staff to develop a positive working relationship with your new head. Plan a welcoming meeting for the purpose of introducing each staff member and his or her role in the office. Remember that you need to provide an accurate picture of your school’s enrollment. Do your homework and create reports using good data. At your first meetings with the head, review your past reports and check if the head has any other questions he/she wants to explore in future reports. The new head may have some new ideas or questions. The relationship you develop with your new head is one that should be based on a partnership of trust, shared responsibility, and collaboration. The lens of an admission and enrollment leader is one that can focus both inward, to assist in defining who you are as a school, and outward, to find the message that differentiates you from other schools. This insight will assist your new head as he/she works towards building the next chapter in your school’s story.

CM: The most important advice I can offer an admission leader when planning to work with a new head of school is to be highly organized for your initial meetings together. While this type of preparation includes explaining recent admission goals and challenges through various lenses of current and historic data, I think it should also include finding opportunities for all admission personnel to spend time with the new head, so that everyone is on the same page. Yes, sharing marketing materials and detailed admission calendars with a new head is also very important, as it is another way to collaborate and share ideas about the year ahead. Additionally, one should create a list of admission-related questions before meeting with a new head, so that you can get a clearer picture of his/her admission background and experience. Asking these questions will help you get a much better understanding of a new head’s vision and expectations for your office, and that is crucial to ensuring a smooth transition for your school’s entire admission team. It helps to eliminate any future misunderstandings or differing opinions that can occur due to the complex and ever-changing nature of an enrollment leader’s job.

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