An Interview with Ben Bolte

An Interview with Ben Bolte

From Memberanda, Spring 2013

For 25 years, Ben Bolte, Senior Search Consultant at Carney, Sandoe & Associates, has conducted independent school searches for senior leadership positions, including Head of School, division and assistant Head, Dead, and Directors of Admission, college advising, finance, and development. Memberanda sat down with Ben to gain his perspective on the role of today's Director of Admission, trends in the hiring process, and what current job seekers should know. 

Have you seen a change in the type of candidate heads of school are seeking when hiring a director of admission versus 10 years ago?

Yes. The two economic downturns of the last decade have really changed the way admission is done. Today, heads prefer candidates who are creative problem solvers, deft with numbers and data, have sound presentation and marketing skills, and are focused more than ever on the quality of the experience for students and parents during the application process. Those things are on top of the traditional expectations for a "good admission officer" – strong interpersonal and organizational skills, having an engaging personality, showing strong management/people skills, and being an out-of-the-gate self-starter. Savvy heads of school recognize that developing a partnership with an admission director will lead to successful enrollment, hitting financial targets, and furthering the school’s mission. There is much to be shared and learned about expectations, information, strategy, and data between the head and the director.

Are you seeing a trend toward "enrollment manager" versus director/dean of admission?

Actually, I am seeing a trend away from that position (enrollment manager). It’s not the same as it was a dozen years ago when everyone was jumping on enrollment as a new concept. Now, it’s just a critical part of the process.

Given the complexities of the job, are heads still looking for people who will teach, coach, do dorm duty, and perform "any other duties as assigned by the head of school," or is the focus 100% on admission?

When somewhere between 70-90% of the school’s revenue relies on the admission office, you are going to make sure that the admission director is meeting that goal first. That said, the admission director has a huge role in the quality of life at/for the school, and it makes sense to have the admission director (and staff) participate in activities that are essential to the school community. Most find that being involved in the life of the school makes admission work more "authentic." Often, admission directors are "people people" and need that connection to a school community. Plus, in my experience, getting out of the office to relieve stress and do some coaching is a great thing.

Deans of admission in higher education have a place at the leadership table with input into tuition and financial aid budget setting. How do independent schools compare?

Admission directors are typically part of the head’s senior leadership team. In my view, especially when it comes to financial aid and strategic planning, that place is well deserved. I find that some admission directors won’t consider looking at a job unless it reports to the head. On the other hand, circumstances vary from school to school and year to year. For example, during a capital campaign the head might minimize the number of direct reports and have the admission director report to the associate head. People want to feel they are an important part of the school’s mission and there are any numbers of ways that can be accomplished – not necessarily just by being a senior leadership team member.

I also know that many senior college admission professionals, as they elevate to a higher position, miss the close working relationship guiding students and families. Fortunately, most independent school admission folks get to have this at every level.

Do heads tend to hire someone who is similar to the person currently in the position?

The most useful thing to remember is that over time a job can change – the expectations, deliverables, demands, etc. People want to, and need to, remain fresh and engaged in their work. Therefore, you may end up seeking turnover and desire to hire somebody whose skills and knowledge are perhaps more current. Many of the qualities you seek will remain the same (personal qualities, that is).

How much does mobility advantage (or disadvantage) a candidate?

One unfortunate consequence of staying in a job for a long time can be that compensation doesn’t keep pace with the market. I think there are many great reasons to work in other locations, school cultures, and markets. Doing so tends to broaden, enrich, and deepen one’s skill set and understanding of the work.

What are the most important (top five) skills for a director of admission to possess in today’s independent school environment?

I’m not sure that I would call them "skills," but rather qualities or abilities. Heads typically seek candidates who are resourceful, process/system thinkers, authentic, and organized. It also helps to be an inclusive leader, because admission isn’t just the admission director’s job, or even the job of the admission office; it’s the job of everyone who works at the school. Lucky is the school that knows that and operates that way!

Are heads focusing more on candidates with a marketing/communications or strategic leadership background?

For most heads, the need is going to be greater to seek expertise in marketing and communications. In my opinion, the basics of strategy development haven’t changed all that much, but the demands and tactics of marketing and communications seem to change almost every year.

What does the head expect to learn about a candidate in an interview?

The head’s time is extremely valuable. Therefore, the head is quickly going to assess a candidate’s bandwidth for the job, mission compatibility with the school, resilience, and collaborative skill, as well as general insight about admission work. The interview is not just about the head learning about the candidate. It’s also about beginning a relationship with a candidate, knowing that anyone you are talking to could end up being your new director of admission.

How can a candidate best illustrate one’s skill set during an interview?

As silly as it sounds, rehearsing for the interview is extremely helpful. You get one chance; you don’t want to stumble and mumble. The best interviews are meaningful conversations that set the tone for later meaningful partnerships between the admission director and the head. You need to have at your disposal the key things you believe, have done, and feel prepared to do. Rehearse. Our staff spends a significant amount of time teaching and coaching candidates.

What advice do you have for candidates about their application materials? What should be included in their resumes and cover letters? And do people really read them?

I’m not sure how much is read given the demands on people’s time today, but it is important for resumes to extend beyond the standard one page and to articulate—clearly and concisely—the responsibilities you’ve had in previous positions. Most importantly, you should be able to define the value you’ve brought to the organization(s) by carrying out those responsibilities. For example, what did "increased use of social media in the admission process" actually end up doing for the school in exchange for the investment of time and resources the school put into social media? Did it result in a greater number of inquiries, more visitors to campus, more contact between school community and applicants? A cover letter will be read as a reflection of who you are. It should include something about yourself and your work. Your prose needs to be thoughtful, engaging, and alive. Successful candidates take the time to tailor resumes and cover letters to the job.

How has social media influenced the hiring process?

I feel it’s still too early to tell whether social media has influenced the hiring process. One unfortunate consequence of social media is that when something slanderous or negative is written about someone it remains on the internet for years and can make job hunting more complicated.

However, technology has certainly changed in the hiring process. It has allowed schools to find efficiency, economy, and timeliness in candidate screening. Video interviewing has revolutionized the efficiency of engagement with candidates. It’s allowing more interaction earlier in the process. I remember a day last winter when I was interviewing candidates from India, China, and Brazil on the same day. It gets tricky with time zone balance, but it’s a very good way to connect with people to whom you ordinarily wouldn’t have had access in the past. One tip: be mindful of what’s in the background for a video interview! Lighting, dress, and body language are still important in a video interview, even though it can seem less formal in a video environment. The nice thing about it is that it’s literally face-to-face.

When considering a candidate who will be a first-time director (one who is seeking a promotion), what are the key indicators that heads, or committees, wish for a candidate to have in their experience?

Well, some things are more easily learned or gained than others. They would include poise, discretion, inquisitiveness, and endurance. Some people give you energy, while others take it. Most of the people I’ve met in admission over the years are "energy-givers." I think that’s essential. Often a school will still hire the person over the title. Experience is essential, but you don’t necessarily have had to run an operation in order to be able to tackle the operations of the new position. However, you have to be able to demonstrate that you have that ability and communicate that fact to the person who might hire you. It’s very important to have your current head, or person you report to, advocate for you and state that you are ready for the next step. In fact, nothing is more important. In addition, you have to be able to clearly express that you moved the dial in your last position.

Do you see many current directors of admission looking for that next step, to one day be a head of school themselves? What do you suggest as a career progression, or are there particular skill sets that they might work toward adding to a resume?

There are any numbers of directors of admission who aspire to lead a school one day, and the skills you acquire in the admission profession absolutely help prepare you as a leader for a head of school position. But the number of heads of school who come directly from a director of admission job, or a career in admission, is very small. It’s important to build time in your career trajectory to work with faculty, students, curriculum, and general facilities. That often comes with taking a different role in your school, or moving to a different school. Additionally, a graduate degree in today’s market is almost essential. Surprisingly, we’ve seen that although the type and concentration of the degree may vary – MBA, MA, M.Ed., JD – it doesn’t seem to matter. The fact that there is a degree in place, that the candidate pursued education at a higher level and honed his/her skills is what is important. Assuredly, there are a few terrific heads of school out there without a Master’s degree, but they certainly didn’t land the job in the last five years.


Previous Article
Best Practices: Transparency
Best Practices: Transparency

From Memberanda, Spring 2013  Philip Ballinger, Director of Admissions at the University of Washington, sai...

Next Article
A Study in Measurement
A Study in Measurement

by Jonathan E. MartinFrom Memeranda, Spring 2013 Idealism filled the room. This was not a conference of col...