“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”

October 7, 2019
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Hands holding BLT with bite taken out.

Strategize all you want; your enrollment plan lives or dies depending on your institution’s culture. 

Put another way: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said John Head, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at Gordon State College. 

So how does a savvy enrollment manager tackle the complex job of shifting a siloed institution into a strategic enrollment culture?

Leading by example

Head’s leadership style draws heavily from the classic guide to effective leadership The Leadership Challenge, by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner.

“Enrollment management is all about cultural change,” Head said, “and the five practices in this book are important when trying to lead cultural change on campus to develop an enrollment management mindset.”

Particularly, Head emphasized the importance of leadership by example. One of the key tenets of the book, “modeling the way” is often misunderstood, misapplied, or underestimated.

“Enrollment managers really have to walk the walk,” Head said. “People are going to be influenced more by what you do than by what you say.” 

In an enrollment management context, for example, leaders are constantly declaiming the importance of collaboration and tearing down silos. But are those same leaders open to  dialogue and criticism themselves?

“As EM leaders, we have to be willing to work with colleagues to help them achieve their goals if we want to achieve ours,” Head said. “And if you can get your team to model that collaboration across divisions on campus, it gives you a really solid footing to shift that culture.”

Collaborative recruitment

Like many institutions, Gordon State has experienced an enrollment decline over the past several years and realized it needed to do things differently. Head joined the campus 13 months ago and helped start the process of drafting an enrollment management plan.

“I came into a situation where folks were open to change and really looking for a new way to do things,” he said.  “We put an EM committee together that was really inclusive, had all divisions and folks at a lot of different levels represented. We wanted to hear everyone’s ideas for the best vision for Gordon State.”

Many departments had never before been given the opportunity to talk with enrollment or admissions about how their departments could drive EM, or how EM could support them. Starting those conversations early on made folks across campus more receptive to and invested in the plan. 

It also helped to open up new possibilities -- such as leveraging foundation scholarship money to attract uncommitted students. Thanks to the conversations that have arisen from this collaborative approach, plans are in the works to change how these scholarships are awarded. Previously, these scholarships were awarded late in the admissions process to students who had already committed. Opening a dialogue between departments led to a rethinking of the award cycle in a way that helps entice students who are on the fence. Going forward, foundation scholarships will be awarded earlier, not only tipping the scales for undecided students, but also providing the opportunity to present the scholarship at high school awards ceremonies, thereby giving the school positive publicity. 

Head will share more insights about “Modeling the Way,” as well as the four other leadership challenges  -- Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart -- in his session “The Leadership Challenge in SEM” at the AACRAO SEM Conference in November. Learn more and register today.