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  • Writer's pictureMike Vachow


Updated: Jun 24, 2021

In 2013 Google conducted Project Oxygen, a review of 15 years' worth of employee evaluation, hiring, firing and promotion data in order to discover the key qualities of its highest performing employees. All of those employees had been hired primarily because of their STEM skills, but surprisingly those technical skills came in eighth. The top seven were all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others; having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

I am convinced that a similar study of the best enrollment professionals in independent schools would yield the same result. For the past 15 years or more, industry leaders have implored enrollment teams to become adept at assembling and analyzing data. These efforts have revolutionized enrollment work in very much the same way that sabermetrics has transformed the game of baseball. No longer acting on perceived wisdom and tradition, enrollment professionals can now navigate agilely an educational landscape that has undergone seismic changes in the past 20 years.

And yet. . . . the breathless optimism surrounding things digital and data-driven is always a bit misleading. That is, if enrollment professionals believe that they can pump data into digital tools and wait for those tools to spit out perfect solutions, like a Magic Eight Ball, they're missing the point, because enrollment professionals without the squishy skills (even more elastic than soft!) to act on the analysis will be no more effective than their data-poor predecessors.

I've alluded generally to these skills in a previous post about the ideal profile of an independent school admission director, and will elaborate a bit more here. First, enrollment professionals spend their days in a high stakes emotional environment. Many prospective parents view admission directors as the gatekeepers to the hopes and dreams that they hold for their children, or as auditors of their parenting history, or as the embodiment of the exclusivity, in all of its negative connotations, with which our industry is painted. Good enrollment professionals possess the empathy to intuit and honor the complicated emotional backgrounds that prospective students and parents bring to the process and the tact to draw them closer to a healthier perception. They continue to apply this understanding of what parents and students need as new families transition into the school, and collaborate with colleagues to customize that transition process for each family. And they work beyond not only to form systems to promote retention but also to continue to know and care for families long after they've been admitted.

Good enrollment professionals are also adept politicians and team builders. They assemble review processes to engage faculty so that they can have buy-in to the admission process. They learn curriculum and teacher practice not only to showcase excellence but also to build political capital. Far easier to push a teacher colleague to change out the back-to-school bulletin board that's still up in late October when you've pitched in on a field trip. Easier to coach a teacher colleague on how to interact with touring families when you've helped him draft the report card comments for the newly admitted child who's struggling. Good enrollment professionals don't just tell teachers that they're part of the admission team; they demonstrate it.

Good enrollment professionals work to build similarly strong relationships with administrator colleagues and staff, and to garner regard from the board. Many schools have built advancement teams to formalize the synergy that should exist between enrollment, development and marketing offices, and even done the squishy work of defining and practicing teamwork, but enrollment professionals must grow their networks even further to include division, business and facilities directors, parent council leaders and volunteers, administrative assistants, hospitality staff, each of them key allies in admitting and retaining great families. Enrollment directors must also "manage up" frequently by asking the head and occasionally trustees for very concrete kinds of support. To varying extents, this kind of collaboration is true for anyone in the operations of the school, but the breadth and relevance of that network for an enrollment director is second only to the head's.

And all of this squishy work in classrooms and offices all over campus adds up to the most powerful internal and external marketing efforts that schools can make. Social media campaigns, print ads, and content marketing strategies all live in the margins as support for the effusive praise and loyalty for the school that your current and past parents, faculty and staff, grandparents, and trustees spread throughout their circles of influence.

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