Everyone's talking admissions strategy. How's your execution?

I was watching a live chat session yesterday, and the presenters knocked my socks off.

These were enrollment management experts at the top of their game, and here they are, online, sharing their best strategies for yielding admitted students. I love how collaborative higher ed is. My notebook was full of ideas. 

But it got me thinking about everyone else watching the session. We spend a lot of time sharing strategies in higher ed, but when I talk to professionals at conferences, the questions I get are not about what to do, they are about how to do it.

Hop into any #highered tweet thread and you’ll hear lots of “butts in seats” strategies and tactics. The folks from the really good schools will also talk about if heads attached to those butts have the highest standardized test scores and extracurricular service possible. There are terrific strategies for that, too.

Look at those same tweet threads and you’ll also see a bunch of very busy people.

Here's why: Your education, your reading, your conferences and every piece of knowledge you’ve gathered up to this point taught you the best strategies and tactics to get results.

The bad news is everything from here is about execution.

Knowing the right thing to do? That's about 10 percent of the battle. The other 90 percent is knowing how to get it done, and, if we’re being honest, many people in higher ed simply can’t. I think of that classic Peter Drucker quote: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Strategy is critical. Your strategy knowledge should be encyclopedic. But execution is the cornerstone of effective higher education administration.  I promise you that every higher ed strategy expert you've ever watched, tweeted to or hired became one by being an execution expert. 

While most institutions hire consultants for new strategies, they should be hiring them to look at their management and leadership effectiveness.

Many higher ed offices teach only minimal basic professional skills to their staff, and justify it by saying they don't have enough money or are too busy. How flawed is that thinking? 

This is probably the greatest disservice to our institutions that we do. It is our job as higher education professionals to teach our teams how to be execution experts, and it is in our best interest if we intend to achieve the increasingly magical goals higher ed leadership is passing down to us. 

W. Kent Barnds, executive vice president of external relations for Augustana College, recently told me in a phone call that professional development was the "secret sauce" in admissions. Remember, that's more than just sending the counselors to a conference. How are you teaching professional skills in your office?

The reality is this: The better you train your staff to execute, the better your life becomes and the better results you get. Here’s a goal: You should be such a great teacher that you are unneeded in less than five years. If you're not doing that, you may be doing good work, but you’re not building anything; you’re just spinning plates. Be more than a doer, be a builder. 

I already know what you’re thinking, and let me answer it for you: You’re not too busy. And yes, the demands of leadership are difficult, but, remember this: Everyone has the same amount of time. People don’t remember all the work you did, they remember what you taught them. Here are some signs your execution needs some work:

1. Your Work is Unfocused

O.K., I tricked you here. The first one is that maybe you actually don’t know what you’re doing. Many enrollment management and marketing offices don’t have clear, simple goals. Your goals should be short enough that anyone on your team can repeat them and clear enough that anyone should know how they are working toward them.

Oh, and we're not talking about institutional goals. I'm talking about your team's efforts, divided into terms with clear tactics and singular, quantifiable measures. Too many offices are fighting a war on all fronts. Creating goals that your team understands, buys into and can contribute to is Job #1. Start here.

2. You Have No Processes

Many higher ed marketing, enrollment management and financial aid offices have insufficient processes if they have them at all. Most are hamstrung by antiquated machinery, unclear thinking or are just based on whatever’s easiest for Sue, which is the most common process development method on college campuses.

W. Edwards Deming famously said that if you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing. When we talk processes, we’re talking about a systematic, comprehensive effort to make all successful activities as repeatable as possible. This goes beyond your basic admissions funnel. What’s the difference between how one counselor makes a call and how another one does? Your team members should be responsible for both learning and developing processes that can be repeated upon their own departure. But you can’t have a process until you ….  

3. Nothing’s Written Down

... write it all down. Do a survey of your office and consider what -- if any -- documentation you have that describes your processes. If the University President called you into his or her office today to justify your job, how would you do it?

Documentation is one of those things that takes concerted, extra effort. All the writing you hated doing in college? Guess what? It’s back. You have to create an outline. You have to schedule it.

Your first job is chief thinker, your second job is chief doer, and your third job is clerk. Write down all your processes and actionable measures. Think of your job not as a ride that starts and stops, but rather as relay where you’re handing off the baton to someone after you. Make it smooth as possible.

4. You’re Not Leading

There is a big difference between being a manager and a leader. And the two terms are not interchangeable. A manager is someone who looks after the operations of an organization. A leader is someone who creates vision, transformation and lasting direction in their team’s life and work.

It is disheartening to find that many senior enrollment managers are so out of touch with their own team that they could barely tell you their names, let alone how they perform their job. Remember it is your job to constantly coach, inspire and evaluate the performance of your team.

And here is a hard discussion: How are you hiring and firing? To paraphrase Lee Cockerell, most managers are too fast to hire and too slow to fire. It is your job to create accountability in the office. This can be a tough job in higher education, where we strive to make as empathetic and understanding of an environment as possible, but consider this: Are you making everyone else miserable by keeping that one team member who isn't contributing? 

5. You Don’t Play Nice

Dale Carnegie famously said to always remember when dealing with people, you are dealing with creatures of emotion, not logic. This is never more true than at a university. Show me an institution of higher learning, and I’ll show you some Grade-A dysfunction so good you’ll tell stories about it at cocktail parties. If we’re being totally honest, more than half of the roadblocks we’re facing as higher ed professionals on any given day have some major interpersonal component to it. Someone doesn’t like someone in another office, someone said something mean, etc.

Let me give you a tip: These are you coworkers, and, no matter what you think about them, you’re going to have to work with them and find a way to get projects done successfully. So, no matter who started it, be the bigger man or woman and solve it. Go be nice. Work together. Apologize. Few things have sped up the execution of projects more effectively than a well-placed apology.

Want more? Many of the thoughts I’ve summarized in this blog are from my own professional experience as a higher ed AVP, but the ideas of “what vs. how” and strategy vs. execution come from the book The Four Disciplines of Execution, which I highly recommend.

Darren White is the founder and principal of D. White & Company. D. White & Company is a higher ed marketing consulting firm that helps universities align their management and leadership practices with instiutional goals.