October 26

Leadership in Higher Ed Marketing: Confrontation and Caretaking


by | Oct 26, 2023 | Featured, Podcast, Teams

Leadership in higher ed marketing is more than just leading projects to completion. It’s about helping your team navigate change. 

And I can’t remember any change in my lifetime as big as the COVID-19 pandemic

For better or worse, higher ed creative teams have seen incredible changes since COVID.

On the bright side, we saw a shift that included a greater appreciation for work-life balance for employees. 

However, the changes didn’t necessarily bring out the best in creative teams, as this kind of caretaking may have damaged team discipline and performance. 

Is there a way to lead teams into a healthy stride where they are giving their all without burning out? 

Wayne Barringer shares how leadership in higher ed marketing effects the results we see in our enrollment numbers. Wayne Barringer, Founder of Jaro Group, believes many higher ed marketing leaders have lost sight of their North Star, and their teams know it.

Since his harrowing climb up Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2018, Wayne has been teaching leadership in higher ed marketing creative teams, helping them to confront the fear of the moment. 

He helps unlock leaders’ superpowers so they can get the most out of their higher ed creative teams. It all starts with recognizing the rush that we’re in so that we can take a break, and pause to take in the view.  

More Work, Less Strategic Input

Higher education marketing is undoubtedly navigating uncharted waters. 

With the remnants of the COVID-19 pandemic still influencing our operations, there has been a surge in project demands. This increase brings with it a set of unique challenges.

Wayne started our conversation helping us see the problem our creative teams face.

What I’ve seen in universities, is that so many of them today—and COVID accelerated this—is an influx of projects in the creative and communications field, amounting to two or three times what it was in 2019. 

The level of strategic input for those projects has waned either from the requester to the team or due to the team’s constrained time to offer strategic insight. 

Instead [of strategic planning], there’s a rush to meet immediate deadlines. 

These challenges, combined with overflowing email inboxes and fully booked meeting schedules, suggest that teams today need to adopt new strategies. 

The pressing question is, how can we guide our teams towards modern, effective practices?

It’s essential to recognize that while the pace of our world has changed, the need for strategic planning remains paramount. 

As higher ed marketers, we must strive to find a balance, integrating the urgency of today’s demands with the foresight of strategic planning. 

Losing Sight of the “North Star”

When you don’t take time for strategic planning, your team begins to lose sight of the mission.

A lot of people that we speak with today in higher ed communications and marketing teams are telling us that they feel detached from the mission that they came to work [towards] at their university. 

A lot of that is exaggerated since COVID, but it’s the same [issues] that we talked about a minute ago: far more work, far tighter deadlines, far fewer employees. 

When those stresses happen, what we see is that groups lose their way. They lose their North Star. 

They’re in that grind that we talked about earlier. “Well, it’s in my email. It’s on my calendar. I got to get it done even though I’m not having any fun.” 

The first step is [to determine] our North Star as a higher ed communications team.

Leadership in higher ed marketing means taking the time to articulate the mission so that the team can rally around it. 

When we are a mission-fit creative team, we can better produce marketing messages that identify and cultivate mission-fit students.

Moving Away from Being a Short-Order Cook

One complaint I have in education marketing is how universities can sometimes treat their marketing teams as short-order cooks

Instead of relying on the marketing team for strategic insight, they just go to them with their “orders.” Make us a flyer. We need a website. 

When universities begin to rain down project requests like this, the marketing team is sure to lose its North Star.

[Is our North Star] to take orders from all the administration? Or, is it to work with the administration to create a strategic insight team that can deliver and help improve the enrollment cliff?

Articulating the team’s North Star, the strategic mission, will help move marketing teams away from being more than short-order cooks.

The first step is North Star articulation, clarity, and then buy-in so that everybody understands that “We used to be [a short-order cook] in university communications or marketing, but now we’re going to be [a strategic insight and execution team], and that looks like this. We have the buy-in of the administration, of our peer set, and the folks downstream.”

That’s the first step, and it is extremely powerful when people can align around a common goal. But we don’t often take the time to do that. 

Caretaking vs. Performance

Why has leadership in higher ed marketing been struggling to keep their strategic mission front and center?

One reason is that since COVID, we have become hesitant to add any more stress to our teammate’s lives. 

Wayne explains how this is just as problematic as being a dictatorial taskmaster.

In the higher ed arena, it has been tougher for leaders to lead. What that has done is caused them, in my observation, to pull back on leading to try to be safer. 

We talk about a continuum of leadership. On one end of the continuum is caretaking. “People first! I want to make my people happy. I want to make sure that they’re getting some counterweight to all the stress and chaos.” 

On the other end of the continuum is performance. This is where in higher ed, I see there’s room for growth and improvement. 

What are the metrics that we’re using [to measure] performance? How do we balance those performance metrics [with caretaking]?

How do we get the most performance out of our team without being the dictatorial leader of 30, or 40 years ago? 

We’re seeing a lot of leaders default to the extreme end of the caretaking, and that’s just as damaging to a team culture. 

You’re less disliked if you do that, but you’re no more effective because you’re skewing so far to the caretaking side. 

In higher ed, I see that there’s more of a need to move closer to the performance side without losing the humanity [side].

Leadership in Higher Ed Marketer Means Change

Moving from the extreme side of caretaking to a more balanced approach where our teams feel cared for while still achieving goals will take leadership.

As higher ed marketers, we’ve got to be willing to challenge our status quo thinking and adopt new mindsets that will challenge our people to contribute their best. 

While we do this, we don’t have to lose our humanity and compassion. 

This balance can be achieved, but it is not easy.

That’s why I highly recommend that you take a moment to listen to the whole episode where Wayne offers us even more practical insights including:

  • Why higher ed leaders need to find the courage to pivot (5:02)
  • A strategic view of getting back to your school’s mission (9:45)
  • Confrontation and how to deal with elevated stakeholders (17:20)

You really shouldn’t miss it.

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