February 6

Leadership Principles for Higher Ed Marketing and Enrollment


Good leadership is essential. It makes the difference between thriving and floundering institutions. But it is also difficult and rare. Fortunately, it is a skill that can be honed. Here are some key aspects of leadership to grow in.

I’ll start with a confession. The leadership principles we’ll look at in this article aren’t specific to higher ed marketing and enrollment. That’s because the things that make for effective leadership are consistent no matter the context.

But I think the topic is vital for those who work in these roles and often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It isn’t just the college president whose leadership matters. The marketing and enrollment efforts of a college or university are central to its mission and the leaders in those areas are key contributors to the overall health of the institution. 

If you work in these departments, how can you grow in being the kind of leader who helps bring about growth and positive change? We’ll look at five key leadership principles to keep in focus.

Leaders Listen

A popular notion is that a leader is the person with all the answers who does all the talking. 

In reality, neither of these things is true. A foundational quality of great leadership is humility. A leader recognizes that there is a lot she doesn’t know and the starting point is always listening well.

Anna-Maja Dahlgren experienced the benefits of this emphasis firsthand when she began her role as Director of University Marketing at Loma Linda University. A successful marketing campaign was born from seriously considering the ideas of others, even when they differed from her own initial assessment of what should be done.

Her top advice for leaders?

“I would suggest that people start talking less and listening more.”

Listening accomplishes two things. First, it allows leaders to gather the necessary information they need to define reality and articulate a vision. (We’ll cover those next.) 

Second, it demonstrates to those whom you lead that you value their input and take them seriously as contributors to the team. If you would lead, others need to follow you. If they see that you care about and value them, they are much more likely to do so. 

Leaders Define Reality

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” – Max DePree

What is the essence of leadership? To put it very simply, leaders lead. They manage to coordinate the efforts of others in pulling together to achieve some sort of goal. They are taking others on a journey toward a destination.  

That journey always begins with articulating where we are right now. What is our starting point? What is the context in which we find ourselves? What are the problems we face that demand we not stay here?

This is what it means to define reality. Notice this isn’t the same as creating reality. Reality is what it is. Leaders don’t make it up. But they are able to see it with crystal clarity. When others see an overwhelming, confusing mass of problems, leaders see a small number of key issues to address.

How do leaders do this? Here is where we can appreciate part of the importance of the first principle — that leaders listen. They gather as much data as possible to try to see the big picture. They are curious. They ask questions. They read widely. They take their time.

Eventually, however, they need to land somewhere. They name the problems. They describe the context. This is the foundation for the next aspect of leadership.

Leaders Clarify Vision

If defining reality is about providing clarity concerning where we are, the next responsibility of a leader is to describe where we are going and how we are going to get there.

“It’s the responsibility of a leader to say, ‘This is where we’re going.’” — Dr. Mark Jobe

Part of the role is to be able to articulate the vision with confidence and in a way that inspires others. Hubert Joly, former Chairman and CEO of Best Buy, puts it this way in Harvard Business Review:

“A leader’s key role is to create energy and momentum — especially when circumstances are dire. It’s to help others see possibilities and potential, creating energy, inspiration, and hope.”

Part of the way you can do that as a leader is to tell stories. They help people connect with a vision in a concrete and emotional way. The kind of vision that is capable of bringing out the best in others not only makes sense to their minds but touches their hearts. 

Leaders Form a Team

Effective leaders don’t act alone. You always need others. This is true in two distinct ways.

For one thing, you need a team. When you are leading your school’s enrollment efforts, you are dependent upon many others doing their jobs well if you are going to see the outcomes you are hoping for. No matter how accurate your grasp of reality and how strategic your plans, you’ll go nowhere without a team that can execute.

A leader, then, is careful to hire the best people and to create the environment that brings out their best work. 

“[Y]our role as a leader is to create the right environment for others to flourish in support of the company’s purpose.” —  Hubert Joly

But you also need a wider group of supporters. These aren’t the people who work for you but those whom you need to collaborate with to make your vision a success. The more you can gain buy-in from other departments, faculty, staff, and even students, the more effective your efforts will be. 

When he was a guest on our Podcast, Dr. Mark Jobe shared a story about how even janitors at his school had picked up the vision of where they were trying to go and were sharing it with others. That kind of buy-in can be a powerful force in moving your vision forward.

Leaders Take Action

After leaders have done the patient work of listening, defined reality, articulated a vision, and built a team, it’s time for action.

A vision needs a strategy and a game plan that lays out the practical steps that need to be taken. 

In some ways, this is the riskiest part of a leader’s job. It means committing time and resources for you and others and there is no guarantee that it will go well. But a leader is willing to take responsibility, to make decisions and move forward. 

Having specific, measurable goals and tracking progress is part of this. Leaders need to have a way to accurately gauge whether the strategy is working. 

Growing Your Leadership Ability

It is not easy to lead. The five principles I’ve written about here are simple to grasp but difficult to put into practice. Here’s a suggestion: pick one area where you see the need for growth in your own leadership and focus on improving in the year ahead. 

On this site, you’ll find lots of resources to help. Listen to The Higher Ed Marketer to be inspired by other leaders in your field. Head to the blog for weekly insights to improve your marketing efforts.

If you’re feeling stuck along the way in either developing or executing your vision, I’d be glad to talk. Caylor Solutions has helped leaders at dozens of colleges and universities craft strategies and get the resources they need to move forward. Get in touch.

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