Leadership, Admission, and the Power of Narrative

Leadership, Admission, and the Power of Narrative

A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with a colleague who had just returned from chaperoning a tour of east coast colleges with twenty-some high school students. The group visited over twenty colleges in less than one week—a dizzying number of tours for even the most stalwart chaperone. My colleague recounted that she was shocked at how identical nearly every campus tour had been. While each institution differed in prestige, location, and educational philosophy, the factors that made them unique were barely evident in the admission tour. She laughed at how she’d lost count of the number of times tour guides pointed out “and in the spring, here is where you will see students throwing Frisbees!” It was clear that each tour guide thought they were reporting unusual or defining characteristics of their university. In reality, the highlighted features were virtually indistinguishable from every other college the group visited. Conversely, the most memorable tours were often led by younger, less experienced guides who spoke candidly about their own personal experiences.

This conversation happened to coincide with what might have been my favorite week from the USC CERPP Leadership in Enrollment Management Certificate program. During that week, the cohort discussed leadership strategies to help manage and influence institutional change. We read an essay by the former president of Dickinson College, William Durden, titled "Gained in Translation: Leadership, Voice, and the Study of Foreign Languages." In the essay, Durden states that “leadership involves both the telling of a story and the ability to persuade others to engage in that story as fully as if it were their own.” Durden shares the example of Dickinson College and how through the unique narrative of Dickinson’s history, he and his team revolutionized the way Dickinson perceived itself and the way the college was perceived by the public. Durden posits that narrative is a uniquely effective tool to attract and unite people. In order to convince people to follow you, like a story, you need a “plot” (where your institution is headed) and you need a protagonist (your college, university, or independent school) to rally around.

While Durden speaks from the perspective of a college president, the lessons he shares are applicable to enrollment management and admission work in numerous ways. We are well aware of the rapidly changing landscape of admission and enrollment management in independent schools. To address the mounting challenges many of our institutions face, collaboration across departments and divisions has become increasingly integral to admission and retention efforts. Now more than ever, enrollment managers need the leadership skills to bring their colleagues together to address enrollment challenges collaboratively. Using the distinct “stories” of our institutions, and by adopting a shared vocabulary, we can help our colleagues to envision and understand their roles within the narrative arch. This has the potential to be unifying and empowering.

The importance of narrative is just as powerful when working with prospective families. In my few years working in admission, I have quickly found that the most effective way to connect with prospective families is through storytelling. The moments when a student’s eyes brighten or a parent gives an approving nod, often come when they hear the stories of our students and teachers and how those stories relate to the unique narrative and direction of the school. It is our charge then to create opportunities for prospective students to connect with the deeper meaning and direction of our schools, to look beyond shiny facilities and lists of electives and clubs.

The USC CERPP program has given me a new lens through which to view my work and my role within my school. As enrollment leaders, we are stewards of the stories of our institutions. It is our great privilege to define and repeat the unique narratives of our schools, and to help our colleagues, current families, and prospective families understand the narrative and to envision themselves as part of it.