Building Talent

Building Talent

From The Yield, Spring 2015

Creating a culture for high-performing teams.

As reported in SSATB’s 2013 State of the Independent School Admission Industry Report, a new set of competencies is required for enrollment management strategists. It is no longer enough for admission officers to have years of experience, a prestigious degree, or great “people” skills to be effective in their increasingly intentional work. Indeed, today’s enrollment leaders must also possess talent in marketing, data and finance, assessment, leadership, and strategy development in order to meet the myriad of challenges which have surfaced for independent schools in the past decade. 

Similar to what Stanford University’s Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” heads now seek to hire talented administrators who are willing to continue their own growth and development, are unafraid of new challenges, and are excited by the adaptive nature of their work. As witnessed in the independent school community, building independent school talent on the administrative team and in the admission office involves deliberate action in terms of hiring, team building, and strategic alignment both inside and outside organizations.

Hiring Trends

Ben Bolte, Senior Search Consultant at Carney, Sandoe & Associates, cites new preferences among heads who are hiring for director-level positions and notes that the successful enrollment management candidates are those who have handled the changing market deftly through a combination of creative thinking and data-driven research. “There’s been a shift to identifying candidates who have the skills and experiences to tackle the road ahead. Different strategic and operational needs in a school’s development, and where the school is in that cycle, can necessitate finding a candidate with a different aptitude or attitude about the work than the skills, experience, and abilities that have worked before. Many school heads are now focused on finding candidates with change-oriented aptitudes, who enjoy an ever-changing set of challenges to both understand and conquer.” 

Jane Armstrong, Managing Partner at Independent Thinking, a search firm for independent school administrators, has also seen this shift. “Independent schools can get wrapped up in the idea of someone’s marquis resume, because they see admission experience gained at an Ivy or like school,” she explains. 

“Assumptions are made that they must be good, but in reality, it’s often the candidates from the less-selective colleges who have the transferable experience, grit, and tenacity to get the job done. These candidates have learned how analyze data, qualify inquiries, and manage follow-up and marketing with limited resources.” 

Culture and Strategic Alignment

There is a growing awareness too that “culture matters” and that alignment between a candidate and a school’s culture is a key indicator of that person’s ultimate success. Matthew Horvat, Head of School at The Overlake School (WA), worked with Carney Sandoe to search for a new admission director. “Working with our administrative team, we established the traits Overlake School sought in the new hire,” Horvat explained. “The new director must be able to create a cohesive admission team. Skills include listening well, being empathetic, clearly communicating team goals, setting the example for how you want people to do their work, and an appreciation for timely decisions and their greater impact on the school community  Resumes can only show you so much.” 

Horvat and his administrative team interviewed several candidates, ultimately hiring Lou Sabino, an admission veteran with significant experience at four other private schools. “What stood out about Lou was his commitment to get to know the Overlake community—both families and staff—in order to build a successful enrollment plan. Lou’s interview demonstrated his active listening skills. He balanced inquisitiveness with listening, and knew how to blend quantitative and qualitative information to a positive end. Lou has been the right fit to join our leadership team and to manage, direct, and inspire our admission staff.”

In Bolte’s experience, the most successful candidates are not hired to help solve an existing problem, but rather to help define and meet the challenges ahead. “Making the case for adding resources, whether it’s technology, personnel, or space, should result in an increase in the school’s ability to attract and engage with prospective students and families,” emphasizes Bolte. “However, what defines ‘attract and engage’ now, might be different five years from now. It’s paramount to any school’s strategy to add resources meaningfully and flexibly so that when the workload shifts, changes, or even disappears, the school can still benefit in the long run. You have to make a strong, cogent argument when you are adding the cost of a full-time position that comes with salary and benefits.” 

Structuring the Team

In the case of Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School (MA), Lisa Pelrine, CH-CH’s director of admission, engaged her CFO to help make the financial case, and ultimately received board approval for both an associate director of admission and an admission officer. She created job descriptions focused around the skills needed to execute elements of CH-CH’s strategic plan. “Social media skills were front and center with one position,” she explained, “while strong customer service skills and volunteer coordination skills were vital for the other position. Additionally, both positions required hires who could develop strategic initiatives and direct tactical execution.”

Pelrine is not the first to look at associate and officer level positions as more than a director’s administrative support. Armstrong explains that many of her clients are seeking candidates who are more strategic and analytic than in years’ past. “Many of our clients are looking for the candidate who is going to question past history and program budgets,” she noted. “The big shift for second-level positions has been in identifying candidates who can complement the director’s strengths. While we see many directors with strong leadership and strategic skills, the supporting positions call for strong marketing, data, or financial aid expertise.”

This was the case for Brendon Welker and his team at Avon Old Farms School (CT). Personnel shifts inside his office gave him the chance to examine his own strengths and weaknesses and to establish a new position that would complement the strengths of his other team members. “After redistributing some of the existing work related to financial aid and international student recruitment, there were still holes that needed to be filled around data and marketing,” Welker explained. Welker ultimately hired Leon Hayward. “Leon was in high demand because of the strength of his skill set in data analytics, but we were able to bring him aboard. He’s the new generation of admission professional—his brain is attuned to the analytics necessary for success in the business of admission, something that many of us with long-term admission careers have to catch up on.”

When the associate admission director of the lower school and the middle/upper school admission director departed Pace Academy (GA), the head of school called for a full restructure of the admission team. “I was appointed to oversee the entire school’s admission department, and was suddenly in a unique position to structure the department as I saw fit and literally hire for each position,” explained Jennifer McGurn, Director of Admission at Pace. She and her head discussed every element of the admission process, how to balance existing and new responsibilities, and how to allocate the necessary resources.

“We decided on an associate director for the lower level, two associates for the middle/upper schools, and a database manager,” explained McGurn. “As we interviewed, I continued to refine the positions to capitalize on each person’s skill set, motivation, and passion. Then as we onboarded the new staff—and I gained a deeper knowledge of their capabilities—I had them each weigh in on their general areas of interest in the admission process before officially assigning workloads.” 

The result? After just one year, McGurn’s team has restructured the upper school interview process to deal with increased applicants, customer service for families has increased, and family and applicant data is being reorganized to be user friendly, with more time focused on metrics. “I consider the restructure an evolving process, but the restructure invigorated the admission process as I had never imagined,” explained McGurn.

Ensuring High Performance

While restructuring or adding new team members can help improve a department’s effectiveness, they are not always tied to development of capacity and delivery of excellence. As Michael C. Mankins, Partner at Bain & Company, wrote recently in Harvard Business Review, “The fact is, it isn’t enough just to hire the best. If you want to boost the productivity of your organization’s human capital, you also have to deploy those high performers effectively—put them to work so they can deliver the results they’re capable of.” (1) 

Welker was in this position at Avon Old Farms, as he blended existing staff with new staff and took on the oversight of two departments—admission and communications. “The biggest lesson for me was allowing each person autonomy and ownership and trusting that the results would follow. Changing my leadership style has been a challenge, but it resulted in an incredibly positive year. Applications have increased significantly and feedback on applicant quality is up. It’s been a good year that has gone more smoothly than I anticipated, because I was able to get the right team in place and train myself to step back and let them perform.” 

Pelrine has had a similar experience at Chapel Hill-Chauncy Hall School, and when goal setting and evaluating her team, she realized that allowing each person to choose how they want to grow professionally has also benefited the team’s performance. “During the performance reviews and at our retreats, we talk with staffers about individual areas of interest and how they could positively affect the department’s productivity,” she explained. “I don’t want my team to get bored, and offering this opportunity for growth, whether it be through ownership or taking on a new project, has only benefited our department’s success.” 

Communication and Learning

In the article “The Science of Great Teams,” MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory Director Alex “Sandy” Pentland says his research shows that great teams communicate frequently, talk and listen equally among all members, engage in frequent informal communication, and seek ideas and information outside the group, connecting with outside sources and bringing what they learn back to the team. 

McGurn knows that as a leader, she has to set the precedent for communication success. “In admission, you need to be an effective communicator and have great attention to detail when listening to a family’s needs and expectations,” she explained. “Why should this be different with staff? While we have formal staff meetings, it’s the quick desk meetings that make a difference, because they allow active listening between team members without distractions. I feel one of my roles is to provide the right amount of guidance, but also to allow my team to develop their own relationships that will offer better developed and stronger ideas and solutions.”

Welker agrees, and the resulting knowledge base has aided in his Avon Old Farm team’s success as they share their newfound skills or insights. “While we all do PD, it’s putting it in practice and sharing the knowledge that has brought us to the next level,” he explained. “I have one staff member who is learning Mandarin and another who has taken on financial aid training. No matter what we have learned, each team member is given the opportunity to share his/her experience or knowledge base with the team. This diversity of learning and experience has built stronger communication and insight.” 


Google’s Hiring Dos and Don’ts

As Google leaders Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg remind us in their book, How Google Works, the development of a high performance team is both an art and a science. They attribute Google’s market success to their singular focus on the selection process for their employees. Schmidt and Rosenberg suggest that organizations should commit themselves to hiring “learning animals” who will grow exponentially as they are given responsibility:

• Hire people who are smarter and more knowledgeable than you. Don’t hire people you can’t learn from or be challenged by.

• Hire people who will add value to the product and culture. Don’t hire people who won’t contribute well to both.

• Hire people who will get things done. Don’t hire people who just think about problems. 

• Hire people who are enthusiastic, self-motivated, and passionate. Don’t hire people who just want a job.

• Hire people who inspire and work well with others. Don’t hire people who prefer to work alone.

• Hire people who will grow with your team and with the company. Don’t hire people with narrow skill sets or interests.

• Hire people who are well rounded, with unique interests and talents. Don’t hire people who only live to work.

• Hire people who are ethical and who communicate openly. Don’t hire people who are political and manipulative.

• Hire only when you’ve found a great candidate. Don’t settle for anything less.


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