You’ve likely read the recent articles about the high numbers of enrollment professionals leaving the field for greener pastures. I’ve read them too and think there is a bit of a crisis within admissions teams across the country. Every campus my fellow consultants and I have visited this past winter and spring has reported staffing shortages and difficulty filling vacancies that have been open for months. People are quitting mid-year left and right and moving to other positions, either at the same college or another college, or have left the industry completely.
What’s up with that?
This one is pretty easy to figure out. Low pay, extensive travel, less-than-ideal working conditions, lack of flexibility to work remotely, unrealistic enrollment expectations from leadership, the public lack of faith in higher ed, etc. The list is long, and in the majority of the cases we’ve encountered, admissions managers feel helpless to fix these issues. We’re asked all the time by managers how to attract, retain, and motivate employees, but like them, there’s not much we can do about the employment crisis among admissions teams.
Like most people, I’ve had a lot of bosses in my 30+ years of working in enrollment, and most of them were bad. Some were worse than others, but the bad ones had no idea how to manage or lead a team. Over the years I’ve learned as much about how to be a good leader from bad bosses (what NOT to do) as I have from good bosses. One constant among good leaders is their ability to understand the importance of making their team members feel appreciated and valued, and to be sure, this is a critical skill. I read articles nearly daily containing research that expresses how important it is for employees to feel valued and appreciated. I love this recent article in Psychology Today that says mattering consists of feeling valued, by self and others; and adding value, to self and others. The more you associate with people who make you feel valued and who add value to your life, the happier and healthier you’ll be. The best relationships are based on mutual mattering.
Celebrate good times, come on!
A top way to show employees they matter is to celebrate milestones.There’s a great Harvard Business Review article that talks about celebrating and states that most of us don’t have a good plan to celebrate accomplishments. Colleges and universities tend to have an “on-to-the-next-class” mindset, as though it is contrary to productivity and efficiency to enjoy, even briefly, reaching our objectives. Nothing could be further from the truth. Celebration is an important opportunity to cement the lessons learned on the path to achievement and to strengthen the relationships between people that make future achievement more likely.
I learned to celebrate May 1 every year from a boss I put in the “good boss” column. We would plan a party for the team, regardless of how the numbers were looking, to thank them and recognize that we were nearly through another recruitment cycle. This always involved something bubbly to drink and some sugary-carb goodness to eat. We always included the student workers in the office, who would stand at the edge of the room excited to see that their work contributed to something much bigger than they had imagined. Years ago, I had a particularly beloved president, who truly understood the value of showing appreciation, who would show up at our celebrations and toast the team. As you can imagine, this meant an incredible amount to the admissions staff.
As humans we desire closure, a way to wrap up some ambiguous or uncertain thing in our lives. Some people have a higher capacity for ambiguity than others so much so that there is actually a scale to measure one’s tolerance for ambiguity. It’s called the Need for Closure Scale. The higher your score, the lower your tolerance for ambiguity. The May 1 event for the team represented a closure event and was an opportunity to stop, celebrate, and reflect on the fact that the recruitment process for that year’s class was over. It didn’t mean the work was finished (hello, summer melt), but it meant we could think about what went well and what we could improve for the coming year’s recruitment cycle. To the event we added an intentional indulgence of beverages and snacks. But we could have easily done something else, like a boat ride and tubing (one of my “good bosses” hosted such an event for years), or a dinner out with spouses and partners. No matter what you do, it’s the intentionality of it that counts.
Other good stuff
Back to the managers who have asked us how to retain staff members and increase the motivation level of their teams. Celebrating milestones has the added benefits of boosting morale, promoting team bonding, and inspiring fun in the workplace. It’s also a social reward that can impact our feeling of effectiveness. This is important because feeling ineffective is said to be one of the core attributes of burnout and we know what can happen when a staff member feels burned out. That’s right, they leave. Admissions has so many milestones–releasing admissions decisions, the end of travel season, and the conclusion of an admitted student open house, just to name a few, that give us myriad opportunities to intentionally celebrate all year long.
The celebration must be meaningful
Most of us struggle to hit pause to truly acknowledge what we have accomplished. As adults, we are better at work than at play. Fortunately, it’s easy to integrate celebrations into your department while keeping in mind that celebration is an experience and, in the admissions world, is most effective when shared with co-workers. Make sure that everyone acknowledges their own achievements over the past recruitment cycle and be sure that managers and co-workers let each other know how much they are appreciated. This psychologically powerful acknowledgment, though small, should never be skipped. There is, in fact, poignancy, as well as pleasure and joy in the journey.