Making DEI Practical at University of St. Thomas

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is top of mind for many higher ed marketers, but figuring out the practical side of applying DEI concepts to the actual creative work marketing teams produce is often easier said than done. In this episode, we’ll hear from Kymm Martinez and Katie Jensen at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota about how they made DEI less intimidating and more actionable for their marketing team.

We discuss:

  • How the St. Thomas marketing team developed a shared vision around DEI
  • The steps they took to evaluate their existing marketing materials from a DEI perspective
  • The DEI Viewfinder tool they developed to help their team create more inclusive marketing materials
  • Practical advice for making DEI a part of your team’s day-to-day operations.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:

You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Welcome to another episode of the Higher Ed Marketing Lab, I’m Jarrett Smith. Diversity, equity and inclusion is top of mind for many higher ed marketers, but figuring out the practical side of applying DEI concepts to the actual creative work marketing teams produce is often easier said than done. For instance, how exactly does a team review their work from a DEI perspective, without putting their colleagues on the defensive? Who decides when work needs to change? And how do you portray your school as an inclusive and welcoming community without overselling the level of diversity that actually exists on your campus?

In this episode, we’ll hear from two guests who’ve tackled these questions head-on and have some valuable learnings to share. Joining us is Kymm Martinez, VP of Marketing, Insights and Communications, and chief marketing and communications officer at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, and Katie Jensen, AVP of Insights and Analytics at St. Thomas. Like many university marketers, Kymm and Katie have grappled with the challenges of applying DEI concepts in their team’s creative work, and they have a unique perspective on how to make it less intimidating and more actionable.

We start by exploring how the St. Thomas marketing team developed a shared vision around DEI, and how they organized a thoughtful evaluation of their existing marketing materials. Then we hear about the DEI Viewfinder, a tool their team developed to help evaluate their creative work as it’s being produced. And finally, Kymm and Katie share their best advice for making DEI a regular part of your team’s operations. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Katie Jensen and Kymm Martinez. Kymm, Katie, welcome to the show.

Kymm Martinez:

Welcome. We’re so excited to be here.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, I’m so excited to have you here, and I think it’s going to be just a fantastic and very relevant topic that our audience is going to get a lot out of. Before we dive into that, I would love it if you could just tell us a little bit about the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota and your roles there.

Kymm Martinez:

Well, I’ll start with the University of St. Thomas. We are the largest private university in the State of Minnesota. We are proudly a Catholic university. We are among the top 20 national Catholic universities in the country. We have eight schools and colleges, about 10,000 students, and lots of exciting things happening here in Minnesota. We have just launched a brand new school of nursing. We also are the very first university in modern NCAA history to go directly from D-3 to D-1, which just happened in July. So we’re super excited about that.

There’s just a lot of really exciting things happening at the university, and so it’s been fun to be a part of that. I’ve been here for about five and a half years. My background, my title, I am the chief marketing and chief communication officer here at the university. I came from industry, as I’ve learned to say in higher ed, about five years ago. I was at General Mills for 20 years prior to that. And I also hold the title of Vice President of the Marketing, Insights and Communications team here on campus.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah, so I’m Katie Jensen, I lead the insights and analytics team within the marketing, insights and communications team which Kymm leads. And so my team is really all about bringing the audiences to the forefront, and helping people understand and have empathy for the prospective students we’re trying to talk to, or our donors, or our alumni, and just really understand where they’re coming from, as well as measure and track our success in terms of our digital campaigns, our websites, all the analytics from the marketing side work with my team as well.

Jarrett Smith:

Excellent. So we are here today to talk about all things DEI and really how to make that practical for marketers. And I think this is one of those topics that is just on everybody’s mind. You may have seen it. I came across a poll, I think it was on Inside Higher Ed from the Art & Science Group, and they were talking about how prospective students view DEI, and it is top of mind. It is obviously not the only thing they’re considering, but they are looking at that as they’re evaluating schools. And I’m just curious kind of to start things off, as university marketers, where do you see yourselves fitting within your institution’s broader DEI efforts?

Kymm Martinez:

Yeah. I feel like we should also perhaps start off with a little bit of a disclaimer about, we’re not DEI experts. We have a ton of faculty here and other folks within the university that could claim a more theoretical expertise than we have. I would call us more practitioners and we know how important the DEI journey is, and so we have committed ourselves and our department to being on it, but just full disclosure, kind of on that front that this is a learning journey. And I know we’re going to talk a little bit more about that as we kind of get into the podcast.

But I think that the role of marketing and communications at our university or any university is critical to DEI because we’re the ones that are the storytellers that are really fashioning the narratives about the university and helping everybody to have the perceptions about the university that hopefully are accurate. And so making sure that we are really being inclusive with our messaging is really, really important. And so I would say that we’re essential. But of course, when we do think about marketing and communications, it’s really important that it falls on a base of something authentic and that it is embedded in the values of the university, so obviously the entire university plays a big role in making sure that we’re walking the walk on this.

And so as marketers, we are shining spotlights on things, but it’s up to the whole university to really feel it at its core because otherwise we shouldn’t be marketing it. So yeah, we’re critical I think to the university’s efforts to get the story out, but it also needs to be an authentic journey for the university.

Katie Jensen:

The other thing I would maybe add to that, Kymm, is just we work with every part of the university, and so we have the ability to see patterns across different teams or needs across different teams. And so when we think about the role we’ve played in DEI, a lot of times it’s, we’re just in the conversation on a regular basis, and so we have the ability to influence and kind of help push things forward. Even just the way that our faculty communicate with students, or the way that our staff communicates with each other also needs to be inclusive and bring this sense of belonging because we want our entire community to feel included and welcomed here. And so some of our role too is just, we’re there as colleagues and coworkers trying to push this ahead for everybody.

Jarrett Smith:

I think that’s a great perspective. So St. Thomas, like many schools, is associated with its faith tradition, and in this case you are a Catholic school. I’m curious to what extent that has played into, or possibly created any challenges with regard to DEI. I mean, I think I’m thinking specifically about individuals that identify as LGBTQIA+. Has that presented any sort of unique hurdles that you would call out for your school?

Kymm Martinez:

I guess the first thing I would say is our faith tradition is what calls us to, we have a conviction of dignity which is very much rooted in Catholic social thought, which is about respecting the dignity of all and loving everybody and really welcoming the diversity into our community. And we absolutely do that. So I would argue that everything that we do as a university on the DEI front, including welcoming our LGBTQIA members of our community here is rooted in Catholic social traditions. So it is part of who we are as a university to accept and embrace, and to really allow everybody to bring their full potential, and to know that we as a community are stronger because of all those diverse perspectives.

Now having said that, there’s a wide variety of perspectives within the Catholic faith about how welcoming institutions should be. And that’s where, we are a university we’re Catholic, but we’re also a university. And so we are just making it very clear that our convictions call us to welcome and embrace. We do celebrate and uplift all members of our community here. And the best way we can just make sure that we overcome any resistance to that, again is to just clearly communicate, “This is who we are. That’s not up for debate. It’s part of our Catholic social teaching,” and be very honest about that so that nobody is left to wonder what is our position on various topics. So we make it very clear it’s part of who we are and it’s part of our Catholicism.

Jarrett Smith:

I think that’s a great perspective and thank you for sharing that. I think the way your team got started on the DEI journey and the actual marketing products you’re putting out there, the marketing and communications products you’re putting out there is really interesting. And Kymm, you said at the beginning of this, you said, “We are not approaching this from a fully informed theoretical standpoint, we’re really coming at this from a very practical angle.” But I think the way you went about as a team deciding, “How are we going to put this into practice and how are we going to make progress on our journey towards better diversity, equity and inclusion or marketing materials?” was super interesting. Could you just kind of tell us about, I guess at a high level, kind of a 30,000 foot view, where did you start? How did you approach this in a sensible way?

Kymm Martinez:

Actually it started with the university’s convictions. As I mentioned, one of them is dignity, and we obviously have a university definition of what that means. But as a department, we were going through the university’s convictions and then taking a marketing, insights and communications lens to them and writing, “What does it mean to embrace dignity and diversity in marketing and communication?” So that’s trying to articulate what that meant was where we started. And this was probably about three years ago. I would argue that the first paragraph that we came up with to describe, we were talking about wanting to make sure that we were never treating any members of our community as tokens or trying to oversell what our actual experience of being here on the campus was looking like. So three years ago, we kind of started there and started on the journey.

And then just recently we went back to that description to just see, is there any updating that we would want to do? And because of the work that we’ve been on, we’re now specifically saying that we’re an anti-racist department. We want to root out systemic racism in our place. So there’s our journey even in terms of our language has really kind of evolved. But it did start with that place. We ourselves are white cisgender females, so recognizing that and diving into white privilege and what that means, and again, recognizing that we don’t want our communities of color, either in our department or in the university, to always be the one that are educating people on what DEI should look like. We said, “Well, we’re going to take that on.”

And so it’s coming from that articulation of it, we started a committee that we call Representing DEI with Integrity Committee. Actually, it initially started as the Marketing DEI with Integrity Committee, and then we thought, “You know what? That doesn’t feel right to say we’re marketing it. We want to represent it.” So even that language was a bit of an evolution, and we have members of our group bidding monthly, bringing forward issues, topics. And one of the ideas that the group came up with is, maybe we should do an audit of some of our marketing and communications, and get feedback on how we think we’re doing. We are looking at this stuff every day, we’re thinking about this stuff every day, but potentially we’re missing something. And so that’s where Katie’s team actually came in to help facilitate that audit. So I don’t know, if you want to talk a little bit about that?

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. So with this audit, part of our goal was to, as Kymm said, just get outside of our team, get some fresh eyes on things, but also knowing that, we’re not experts in DEI and wanting to tap into the experts we have on campus, or at least people who have been engaged in the journey. And so we worked with a group called SEED. It stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity, which is a national program. So we happen to have a chapter of that here at St. Thomas. And so we partnered with them and we recruited a handful of people who had graduated from this program where they dive deep into DEI concepts, and we said, “Hey, look at our materials and tell us what you see. Put sticky notes all over it.”

And so we gathered a ton of feedback. We then had focus groups with them to really kind of dive deep into the topics and learn more, and we came out of it with a really interesting perspective then on all of the things we had missed, even though we’d been paying attention and an ability maybe to spot those issues a little more easily. So from there we developed what we’re calling the DEI Viewfinder tool, which kind of lays out nine questions you can ask yourself to help develop more inclusive materials.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. And we definitely want to set aside some time to talk about the Viewfinder, because it’s super cool and just such a practical tool. If we’re going to dive into that, I guess one question I have is just, how did you decide what to audit in the first place? I am sure your team is turning out a lot of materials. Where did you focus your effort to make it doable?

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. I mean the key was really that doable piece is, how do you… Because we spent a lot of time actually just going round and round about, “What should we put into this audit?” And so, for anybody who would want to do something like this, my advice would be just keep it simple. Pick a few things, pick things that are really important, really central pieces. So for us, we picked our undergraduate view book. We picked the program pages that we have for each of our 150 plus majors and minors, because we know those are some of the first places that our undergraduate students see and get a perspective for, “What is this community like?”

And then we also picked something from our graduate side, so we picked from our Opus College of Business. They had an awareness campaign that we also put into it. So trying to find a bit of range and also kind of pick some of those big high profile items that we could learn from. We also found that, especially the view book, a lot of what we do in other places kind of flows from what that view book creative looks like. And so that was another reason to pick a piece like that, that sort of is representative, it has a lot of tentacles in other work that we do.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. It’s going to set a lot of direction for the other materials that you create. I know we’re in a podcast, so it’s a little hard to kind of visualize some of these things, but maybe we can paint a picture with words. I’m curious your audit, were there any things that kind of leapt out at you as things that surprised you, that the team came back with that you just weren’t expecting, or that opened your eyes to maybe seeing some things in different ways?

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. What’s interesting about it is that most of the stuff they came back with were topics we were aware of. So things like, “Don’t reinforce stereotypes. Don’t use language that might be perceived differently by somebody from a different background, code words or idioms, for example.” So these are things we knew about out, but the trick was getting ourselves to actually spot them. And so I think our biggest aha from it is if we could have sort of a mental checklist, which makes it sound simple and it’s not, but a mental checklist of, “Here are some of the things to check for,” and then examples of how that actually comes life. I think it was the examples that really unlocked for us a much better ability to just be able to spot those things.

And then I would say too, just it reinforced for us a sense of how important it is to get other people’s eyes on it. Even if it’s within our own team, people who haven’t been working on the project, because you swap in a headline or you swap in a picture and you Frankenstein this thing together and suddenly you have a combination of things that you might never have put together in the first place. And by the time you get to that final product, you can’t even see some of the issues that you have. So that was for me, one of the biggest ahas.

Kymm Martinez:

Yeah. I guess I would say the other aha for me was just how many comments people had and how many things that they spotted. Again, we’ve been on this journey, we thought we were… I mean, we obviously knew we were going to learn something or we wouldn’t have undertaken it in the first place, but the sheer breadth of the feedback that we got back was pretty interesting. And then just to underscore another point about what Katie said, the examples are key because it’s one thing to say something like, “Don’t reinforce the stereotype.” I mean, who’s not going to nod their head to that. But it’s the examples of like, “Did you realize you were reinforcing this stereotype, or this one or this one?” That was really what brought it to life for people to be able to, “Oh, wow.”

Because it’s easy to agree with statements and things that you know you should do, but once you see it in action, it’s more important. So what’s interesting about this whole thing is we started it because we thought it was just going to be for us. We just were using it within our team as a tool, but the insights were so rich that that’s when we said, “Wow. This has implications for anything that we’re doing, anytime we’re communicating, even internal communications.” And so that’s when we realized, “Hey, we need to package this up so that others can learn from these insights.” And we started internally at the university and then now we’re going external with it as well, just to help spread the word of things that were insights for us that we hope others… If we can help somebody else from making a mistake that we made, great, we’ll all be better off.

Jarrett Smith:

I think it’s such a interesting point you both make that, you’re both approaching this thoughtfully, like nobody is going out to create a piece of creative that’s going to reinforce a stereotype or use a language that is loaded, and at the same time in the moment. And I think it’s almost like when you’re that close to the creative, maybe it’s hard to read the label when you’re inside your own bottle. You’re just too close to it, you’ve got too many other considerations that you’re thinking about, and it can kind of fall to the background. I think that’s just such an interesting point. Just so our audience has a sense of the type of things that came up, could you throw out maybe a couple of examples of things either big or small that were brought to your attention that you hadn’t seen before?

Kymm Martinez:

I mean, I’ll start off with one that, so as a Catholic university, one of the headlines that we love to use actually either digitally or in other places is, Blessed are the Nerdy. We love that headline because it reinforces the academic excellence that we represent, but at the same time it has a little bit of humor and a nod to our faith-based tradition. So Blessed are the Nerdy, when we were originally looking at using that, we were using a stock image of a nerd. And in this case, the nerd happened to be Asian, and we were using that sort of as a juxtaposition. And that’s a classic example of, “You are reinforcing a stereotype by using an Asian in this particular image.” So that’s a great example of like… And we also were using stock photography, which again, we don’t love to use, but sometimes if you can’t get the authentic shot in your community, it’s easier.

But so we went back to student affairs and we said, “All right, this is what we’re trying to convey. We need somebody that is going to be comfortable looking kind of a little bit more bookish. Can you help us here?” And they came forward with a student, an actual student who loves to dress in bow ties, like that’s his authentic self to do that. Happened to be an African American guy with a wonderful smile and just a wonderful way about him. And he was excited to be featured. And so we flipped it. So we have him, a African American male as our model for Blessed are the Nerdy. And so anyway, that’s a great example of a stereotype that we wouldn’t have necessarily thought of. I’m sure I can think of others on my hand, but do you have any others that are top of mind for you?

Katie Jensen:

The other one I’d maybe mention is just the idea of subtleties and how if you are from a marginalized group, you might really pick up on things. So for example, we had one of our ads from the Opus campaign, there was a person who you couldn’t immediately tell, “Is it a man or a woman?” A little bit androgynous. And so if you are part of the non-binary community, it just signals a bit of, “Oh, maybe there’s a place for me here.” Or we had an image in one of our undergraduate program pages on the website where a young man is holding up a frog and he’s got a wedding ring on. So that signals maybe if you’re an older, maybe non-traditional student that this might be a place welcoming for you as well. So I thought that was really interesting too, not just the things to avoid, but the things to include that might signal something in a positive way, not in a message you didn’t intend sort of way.

Kymm Martinez:

One other example that pops to mind too is, in our, I believe it was also in our undergrad view book, our creatives were working with illustration and so we would have the picture, but there were little doodles kind of around the picture, just for more of a friendlier feel and tone, and that was going all the way through the book. There was one photo of a professor talking to a couple of students and there’s no words in these doodles, so they’re all just kind of like doodles. And above one of the black student’s heads is kind of a thought bubble that has just lines in it. Because again, we’re not using words, but one thing that was pointed out to us is, “Are you trying to say that she has no thoughts, that she couldn’t come up with anything to say to the professor?”

And I think that that’s actually really interesting thing because you put that thought bubble on top of a white male student, you’re probably not going to get the same person drawing the same conclusion. So it’s a good example of just context and being careful, even just unintended messages that you’re trying to say. Which actually ladders to another point that I think is really important to make. You were talking before about just like putting these things together. Our creative team, we have an internal creative team who are just amazing and they do really wonderful work in partnership with all of our schools and colleges. And it’s really important to, this DEI journey is everyone’s job and it’s not their fault if they come out with something like that instance for example. We’re not going to, “Why did you put a thought bubble with no words in it above the black woman?”

I mean, it’s all of our jobs to actually think about this and catch this, and you can’t personalize the fact that you missed it because we all missed it too. I mean, this went all the way through Katie, it went through me and it took this group, this external group looking at it with a different lens to find it. So that’s another, I think really important lesson on the journey is to not expect perfection of yourself and to lean on others. And again, not just to lean on your communities of color to help you with that. That’s not fair, but to lean on others and to expect that it takes a village in some respects to get this right.

Jarrett Smith:

I think that is such an important point, Kymm, the attitude with which you approach your team about… And from the very beginning you said this was rooted in sort of the authentic principles and values of the institution. You were thinking about, “How does this apply to our department? Let’s try and articulate that.” And then as you said, you’ve gone back and you’ve evolved this over time, and so you’re kind of taking people on this journey where it’s like, “Okay, we’re not going to achieve perfection, and it’s okay. We’re all doing our level best to try and continue to improve and to be more mindful about the products that we’re creating and what messages they’re sending.” I think it’s such an important point.

But that does bring me to my next question, which is, at some point you’ve got to ship work, you have deadlines to meet. And I think in this case, it’s one of those areas where you will never achieve perfect. You will always be able to point to something in the work and say, “That’s not quite ideal. There may be a better way to handle this.” So how do you talk to your team about it? How do you on your own think about kind of balancing the need to make improvement and be mindful, thoughtful about what you’re communicating, but also at the end of the day ship work that you know to some extent is never going to meet that perfect standard.

Kymm Martinez:

I mean, I think the trick is to just acknowledge that up from the get-go that this is a journey. The other thing is that it’s constantly evolving. This landscape is evolving, language evolves. So even something that might have been appropriate a year ago, maybe isn’t appropriate today because of new learning out there. So even if you studied up and got the A on the test originally of doing all the things right, again you have to stay current on this. And as a result of that, it’s impossible because there’s always going to be something. So I think it’s just about setting that expectation that you want to do the best that you can. It is obviously focusing on intent, although I think it is important to also remember impact. So it’s not enough just to say, “Well, we intended good, so sorry if the impact wasn’t there.”

I think we have to own the impact that we make in addition to our intentions. But just again, to assure everybody that this is a journey. I mean, one of the ways that we tangibly reinforce that for our group is we have personal diversity goals that we ask every employee of the marketing, insights and communications team to commit to at the beginning of the year as part of their annual objective setting. And we don’t dictate what those are. Those are very personal. So you can choose for yourself what it is, but I expect you to have like two to three of your own personal goals, that’s going to help you on that journey.

It could be reading books by diverse authors or consuming media about different population. It could be anything that you feel is going to help you on your journey, but it reinforces to the full team, “This is a journey and we expect you to get on it, but you can kind of dictate how you’re comfortable moving forward.” Because obviously we’ve got people across our team that are at very different points in the spectrum. I don’t know if you have anything you’d add to that.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. Well, I would just say that one of the things that’s important when you’re thinking about the balance between, “Do we make this edit? How critical are we going to be of our own work?” versus, “We got to get stuff out of the door,” and we’re full up to capacity most of the time, but what’s really important is it is worth the time to take a minute and make sure that we’re sending inclusive messages, that we are not sending unintended messages. And so I think that’s been a bit of a shift for us too in opening up the conversation to DEI and being open to it all the way up the chain to Kymm, as a leader of our department. It’s expected that you’ll speak up. If you see something, you need to say something. And I think maybe prior to having some of these tools and having been on this journey, people were maybe noticing something and thinking, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t speak up. I don’t want to derail the project.”

And now I think we’re much more comfortable being able to say, “Hey, I noticed something here, can we have a conversation about it?” It doesn’t mean we need to make a change, it just means we should talk about it and make sure we’re all comfortable and make sure we feel good about a risk we might take, or, “Hey, I saw it this way, but maybe everyone else sees it a different way.” And so it’s really about that conversation, and if we can pause for a minute to have the conversation. A lot of times it’s not throwing out the whole project, it’s swapping in one different picture or changing one headline slightly. So I don’t think it’s taken as much time as we might have feared to be able to do it, and it feels good to have taken that moment and said, “Okay, do we feel good about this? All right. Let’s go.”

Kymm Martinez:

And that’s where that committee that I was talking about also plays a role, because if you as individual see something that you’re maybe a little bit uncomfortable with, or maybe your spidey sense has gone off, but you can’t really put your finger on why, there is a place for you to bring that image or whatever it is that sort of caused your spine to tingle and to say, “Is anyone else seeing this? Am I overthinking or is there something here?” So there’s a forum actually to bring that forward to get others points of view. And and again, then we as a group can decide, “All right. Is this something we want to approach somebody else on campus with or something like that?” Again, always with humility. We’re not the DEI police, we don’t have all the answers with it.

But I think the other message to really underscore with some of the things we’ve done, like in terms of starting off with just, “What does the diversity conviction mean for our group, the dignity conviction?” Setting up our committee, our personal diversity goals, these are all things we didn’t need university approval to do. It’s not like we waited for HR to say, “All right, now we’re formally going to add these personal diversity goals into our annual plan.” I mean, we just did it, and it’s not in our online form, but everybody has kind of their offline objectives that they have as well. So hopefully your viewers are taking from this that, this is stuff you can do and implement that you don’t necessarily need to wait for somebody to give you approval to do in order to start on the journey.

Jarrett Smith:

And we definitely, I would like to dig into implementation a little bit, but before we get there, I would love to talk about the DEI Viewfinder. Could you tell us what it is and how it works?

Katie Jensen:

Sure. Yeah. It’s a really simple tool, which is kind of the beauty of it, but what the Viewfinder does is it gives you nine questions you can ask yourself or ask with a buddy or ask somebody else to take a look through, and it really calls out some of those key topics in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, and across all types of diversity. And so really what it does is it gives us these questions we can tick through in our heads. It also gives us common language to use with each other. So instead of saying, “Wow, that picture and that headline together is super racist,” we can say, “I think that’s reinforcing a stereotype,” or, “I think that that is, there’s some unconscious bias coming in there and let’s talk about it.”

So it’s really a tool that you can use, and for any piece of creative, we tick through and we say, “All right, does it hit on any of these?” And if it does, we have a conversation. And so that’s one of the key things with it. The point of it is to be super critical, super detailed about the work that you’re doing. Sometimes we even catch ourselves going, “Oh gosh, are we being overly sensitive, overly critical?” And that’s the point. The point is to really take that critical look and then have the conversation and say, “What do we think? Do other people take the same thing away? Do we need to pull in other people to give us additional feedback?” And then-

Kymm Martinez:

Can I just script for that particular point too? And we don’t always, even when we’ve thought of something with like maybe, we don’t always make the change. And I think Katie said that before, but I mean, we sometimes agree that we’re going to lean into risk either because of there’s another benefit that would be going away if we swapped out the image or what have you. So it’s not a done deal that just because somebody brings something up, we’re automatically to be like, “Ooh, we have to stay 10 feet away from that.” It’s the discussion and then you make a decision on the basis of the risk and the risk reward, the benefit to that. So I just wanted to make that point as well.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. And one of the things that we love about it is that it’s given us that common language we can use with other teams as well, so when we see something another team has put together. Because I’m sure like many of your listeners, if they’re marketers in higher ed, they are not the only people creating content on behalf of their institution. And so it gives us the ability to say, “Hey, we’ve been on this journey too. We made all these mistakes and here’s all these examples of mistakes that we’ve made.” And it comes with a bit of humility as well to be able to have that tool and be able to show people that, “We’re on a journey and we invite you to join us. And we notice something in your work we’d like to share.”

But the meat of the tool really is there’s these nine questions, for each question we give an overview of what it’s all about, and then we give those handful of examples that really bring it to life. And again, that’s one of the pieces we think is so critical is if you can give those examples that really helps people kind of put it in their brains and really understand and potentially make it easier for them to spot it in their own work.

Jarrett Smith:

So at this point, how many different groups I guess, across your university are actively using the Viewfinder in their day-to-day work?

Katie Jensen:

I don’t know how many are actually using it. I hope they are. We’ve trained several units on it. So we’ve trained anything from, we did a training with the entire faculty and staff of our school of education, for example. We’ve also done it with all of our social media content creators which live across all kinds of departments within the university. We’ve done leadership academy trainings, which is our internal HR kind of professional development group. We’ve done trainings there where we get everybody from the admin, for the provost who puts together all of his emails and presentations and things like that, to faculty members, to even students in some cases. So-

Kymm Martinez:

Actually that’s another one you’ve done it for. We have a student-run media agency on campus, which I’m sure a lot of people do, we call it TommieMedia, and there’s been a presentation to all the reporters, all the folks that are involved with TommieMedia, because sometimes we see things that they’re posting and doing, and we’re like, “Whoa, they might be able to benefit from these questions as well.”

Jarrett Smith:

I’m curious, as you’ve rolled it out to these different groups and kind of socialized this more, have you received any pushback or how has it been received overall, and then have you received any sort of specific pushback?

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. So I would say it’s been really well-received, particularly just as a very actionable tool that people can use. I think the tough part with DEI is once you’re kind of on the journey for a little while and you’re spending time and you’re learning and your eyes are so open to all the things that aren’t great about how marginalized groups are treated and you want to take some action, and it’s hard to know how to do that. And a lot of times I think people leave DEI trainings going, “Okay, I get it. I know there’s issues here, but what can I do?” And so that’s been one of the biggest pieces of feedback is just how actionable and accessible it is. You don’t have to know every stereotype that exists in the world to know that, “I’ve seen that trope before and I just want to research it a little bit and learn more about it.”

So it’s really, it’s accessible to anyone no matter where they are on the journey. I would say in practice some of the more difficult conversations I would say, I don’t know if it’s been pushback is just, with people who are creating content. Our creative team, people who write stories for us, and they’re having the benefit of this being an additional thing that we’re coming back to them and giving them feedback on their work, which I give creative teams a ton of credit. I couldn’t do what they do and have people tell me my baby’s ugly all day. But that’s been the toughest thing. And so what has again been helpful with this tool is that common language and the ability to say, “I think this is sending a message you didn’t intend, and here’s kind of the category that falls in, and let’s talk about that.” I think this has made those conversations easier than they were before we had something like this.

Jarrett Smith:

And again, it just underscores the importance for me about leading with the attitude of progress not perfection, awareness, mindfulness around these issues, but there is no end state where we check it off and it’s just done. And so that sets you up to be able to have a more positive interaction on those things.

Kymm Martinez:

Actually, that does remind me of another, I guess I wouldn’t call it a pushback, but another question that we get. We’re as a university on a journey and our faculty, student, staff community, we would like it to be more diverse than it is. So that leads to a question around from a marketing, communication standpoint is where do you draw the line in terms of you want to represent an aspiration of the university such that you can draw from a population that will help increase diversity, but at the same time, you don’t want to overpromise and create an image of something that actually doesn’t exist when it’s here. So that’s another conversation that we do get into when we roll this out.

And sometimes I think people are looking for, they want like the answer, they want the black or white answer. So every picture should have 25% people of color and 75% white people, because that’s what the diversity of the student body in the first year class looks like. And it’s not that simple. And again, all these things are nuanced and it’s a little bit more gray. So the line that we walk is, we do want to nod to the university that we want to become, so we think it is all right to lean a little bit into aspirational, but we never want to cross the line to where we’re selling again, a look, a tone, a feel that just doesn’t exist here at the university. So we have dialogues around that.

An example is we were doing a campaign here on campus. It was an internal campaign in conjunction with our advancement group, thanking people for the philanthropy, the many gifts that have come onto campus. And so we had taken photos of students with their thumbs up just sort of thanking donors. And there were six students originally that were photographed, and of the six, four were students of color. And so that was something where like, “Okay. That would be like two thirds of the folks in the picture.” So that was an example of something we took back to our committee to discuss. We said, “How do we feel about that?” Because again, we’re not trying to come up with a rule in terms of like, “Every campaign has to have this percentage, but in this particular case, knowing how first of all, everybody was going to have a chance to see all the images because they were going to be what we like to call campus famous, so they were going to be everywhere on campus.

It just didn’t feel like the right mix. It felt like we were over, perhaps going into that token area that we do not want to be in. So our solve for that was to shoot four more students to bring it up to 10 in total and to keep the original four students of color as part of that 10, just to help that mix feel a little bit more true to life. So that’s just an example of how we try and walk that line, and that is one of the questions that we sometimes get when rolling out the tool is aspirational versus reality.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. I think that’s such a great point because it’s not a math problem at the end of the day that has a perfect answer.

Kymm Martinez:

No, people would love it to be because then it’s easier. You count the number of people and then you… But it’s not that, that’s why the conversation is important.

Katie Jensen:

And I would say that applies across all of the concepts in the Viewfinder. People want it to be a simple, “This is your set of rules and if you follow these rules, you’re going to be okay.” And that’s just not the case. I mean the diversity and inclusion concepts are complex and nuanced, and so sometimes too from our creative team, another example here, we had a picture that we said we really shouldn’t be using, that had a kid doing a thumbs up. And he happened to be in front of the Colosseum in Rome, and in parts of Italy, a thumbs up is offensive.

And so we gave that feedback and we said, “Look, we can’t use it in this case because he’s really kind of bringing his own culture into this place where he’s supposed to be immersing in Italian culture.” And so our creative team was like, “Got it. We won’t use thumbs up anymore.” And it was like, “No, no, you can use thumbs up, it’s just in the context of that situation.” So that’s a big piece of this is just embracing there’s a lot of gray area and that’s why the conversations are so important to just make sure that we’re thinking through it, and is it okay in this case, because the answer might be different depending on the context.

Jarrett Smith:

So thinking about operationalizing this, people are listen to this and saying like, “Wow, this is very cool. I think we could do something similar on our campus.” What advice do you have for folks that are thinking about rolling out something similar at their own institution?

Katie Jensen:

My advice would be starting with buy-in at the leadership level. One of the things we are really lucky to have is this woman sitting next to me here, Kymm, is a champion of DEI at St. Thomas and even in her personal life. And so, we are lucky to have a executive sponsor who expects us to do this work, who puts it in our personal objectives every year, who asks us to engage and welcomes us to engage no matter where we are on that journey. And I think that piece is really important because now it is an expectation of our creative team when we brief them, or our writers when we brief them, that they know that one of the things when they bring it back to us is, “Yes, does it hit on the key messages we want to hit? Does it speak to the audience? Is it inclusive?”

They know that that is going to be a bar that they’re held to. And so when the feedback comes, it’s not a surprise, that’s part of the deal. I would also say though, in fairness to them, they’re so close to those pieces that we can’t always expect them to come with a perfectly inclusive piece. And so, one thing we’ve done is we’ve said, “We’re not going to make the applying the DEI Viewfinder a step in the process, it’s something that anybody who comes in contact with a piece on its journey to being developed can step in with, “Hey, I’m noticing this thing from a DEI lens.” And so that’s been really good too. It’s this shared accountability, it’s not one person’s job. It’s not a thing we do at one point in time, it’s something we’re all aware of and all free and open to say, “All right, let’s take a second and take a look at this.”

Jarrett Smith:

That’s really interesting. My assumption was that, “Oh, this must just be a formal step in the process.” And that’s interesting that you found that actually it seems to work better for your team that it’s not again, maybe a box that you’re ticking.

Katie Jensen:

Right. Exactly. I think that’s part of what we’re trying to do is it shouldn’t be the like, “Oh, it’s this cursory thing.” It should be part of anybody who’s reviewing the materials should be looking at it that way. It also means though that we have some freedom for people who are maybe more immersed in DEI concepts. When they come to it, they’re for sure looking at it. For those who are maybe less comfortable, they know that there will be other people along the way who can apply it. And then it also means that sometimes if people are less comfortable, they might tap those of us who are more used to using it. So just it provides a little more freedom and feels less like a hoop you have to jump through and more just like, “This is anybody who’s reviewing it is going to want to be looking at this stuff.”

Jarrett Smith:

It becomes more of a community effort at that point.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. And much more conversation too. I mean, I just actually, I got a text from a coworker on the way to the bus stop to drop my daughter off this morning to say, “Hey, what do you think of this picture? Well, now let me show you it in context.” Or just kind of constantly having these little conversations, and these are conversations where we would’ve in the past felt like, “Ooh, I got to sit down and have a really careful one-on-one conversation with somebody and really…” And it’s just opened up our comfort levels with it.

Jarrett Smith:

That is really interesting. Okay. So let me flip this around and you may have kind of already hit on all these things, but how could somebody go wrong trying to roll this out on their campus? I think you’ve kind of already touched on a few what not to do type things.

Katie Jensen:

Yeah. I mean, I think you for sure don’t want to be the only one. I don’t think you want to be the lone wolf. A lot of the magic with it is the conversations you can have, and the dialogue that it opens up. That’s actually been one of the really positive of things for us is showing others in the university that we have opened ourselves up to this feedback and we’re open to it and we’re having these conversations. We’re getting more feedback from people when they see something. It used to be that we would hear it, three or four people down the road when, “Oh, somebody saw this,” and then finally it gets to somebody who’s comfortable talking to us. And we’re hearing from a bigger variety of people now too, both on the positive and negative. So I think it’s definitely, it’s got to be ingrained in your team culture and you have to be sort of committed to, “We’re on a journey together and we’re going to hold hands and do this as a group.”

Kymm Martinez:

Yeah. I would just echo too, and again, the importance of approaching this with humility and making sure again that people know that you’re not considering yourself the expert, and now you’re going out to try and tell everybody how to do that. Especially in an academic setting where sometimes marketing, people can look at that and say, “Wait a minute, you’re just spinning.” We want to just make very clear what our roles are in there. But I said this at the beginning of the podcast but I can’t underscore it enough, the other really, really, really important way you can go wrong is if the institution that you’re talking about does not have a true commitment to this, and yet you’re out there trying to represent that you do.

That would be very difficult, kind of like in a show stopper from the very, very beginning. So it’s important to as a university, as an institution, as an organization to have a true commitment to walking the walk on DEI, because people will smell it immediately if you are just trying to spin something that isn’t there, or put lipstick on a pig, as we sometimes like to say. That’s not going to work. It doesn’t work in this space. It needs to be authentic.

Katie Jensen:

Can I just add one more I think really critical thing? And you touched on this earlier, but the other way you can go wrong is relying on the people on your team from marginalized communities to do this work. We talk a lot and this is part of the humility we try to have about this. We realize we’re two white women up here talking about this stuff, white cisgendered, able-bodied, straight. And so, that’s important because we hear a lot from our colleagues from marginalized groups that they are tired. They have, we call it representation fatigue, which I thought was a really eye-opening term because they are being asked to draw on experiences of oppression and hurt, and to do it for free on top of their day jobs.

And so, one of the things we really like about this tool is it’s given us a way to contribute and not always have to rely on those folks on our team to speak up and do the work. It’s tiring. And so, that would be the other piece is just, that’s one of the reasons it’s important that it’s everybody, because it can’t just be those few people on the team.

Jarrett Smith:

Wow. What great advice. So what’s next? What’s next for St. Thomas and your DEI efforts? What’s next for your team? Where do you go from here?

Kymm Martinez:

So I’ll talk at the university level first and then bring about our group. Our university has all sorts of really wonderful initiatives underway. Right after George Floyd was murdered here in Minneapolis, we founded a racial justice initiative here with a fantastic scholar, Dr. Yohuru Williams at the helm of that, that is doing a lot of work in terms of historical recovery, and really trying to engage in conversations about, “How do we grow from here? How do we do better from here?” So that’s just one aspect of what the university is doing.

We also have a new college that launched back in 2016, the Dougherty Family College, which actually is focused on underrepresented students, helping them get to a four-year degree. So it’s a two-year program, but that wraps around and provides all sorts of different support for a person who might not have been able to enroll directly in a four-year. But we provide that support for them so that they can then get that support in the first two years and then transfer hopefully to St. Thomas but also other schools. The most important thing is that they get a degree.

So the university has a lot of initiatives like that, that we’re involved in. We just launched a new college of health that is very much engaged in healthcare disparities and eliminating health inequities. Our college of education, our school of education is very much focused on the gap. Minnesota has one of the worst education gaps in the country in terms of when you look at students of color grad rates versus white student grad rates. And so we’ve got a school that’s very much focused on that. So there’s a lot of work at the university level that we’re doing which we’re then privileged and proud to be able to represent and tell the stories in our group.

So for our group, we’re just going to continue on again with our journey. We’ve just done our very first ever three year DEI plan for our group. It includes things like looking at our suppliers, our freelancers, making sure that we’re working with more BIPOC-owned businesses or freelancers. There’s all sorts of things that are in our strategic plan, but we’ve written it down to just make sure that it’s on our journey. And this particular Viewfinder tool, again we’re starting to do… We’ve already been doing presentations outside of St. Thomas. As people have become aware of this tool and are interested in it, and we’re very happy to share that because it has applicability not only for other higher ed institutions, but also for anyone that’s in an organization.

So we’ve been doing presentations on that, but that obviously, the scalability of our ability to be able to get out there and do all the presentations is limited. So we’re in the process of trying to turn this into an online course that people could access that would then hopefully bring the tool to more people, because that would be our goal. We want everyone to have access to it. That’s one of the things I love about working in higher ed is the willingness to share things that you’ve uncovered and discovered that could be of use to other people, and that’s what we are trying to do here.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, that is great. So Kymm and Katie, if folks want to reach out to you and find out more, continue this conversation, what are the best places to do that?

Kymm Martinez:

Well with both, it’s easy to reach us via email, and the email nomenclature here is pretty simple. First name ., last name @. St. Thomas, S-T-T-H-O-M-A-S.edu. And I’m assuming our names are going to be, the spellings are going to be published somewhere so we don’t have to run through that here. So there’s that. LinkedIn is another great place to reach either one of us. And we’re very open to having the conversations with anyone who is wanting to start on this journey and wants to learn from what we’ve done.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, thank you both so much for sharing so openly and freely with the journey that you’ve been on, and I think so many folks are going to find this very useful in their day-to-day work. So I just want to say thank you for joining us today.

Kymm Martinez:

Thank you for having us. Really appreciate it.

Katie Jensen:

Thanks Jarrett.

Jarrett Smith:

The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe, and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

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Trusted Advisors: Working Well with the Board of Trustees

As a senior leader, you need a strong working relationship with your board. Unfortunately, there’s no manual for how to do that. As a result, most leaders end up learning through experience (read: observation, hard work, and some painful mistakes).

In our latest Higher Ed Marketing Lab podcast, we sit down with Joel Bauman, SVP of Enrollment at Duquesne University, and Karen Foust, former EVP of Enrollment at Hendrix College, to talk about the finer points of building collaborative, productive relationships with board members.

We discuss:

  • Important ways board members can differ in their approach to the role
  • Tips for effectively communicating the complexities of your work
  • Why trying to be the smartest person in the room can backfire with board members
  • The right way to go about delivering bad news
  • How to respectfully nudge a board member back into their lane when they start to overreach.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You’re listening to The Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Welcome to The Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher education and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts. This podcast is the second installment in our VP Summer Series, which is a miniseries focusing on the unique challenges facing senior enrollment and marketing leaders. In this episode, we’ll be discussing the critical task of building strong relationships with your trustees. Joining us in the conversation is Karen Foust, former EVP of enrollment at Hendrix College, and Joel Bauman, senior VP for enrollment management at Duquesne University. Also, joining us is Echo Delta’s own, Laura Martin Fedich, who’s my cohost for this series.

We cover a ton of interesting territory in this episode, including important ways board members can differ in their approach to their role, tips for helping board members understand the complexities of your work, why trying to be the smartest person in the room can backfire when you’re meeting with board members, the right way to go about delivering not-so-good news, and how to respectfully nudge a board member back into their lane when they start to overreach. Karen and Joel shared a wealth of hard-fought wisdom on this topic, that I know will be relevant to anyone who has to interact with board members on a regular basis. So, without further ado, here’s our conversation with Karen Foust and Joel Bauman. Karen, Joel, welcome to the show.

Karen Foust:
Great to be here. Thanks for inviting us.

Joel Bauman:
Thank you, Jarrett. It’s a real honor.

Jarrett Smith:
Laura and I are so excited to have you here. Really looking forward to this conversation on building great relationships with your trustees. Before we jump into that, I would love it if you could just take a moment to tell us a little bit about your professional background and work in higher ed. Karen, why don’t we start with you?

Karen Foust:
Well, most recently, I was the executive vice president for enrollment at Hendrix College, and retired from there a few years back. Prior to that, I was at Valparaiso University in Indiana. For a good portion of that time, I was there over 20 years, but I was the director of admission for a number of years, and then a host of other positions. During, especially my years as leader at Valparaiso and then at Hendrix, I did do some enrollment consulting with different people, and continue that, and have even done an interim position in the last two years. So, I have enjoyed working with other colleagues at their schools, and providing assistance that way.

Joel Bauman:
It’s scary to say, but almost 30 years in this business. Starting out as an admissions counselor at the University of Tampa, and then having some experience in admission and financial aid, some international admissions and recruitment experience at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I worked my way through the ranks at a couple different places in Florida, at a place in Salt Lake City, and now at a senior vice president for enrollment management at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Jarrett Smith:
Good deal. Laura and I are here to talk with you today about building strong relationships with your trustees. I think a good place to start with that would just be to talk for a moment about why that’s so important. Laura and I have discussed in the past, this isn’t something they hand you, and the VP of enrollment management manual that I know comes with the job, but it is an important part for the success. Can you talk to us just a little bit about, I guess, the importance of getting those relationships right, and maybe the pain of getting it wrong? Joel, I’ll tee that one up to you first.

Joel Bauman:
I appreciate it. I think you learn, and just in general, you’ve heard, in general, you realize it’s a board of directors. The trustees is, in itself, a word that strikes importance. Right? They are entrusted with the university. Sometimes people think they’re the owners, but they’re there to advise. They’re there to have fiduciary responsibilities. They’re there to carry out the functions of the bylaws in the constitution, and it’s the organizing principle around in which the university functions and meets its mission, and they hand off that responsibility, and really entrust you, the cabinet, the president, and the officers of the university, to carry out the business of the university. Not just in meetings, but in networking, and in people raising, and in fundraising, the trustees are, obviously, central.

So, as staff and faculty interact, the words, and the impressions, and expressions of trustees carry a lot of weight. So, your ability to induce in them the proper reaction, or understanding, or support, can have influence in every corner of the institution. So, it’s a relationship that bears strong, strong, and clear, and ongoing care and feeding.

Jarrett Smith:
Karen, what’s your take?

Karen Foust:
Well, I would agree with everything Joel said. I think that when you’re first at an institution, getting to know the trustees is always an interesting time. It’s important to do that. I’ve found that meeting with colleagues, my colleagues on the cabinet, getting their understanding about who’s on the board, and how they interact with them, has always been helpful. You need to have a good working relationship with them. You also, as a vice president, you’ll know your role, because you’re also there to be supportive of the president. So, that’s important, as well, as well as your colleagues that are there with you. All in all, it’s a very critical role that we work with.

Joel Bauman:
I would add, a couple of institutions I was at were state, public institutions. Most of the career is in private, enrollment-driven non-profit institutions. While similar, there are differences in the approach. There are nuances that a public, state-run institution trustee, or a board of directors, has that follow legislative mandates, that follow certain rules. When I was in Florida, the Sunshine Rules, what you can say, what you can take notes, and what was required to be reported on had differences. So, there are some … I think it’s really important, like Karen said, you have to take the time to learn about their backgrounds, and their instructions, and their not just interests, but requirements of them as board members, as you try to align your work, and your presentations, and your support of the president and the cabinet in each of these settings.

So, it’s really important to do the homework upfront, and read as much of the enabling legislation, the bylaws, the catalogs, whatever it takes, that inform the trustees about what their roles and responsibilities are, so you can align at least with those basic facts.

Karen Foust:
It’s even as simple as just, before you even begin, really getting to know what their names are, and where they’re from. Just so you have some familiarity with them. They’ll remember that you knew their name and those kinds of things. That’s important, as well.

Jarrett Smith:
Laura, I think you were going to tee up a question.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Yeah. Thanks, Jarrett. I’m just really curious because this can be an intimidating group. The first time I was ever in front of a board of trustees, I was extremely intimidated because they tend to be very accomplished people, and they’re all staring at me, looking at me, as the expert. I’m thinking, “Holy moly. I am nothing compared to you people.” So, how do you go about forming the relationship? I hear what you’re both saying about doing the research, learning about them. I think that’s really important. Are there other ways? Especially with a group that maybe you’re not going to interact with but a few times a year.

Joel Bauman:
I completely agree with you, Laura. First experience in front of a board, intimidating as all get out, especially if you read their backgrounds and what they’ve done for the institution. I do think there are those … You have to have the right group, and you have to understand just basic human dynamics and relationships. So, some are coming in, and regardless of background, and qualifications, and how successful they are, they’re there because they want to help. They recognize their role as mentors. They recognize their role as advisors. Those will come up, and they will identify themselves, and if they’ve got experience on the board, it’s a real treasure.

There are others who are there to interrogate you, and the university, and the officers, because in their background and experience, they’ve come up through the fiduciary ranks, through the oversight ranks. So, I think it’s important to understand different trustees come at it with a different mindset. If you get one of the interrogator trustee types, it’s learning by experience. The early experiences of being interrogated, it’s like a Senate hearing, like you see on TV. Right? You’re sitting there, and they’re at the table, and they’ve got the microphones, and they’re asking you these questions. Really, what you want to say is, “I don’t know,” but you do have to come prepared, do your homework, understand that there’s going to be almost a script of questions that they’re going to ask. It’s very rare that they want off-the-cuff, on-the-record, stream of consciousness in a formal meeting.

Joel Bauman:
Talk to the president. Talk to your cabinet colleagues. I’ve realized that, really, before going to a meeting, and having to experience that, and not know, meet with the board chair ahead of time. Meet with key members of the committee you’re on ahead of time, and get a sense of them, from them, what they’re interests are, what they know already, and what kind of questions they’re coming in with to the meeting. Sometimes by casual conversation, you could answer those. So, it won’t come up in the meeting. But at least you have a sense to prepare. My favorite experience of getting to know, good retreats. If there’s a trustee retreat, as opposed to a meeting, those are always helpful on the personal side. I remember saying names, families, interests, casual conversation.

The dinners and/or lunches, also a great opportunity to just really let your hair down. You don’t have to be as guarded as maybe during the meeting. Be careful about where certain things could go. You have to always have this social awareness. But I remember one of my favorite experiences was at a trustee retreat dinner meeting in Park City, Utah. It was actually a sushi restaurant that we all decided to pick out of three. I ended up sitting between a member, a trustee, that had been highly placed at HP during their big transitions, and somebody who was directly responsible for the marketing shift at Godiva Chocolates, about putting them in retail stores all over Manhattan and all over the country.

To hear those two converse, and then to ask me my opinion about it, and then to try to relate it to what we were doing at the university, was absolutely … I felt like I was in a mini-MBA class, really, a mini-strategy class, with Harvard Business Review, that you read about. Actually, I think the Godiva thing was in one of those books. I think it’s just trying to become socially aware, and ask the right questions, and be interested in their backgrounds.

Karen Foust:
I would add, over the years, we’ve always had executive committee meetings prior to the full board meeting. Those were all usually by conference call. The cabinet was gathered in one room and, obviously, the trustees who served on the executive committee were in their home bases. That was a good way to really understand what some of their questions were going to be, coming up then in the full board meeting. That was a preview of what was going to happen in that full board meeting. So, to take good notes, and make sure you mark down what kinds of things you, yourself, will need to respond to, I always found that to be good prep for any and all meetings.

Laura Martin Fedich:
So, Karen, you’re talking about pre-board weekend, or pre-board meeting.

Karen Foust:
Right.

Laura Martin Fedich:
All the trustees are getting, for lack of a better term, or maybe this is the right term, a board book.

Karen Foust:
Right.

Laura Martin Fedich:
With all the reports, ahead of time.

Karen Foust:
Yes.

Laura Martin Fedich:
If anything’s going to be voted on.

Karen Foust:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Laura Martin Fedich:
So, there really shouldn’t be … I mean, is it true or fair to say there really shouldn’t be any surprises at a board meeting?

Karen Foust:
There really shouldn’t be.

Laura Martin Fedich:
If you’re doing your job. Okay.

Karen Foust:
Right. There really shouldn’t be. Part of that is the working relationship the president has with the board chair, because they don’t want things to pop up. Nonetheless, it’s a good way to practice before the board meeting, to have those executive meetings.

Jarrett Smith:
Now, for a short break. Hey, everyone. Jarrett here. You know the past year has brought so many challenges for the higher education enrollment community. If you’re like many enrollment leaders, you’re looking forward to being on the other side of census, so you can finally step back and think about your strategy for the upcoming year. That’s why [Jeff Collay 00:14:53] and I will be hosting Post-Up, a free, four-part webinar series for enrollment leaders, starting September 29th. From search, to yield, to campus visits, Jeff and I will engage with Echo Delta’s enrollment experts to help you come back even stronger and smarter than before. Visit echodelta.co/postup to register. That’s echodelta.co/postup, all one word. I hope you’ll join us. Now, back to the show.

I’m curious about some other ways that you all have worked with boards. I mean, I think one of the challenges in the group, in working with trustees, is that you’re coming at it from a very nuanced enrollment management perspective, and it’s its own little world. It’s a very deep body of knowledge. It’s complex. There’s a lot to consider there. Even if that trustee member is incredibly accomplished in their own domain, it is unlikely to be enrollment management. So, I’m curious, your best tips for how do you convey the nuances, the important points, of your job and your approach to enrollment management, without overwhelming them, without boring them with unhelpful details, or losing the plot?

Karen Foust:
Well, it’s important for us to remember we’re always educators, and not that we’re there to lecture the trustees … That’s not the point. But the point is you’re right. They don’t have the background that we do. So, we have to find ways to share that. Sometimes that was through a board report, by providing some sort of professional article that would be helpful for them to read and understand more about what’s going on in the enrollment area. Other times it was to provide trends in enrollment at other schools, on how those compared to your own school. Just a variety of ways. You’ll occasionally bring in somebody from the outside that can help validate some of the information, because they will listen to that person, a lot of times more than they might even you. Nonetheless, somebody that really can say, “Yes. Joel knows exactly what he’s talking about when he says this, that, or the other.” That’s not the sole purpose of having them come, but nonetheless, it does help.

Jarrett Smith:
Joel, would you add anything to that?

Joel Bauman:
Yeah. I have had the experience of, in my youthful exuberance … It’s the Enron thing about trying to be the smartest guy in the room. Because that’s what they’re paying you for, to know your business. Really not a good idea, because these folks are really smart. While they may not know your business, they want to be able to offer advice, and they want to ask really good questions, and they want you to walk through your thinking, not necessarily be a wand. Absolutely, Karen’s right. You need to show a mastery of your business. But my experience over the years is really allow time for their conversation to each other to sometimes break up a meeting, to what’s called, “Hey, just the ‘operational report,'” what you need to see to satisfy your fiduciary responsibilities, or that interest. But really, let’s talk strategy. Ask the hard questions.

At some point, with particularly enrollment committee, and sometimes the full board, we would have the statistics meeting, the reporting fiduciary meeting, snapshot meeting in between the official meeting, and then we started to record them, because they were through Zoom. That was a huge bonus for those trustees. You’d be surprised. “I couldn’t make the meeting, but I looked at the recording. Thank you for doing that, so I could feel caught up.” Bringing in experts, consultants and/or vendors that you work with, to give more weight to the state of the art out there. I’ve also invited trustees to do a life in the day. “Well, actually, why don’t you come in and sit in the admissions office. Let’s review an admissions file.”

Joel Bauman:
One of the more interesting, eye-opening experiences, especially for those that didn’t have recent college-aged kids, we collected samples for competition purposes, of financial aid awards. Admissions packets and financial aid award packets of competing schools, and just laid them out for them, and walked them through what they look like, and what a family experiences, and then showed them our own. That was really an eye-opening experience for them, because it wasn’t theoretical. It wasn’t just, “We’re a great school. Why aren’t they just picking us?” But they saw the reality on the ground of what individual families are doing. They can hang with you, everything from strategic planning at the highest level of the institution and fiduciary responsibilities, all the way down to having them help you, if they’re interested, read an admissions file and give their opinion.

I have found ask them, survey them. They’ll give you their ideas, and then some of them will do this, and some of them will do that. Just like our work in relationship building, build the relationship and offer them … Meet them where they are, as opposed to think of them all as one big monolithic fiduciary trustee.

Karen Foust:
Something simple that I did over the years was when board members referred a student to the institution, then that student’s name appeared on what I ended up calling a VIP list. Simply for the fact that then I could make sure that I shared that with the president, and that individual knew that board member had made a recommendation, and what that relationship was, and the outcome of that student, what had moved along with that student. So, that was always something critical. Then occasionally, I had an opportunity to share some information with the trustee, as well, who’d made the recommendation.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Can I go back to something you alluded to? You were talking about presenting information to the trustees, and they get the board book in advance. I’m assuming a lot of what you present to them is data. Then you do a narrative on the data. What if the news isn’t all good? Especially, we know that enrollment has seen a tough year in 2020, and 2021 certainly isn’t a cakewalk. How do you go about that? How do you present news that isn’t great?

Karen Foust:
Well, when Jarrett asked the question earlier about surprises that might come up in a board meeting, that is one that you don’t want to come up as a surprise. So, you work with your president and your colleagues to make sure that the right kind of information is disseminated to the trustees on a regular basis. That includes things that don’t always have good news in them. That way, when they actually come to the meeting, they’ve had a heads up, or have some background about what might be going on. We thought going into May 1, it looked great, and then all of a sudden, it just totally fell off, that type of thing. Not that you necessarily use those words, but you get the idea. That would have been disappointing news. So, they needed to be prepared upfront for something like that.

Joel Bauman:
My observation on that, and I think as enrollment management, particularly on the strategic level, at the higher levels of more complex institutions, it’s about anticipatory enrollment management. I wish I could take credit for that term, but I think [Rochelle Hernandez 00:23:21], who is now at University of Texas-Austin, introduced me to that sense, which is much like Florida’s, my more recent experience, much like the cone of probabilities of a hurricane, it could land here, or it could land there. You talk about probabilities and not certainties. So, anticipatory, particularly around what Karen’s talking about. Right?

It’s May. We’ll go freshman admissions. Enrollment deposits look like this. Trustees told me when I first started at one of my institutions, “This is great news, since we don’t care, because we know by the time we come back in October and look at the budget, it’s completely different.” I said, “Oh, well, let me explain what the trend is, and what to anticipate.” If the news is not good, because there are leading indicators, I think they always get frustrated with lagging indicators. Right? So, I think you need to start to produce leading indicators and say, “This is showing us this potential. Here’s the probabilities to anticipate. Here’s what could happen.”

I try to inject some humor. I got known for the, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” Right? There’s that. “Which would you like first?” But the anticipatory side is really important, to set their expectations, that it could go this way or that way. You have to take ownership. I feel like early on, I joke about … I don’t know if you know mountain climbing. There’s a little chalk bag. You go into your chalk bag and you dip your fingers. So, I used to joke about this, a little toolkit that every enrollment manager has, and it’s like, “Oh, demographics.” You dig around a little more and it’s like, “Oh, competition.” You dig around a little more. “The economy.” You pick one. Right? “Oh, here’s the excuse, or here’s what helped. Great team. Recruitment. New programs.”

There’s always this toolkit. All those could be true. You always have to have ownership of the results. You always have to start with, “I think we could have done better because.” You can’t be afraid of opening up, looking under the hood, and if there’s a legit opportunity, you have to own it. You have to offer a solution. “We knew this. We observed this. We found this out. Here’s what we’re going to do about it.” That’s part of the expertise. They don’t think you’re perfect. They don’t think you’re not going to make mistakes. If you come in and you’re like, “Well, bonehead mistake number one was,” and then you’re like, “And here’s what we’re going to do about it.” I feel like, Laura, as you’re saying, as experts and professionals in their own lives, they can respect that. They may not like it, but if you know what the solution might be, and then come back and explain whether that adjustment worked or not, I think they accept your professionalism at that point.

Jarrett Smith:
Joel, I want to circle back to something. In the past, I’ve heard you talk about when you’re new at a school, the importance of understanding the types of reports the board was receiving, and the definitions they were using, and then how you’re reporting, which may be a little bit different, meshes with that. Could you set that up a little bit? I think you called out some important things to be aware of about that.

Joel Bauman:
Yeah. Thanks for reminding me. That would go under the bonehead category, mistake number one, new to reporting to trustees. What I have learned, and what I think now works really well, is finish out … If you’re new to an institution, you’re taking over, and possibly, if there’s a new trustee on the committee, this might work, as well, finish out, in their first meeting, what the historic trajectory, what the historic presentation mode, what they’re used to seeing. Then leave time at the end for, “Does this work for you?” Literally, survey them for their interests. This last go round, I found out that they actually hated the format of being reported to, each unit coming in, reporting their expert level, and then leaving, and then having 50 pages of reporting.

What they wanted to do was ask questions. So, we surveyed them, and then we found out three of them want the snapshots, want the reports, need to go into every nitty gritty detail, because they’re also on the audit committee. So, that’s their role. Four of them are former marketing experts. They’re like, “Let’s talk ideas.” Then three of them are from other areas of business and do want to support, and advise, and talk strategy. So, we shifted how we have the meetings. Again, snapshot, fiduciary level information, with the definitions, with the new approaches, with the kinds of reports in between. The reason I learned to do it that way was one of my first meetings at the board, I just rolled in. Again, “I’m the smartest one in the room. I’m new. I’ve got to point out where the data points are.”

I said something like, “We only deny two percent of our applicant pool.” Now, I didn’t go and say, “But you determine an admit rate in a different …” When I said, “We deny two percent of the pool,” the one trustee, who had been on the board many, many, many years, in response to reporting selectivity, and SAT score averages, and really hung up on those fiduciary details to make sure we were reporting them correctly to US News and World Report, was … He said, “That would mean we have a 98% admit rate.” Well, we didn’t. We didn’t report that. In the middle of the meeting, I couldn’t say no, because I see what he said. I said two percent. That caused a little bit of a ruckus.

To Karen’s point, that was a surprise. That’s not a statistic anybody wanted to hear or thought about. So, it took months … It took months to put the toothpaste back in the tube on that one. Right? We had to explain, “Well, admit rates are this. We do deny, but you count them like this. The point was we need a bigger …” What I was trying to say is, “We need a bigger applicant pool. We need a bigger funnel. That’s the direction we’re going in as a strategy.” But I chose the wrong indicator to make that point. That was painful. I mean, that undermined … the exact opposite effect of what I was trying to do. It undermined the integrity. They thought I was fixing the number somehow, or trying to make a case against the previous administration. It just took a while to rebuild … I have a strong reputation of integrity and transparency in defining how we do these things.

That was my point. Right? We’re going to define admit rate this way. We’re going to define selectivity this way. We’re going to grow it in this fashion. I’ll report it the same way here, and the same way to faculty, and the same way to cabinet. But that was a bitter pill to swallow, by giving the wrong statistic.

Karen Foust:
One of the ways that I’ve found helpful, as new trustees were coming on, the cabinet had put together essentially a training manual for them. That covered our different areas of responsibility. It also included a list of terminologies that we use in our profession. Financial aid is full of lots of acronyms. The FAFSA, this, that, or the other. So, to actually give them our definition of that, was a helpful piece. They would have that to refer back to. You explained what the admit rate was, and how you calculated it. Some simple things like that.

Jarrett Smith:
I’m glad you brought that up, because we started off earlier in this conversation talking about when you’re new. Right? Joel, you were talking about a situation, one particular pitfall that can happen when you’re new at an institution. Of course, you also have board members that are rolling off, new ones that are rolling on periodically. You, hopefully, have the opportunity to play a role in their onboarding. It may just be an hour when they’re new, when they swing by the office. I would be curious, when you are meeting with a new trustee, what’s your punch list? How do you think about that first one hour meeting, where they are maybe at your office, and it’s your time? How do you approach that?

I always start with trying to ask them what they know. What is their mythology about enrollment, admissions, financial aid? What do they know? Right? Some of them are educated. Some of them are from their own experience, their own going through college experience or their kid’s. It’s amazing what a mystique there is around our business, even to experts in the field, such a mystique. So, I start off with maybe telling some vignettes about what our admitted students are like, a few explanations about what it’s like to go through our financial aid and scholarshipping program, some recent graduates. Just to give a flavor of the human side of who our students are.

Normally, I’d start with the marketplace dynamics, an introduction to the demographics, and then lead to the funnel, and then describe some of the internal workings of how we do go about, from enrollment marketing, from the application process, all the way to enrollment retention and graduation. A little bit of trying to influence program curricular development. “Don’t tell the provost I said that.” How important it is to have the marketing in the particular academic program, to help with enrollment. I do like, to Karen’s point, a few of the definitions. I do like some of the AGB materials to hand off and then explain it’s either dated, or applies, or doesn’t apply quite exactly to our work.

I do try to give the framework of what a tremendous industry higher education really is. I take it from the story, the narrative, of the individual student, to the fact that it’s the seventh largest export of the United States, higher education. I think … I don’t know if this is still a true fact, so you’ll have to fact check me. Somewhere along the line, I said, “Worldwide, it’s a $500 billion, maybe $700 billion, industry.” All told, including the for-profits. So, all of a sudden, you’re like, “That’s a serious industry. It’s not just about visiting the high schools, which we can get to in a minute.” Right? So, I try to establish with them a sense of the complexities, the importance, from the individual student, impacting their life.

At the end of the day, the trustees really care about students. Right? And about the quality education, and sending them off to lives of significance and accomplishment. But then also the business side of things. I have a series of documents, and reports, and suggestions of books to read, [Lisa Lingo 00:35:28]’s book, those sorts of things to ground them, if they’re interested.

Jarrett Smith:
I came across an article. This dates back to 2015, but it’s in The Hechinger Report. It talks about how schools, as they’ve, over the years, come under more scrutiny for things like the rising cost of tuition, the value of the degrees that they confer, that along with that, trustees have also … There’s been a trend for them to take a more hands-on, down in the weeds, approach, compared to years prior. I’m curious. Karen, I throw this one out to you. Is that something that you’ve seen in your own experience? Does that resonate with you?

Karen Foust:
Well, I’ve certainly observed a little bit of that, but not, actually, a whole lot. Because of the way that the president would interact with the board, and he or she served as the primary person to make sure that they were aware of what was going on in the industry, and those kinds of things. So, I’ve never really been in a situation where we had a lot of interference from board members, or wanting to really drill down. Occasionally, you’d get somebody that was overzealous. It was, a lot of times, somebody that was newer to a board, that they thought, “Well, I better drill down on this.” It’s fine to drill down, but they only really need to go so far. I’ve not seen a lot of that. There’s been a lot in the news about it, that that has been a developing trend at some schools.

Jarrett Smith:
Joel, how does your own experience with that stack up?

Joel Bauman:
Yeah. It’s a combination of, again, the interests and backgrounds of trustees. I do think it’s become much more focused on both ethical and fiduciary, regulatory … I do believe it’s a higher regulatory, much more strict regulatory environment. I think it happened after the recession with all the financial firms and financial reporting. I think after the Title IX issues, and state, and some other institutions, I think Title IX has gotten … Especially if you’ve got D-1 athletics, there’s a lot more, I think, regulatory requirements. I do think that’s become a lot more difficult. Again, state schools versus private, non-profits. Obviously, a different level of regulatory compliance required in that sector.

Very similar, same story about that one experience. It’s related to not only your own internal dynamics, but a news story broke about a competitor school up the road that either was misreporting its application numbers and selectivity, or the SAT scores, and excluding some test scores. That report comes out. It’s in your neighborhood, and the natural questions. The Varsity Blues. I don’t know any admissions or enrollment professional that, once that story broke, there weren’t trustees in their office, looking through their applications. “Who do we know? Did you let somebody in? What about the rowers?” Et cetera, et cetera. You get a story like that, there’s heightened awareness.

I have sat in a room with the president, the chair of the board, the IR director, myself, and a trustee who wanted to see that we reported the SAT scores correctly. So, we spent four hours, page-by-page, name-by-name, tracking what was in the system, what was reported. He just needed to know that we did that. There’s a couple discrepancies here and there going back, what is it, three, five years? But it was fine. Right? It was actually as tight and with integrity as you can get. So, we were able to prove that. Boy, that was painful. I do think there’s a much more difficult regulatory environment these days, particularly in the state school sector. Anyone dealing with financial aid, anyone dealing with Title IX, and particularly D-1 these days, is under a microscope.

Laura Martin Fedich:
Wow. I just want to explain it for the audience. IR, if you’re not familiar, is institutional research. That’s why they were in the room with you. There’s some controlling of the narrative that you have to do in your roles. Would you say that’s true? How do you do that?

Karen Foust:
Well, I think you do it by making sure that everybody knows that you’re operating with integrity and doing the very best you can do. You demonstrate to them, the way Joel did, that, “We have three to five years worth of data here. We found a few discrepancies, or a few honest mistakes, but on the whole, we continue to calculate our SAT scores the same way every single year. Here’s how we did that.” So, I think you just state the facts and show them that you’ve been on top of it. It’s not to say something won’t slip through occasionally. There are times like that experience with you have your annual audit, and the auditors come in. They all of a sudden have some new accounting rules that they have to follow, and you’re not aware of those. Then you get dinged a little for something, especially in the financial aid world, that you didn’t even know. It was an honest mistake, but they do give you a warning about it. You learn from that. You learn what needs to be done differently for the future.

Joel Bauman:
In the tuition-driven institutions, you really have to have your ear to the ground, and be reading the tea leaves, and understanding the dynamics. I think that the narrative … You have to be prepared, you have to count on colleagues in the business. I’ve always been lucky to have colleagues, like Laura, like Karen, like people in the consortium, or friends that I’ve worked with over the years, to be able to pick up the phone or send an email and say, “I’ve got a trustee meeting.” Different institutions, so you can’t really compare, but they want you to know that at such-and-such school, here’s what they’re experiencing. “In our environment, we are …” Then you can explain, “We’re unique. We’re not unique. We’re right in there.”

I think really counting on colleagues to be able to have … and the industry material. Right? You have to read Inside Higher Ed. You have to read the blogs. You have to listen to podcasts from quality partners. You need to understand what’s in the business. They may also come across those. You should be able to answer questions that come from a place that has context. I know what you’re saying about controlling the narrative. It’s that overall context, the framing. I’m a big fan of framing. Whatever the issue is, or the presentation is, there’s a frame around it. There’s a narrative frame and context, I think, that you have to set first. If it’s incongruent to what they believe, or they’re hearing, or what you’ve talked about before, that’s when that surprise that Karen was talking about can happen. That dissonance that if you walk into it without aware that you’re about to change the narrative, or update the context, it’s going to cause some eyebrow furrowing.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. So, while we’re talking about, I don’t know, tricky topics, it’s not unheard of that a trustee might go around the president. They have a particular agenda that they’re looking to push, and maybe they come to you, or they’re going to other members of the cabinet. How do you navigate a situation like that? How do you, I guess, for lack of a better word, respectively nudge them back into their lane, if that’s a thing that can be done? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

Karen Foust:
Well, I think we’ve both had experiences that way. Probably the one that I’ve shared most frequently was a very nice gentleman who thought that every time he rolled into town, that he needed to make sure he came by the enrollment office to find out what the numbers were, and how things were going, and then he would also make phone calls in between, and so on and so forth. As it turns out, this gentleman was somebody that I’d talked to the president about, of course, and it was a valued trustee, so you roll with some of it. But at the same time, you learn that there is a line in the sand that you can draw with it. I would not go into things with him that he wanted to know, that really had more information about students. Because of FERPA, I couldn’t share those things with him.

So, I drew the line there. I had the support of the president and the board chair on that. That was important for the board chair to know, as well. So, you occasionally will have somebody like that, who they mean well, but sometimes they take way more of your time than they really should.

Joel Bauman:
I think this is a case of you really want and hope to be working with an experienced president, an experienced board, cabinet, so that you all can know that happens when that happens. I’ve had some great colleagues on cabinet who were like, “Hey, so-and-so is asking about … they were wondering …” I’m like, “Okay.” That’s also really important to stay in conversation there, about that with the board, have with your colleagues. Do the walkthrough with your cabinet. Make sure you’re telling them what’s going to be in the report. This really excellent group of colleagues I worked with once, we shared our status reports, as opposed to the experience many of us have is, “Oh, that’s what they’re doing in that department,” because you’re at the board meeting. You’re reading their status reports. “Oh. Good. I wish I knew that.”

Joel Bauman:
You try to do that ahead of time. I’ve had presidents who thought that was their experience, and that’s the way they wanted to run things. If a trustee had questions, and if they said something in the meeting or outside the meeting, the board secretary and the board council would take the notes, and they would divvy up … If there was a question, they would divvy it up between the cabinet and say, “Get this answered. Funnel it through.” We’d all see what the questions were, and we’d respond. I had another president who worked for them that said, “Any requests for staff, cabinet, come through the president’s office.” Because his contention was where we are in the strategic plan, the work is so … There’s such volume of work that any request could throw us off the momentum we’ve got. So, at least that was the frame of talking.

It can go multiple ways. If you’re an experienced group, you’ll know that there’s a rogue member out there saying things, and interpreting things, with a possible agenda, or just misinterpreting. That makes it awkward for a lot of people, because it is a … The meeting itself is a very scripted, choreographed experience. Unless it’s a retreat, and you have a session that is free-thinking, again, those out-of-the-blue moments become awkward and difficult for trustees to process, and for presidents to manage, and for those of us who convey these demands.

Jarrett Smith:
One thing that seems to be very consistent between the two of you is, as you said earlier, Joel, relying on your colleagues, making it a team effort, and really supporting the team. If there are issues that you are bringing up in front of the board, nobody on the cabinet should be surprised about that. If a board member is maybe veering outside their lane a little bit, or aggressively pushing for an agenda, also go back to that same core team that you have and problem solve it together.

Karen Foust:
I think there are any number of times over the years where I’ve had colleagues say, “So-and-so asked a question about this topic in our committee meeting today.” That’s really helpful, because then I can address that question. It, obviously, would have been related to my area. Just to be good colleagues that way, and know when to share with your colleagues what’s going on in your meetings. I think that’s helpful, as well.

Joel Bauman:
We’re all, like Karen said, educators at heart. So, it’s important to educate. When your colleagues feel armed and well-prepared to talk about enrollment in their session, they come away … I mean, they walk away like, “Oh, I was able to answer that for that trustee.” Right? “I’m of service to that trustee, and I knew something about it.” Same thing with us in enrollment, whether we have, for example, retention under our umbrella, officially or unofficially. Right? You support, and you explain where we are with particular angles. If you’ve got graduate, you make sure you’re able to support your colleague and/or understand that there’s something else going on, and then come back and share that information. I think at the backend, there’s much preparation for the cabinet, the debrief, the hot wash, like Karen is talking about. What did you hear? What happened in your committee? How did it go? Where is the sense of the board?

Jarrett Smith:
Well, good deal. As we wrap up, you both have many years of great experience, and some hard lessons learned along the way, but also no doubt, quite a few successes due to the longevity of your careers. I’d be wondering if you had any words of wisdom for folks who are newer to the VP role, and anything you might want to share with them on this topic to help them make sure they get off to a good start? Karen, you want to tee that one up for you?

Karen Foust:
Sure. Well, we both talked throughout this, at times, about, essentially, the importance of networking. So, if you have developed a strong network of colleagues in the enrollment profession over a period of years, and now you’ve moved into a VP role, you’re going to know other people who have done the same. To be able to pick up the phone and talk to them, gather their ideas on how they even have their organization structured, or what kinds of reports they have to give out, whether it’s to the cabinet, to the faculty, to the board, those kinds of things, just get some general information from them that way. Then certainly work with your cabinet colleagues, as well, so that you have a deeper understanding.

I think it’s important to have those professional relationships, to not hesitate to pick up the phone, or send them an email, or even a text that says, “Hey, I’ve got this issue going on. Could I spend a half hour with you talking about it?” That type of thing. I think you’ll learn a lot that way, by engaging with other people. Obviously, there’s some professional opportunities, but there is no training manual for this whole thing. You just have to learn and take it step-by-step. It’s not all going to come to you overnight. There’s nothing magical that’s going to happen just because you’ve been named a VP. Rather, it’s going to take a lot of work to really get an understanding of what goes into the position and the role.

Joel Bauman:
I think that ability to commiserate with colleagues, and/or what they call that in New York, which is kvetch, to be able to call somebody and commiserate and toss around ideas is extremely important. I think Laura nailed it a while back when she said, “There is tremendous pressure, regardless of funding and regardless of where you are in the pecking order of schools.” Just varying degrees. There was an article, I think, in Inside Higher Ed a while back that chronicled the hottest seat on campus. Always is, always will be. So, there’s just tremendous pressure. You have to develop the hard skin. You have to develop, as you see with our colleagues, Karen and Laura are expert at the stoic response, mastering your emotions, mastering your business, knowing it well and knowing that you don’t know, and being able to handle that deftly.

I think if you’re going into this business, know that there’s great pressure, but also know that, like you see with our colleagues, no pressure, no diamonds. Right? So, pressure produces diamonds. I think if you come out the other end, I just think it’s one of the most underrated industries, higher ed is, out there, in its complexity and the ability to change people’s lives, and society for the better. Worth getting into, but it can be a tough road, but worth the journey.

Karen Foust:
Most definitely.

Jarrett Smith:
Well, thank you so much for your time today. Thank you for sharing all of the accumulated wisdom that you have, and this was a great episode with some just really fantastic information. Thank you both so much.

Karen Foust:
Thank you.

Joel Bauman:
Much appreciated it. I really appreciate the opportunity.

Jarrett Smith:
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full-service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done, and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. As always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

Understanding Financial Aid Leveraging with Dr. Jimmy Jung

In this episode, we talk about financial aid leveraging—the common and sometimes controversial practice of using data-driven approaches to inform how schools use institutional funds to manage enrollment and tuition revenue.

Joining us in the conversation is Echo Delta data scientist and consultant, Dr. Jimmy Jung. As a higher ed veteran with over 20 years of experience, Jimmy has successfully led enrollment management at multiple institutions around the country and has consulted internationally in the areas of marketing, program evaluation, data analytics, and student success.

We start by covering the basics of financial aid leveraging—what it is, how it works, and the kinds of data schools use to inform their financial aid models. Then, we dig deeper into the impact of financial aid leveraging, including improving net tuition revenue, controlling discount rates, and how it can help schools uncover hidden insights about their institution and the students they hope to attract.

We wrap up by talking about some of the criticisms of the practice and hear Jimmy’s thoughts on the ethical and responsible use of financial aid leveraging.

This was a fascinating conversation full of essential information for anyone looking to understand more about financial aid leveraging.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:

You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith.

Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher education and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode, we’ll be talking about financial aid leveraging. The common, but sometimes controversial practice of using data-driven approaches to inform how schools award financial aid.

Joining us in the conversation is Echo Delta data scientists and consultant Dr. Jimmy Jung. As a higher ed veteran with over 20 years of experience, Jimmy has successfully led enrollment management at multiple institutions around the country and has consulted internationally in the areas of marketing, program evaluation, data analytics, and student success. We start by covering some of the basics of financial aid leveraging, what it is, how it works, and the kind of data that schools use to inform their financial aid models.

Then we dig deeper into the impact of financial aid leveraging from improving net tuition revenue and controlling discount rates, to showing how it can help schools uncover hidden insights about their institution and the students they hope to attract. We wrap up by talking about some of the criticisms of the practice, and we hear Jimmy’s thoughts on the ethical and responsible use of financial aid leveraging.

This was an interesting conversation full of essential information for anyone looking to understand more about financial aid leveraging. Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Dr. Jimmy Jung.

Jarrett Smith:

Jimmy, welcome to the show.

Jimmy Jung:

Good to be here.

Jarrett Smith:

Jimmy, I would love it if you could just start off by giving us a quick snapshot of your work and expertise in higher ed and financial aid leveraging.

Jimmy Jung:

Definitely will do, Jarrett. Spent the last 20 years working in higher education. The first job I ever had was as an analyst creating these financial aid leveraging models and looking at the impact that it had on institutions, driving of course their revenue model up and impacting students. Allowing students to have a chance to go to college because financial aid leveraging gives additional aid to students. My passion began there. I saw the policy changes that financial aid leveraging can do to help students and institution. Now I’ve been doing it for 20 years for many different institutions.

Jarrett Smith:

Good deal. For those who might not be familiar with the term financial aid leveraging, how do you define that? What do you mean when you say that?

Jimmy Jung:

Financial aid leveraging is a pretty simple concept. Obviously, it gets a little bit more complicated in how an institution applies it, using institutional aid or financial aid strategies to impact enrollment and retention and attracting students. Something as simple as scholarship offer on the website is technically financial aid leveraging because you’re trying to drive some type of student behavior.

Jarrett Smith:

It’s interesting you kind of mentioned that because I know in the past you’ve told me, in a sense everybody has a financial aid leveraging strategy where they’re doing it, whether they realize it or not. Based on that definition, I see how you get there. But when somebody is engaging in the practice, kind of formally, of financial aid leveraging and really trying to use that as a tool to shape a class, can you give me a sense of what kinds of schools are using it? How is it actually done? I also want to preface that by saying, I realize that practices evolved over time and gotten increasingly more sophisticated. I think I just bundled like three questions up in one for you.

Jimmy Jung:

I’ll try to deconstruct it.

Jarrett Smith:

Okay. Thank you.

Jimmy Jung:

Bring me back to questions or pieces of it that I don’t catch.

Jarrett Smith:

Sure.

Jimmy Jung:

I think the first part was talking about what types of schools should do it. The answer for that is many types of schools are doing it. I think the key difference between a scholarship strategy that is put out there versus financial aid leveraging, I think the key piece is are you using data, right. A lot of times, in the past, scholarship strategy is based on what you hear from the market, “Hey, students that are asking for this,” or, “Hey, our competitors are doing it.” Then institution choose to do it. Financial aid leveraging begins where you’re looking at data and say, “Hey, is this scholarship having an impact? Is there something the data tells us how to structure the scholarships so it has impact on a yield where in students are applying.”

I think that’s the key point between coming up with a scholarship strategy versus the technical term financial aid leveraging, right. I’ve seen financial aid leveraging used at all different types of schools, private, public, small, large, medium, public flagships. Once an institution realize that they have data and they can use this data to look at their aid strategy, they often continue to do so and allows the school to really think about and develop reports to track how students are responding to the financial aid offer or the scholarship packages they’re giving students.

Jarrett Smith:

Right. What I take away from that is really it’s about making data-driven decisions. Kind of digging into the data aspect, for a minute, I mean, what kind of data are we talking about? It’s historical data, so how far back does it need to go?

Jimmy Jung:

Let’s tackle what type of data, because every institution in some way collects data. I mean, it’s impossible not to nowadays because you have these sophisticated student information systems developed by Oracle, Banner, Campus Solutions, just to name a couple. They’re very good at collecting data. Data have become cheaper to collect over time. Storage has become cheaper. Processors are faster. Data analytics has become a thing in the last five years. Institutions are sitting on [inaudible 00:05:57] and institutions collect a lot of data. The data that’s used for financial aid leveraging is no different than the data you use to track students for retention, track when students registers. A demographic data, the characteristics of students at your school is one big one. The admissions’ data, like get which students came or did not come to your school, whether or not they put it in a deposit, whether they melted.

When they applied, when did a financial aid package gets up to them. Finally, some financial aid data, whether or not they apply to the FAFSA, things like whether or not they will offer a scholarship and the loans and the state aid and the federal aid they qualify for are all important data that schools use for leveraging.

Technically speaking, we could go as far back as five to 10 years, depending on how stable you want to look and answering bigger questions of like, which academic program has been attracting students over time, right? Or looking at how effective the different changes in each tragedy were over time. To start up, you need at least two to three years of data. One, anything with data and trends, they’re kind of sometimes spurious, right. One year you’re up maybe 5%, next year, you’re down 5%. You want at least three years of data to solidify any type of strategy you’re putting up there, or at least look at whether or not there’s drastic changes in trend, because if you’re looking at just one or two years of data, the market can change that quickly, right. You don’t want to make big financial decisions on like one or two years worth of data.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. When you’re thinking about the data that you’re feeding into a financial aid leveraging model, how do you think about a year like we just had, right? 2020 is anomalous. 2021 could be equally as anomalous. How do you account for a year like that? How do you control for that so it doesn’t just like wildly throw off your model or should it wildly throw off your model? I mean, how do you navigate that I guess is my question.

Jimmy Jung:

Two thoughts. You’re right. I mean, nothing like this has happened before, at least in sort of data tracking history. The best way to go about it, and me and my colleagues in higher education has been talking about this like, “Hey, what kind of financial aid model? How do we offer this?” Based on my experience and what people have been talking about this particular year is that your market doesn’t necessarily shift drastically even in the pandemic. The students who knew about you still know about you and students who want to come to you will come to you. What we take a look at is maybe the economy, right? Higher education generally has a decent sense of how the economies impact a moment, right? One, the freshmen students, the incoming students, we leave them more price sensitive. You’re going to have to guess that some things are happening where the income is lower.

That’s given. It’s going to be lower. It’s going to disproportionately impact folks, parents, and families. They’re going to be more price sensitive. Discussion becomes, “Do you provide more aid upfront to attract students?” On the other end, the graduate end, is that in times of economic downturn, people are going to retool. Older students that are going to be getting a graduate degree who have been impacted negatively by this pandemic will want to retool. There’re government programs that sort of support that. You expect an expansion of your graduate programs.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. That’s an interesting point you bring up there. I came across a little data point the other day saying law school applications and admissions where way up year over year. A perfect example of exactly what you’re talking about, people going back to retool in times like this. Is setting aside sort of the current immediate challenges that we’re all facing and what does that mean for the models in the financial aid leveraging strategy? Just in general, when schools are adopting financial aid leveraging for the first time, what are some of the more common sort of frequent challenges that they tend to encounter as they think about doing that?

Jimmy Jung:

One of the most common one is even though we’ve been collecting data in the student information system, getting the correct data out is always the longest. It’s 90% of the work when you first start financial aid leveraging. Taking out the right data, making sure that the timing of the data is correct to make sure you have the most accurate model and working with financial aid and admissions offices to ask them those questions. “Hey, does this really reflect your admissions of behavior of your students and the financial aid offers are they correct? Is the timing right?” That’s the biggest upfront challenge.

The second piece is less of a technical piece. It’s the sort of campus cultural piece. Financial aid leveraging is not something that an institution goes in to likely because there’s investment, generally an investment of institutional funds. The senior level of the university started to be on board like, “Hey, here’s the risk. We’re offering more aid. We’re expecting this return. This is the model it’s built on. These are the assumptions that we are creating this model for. Getting buy-in from the president, the CFO, and even the VP of marketing, it’s going to be key in terms of a successful leveraging strategy.”

Jarrett Smith:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). There’s so many different types of schools out there and financial aid leveraging can be applied in so many different ways. I know historically financial aid leveraging has been used by private schools. It’s becoming a lot more common in the publics. Can you talk to me a little bit about how the leveraging strategy might change based on some institutional characteristics?

Jimmy Jung:

One of the most interesting part of financial aid leveraging, helping different schools developing financial aid leveraging strategy, especially for me, is that you never know what the data is going to show you. Doing it for over 20 years, there’s no one sort of financial aid leveraging model that fits another one. Our schools are unique. The markets in which they are sort of placed are very unique, right? A financial aid leveraging model shows that, right. Developing these models in the different types of schools, sometimes the same program at one school is not going to yield as good as academic program in another school for many reasons, right. You might not leverage off the same programs. You might not leverage off the same characteristics. Certainly, you have to think about the different rules that exist in terms of leverage strategy.

I think you mentioned public versus private. At a public institution, the leveraging model’s the same, but things you have to keep in mind are particularly different. Different states have different rules about how an institution can use its own aid. For financial aid, got to be sensitive to that. Of course the equity piece, is the model built that it gives everybody a fair chance at the aid of a certain characteristic, right. Of course at a public institution, you have to be politically sensitive about offering aid to out of state and international students. These are some of the additional things to think about in private versus public.

Jarrett Smith:

I want to go back to an interesting point that you made that the data is going to surface things that are unique to that institution that you did not expect. I think that is the value of any type of research that you’re doing, is surfacing something that you did not previously know, shining light on something. When you surface these kinds of insights, I imagine that there are times where the institution is kind of confronted with the truth or a reality that maybe they hadn’t thought of before. Can you talk to maybe some of those things that you’ve observed over the years? Any surprising insights that maybe have come out from any work that you’ve done with the school and kind of the sorts of things they’ve discovered along the way that were a little counterintuitive or unexpected?

Jimmy Jung:

Definitely. I’ll talk about my most recent example. This particular institution wanted to create a financial aid leveraging strategy to attract more freshmen students. In looking at that, we found out they’re doing extremely well in attracting freshmen student. A financial aid leveraging strategy is going to change how they attract freshmen students, right? That tool isn’t for me. Instead, it was one of their graduate programs, which they thought was doing extremely well in terms of leveraging strategy that would have worked better if there’s a change in financial aid strategy. For this institution brought into context like benchmarking, right?

They didn’t think outside of the institution. What is the standard historical yield for a public institution for their freshman class? When they took a look at that, they were like, “Hey, this is a core strength. We’re going to keep an eye on this and work on these graduate programs,” which they could gain a larger market share or more revenue from. That’s something they never considered just because they had this assumption that and what they’re hearing is, “Hey, let’s work on the freshman class.” That gave them more to think about. That gave them options to focus their institutional resources to do something that will have a bigger impact.

Jarrett Smith:

When we talk about leveraging, it’s obviously a very technical topic, but when you’re engaging in that sort of initiative, ideally, you’re going to have stakeholders from a lot of different areas around the school. You’re going to have financial aid at the table, obviously enrollment at the table. Even your institutional leadership marketing maybe at the table. As you engage in financial aid leveraging, does it have the potential to change the way those departments interact? Have you kind of seen it alter the way that those departments work together?

Jimmy Jung:

Oh, absolutely. Best cases of financial aid leveraging works when you get a lot of different departments working hand in hand. Of course the biggest two departments, admissions and financial aid. In traditional terms, admissions generally thinks it’s just as recruitment. Once we got the students to apply and admit it, we’ll hand it off to financial aid and financial aid offices think, “Okay, until they’re admitted or deposited, I’m not going to think about giving them a financial aid offer.” Leveraging works best when these two departments sort of collaborate with each other. “Hey, we’re going to meet the students. They’re going to get a financial aid offer,” but then it goes back to the admissions to maybe engage with the students and ask them the questions. “Hey, did you get a financial aid offer? Do you have any questions? How do you feel about it, right?”

To get the market sort of feedback, right. Because sometimes you make that phone call and it’s like, “Hey, a different institution offered me more and I love to come here, but your offer is less than this other institution.” You bring that feedback back to financial aid to see if there’s anything additional that they could do about it. That type of financial aid leveraging allows for a more market feedback if admissions and financial aid talk to each other. One more piece, which is the insights that you bring back when you’re doing financial aid leveraging changes marketing, right? The institution I just gave an example, for freshmen, we’re actually doing really well. We don’t need additional financial leveraging strategy there. It’s the graduate programs and marketing we’ll switch the focus from marketing potential freshmen students to these graduate programs. That type of feedback loop allows an institution to pivot their resources and allow different departments to really begin communicating and working together to achieve the institutional goals.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah. That’s a really interesting point, Jimmy. It makes me think that especially so many schools are trying to be smarter and more data-driven about how they approach marketing. This is an interesting source of information and insight. I’m wondering if you can dig in a little more on the sort of broader impact that financial aid leveraging can have though. I mean, it’s certainly an important tool for driving net revenue, but it’s not only an exclusively about maximizing net tuition revenue, is that right?

Jimmy Jung:

Absolutely. That’s where I think financial aid leveraging gets a bad rap. Yes, I think maybe most important outcome, depending on who you’re talking about, who you’re talking with, is the net tuition revenue. It’s a data process, right. How with a lot of variables essentially provides a market demand study. Another way to look at it, it’s a market demand study that allows you to put financial aid on top of it to shift the behavior of students, right? The market piece cannot be discounted because that’s where you get the insights. That’s where an institution learns most about itself and its students it attracts, right? Like the topic we just talked about, how does it drive business process changes between departments. Those insights allows you to look at certain market segments and how they’re doing, right. Because a lot of times those are sometimes more important than the financial aid leveraging part, right?

Here are things that we could change or focus on without investing a lot of money to yield students. Here are some process you change. Do we want to work on that first before we invest a lot of money in to the leveraging part? What doesn’t get told is the times when you look at leveraging. Maybe the financial aid doesn’t get applied yet. It’s the marketing changes that come first because you get very good data about how certain academic programs are doing. They get very good data about whether or not you’re attracting enough students that you want to attract, right? Definitely the process itself is worth going through because it’s a market demand study. The market demand study then sort of flows into this, can that market be impacted by financial aid, right? If the answer’s yes, the outcome is a net tuition revenue, right?

Jarrett Smith:

I do want to talk at least a little bit about some of the criticisms financial aid leveraging has received over the years. For instance, there are those that would say the practice can put certain groups of students at a disadvantage. It could ultimately hurt diversity and access. Obviously that would run counter to the mission of so many schools. How do you think about that? How do you help the schools you work with navigate those issues?

Jimmy Jung:

That’s a great question. A couple of thoughts on it. The first thought is financial aid leveraging is a tool. It’s statistical analysis that tells an institution more about SAF. That’s a way of self reflection, [inaudible 00:19:55] if I was philosophical. It will allow institutions to really take a hard look at what students are looking for in their institution. The results of it is a choice, right? If anything, that’s a tool, whether or not it’s your iPhone or your car, how you choose to use it is going to be key, right? Financial aid leveraging is a big part of that. But the reason I fell in love with financial aid leveraging as a driver to benefit institutions and students at the first institution where I learned this is the president of that institution took a look at the leveraging model and he said, “Jimmy, how do we help inner city, low income students? Because it doesn’t look like our model’s doing enough.”

He made a choice and it was the mission of that school to provide opportunities for these students. He says, “We need to invest more. Your model is telling us that we need to invest more.” He made a choice to do that. But that was only possible because the model showed that these students wasn’t benefiting as much as it should. Financial aid leveraging is a choice, an institutional choice. If you don’t think the model is telling you that it’s gearing towards your mission, you can make these policy decisions to make it so it aligns with your mission.

Jarrett Smith:

That’s such a great point, Jimmy. What I hear you saying is the model is essentially values agnostic. It’s a spreadsheet. It’s a machine learning model. It’s a whatever fancy software package you want to run on it. But at the end of the day, it’s up to the humans running the model to decide how to use it and what they’re going to optimize for.

Jimmy Jung:

It gives institution leadership choices, right? I think that’s a very good thing in terms of planning in terms of making decisions about where your institution is headed and whether or not you’re aligning to your missions of values.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, Jimmy, thank you so much for sharing all of these, your experience and insights about financial aid leveraging over the years. Before we go, I’m wondering if you could just give any sort of parting advice for folks that might be listening to this and considering whether financial aid leveraging might be right for their school. Any advice you might give them?

Jimmy Jung:

Well, if you’re an institution that are looking to become more data-driven, to think about how financial aid is impacting your enrollment more deeply, potentially, right? From a data perspective, from market perspective, then doing the financial aid leveraging process is something that you want to do. It’s a choice, right? First, it’s a market demand study. Taking a look at which students are you attracting and how they are choosing your institution and then leading on the financial aid to see how that has impacted your enrollment in the past. There’re potentially thinking about policies that you might want to change looking into the future. Obviously, I’m a big proponent of financial aid leveraging, especially for institutions taking a data-driven look at themselves, thinking about what we could do to help institutions and students enroll.

Jarrett Smith:

Excellent. Thank you for your time today, Jimmy. I really appreciate it.

Jimmy Jung:

Okay. Thank you, Jarret. Great to be talking to you about this stuff.

Jarrett Smith:

The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. As always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion, or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.co.

 

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How to Give Better Feedback on Creative Work

Whether you’re working with your internal team or an agency partner, giving good feedback on creative work can be surprisingly tricky. Do it right and you just might unlock new levels of creativity and motivation to get the job done. Do it poorly and you’ll risk sending the team spiraling off in unproductive directions.

In this episode of the Higher Ed Marketing Lab podcast, we’re joined by Echo Delta’s Creative Director, Rachel Newell. As an internationally awarded creative leader with years of experience guiding creative work for some of the world’s most respected brands, Rachel has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to critical feedback on creative projects.

We cover:

  • How to effectively prepare to deliver feedback before you even walk into the room
  • Rachel’s simple framework for identifying the right issues to focus on
  • How professional creators plan for and manage the “creative thrashing” that can bring creative projects to a halt
  • Why it’s usually more helpful to focus on problems rather than solutions
  • How to have a positive and productive conversation without over-relying on formulaic techniques like the “feedback sandwich”.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:
You are listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher education and the broader world of marketing to uncover actionable insights that you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment performance. In this episode, we’ll be talking about how to give feedback on creative work, whether you’re reviewing designs for a webpage or draft copy for your next recruitment campaign, the quality of your feedback can be the make or break factor that elevates the work and energizes the team or sends them spiraling off into unfruitful territory.

Joining us to help get on the path to better more constructive feedback is Echo Delta’s Creative Director, Rachel Newell. Rachel is an internationally awarded creative leader whose work includes some of the most recognized brands in the world. We cover how to prepare to deliver feedback before you walk in the room, how the idea of creative thrashing can help you avoid drastic feedback late in a project, Rachel’s go-to framework for evaluating creative products, and how to lead with positivity without over-relying on formulaic rules, like the feedback sandwich. This was a great conversation and will be helpful for anyone looking to hone their ability to deliver solid feedback that keeps the work moving forward. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Rachel Newell. Rachel, welcome to the show.

Rachel Newell:
Well, hey, Jarrett, thanks for having me.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, I’m excited to have this conversation, and we’re like in person.

Rachel Newell:
Yes. I’m feeling good about it, feeling good, still transitioning, but it’s lovely to see you in person.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s good to be breathing the same air and not totally freaked out about that.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah, I’m mildly freaked out, but it’s good.

Jarrett Smith:
It’ll take another year to get over that.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
So super excited about today’s topic. We’re talking about how to give better feedback on creative work. Before we jump into that conversation, I’m wondering if you could give us just a quick little snapshot of your creative background, because I think it’s super relevant to this conversation and what you do here with us.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. So from the top, my name is Rachel Newell. I’m the Creative Director here at Echo Delta. So I come from a graphic design background. So went to school for graphic design, absolutely fell in love with it. I love the range that it is. So I’ve been able to do editorial design, packaging design, found my way into advertising, which that’s a huge beast in itself, and started doing all sorts of integrated marketing. Did some work in New York City, done some work here in Central Florida. So definitely have worked with a lot of different interdisciplinary teams from different creative backgrounds. So yeah, I’m with you honing your skills of giving constructive creative feedback. I don’t know. It’s a tricky thing and it’s a lifelong skill worth honing.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, when I was prepping for this conversation, I was doing a little bit of homework and I’d forgotten about all the websites that are out there about bad creative feedback that designers and copywriters have gotten over the years. There’s some really hilarious stuff out there.

Rachel Newell:
There’s some good tumblers.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Okay. So the format for our discussion, I’ve challenged both of us to come up with three things that we would want or suggest that other folks think about when they’re delivering feedback on creative work to their teams. I’m going to let you go first. And we have not for the record compared notes beforehand. So we might have, I don’t know, we might have identical topics.

Rachel Newell:
Or I might’ve just gone rogue and not understood. Anyway-

Jarrett Smith:
We might have some serious editing to do is what you’re saying.

Rachel Newell:
Yes.

Jarrett Smith:
Okay. All right. I’ll see if I can diplomatically deliver some feedback after this.

Rachel Newell:
See, this is a meta episode.

Jarrett Smith:
This meta episode. All right. All right, Rachel, you’re up first. Okay.

Rachel Newell:
All right. My initial things, if I had to boil it down to where to start to give better creative feedback is actually with yourself and to make sure that you’re going into critiquing whatever project, knowing as much of the history to the project as possible. So often hopefully, the designers or web designers or whoever have a creative brief. And I think it’s super, super helpful just to take a beat, do your own homework, read through that creative brief or remind yourself, refresh yourself about that creative brief.

So right, you can jump into the conversation with the creatives with the same background knowledge of what are the limitations? What was the big ask? Maybe what’s the big problem? That way you can skip over saying like, hey, well, why didn’t we do this? And then they’re like, well, they said not to do a postcard, or they said not to do X, right? You can kind of not have to have that sort of stumbling into having to catch up, because that’s actually been, I think, something that I’ve experienced is the biggest hiccup and getting into a good trustworthy flow of giving creative feedback is just jumping in, doing your homework and not having that creative who’s having to receive the feedback have to start to explain the why’s and the why’s not, if that makes any sense.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s going to have a lot of that kind of foundational knowledge. And I feel like that gets just more and more important, the more projects you have in the queue, if you haven’t seen it in three weeks and you’re circling back for review, just kind of refreshing on what were we doing? Why were we doing this? What did we all agree to?

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah.

Rachel Newell:
Should I keep going?

Jarrett Smith:
Oh, I want to go next.

Rachel Newell:
Okay, I like this. I like this.

Jarrett Smith:
All right. All right. Well, I’m picturing, oh, you’re a Jimmy Fallon fan, right? So the musical wheel. Yes.

Rachel Newell:
I’m into it.

Jarrett Smith:
All right. So I’m the big Seth Godin fan because he’s written a million books, but years and years ago, I read this book from him called Linchpin. And he talks about this idea of creative thrashing. And so imagine in your mind, there’s like the timeline of your project, this nice little thin line. Every time you have a peak, or sorry, a tweak or a pivot or a change or some discussion about different alternatives and that sort of thing, it creates a little ripple on the line. And he was like, it almost looks like a seismograph. He said like, if you think about the timeline of your project, you want all of that seismographic action, all the creative thrashing to happen on the front end of the project. And it should slowly shake out as the project progresses and you have less and less thrashing. And he said like, this is how professional creators create.

They know to get all the messy conversations done on the front end, because once you’re in an execution, big changes certainly can have a big impact on like time and budget and that sort of thing. But it creates opportunities, increases the chance to miss deadlines or introduce, if it’s a technical project, maybe introduce bugs that you didn’t think through. And honestly, I think we’ve both seen that if there’s a lot of thrashing towards the tail end, it just demoralizes the team because they lose energy.

And this one I think is so important in that it’s going to make your conversations easier if you keep this in mind from the start of the project. So I think there’s a couple of ways teams end up thrashing. The first one I thought about was just the old classic swoop and poop or maybe some really influential, important person was left out of the process and they get brought in right at the tail end and they say, whoa, whoa, hold on. This is horrible. How did you get here? I feel like most people listening to this probably aren’t making that mistake. They’re organizationally savvy enough to avoid that one.

But I think the sneaky way this works in is that in a good creative process, you’re not going to jump right into execution, right? It’s going to be kind of baby steps towards some sort of finished product. I feel like if you did it right, then nobody’s going to be super surprised about how you got to that finished execution. But here’s the thing. The people that commissioned the project, the project sponsor, they’re never the people doing the work. So, if you’re like a senior leader at a school, you probably had to fight. You first recognize that there was a problem that was worth addressing, you probably had to go through all sorts of, jump through all sorts of hoops to secure the budget and the will and the focus to solve that problem. And then you finally bring it to your internal team, your agency, and you’re like, let’s go, I’ve been waiting forever. We need this like yesterday. And well, what do you mean you want to do this concepting work on the front end?

Rachel Newell:
Yeah, talk about it. And let’s explore.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, let’s explore different alternatives. I can imagine that can if it gets excessive could feel a little bit like nails on a chalkboard. So I feel like sometimes, not always, but sometimes there’s a little bit of pressure to maybe cut some corners on the front end, come on, or even if they agree to go along with the process, they may not give the early stages the focus it deserves and they might save some of that because it doesn’t look, it’s hard to see where it’s going, but sometimes I don’t know, I feel like that early part of the project, that’s where you eat your vegetables. It’s not necessarily good-looking, but there’s a lot of that foundational work.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Well, and it’s like you’re saying, but that’s where you need going back to the schism sort of chart visually that you painted. It’s that thing too, where it’s, leaders, the people who are involved in sort of the leadership level of either motivating the creatives or even that liaison between the client and account and everything where we do need to encourage those conversations and that questioning and everything like that. So all those schisms, all that conversation does happen on that front. And I mean, I know now we’re going into like, how do we even get to critiquing creative work? Without even talking about that step before, we start critiquing creative work. I think that’s part of totally respecting all the work that happened before we even got the creative brief, right?

And yeah, and I think it’s just about, I think even what I was talking about with like doing the homework, I mean, even encouraging the client to share all of their homework. So we have a better understanding that we don’t spin our wheels in an area where they were like, whoa, whoa, why did you even do that? Hold on. We shouldn’t have even touched that area or hey, we’ve done that five years ago, we want something new. So again, I think it’s just that homework, like kind of digging in the homework too of, we get really excited about the creative, we get really excited about, okay, how does it come together? What is that final polished thing? But it’s interesting that both of us, our first points were, hold on before we start even talking colors and type, let’s get everybody in the same brain space, right?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Yeah. And that’s surprisingly hard to do, especially when you have lots of different folks from lots of different disciplines. And I think like you and I, of course, we’re operating within an agency environment, but all of this totally applies to the internal team. Sometimes I think even more so, because I think when people hire an agency, they expect, yeah, there’s going to be a process and there’s going to be a thing that they’re doing. And that’s why you brought them in. But sometimes the internal team is almost more like the creative vending machine of we’re keeping the trains moving on a day-to-day basis. And so there may be even more of a temptation to skip over some of that preliminary, let’s just all get on the same page, let’s share the same brain space and make sure we’re all online.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
Cool.

Rachel Newell:
Before we move on to the next, you made me think about vocabulary too. And I didn’t write this down and I should have, so I’m going to sneak it in-

Jarrett Smith:
I have got a whole [inaudible 00:12:07].

Rachel Newell:
Oh, man, do you?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. All right.

Rachel Newell:
Because I think it dovetails, I think what we’re starting to talk about like if it’s, we talk about the sort of like high level philosophical, we all need to be in the same brain space and know the history. It’s like, okay, how do you make that tangible? And the first way, and I think this happens, I think with an internal team, you start to get that shared language that we can just get each other a little bit quicker. And it’s not thinking the same way. We’re always challenging each other’s perspectives and challenging different and better ways to leverage technology to get to better solutions. But right, there’s just a shorthand that helps.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. That I think just naturally arises when you have a team that’s worked together for quite a while. You just get there faster. Number two, but you got-

Rachel Newell:
Okay. Well, I’m wondering if yours is vocabulary. Okay. Well, number two.

Jarrett Smith:
That’s you.

Rachel Newell:
So think, because we’re doing a lot of website redesigns as of late, my brain immediately went to visual design for creative feedback, but also the supplies to copywriting, the supplies, even though some people might not think it’s like sexy, creative, but like wireframes and everything. The good old hierarchy, like what is like the core goal, what is the core messaging? What’s the core visual? And then what needs to be secondary elements. And so with giving better creative feedback, I think walking into it, asking yourself when you review work, what’s creating clarity, another way of saying what’s working, right? What’s creating clarity for me? What am I understanding? And then what elements are causing confusion? And you just need to note it. You don’t need to fix it. You don’t need to tell the UX designer or the copywriter or the designer like, this is how I would change it, but maybe just tee up, hey, this is causing confusion for me, help me figure out why that is.

But all of these things, I have clarity around, all these things are making sense. I feel like they’re working well together, but this is creating some confusion. And I think using that language for me helps create a dialogue where you’re not dictating how to fix it, but you’re just opening up for that person who’s actually creating with all the considerations that went into that project to kind of be like, okay, cool. So, if that’s a sticking point, how do I need to re-imagine this whole project potentially o, oh, that sticking point. Oh, I’m sorry. Yeah, move that over this way, or put a comma here. Maybe it’s a quick fix, but you give that power to them, it kind of solve.

Jarrett Smith:
Yep. No, I think that’s a really good one. You bring up the point of when you recognize something that needs to be addressed, not jumping straight to the solution.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. I think I had a bad habit of doing that, I still do that sometimes, but I try not to, I try to be very aware of it when I do, because I understand that that can be really overwhelming for a designer. And then, or any anybody who’s invested years and years in honing their craft and they’re probably thousands of decisions that brought them to the point where they are now, and there’s things that you’ve never even dreamed of that they were thinking about that are culminated in this end product. And so you think it’s a simple thing. Why don’t you just make that red? And they’re like, They could probably-

Rachel Newell:
ADA compliance. [crosstalk 00:15:37].

Jarrett Smith:
There’s 25 reasons why I ruled out making that background red. All right. So you brought up vocabulary. The one I thought of was the value of learning a little bit of lingo. I feel like no matter what your role is, it’s just really good to understand a little bit about the big, important things about your counterparts world. And you don’t have to be an expert in every discipline that’s represented the table. I describe as like cocktail party knowledge, like you’ve got a good working knowledge. You don’t know enough to actually do it yourself, but you understand what the big ideas are. So like if you were talking with a designer, it means to me having just a working knowledge of things like alignment and contrast and a little bit of knowledge about color theory and maybe just a little knowledge about typography in different categories of typing, some of the principles that designers use to make the choices that they make. If you’re talking copywriting, maybe understanding a little bit about headline tactics and social proof and calls to action and stuff like that.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. And I think just showing some copywriter love, I think also thinking through different adjectives that they use to describe different writing tones. I know sometimes we say friendly or welcoming, but then we run short. And so reach out to your copywriter and say, hey, what are the different ways that you describe tone so I can be better at facilitating and critiquing?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, totally. So I think when you have a little bit of knowledge, I think that does a few things. Number one, I do think it just gets you a little bit of credibility and respect from the team because it’s showing respect for their craft. And from more pragmatic standpoint, it’s just more efficient and precise to use the language that a particular craft uses. So like I thought of some examples of things you might say to a designer, you can let me know what you think about this, but I was like, you might be looking at a design and say, think to yourself, man, this really hard to read, but you don’t want to, again, stopping short of teeing up the solution, you might be able to say something a little more precise like, hey, the tone of that background color is very similar to the text that’s overtop of it. And it just, it feels like it’s a little muddy. You’re zeroing in a little bit more on like what you think the underlying issue might be. And then you can have a conversation around that.

Proximity is a big thing, right? Like showing that two things are logically related, you could say, hey, the proximity of that text or the image suggests that they’re logically related, but they’re actually not. And I’m finding that to be a little confusing or maybe that vibrant color you’re using in the subheadings is maybe actually distracting. It’s throwing off the hierarchy a little bit. Designer can hear that. You’re not telling them how to solve it. You’re just telling, I think I’m putting my finger on what it is and it saves you. I think, actually, I think is a more polite conversation than saying like, this is a jumbled mess and I don’t know where to look.

Rachel Newell:
Well, like you just said conversation. And I think that’s the thing that I have found to be the most fruitful in critiquing creative work and trying to get better creative feedback. I mean, what we’re trying to do is facilitate alignment, facilitate everybody feeling like the choices that we’re making are the right choices, we’re having the right conversation. So yeah, having that vocabulary, I think, enables you to have that conversation, you’re being able to actually exchange words and get to the heart of what the problem is or be able to praise like, oh my goodness, the color palette here is striking, the contrast is amazing.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, that’s-

Rachel Newell:
And even with copywriting, it’s like, ooh, I know in the brief it said to have to be charming and whimsical, but I totally didn’t know how you were going to do that. And you did that. And so I don’t know, it also facilitates not only critiquing, but also I think praising and building up that trust to where you can have these vulnerable conversations when you need to problem solve.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, I think that’s such a great point. And it reminds me of something. I didn’t write this down as one of my things, but it was just the idea of leading with the positive.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. There’s a lot of, like through the years, I’ve, I mean, you can hear my voice. I’m like, there’s philosophies about, what is it? Like the sandwich-

Jarrett Smith:
I hate the sandwich.

Rachel Newell:
[crosstalk 00:20:30]. You have a critique, not a negative, but a critique. And then you end with, it’s like we’re all human. I think it’s like, I do think that there’s great value in giving praise and everything. But sometimes it’s like the designer has been beating their head against the wall, trying to figure out the right composition, the right layout. And it’s like you telling them, hey, you did really, really great. And they’re like, thanks, thanks, thanks. But what’s going on? Would you tell me [crosstalk 00:21:00]?

Jarrett Smith:
I feel like there’s definitely when you treat like the feedback sandwich, I have uglier names for it, but if you do that in a formulaic way, people are like, okay, now’s the part where you say something nice and you’re going to hit me with it and you’re going to follow something. So it’s like, hey, Rachel, I love how you thought to put the logo in the top left corner of the navigation-

Rachel Newell:
In my head, I’m like, okay, where’s it? Okay. What’s the next thing? What’s the next thing?

Jarrett Smith:
And then we call it like the $10,000, but… And so, yeah, I think that’s really bad, but I do find sometimes when I’m giving creative feedback and I actually love like a million things that are going right with this, but now I’m zeroing in on this specific thing. I don’t think it’s quite working. Sometimes I occasionally catch myself and I’ll make sure and say something like, hey, I know it feels like I’m nitpicking you, but I just want you to know it’s because so much of this is so right, now I’m zeroing in on little details that I think it’d be just a little bit better. And that’s just a way to tee up. I just want you to know you did a great job, but there’s some specific things that I think we should talk about.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. And I really appreciate you doing that because I mean, you do that so many times in meetings and it’s so reassuring because I even catch myself doing it, not here at Echo Delta, but in another job, in another team dynamic, I had this just one stellar team, like this great copywriter, art director combo and they amazing ideas, always knocking it out of the park. And they always came with so many options and all of them were always so good. And just how the day the workday goes, we would have only an hour to critique things, pick a direction. And then we had to toss, keep combined certain things. So it was a bit rushed and I caught myself kind of being like, okay, I only have 30 minutes. We went through all this presentation. It was really, really great. Have 30 minutes. Okay, pick this lane. And so I started critiquing it, but I had so much pride for this team.

But a few months in, I remember the copywriter came to me and said, “Hey, am I doing all right?” And I was like, “What do you mean? What do you?” Well, I feel like we just, all I’m getting is like I’m getting better. I feel like I’m honing my craft and everything, but what am I doing right? And I had to catch myself because I was like, oh man, I forgot to just hold space to say, this is all amazing. Hold on. Now we’re honing in on this one thing. So I’m with you. It’s like, so for me, because of that experience, I’ve gotten a little bit more intentional about giving feedback, be it praise or critique, even outside of the hustle and bustle of getting a job done, if that makes any sense, just to hold space for like, I don’t want you to think it’s a feedback sandwich, right? I want this to have a genuine-

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, it’s so provocative. I’m not.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. So anyhow, just little side story there.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, just giving a little context for the critiques that you do have and that reassurance, because I think, I mean, you can speak to this more than I can because you do this more professionally than I do. Well, I don’t know. We all have our different work product. Well, no, we all have our, I guess what I’m trying to babble my way through is that we all have our different work products that we put out there.

And we, I think, try to be professional and somewhat dispassionate about I’m going to create my work product. And then I’m going to turn it over to the jackals to tear it apart and poke holes in it. And whether you’re sort of the creative and the conventional sort of classical sense or you’re strategist or you’re somebody’s manager, I mean, but we’re all invested, we’re all a little sensitive about our work and just that reassurance of, hey, you did good. 99% of this is great. I also feel like if you do the things on the front end that we were talking about, you’re far less likely to have to deliver devastating feedback to someone late in the project.

Rachel Newell:
Yes. And then, anyways, mission control has to happen. And yeah, [inaudible 00:25:25] and reset, realign, all this other stuff. But no, but it sounds like what we’re saying, sort of that initial, if somebody is going into this being like, okay, how can I be better at giving creative feedback? A part of me thinks if somebody is pondering that, it’s because they’ve gone to a creative critique or something and maybe emotions bubbled up a little bit, or maybe there was a miscommunication. And then we were doubling back to clarify and all this other stuff. So I think there’s no surprise that both of us went to conversations, how do we lay the groundwork? How do we share vocabulary?

Jarrett Smith:
How do we prevent problems before they arise in the first place? All right. I think we’re on number three for you.

Rachel Newell:
For me?

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. Make it good.

Rachel Newell:
Oh, it’s really nothing.

Jarrett Smith:
I’m never doing a podcast with you again.

Rachel Newell:
No, I love it. So how to give better creative feedback? Don’t be, I think we were talking about the sensitivities and everything. I think it’s about just slowing down and just not being afraid to just speak your mind. And I think a theme that we’re talking about here is opening up that conversation. And I think giving good creative feedback is about building that relationship with your creative so they understand where you’re coming from, you understand where they’re coming from, but you got to speak up, you’ve got to start somewhere and just, you may not see the right thing, you may not understand something, you may misunderstood the brief and you were interpreting it this way or that way.

Again, I’m sure somebody listening to this was like, oh, I wanted to say, I need to know the pixel width of this and the location of that. But I think giving better creative feedback is about just being vulnerable yourself. So you allow other people to be vulnerable and just to get to a good solution. So I think it’s just about putting yourself out there as much as you’re making other people put themselves out there.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. One thing is I was preparing for this that I kept coming back to is when you receive that feedback of like, I don’t know what’s, something is not quite right, but I’ll know it when I see it. But if that’s how you feel and you can’t pin it down and you’re like, I don’t have the knowledge or I haven’t been able to articulate what’s not working, but throw that out to the team and say, something doesn’t feel right about this, can we work through it? And can we talk about why that might be? Can you help me work through this a little bit? My ideas are a little half-baked, but I think I’m onto something.

That’s kind of like demonstrating a little vulnerability, help me problem solve this, rather than saying that doesn’t work, I’ll know it when I see it, go back to the drawing board, just like the team can’t do anything like that. So, if you learn a little bit of lingo, you have good alignment on the front end, that kind of stuff and then get helps prevent. You’re less likely to end up in that place. But if you ultimately find, I don’t have the words, it’s okay.

Rachel Newell:
And I think that’s where that sort of framework of what’s clear and what’s causing confusion. I think in lieu of having that vocabulary, having the lingo helps facilitate a conversation to kind of, well, this is working, but this isn’t working. Sometimes that’s tricky, depending on who you’re working with. That phrase, hey, this is working, this isn’t working, you may get a little bit of, well, I think it’s working, but if you’re able to say, hey, this is clear to me, but this is creating some confusion, I think it sparks, again, empathy conversation of like, well, we don’t want anybody to be confused. So hold on, let’s talk about it, what’s confusing about it and stuff.

So anyhow, so my three things were know the background, I teed it up with hierarchy, because usually, when I look at the order of events or order of elements or something, I’m trying to think through, okay, what do I need to see first? What do I need to see second? If it’s that sort of project, but then dovetailing straight into that, I’ve started to say, okay, what’s clear to me? What’s confusing to me? And then facilitate that conversation. And then the third thing of, just showing up, making yourself vulnerable, will facilitate a better vibe, working through creative feedback.

Jarrett Smith:
So you kind of that last piece that you said about saying, hey, this is, or is not working for me, and can we talk about that? And so that kind of segued into my last piece, my last little piece of advice, which was trying to keep your personal feelings in check and understand where you try and be aware of when you may be veering off into your own idiosyncratic feelings about something. And I feel like there’s kind of a lot to unpack there because I don’t know what popped into my head when I was thinking about that was like the movie Zoolander, everybody I know loves that movie. I can’t stand it.

Rachel Newell:
Oh, okay. Why?

Jarrett Smith:
I don’t know. It is so stupid. It’s so stupid. When they’re at the gas station spraying each other with gas, I’m like, I can’t watch that. Okay. But Anchorman totally on board with anchorman, also equally stupid.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Yeah. But that’s a great point, though, is like, I think that’s why I always go back to like what is the creative brief? Like what is the bigger ask? Because I think that is the tricky thing too, is this notion of creatives being a certain stereotype, like they’re artistic or like they have-

Jarrett Smith:
Supersensitive.

Rachel Newell:
Supersensitive. We’re all human. We’re all sensitive. If you’re proud of your work and you’ve put a lot of time into it, of course, anyone’s going to be potentially defensive, because again, they thought about it, they invested. But I think going into giving better creative feedback is also trying to toss the stereotypes out the door and just meet somebody where they’re at, because at the end of the day, it’s like a lot of the creatives that I work with, yes, they have their personal style, they have their personal preferences, they have done projects that have been very successful in the past.

So maybe that’s kind of they lean on those certain little shortcuts or those sorts of tricks, but we’re in a very interesting, cool industry where it’s not necessarily all about us, we get to learn so much. I mean, just with us, depending on your brief, I’m always learning something new about either a school or a certain audience or a certain interest area. And so I do have to be a little bit of like an actor or a theater person where you have to really dive into that world and-

Jarrett Smith:
And realize, hey, I’m not my target audience. It’s convenient when I am, but-

Rachel Newell:
But let me learn about it. And let’s almost just explore that in a way. And so I don’t know, again, that’s why go back to what’s the creative brief? I think to your point, like about vocabulary, like what are the technical parameters to where we can? It’s not about what do you like and what do you dislike, but it is about what’s working, what’s satisfying the brief, what isn’t satisfying the brief and how can we get closer to that.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah. I feel like this thing, the personal preferences can come up in sneaky ways. One thing I’ve noticed, I think this is an advantage we have on the agency side is we get to jump between a lot of different brands, a lot of different types of projects. But when you’re on an internal team and you’re working with the same brand day after day, I’ve observed that very quickly, there’s like a boredom that sets in. It starts out as efficiency, look, we’re all doing the same kinds of work over and over again. And it is efficient, but then I think there can become a level of boredom and dissatisfaction with it.

We’ve got to stretch out and break into something new. And that’s not really driven by a strategy, that’s not really being driven by the recognition of a need. It’s just more like, no, we need some novelty here. And I think that can be channeled in productive ways, but I’ve also seen schools that maybe have like a really distinctive asset, something that appears throughout their marketing. It’s like just something that’s really unique and interesting. And they should be just shouting it from the rooftops and never stop. And then they’re like, oh, but I’m so tired of seeing this thing in our marketing materials. It’s like, really, because your target audience was just now starting to tune in and pay attention. I realize you’re so done with it, but actually, you need to repeat it. And that’s hard. That’s really challenging.

The other thing I thought of was I wish I came up with this phrase, but it’s like the hippo effect, the highest paid person’s opinion. If you are the hippo and you know you’re the hippo, be really careful about when and how you weigh in because your opinion might have 10 times more impact than you really want it to. Sometimes it’s nice. Sometimes it was like, hey, I can get what I want. But sometimes the little side comment really throws everybody into tizzy, and maybe it didn’t need to, maybe it was just a side comment.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. And I mean, even within your internal team, there’s just going to be different personalities and everything. And even with myself sometimes, I love collaborating and I’ve come up with collaborating with other creatives and it’s just you mind-meld and you explore different things. But in the last few years, being in more of a creative director position, as much as you want to pal around with everybody and collaborate, there is a little bit of weight to anything that I say. I mean, case in point, sometimes I’ll ask a question and my creative team is like, okay, we’ll do that. And it’s like, that truly was a question. Hold on, hold on.

So again, I mean, totally to your point, if you are the hippo in the room, being mindful of that. And again, encouraging, hopefully, you have the time span to develop relationships and encourage a sense of trust and encourage open understanding of like, hey, when we’re in this phase of the project, this is exploration, like, yes, we’re critiquing the work, let’s push it. When I ask a question, I’m really asking a question, but that dovetails into you as a person that you’re critiquing work really be self-aware of if you’re asking a question, are you leading the witness?

So maybe just say what you want to say versus like, I don’t know, there’s different, if whoever’s listening, if you’re in a field of being a creative director, creative mentor, there definitely is avenues of thinking to help encourage creative thought and encourage creative problem-solving by asking questions, but just check yourself, are you in a position of mentoring and nurturing creatives? And so you want to mentor and nurture different avenues of thought to land at different problem-solving styles, or are you a CEO coming in and you’re like, why is it this green? And then they’re going to be like, oh crap, we need to make this green, hold on.

Jarrett Smith:
Yeah, everything is green now.

Rachel Newell:
So I don’t know. Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s interesting, the hippo effect. But so what is your take on that? How have you seen that played out in different recent projects?

Jarrett Smith:
Well, I think in some of the ways that you’ve pointed out where maybe you think you’re offering a simple question and you really come at it from a place of honest questioning, but people think there’s more here, you just want me to get to your answer. And you’re like, no, no, no. And you have to reassure people, I’m really just trying to engage in the thought process with you. And may be again taking what to you felt like, well, on your personal scale of one to 10 of caring, it might be a two for you, but because you said it, everybody thinks it’s a seven or an eight and we need to get this fixed now. And it’s like, well, okay, relative to all the things we’re trying to deal with, this is not a big deal for me. I can let this go. And it might even be driven by personal preference. I don’t know. So I feel like sometimes it’s helpful, you don’t want to have to caveat everything you say. Sometimes a little bit of that can be helpful.

Rachel Newell:
I would be interested to see if, because right, I’m coming at it from a total standpoint of critiquing the work in preparation for client presentation, but it would be interesting considering the audience of this podcast, if upon hearing or sort of insider agency conversations about critiquing work and everything, is there a line of questioning or is there a certain creative aspect that they’re like, cool, cool, cool, you guys were talking about super high level like briefs and stuff, but from the client side maybe or from somebody working for, not necessarily working with an in-house creative team, what their job has them bumping up against having to critique or give feedback to creative work? What are their particular pain points? I don’t know. It would be interesting to see right into Jarrett Echo Delta.

Jarrett Smith:
Right in. Yeah. Yeah. Actually, you can email me. You could email Jarrett, J-A-R-R-E-T-T, and Echo Delta, or podcast at Echo Delta, or visit our show notes and leave a comment.

Rachel Newell:
Yes. Yes. But no, seriously, it’d be interesting because such a head space of like agency critiquing work, but I wonder, I don’t know, I just wonder.

Jarrett Smith:
How does it? How does that? What are the maybe nuances of how that plays out in-house when you’re actually in that, because I do think that context matters a bit for sure? Well, cool. Well, Rachel, thank you so much for the conversation.

Rachel Newell:
Yeah. Thanks for having me. And we’ll do a movie night of Zoolander and I’ll see you cringe.

Jarrett Smith:
Cringe. Thanks. The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools just like yours, visit echodelta.co. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment, question, suggestion or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcastatechodelta.co.

 

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