Top 6 Characteristics of a Successful Chief Enrollment Officer

The role of the chief enrollment officer has always been critical to a college’s success, but perhaps no more so than it is today. A successful chief enrollment officer is all at once a business-minded go-getter, a catalyst for change, a strategic marketer and a keen analyst. Wondering what you can do to ensure you’re making a maximum impact at your school? Here are six essential qualities that every chief enrollment officer should strive to develop.

1. Be an advocate for change

Our world is ever-changing, and so is the world of higher ed. A chief enrollment officer needs to always be pushing senior leadership to adapt to the landscape as it evolves. One of today’s best examples of this—and one of the hardest things to do on any campus—is shutting down underperforming programs. In August 2018, the University of Akron announced that it would be phasing out 80 degree programs due to declining enrollment. Most colleges don’t take this vital step and continue to run programs that should have been closed down years ago. These programs are a drain on valuable resources that could be put toward newer, high-demand programs. A good chief enrollment officer is a tireless advocate for mission-critical discussions, no matter how sensitive the subject matter may be.

2. Be a rainmaker

A rainmaker is usually a key figure in the organization; not merely a salesperson, but a principal or executive who is highly regarded within the enterprise. Great rainmakers have the uncanny ability to sniff out new opportunities. They’re focused on customers and their needs, and seek to help them solve their problems or cope with their challenges. They tend to be good listeners and effective communicators. They also tend to be influential and engaging leaders, who are highly capable at motivating themselves and others. Top rainmakers don’t just make promises, they execute. They are strategic orchestrators, making sure they and their organizations deliver on the promises they’ve made by providing the results their customers expect.

3. Be a bridge builder

Bridge builders at colleges help others make the right business decisions through persuasion and collaboration, guiding stakeholders to see the financial and non-financial impact of their actions. Building trust is crucial to the success of any chief enrollment officer. I’ve learned that colleges will forgive a lack of results, if only for a certain period of time, but will be merciless if someone or something breaks a relationship of trust. Trust and confidence are not easily won but, once they are, they should be nurtured and protected at all costs. The chief enrollment officer’s role in building and maintaining strategic relationships with key recruitment partners on campus is also critical. Engaging faculty in effective ways is particularly important, given what research with admitted students suggests about their influence on student enrollment choices. Often the best way to engage faculty is to ensure that they understand how they can best help.

4. Be resilient

A key to sales success: never forget that for every win in enrollment, there are many losses that paved the way. Successful chief enrollment officers keep moving forward regardless of the difficulties or failures they experience. They bounce back quickly, creating opportunities out of obstacles.

How do you respond when you’re faced with a difficult or stressful situation? Do you run away, or do you stand your ground? In enrollment, the ability to bounce back from rejection is what will ultimately determine your success. The more you surround yourself with people who are driven to succeed despite the odds, the more you’ll find yourself inspired by their persistence.

Resilient people surround themselves with other resilient people for a reason: it keeps them from accepting failure as the end. Likewise, resilient people aren’t afraid to ask for help when they need it. By reaching out to others for resources, inspiration or even a different perspective on the situation, they find themselves more than ready to try again.

5. Be a talent scout

One of the things a great chief enrollment officer does is hire the best people. They aren’t afraid to recruit the best candidates from other colleges or pull talented people from other industries. They aren’t afraid to hire smart people, and they also have the innate ability to sense when someone is a good fit for their organization. When looking to hire the best people, you need to seek out obvious qualities like past performance, ability to meet quotas and persuasiveness, but it’s also important to evaluate a candidate’s desire to serve others.

6. Be time-oriented

The best chief enrollment officers are target and deadline driven. In the enrollment world, the trains must run on time in order to hit major milestones like application deadlines and enrollment targets. As a chief enrollment officer, deadlines are important for helping you achieve both long and short term enrollment goals. However, you won’t instantly find success in the world of enrollment by just setting arbitrary deadlines for all of your enrollment goals. Your deadlines need to set you up for success—they must be strategic.

The chief enrollment officers I’ve worked with who didn’t have the characteristics above usually don’t last very long in their role. In my experience, top-performing chief enrollment officers have consistent behavioral traits that allow them to be successful no matter where they go or what challenges that they face. Being a chief enrollment officer will never be a job for the faint of heart. It takes time, discipline and a willingness to forego conventional wisdom in a way that most people could never imagine. Overcoming the status quo takes time, and a great deal of patience and persistence. Nothing happens overnight and you’ll undoubtedly have setbacks—the important thing is to keep moving forward. In the end, being a chief enrollment officer means being someone who’s able to inspire others, being able to adapt to the changes around you and being able to become the change you want to see happen.

Photo of author

Scott is a data-driven enrollment professional with two decades of experience directing the marketing and enrollment efforts of major universities. In his role as Senior Strategist, Scott serves as a knowledgeable consultant to our clients, providing them with expert guidance in the areas of on-site and remote enrollment, student searches, CRMs and higher education marketing.