When building an enrollment management team, institutions of higher education often must balance many competing needs and ideas. How can an institution synthesize all of this into a smoothly-operating, effective team? Here’s what to keep in mind.
Enrollment Management: External vs. Internal Candidates – What to Consider
When building a team, the question comes up, as it often does, of whether to prioritize internal or external candidates for open positions. Is it better to bring in a fresh perspective, or should you prioritize existing knowledge and relationships?
Ultimately, the answer will be different for individual positions and organizations. There’s not a “one size fits all” answer, and trying to find a “magic” solution is probably not a great use of time and resources. Building a team is not just about finding ideal, individual candidates, but about finding a combination of team members who can truly work together, complement each other, and produce results that are greater than the sum of the parts.
Searches that include both external and internal candidates tend to strengthen the search and the eventual team in general. In the book Leading Colleges and Universities, Marvin Krislov explains, “Searches, even with strong internal candidates, help clarify the position requirements and bolster the eventual candidate’s legitimacy.” No matter from where you’re hiring, you need a clear sense of what the position requires and what metrics you’re using to evaluate candidates. Going through the formal process of a search can truly help pin down these important guidelines in concrete terms. This is helpful not just during the hiring process, but for the long-term ongoing work of the successful candidate and his or her team.
There are pros and cons to both types of candidates. With internal candidates, there’s a level of knowledge and familiarity that can make the choice seem safer, more likely to succeed, and less likely to have a steep learning curve, particularly if you need fast results. After all, these are people who already know the organization, its quirks, and its people. Meanwhile, the company already knows more about the candidate and their on-job behavior than they ever could with an external candidate.
However, that same existing knowledge and relationship can be a hindrance to internal candidates too, as they may find themselves hemmed in by existing thinking. It’s also worth remembering that internal candidates may be wary of being part of a search out of fear that rejection for the new job will harm their standing or perceptions in their current position.
On the other side, it can be true that transformational leaders are likely to be appointed from outside the organization. Without pre-existing knowledge of how things have been done, these candidates may be more likely to bring a truly fresh approach when it’s needed. However, such a candidate may be viewed with less trust or with outright suspicion or hostility from current employees.
The Role of Change
While building an enrollment management team, it’s important to be aware of the tensions and contradictions inherent in any organization. In their article “’Teamwork’ or ‘Working as a Team’? The Theory and Practice of Top Teams Working in UK Higher Education,” Steve Woodfield and Tom Kennie lay out some of the most significant tensions to keep in mind. They include:
- collegiality and managerialism;
- the desire for individual autonomy and collective engagement;
- academic versus administrative authority;
- informality and formality;
- inclusivity and professionalization;
- stability and change.
In short, there is bound to be a tension between the need for strong decision-making and a collegial atmosphere, especially in institutions where collective decisions and a degree of informality are highly prized values. Because of this, it’s particularly important to truly develop a practice of true “teamship,” rather than just slapping the “team” label on a group of decision-makers. Intangibles like “bonding” and “chemistry” can be important (although this tends to depend on an institution’s culture), but even more so is the development of a collective agenda, which creates a shared vision, trust, and commitment.
One key building block? Don’t aim for unanimity, but instead for a spirit of creative, constructive conflict, which builds towards common goals. It’s crucial to encourage genuine debate, rather than focus on the superficial and rugsweep any major concerns. Most of all, allow for open challenge and questions; to do otherwise risks pushing people to the margins or opening the door for more “politicking” rather than active work that can help the team or the institution at large.
Woodfield and Kennie cite Patrick Lencioni’s research The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, noting the biggest obstacles to productive teamwork: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. Being aware of these potential hurdles is step one; the next step is having a proactive plan in place to ensure they don’t get in the way of the necessary work.
There are many types of heterogeneity and diversity, not just the “obvious” categories of race and gender, and all should be taken into account. It’s a net benefit for the institution! Amanda Rutherford discusses these factors in her article “The Effect of Top-management Team Heterogeneity on Performance in Institutions of Higher Education,” specifically noting that teams ought to be paying attention to a wider variety of factors.
“Traditional heterogeneity measures stemming from research in the private sector—functional background, industry experience, age, and education— appear to matter in more meaningful ways,” Rutherford notes. This is particularly significant when it comes to achieving and balancing the three most common goals of higher education: access, affordability, and quality.
Those three factors are at the heart of any enrollment management team and strategy. The trick, of course, is that those three factors are often in tension with one another; traditional thinking, for instance, would place affordability and quality as potentially opposing factors. Each of these three has an impact on the other two, and an excellent enrollment management team will need to have the perspective and expertise to develop the right balance among all three.
The other balance that a diverse team should be striking? It’s all about tradition versus innovation, and a variety of lived experiences, expertise, and priorities that can help to achieve a balance that is an overall win for the institution. Remember: the tone and priorities of the institution flow from the highest levels.
“Findings in the study at hand provide support for the notion that diversity among members of the top-management team can encourage the consideration of multiple perspectives and strategic plans such that ideal strategies selected and implemented that fit the context of the organization,” according to Rutherford.
By building a team with diverse perspectives and encouraging genuine dialogue, an enrollment management team can have an incredible impact on meeting and exceeding an institution’s goals. As always, strategy is great, but what matters most is the people.
By Ruben Moreno
About the Author
After a 25-year career in Corporate Human Resources and HR Executive Search, Ruben and his two partners co-founded Blue Rock Search based on a simple but ambitious vision of creating a firm that would “Change Lives and Organizations One Relationship at a Time.” Ruben leads the Blue Rock HR Executive Search and Higher Education Executive Search practice specializing in identifying, assessing, recruiting, and onboarding key executives in HR, Diversity, Enrollment, Student Affairs, and Advancement. Ruben is a thought leader who has helped place hundreds of executives. His clients consider him a trusted partner who takes the time to understand their organization and add value beyond executive search.
Marvin Krislov, “Balancing Skills and Temperaments on a Leadership Team,” in Leading Colleges and Universities: Lessons from Higher Education Leaders, ed. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg et al. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).
 Steve Woodfield and Tom Kennie, “’Teamwork’ or ‘Working as a Team’? The Theory and Practice of Top Teams Working in UK Higher Education,” Higher Education Quarterly 62, no. 4 (2008): 399.
 Woodfield and Kennie, “’Teamwork’ or ‘Working as a Team’?,” 409.
 Amanda Rutherford, “The Effect of Top-management Team Heterogeneity on Performance in Institutions of Higher Education,” Public Performance & Management Review 40, no. 1 (2016): 119-144.
 Rutherford, “The Effect of Top-management Team Heterogeneity,” 139.
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