Enrollment: A New Perspective on Leadership

As an educational leader, my job largely comes down to ‘enrollment.’ Not just enrolling high-achieving underserved students in our programs, but much more broadly, enrolling various stakeholders in new possibilities that will make a difference for them and for others.

There is a vast literature on how to influence others, going all the way back to Dale Carnegie’s 1936 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Most leaders appreciate the hard work of “persuading,” “convincing,” and “coaxing” others. (I certainly hope we can all agree that leadership is learned, not coded in our genes.) But I think it is helpful to focus less on “persuasion” and more on what I like to call “enrollment.” By enrollment, I mean presenting new opportunities to others in a way that inspires them to seize upon those opportunities and act quickly to make the most of them. I know I am using enrollment in a nontraditional way, but I think it can be a very helpful concept.

As part of my job, I need to enroll private schools in the opportunity of giving scholarships to our organization’s Scholars. That is, I need to show them why giving our students scholarships is in their best interest. I need to enroll my staff in striving for excellence. I need to enroll donors in giving us money.

I have found that enrollment has five crucial elements: honesty, passion, clarity, challenge, and fun.

When I want someone to join the Oliver Scholars team as a new staff member, I am upfront in the very first interview about all the challenges they will face joining a nonprofit organization. Some would say I do my very best to persuade them to work somewhere else! I want them to know the real scoop before they waste my time or theirs with the job search process. I don’t want anyone coming on board who isn’t up for the challenge. This bracing honesty has meant zero turnover in the last 12 months, a rarity in the nonprofit world. And we have been able to attract top talent without utilizing expensive search firms because smart professionals appreciate and value candor.

Passion is the second main ingredient of enrollment. My admissions director is so passionate about the value of being an Oliver Scholar that students are beating down our door to join the program. Last year we had an admissions rate of only 10 percent. That makes our program as tough to get into as the most selective colleges in the country.

The third critical element of enrollment is clarity. To be enrolling, leaders need to be clear in both their speaking and in their writing. Ambiguity and complexity cause others to zone out. Clarity keeps everyone focused and on point.

One of the most overlooked elements of enrollment is challenge. Everyone loves challenge; without it, we grow bored. I expect staff members to set stretch goals that they may not be able to meet. That adds excitement to the game of work.

The final ingredient of enrollment is fun. Every year, we strive to raise funds for Oliver Scholars. Part of how we do it is by having fun. Our annual gala is not just another dull, fancy dinner party. It’s a time to see old friends, laugh, enjoy good food, and have a great time.

When leaders think in terms of “enrollment” (rather than “persuasion” or “convincing”), they are more apt to be creative in their problem-solving. I look at everything through the lens of enrollment: Is our tagline enrolling? Is our website? Are our materials? I recently concluded that our logo was not enrolling enough, so I commissioned a new one.

It also helps to think about training others in enrollment. I want my program staff to be good at enrolling their constituents (e.g. students, parents, teachers, or guidance counselors) in the work of Oliver Scholars. I want my board members to be skilled at enrolling their friends and acquaintances in the possibility of becoming donors to the organization or maybe becoming board members themselves. I want our students to be good at enrolling others in their potential as future leaders in society.

Little things can get in the way of enrollment, and as a leader, it is part of my job to point them out – in a way that is enrolling! I am honest with our students if they don’t say their names clearly or if they look at the floor when shaking hands. I am also truthful with staff members when I don’t think their attire is sharp or they aren’t being considerate of their colleagues. Sometimes it is hard to be so direct – a lot of crying happens in my office and I keep a box of tissues on my desk for those occasions – but in the long run it always pays off.

Enrollment is a useful framework for thinking about leadership. In my experience, it is a powerful idea that allows leaders to escape tired modes of thought and bring fresh perspective on everyday endeavors.

David Allyn, PhD, is the CEO of Oliver Scholars, a nonprofit organization that prepares high-achieving African-American and Latino students for success at the nation’s best independent schools and colleges. Oliver identifies talented New York City students and places them at top schools with robust financial aid. The Oliver experience includes up to ten years of one-on-one support, after-school and summer coursework, and pre-career training. www.oliverscholars.org

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