As part of my doctoral research in organizational leadership in higher education I get to read quite a few articles, dissertations, reports, and as well as relevant books. One book I’m reading now is “Leading in a Culture of Change” by Michael Fullan, a renowned authority on educational reform. I highly recommend this book to any organization going through a change or restructuring process – which leaves very few of our institutions out. Here are a few leadership guidelines from his book that I believe will help us as enrollment leaders.

The more complex society gets, the more sophisticated leadership must become.

Whether you’ve been working in higher education for two weeks or two decades you know that we live in unprecedented times in our world and in our industry. We are more interconnected than ever – as we observe regularly through our interactions with prospective students. Just as times have changed for how we communicate and remain “connected” to one another – so has the expectations on how we serve as leaders at our institutions. I’ve learned through success and struggle that the way we lead our teams must be adaptive to the complexity of the situations we find ourselves. When was the last time you asked your colleagues or direct reports about your leadership? Are there leadership behaviors you need to start doing? Are there some you need to stop? And what behaviors are you doing well and need to continue? Our leadership behaviors must adapt to fit the needs of our organizations.

We cannot tackle a problem for which the answer is unknown.

Did you know that businesses (including our institutions) spend $50 billion a year for “change consulting”? And would you be surprised to learn that 70% of those change efforts fail? Wow, that was striking to me when I read it. Yet as I look at my own experience at institutions and the change efforts undertaken, I see the contributions we made toward the 70%.

Many of us are experiencing unprecedented and chaotic conditions – with multiple voices around campus telling us how to fix the enrollment problems in our traditional, adult, graduate, and online programs.

And as the good enrollment professionals we are, we often feel the need to be strong, decisive, visionary leaders – taking the big problems and making them small. Fullan suggests that we may be in times where there are no clear answers, no simple or painless solutions. Yet too often we provide solutions before truly understand the problems. I encourage you to take the time to truly understand the enrollment problems you are facing at your institution. Don’t just assume it’s a branding problem, lack of awareness of your school, or your location. Listen to the voices around your campus that offer insight into the problem and seek to discern solutions.

“If relationships improve, things get better”

Fullan states that in every successful change initiative the relationships within the organization should get stronger. “If the relationships improve, things get better. If they remain the same or get worse, ground is lost” (p.5). This is tough to read if you are a transactional-style leader – as this style is more of rewarding task completion with rewards and failures with punishment. For those of us who fall more along the transformational style of leadership, we work to get the job done through empowering our people to serve the bigger picture needs of the organization. We emphasize a desire to lead and inspire our followers to perform well. For those who are servant leaders, there is a significant shift from everything being about the organization to being about the people who serve the organization.

Regardless of your leadership style, Fullan emphasizes that leading in a culture of change requires us to make relationship development a priority. We will not find success in our organizations if we fail to consider the impact on people. If the people in your organization connect to the mission and vision of what you’re doing – that big picture concept – then you are destined to experience sustained positive results. If you are in an entry-level or mid-management position at your institution then you will connect differently to the soul of the organization than those who are in senior leadership. If you are a senior leader on your campus then you understand the unique challenges of declining state and federal funding, constricting budgets, public relation debacles, constituent support, academic program development and faculty relations. It’s too easy to catch yourself running from one meeting to the next – tacitly ignoring all the people you walk past. We must remember that without the people in our organization, the institution will fail no matter how good your budget and strategic plans are formatted.

So where does all this leave us? Fullan encourages us to be energetic, enthusiastic, and hopeful leaders who find our place within the chaotic change culture in which we exist. If we choose to show enthusiasm and confidence in the future then that will be infectious within our organizations. If we choose to be negative, fatalistic, sad, and scared then don’t be surprised if those around you and those who follow you don’t seem to give their best. May the exciting opportunities for higher education give you the strength and encouragement to lead well each day.


Article Author

James Townsend

James Townsend

James Townsend worked as Vice President for Enrollment and Marketing at Goshen College and is currently a doctoral student at Grand Canyon University, School of Education.