Discerning school leaders have realized that, in the post-COVID era of enrollment management, being full is not the same as being healthy.
It is possible, even likely, to have full enrollment but not be healthy. The inverse is true, as well; a school can have healthy enrollment but not be full.
The commitment to healthy enrollment must be a shared mindset that starts at the top and is reinforced throughout the organization. It’s more than an annual theme or a seasonal marketing campaign. It’s a way of thinking, seeing, and acting that shapes every facet of organizational life.
Some aspects of pursuing healthy enrollment are fun, even easy. Celebrating major accomplishments; recognizing faculty and staff who are living out the school’s core values; hearing glowing feedback from new families.
But there are other aspects of pursuing healthy enrollment that require determination and resolve to navigate, which is perhaps an indicator of their importance. Among the most difficult commitments is developing the institutional fortitude to address misalignment within the organization.
Misalignment typically surfaces in two areas: wrong-fit families and underperforming faculty and staff.
I said this would be uncomfortable, didn’t I?
Many schools we work with have cross country teams. Sometimes when I’m on-site leading workshops, I see kids running lap after lap around the track practicing for their next meet. It looks exhausting.
I didn’t run cross-country in high school; soccer was my thing. In fact, running for the sake of running has about as much appeal for me as watching paint dry, so I’m speculating a bit here. From what I can tell, running track requires extraordinary mental toughness. Yes, you have to be in great shape to compete but to be a legit contender, you have to develop resilience, the ability to focus, to push through. There’s nothing easy about it.
Now, imagine your school’s track coach calling the runners together at the start of practice and telling the team she’s going to switch things up a bit for today’s training.
“This may sound crazy,” she says, “but I need you to trust me on this. I heard a saying once about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. I really want us to grow closer as a team, so here’s what we’re going to do. I want each of you to take off your sneakers, and trade with another runner. You heard me. Swap shoes. It doesn’t matter if you’re the same size. That’s not the point. I just want you to know what it feels like to run a mile in someone else’s shoes. Got it? This is going to be great. Hey, why are you staring at me? Let’s go! The track’s not getting any shorter!”
Okay, you’re probably thinking, “Andy…that’s nuts! No coach would do that.”
Well, of course they don’t. Running in sneakers that don’t fit would be more about pain management than winning.
The same is true with healthy enrollment. Leaders who limp along with underperforming faculty and staff or wrong-fit families are running a race wearing shoes that are the wrong size. Sure, they can make forward progress, but they’re either wincing in pain or tripping over their feet.
In this blog, we’ll explore the dangers of misalignment and identify ways to avoid cultural missteps contributing to declining enrollment health. Let’s start with faculty and staff who are out of step with the organization.
Better double-knot your trainers …
Part 1: Underperforming Faculty and Staff Give Families an Easy Out
Parent satisfaction is the number one driver for retention.
If a family doesn’t feel like they’re getting a valuable experience at your school, they’ll do the math and conclude that for what they’re paying they could do better elsewhere. And they’ll leave. The circumstances may be complicated, but the logic is simple.
Your faculty and staff are the primary influencers of the family’s experience. If they’re doing their jobs well — whether that’s leading, teaching, counseling, coaching, marketing, fundraising, office-managing, or cleaning — families tend to stay engaged. And they spread the word in their circles about their positive experience at your school. But if families feel like your team members are falling down on the job, they share that experience, too — but not necessarily directly with you.
If your school is limping along with a faculty or staff member who isn’t living up to your agreed-upon standards and values, then you’re giving families an easy out, a reasonable excuse for leaving. It doesn’t matter how compelling your internal marketing messages may be. Expect to lose good families.
Out of Step
How do you know if you’ve got a wrong-fit faculty or staff member? Here are three potential indicators:
The Square Peg, Round Hole.
Some faculty and staff are in the wrong line of work. Yes, it happens. There are people who end up in education simply because they didn’t find anything else along the way, and now they’re at your school. And they’re miserable. They get the job done, but it drains them. They frequently shut their door to have alone time. They haven’t really made connections with all-in faculty and staff. They bolt from campus as soon as the last bell rings. Perhaps they started with a zeal for education, but they have become aloof, maybe even a bit cynical. The reality is the square-peg, round-hole people need to rethink what they’re good at and what type of work would bring them joy and fulfillment. But they don’t need to be at your school.
Or maybe you have team members who are technically competent — even exceptional — at what they do, but they just aren’t bought into your school’s mission, vision, and values. They have a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude that runs counter to your culture. These team members have a pessimistic, complaining vibe that brings other people down. You can’t contain their negativity; it spreads everywhere they go. People in the culture-drain category have a way of finding each other. They slow productivity and sap the energy from the teams they’re assigned to and frequently convene the “meeting after the meeting” to advance a competing agenda.
The "Did I do that?"
Perhaps the hardest of all to address is the team member who has a great personality, loves your school, and gives 110% every day, but they just aren’t good at their job. They’re well-intentioned, likable, and fun to be around, but they never quite seem to get it right. They’re full of apologies and self-deprecating jokes, and perhaps they even put in extra hours to get stuff done, but if we’re calling it like it is, they’re not the right person for the role. Despite the smiles and cheery greetings, these people tend to carry a lot of stress. They require extra coaching. Their teammates are hesitant to give them important projects and frequently take on more to avoid cleaning up a mess. Perhaps they’ve been at your school a long time and may even have kids enrolled. See why this is the hardest one?
Did some specific names pop into your head as you read through that list? These people need some serious remediation to get where they need to go.
To be clear, I’m not talking about team members who are strong cultural fits but are still developing the technical skills they need to excel. With coaching, professional development, practice, and time, you can grow a B player into an A- player, perhaps even an A+. But you’re probably not going to turn a C or D player into an A.
Pick Your Pain
If you’ve got people on your team who fit one or more of the categories outlined above — the Square Peg, Round Hole, the Culture Drain, or the “Did I do that?” — then it’s not if you’ll feel the pain, but how.
The lack of alignment is probably common knowledge. Other faculty and staff know it. Parents and students know it. And they’re having hushed conversations about it as they wait to see how it will play out.
Of course, these scenarios tend to drag on because many leaders prefer to avoid confrontation and want to be liked. But when we avoid or soft-pedal critical conversations, we communicate to our faculty and staff that it’s more important to be nice than it is to deliver an excellent experience for our families. We value harmony more than health.
So, which pain do you prefer? The short-term pain of a direct conversation (i.e., “Here’s what we see, and here’s what needs to change if you’re going to stay”) or the prolonged slow burn of pent-up frustration among other faculty and staff and families?
If someone is not a good fit for your team, one of the best things you can do for them (and your organization) is to invite them to find the right fit somewhere else where they can flourish. They need to move on and make room for someone else who will bring energy and ideas and drive to that role. And in doing so, you’ll give right-fit families reasons to stay and affirm to the broader community that your school is serious about employing high-quality faculty and staff.
In the next section of this blog, we’ll discuss the implications of family fit on your school’s culture.
Part 2: Misaligned Families
Not all revenue is good revenue.
In part one, we discussed the importance of alignment for faculty and staff. Every team member makes your value proposition either more or less valuable, which directly impacts the family experience. And the family experience influences retention and word-of-mouth. So limping along with wrong-fit faculty and staff can be costly.
In part two, we’ll discuss the importance of right-fit families. Of course, your marketing and admissions team members are focused on bringing in right-fit families. But what about families who managed to slip through that turn out to be…well, not a great fit?
The reality is some percentage of your currently-enrolled families shouldn’t be at your school. In fact, if you could give them their money back and have them go quietly, you would consider it a bargain.
So why invite them back? They’re bringing your culture down, creating a challenging environment for right-fit families, and making life difficult for your faculty and staff. You’d be better off without them, and they would likely be better off somewhere else.
You might be thinking, “Wow, Andy, that sounds a bit harsh.” Well, maybe. But if you’re not systematically removing families who could be better served somewhere else, you’re not making room for more right-fit families who will strengthen your culture rather than dilute it. And the sooner you get real with wrong-fit families, the sooner your faculty and staff can get back to their regularly-scheduled programming.
So, what are the indicators of a wrong-fit family?
Good people, wrong school.
Your school is not for everyone. There are families who come to you looking for things your school just isn’t set up to deliver. They have needs you can’t fulfill. But sometimes these mismatches aren’t evident during the admissions process, and they make it through. Over time, it becomes clear that what they need or what they’re looking for requires exceptional efforts that your program and team just can’t deliver within your core competencies. Or it could be that what your school requires is just more than a particular student can manage. We’re talking about good people who appreciate your school and desire to be there, but an honest assessment on both sides leads to a parting of ways for the good of all, especially the student.
Only happy when unhappy.
You know these families. You just can’t win them over; they take an adversarial approach to most conversations. They are a perpetual source of consternation for teachers and coaches. In some cases, they have legitimate concerns, but it seems more often than not they’re just used to getting their way. They take up a lot of time and energy, and it feels like you just can’t make them happy. Granted, dealing with difficult parents is par for the course, but some are just world-class complainers. Hopefully, only a few names come to mind in this category. And they need to be shown the door.
This is a particularly discouraging category of wrong-fit families because we’re talking about students who make it difficult for other students to fully benefit from your academic program. These are the kids who, through one form or another, cause disruption, making it challenging for other students to focus, participate, or enjoy their school experience. In some cases, the manifestations are unintentional. Think of a child who just can’t keep pace academically with the rest of the class. You try catching them up but to no avail. They need special attention to avoid slowing everyone else down. Then there are the more deliberate disruptions that negatively impact your school’s culture. These are the kids who exhibit aggressive behavior, who are distractions in the classroom, who spurn authority, who perpetually challenge the rules, and who find ways to make life difficult for other students.
Yes, they need help, but at a certain point, it’s out of scope for your school to manage their attitude and behavior issues. They are a drain on their peers, teachers, and coaches. This is a tough category to discuss, but one that needs to be addressed in your pursuit of healthy enrollment. If they’ve been warned, reminded, and reprimanded with no change, it’s time to move them on. Your culture will exhale with relief when they’re gone.
This category is likely among the most challenging to navigate. These families bring a set of expectations about how a school should think and operate. They may have assumed that their beliefs are commonly held and, therefore didn’t require discussion during the admissions process. But now that they’re enrolled, it’s becoming clear that their values and the school’s values are miles apart. This can range from topics such as the use of technology in the classroom to instructional methodologies to worldview perspectives.
The reality is every educational institution operates from a set of beliefs, and they cater to families and students who align with their shared perspectives and approaches. You’re going to encounter situations in which your school’s “why” and “how” just don’t match up with a family’s preferences and expectations. And that’s okay. Your school isn’t for everyone. It’s best to agree to part ways and pursue what’s best for each of you.
One marker of a school with healthy enrollment is a retention rate of 90%+
You will have some natural attrition — families moving away, changes in financial status, etc. And some will move on because they’re looking for something specific your school doesn’t offer. But perhaps some of your churn should be attributed to a deliberate parting of ways initiated by the school.
Education is fundamentally about helping kids move forward, and in some cases that means moving them on to an environment where they will be more likely to succeed — or, candidly, no longer be your challenge to manage.
Part 3: Getting It Right (An Inside Job)
Here are a few guidelines for navigating sticky conversations with misaligned faculty and staff or wrong-fit families. The principles for one apply to the other.
Know who you're for.
The reality is we could avoid a lot of these problems if we had stronger opinions regarding who our schools are for. Many school leaders want to have a really big hug; they want to welcome every family who finds their school attractive. But that’s a recipe for disaster. You can’t serve everyone. To that end, if your Leadership Team has never defined a Right-fit Family Rubric, it’s well worth the time and effort.
Right-fit Family Rubric
- Attributes of a Right-fit Family
- Description of the attributes
- Markers for each attribute
- Questions to ask to score families against the markers
The Right-fit Family Rubric will help your team be objective about who you’re looking for (and who you’re not). It will help with marketing, admissions, and retention. And it will greatly reduce the percentage of wrong-fit families who slip through your admissions process.
Lean into your mission, vision, and values.
In organizational life, we have to be able to point to objective statements that guide our behavior. For schools, this typically takes the form of their mission, vision, and values. These foundational statements inform why we exist, where we’re going, and how we behave along the way. They set clear boundaries for what we’re about, what we’re pursuing together, and how we engage with others. These statements should be a part of new team member and family onboarding, and they should be reinforced through the rhythms of school life. Repetition creates familiarity, fosters clarity, and encourages alignment.
Create a culture of clear communication.
When leading a Message Workshop for a school, I open with this quotation from playwright George Bernard Shaw: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Whether with faculty, staff, parents, or students, it’s easy to assume they have heard us and know what we mean. But the reality is key themes and concepts have to be repeated to create clarity. And we have to use direct communication to avoid costly assumptions. Encourage open, direct dialogue to get out in front of potential issues.
Be diligent with documentation.
Dealing with misaligned faculty and staff and wrong-fit families requires multiple conversations. If things implode with one big blow-up, you’ve not managed the process effectively. Maintain appropriate documentation for incidents and conversations. This practice is important for providing clarity and protection for them and the school. It’s a pain to manage and a bit uncomfortable, but when parting ways, a paper trail gives you confidence that you’re making the right call.
Follow through with courage and commitment.
If you reach the point where you can’t continue, have the difficult conversation. In most cases, when you are letting team members go or parting ways with a wrong-fit family, there will be heightened emotions. The receiver should be shocked but not surprised. It shouldn’t feel to them like it came out of nowhere. It should be the outcome of a series of open conversations that reached a logical conclusion — a parting of ways. It doesn’t mean they will agree with you, but they can’t say you didn’t try to regain alignment.
Have Your Feet Measured
You may be thinking, “Andy, you’re a marketing guy. Why are you talking about misaligned faculty and staff and wrong-fit families?”
You’re right. My firm focuses on helping schools attract and retain right-fit families. But over the years, I’ve seen too many schools limp along with shoes that don’t fit. They decide to just live with the pain of team members who weren’t really excelling in their roles. They’ve hesitated to take action on a teacher who was delivering a poor classroom experience. Leadership has been hesitant to confront coaches known to bend the rules because they’re local legends with winning records.
I’ve seen survey results where it’s clear families aren’t bought into what the school’s about. Others where kids hate going to school because another student is clearly disrupting the learning experience and managing to fly under the radar.
Right-fit families have enrolled at your school because of what they believe to be possible for their child. They’re making an investment, looking for a particular type of experience that leads to a successful outcome. If their experience flounders long enough, they’ll leave.
So think about the culture you want at your school. Is your leadership team willing to have some uncomfortable conversations and make some difficult decisions?
It takes time to leave the track, take off your shoes, and find a pair that’s just your size. But when you lace back up and take the next stride, you’ll feel a lot better. And you’ll wonder why you didn’t pull over sooner.
Are you ready to pursue Healthy Enrollment?
Contact one of our solutions advisors to learn more about how you can build healthy enrollment through a partnership with North Star Marketing.