A successful leader of the admissions office, office of the registrar, or the enrollment team is usually a master of many arts: equal parts sociologist, counselor, coach, organizational wizard, motivation mastermind, business process analyst, and technologist. It should come as no surprise then that to do really well in a leadership role in an enrollment management office, one has to muster talent, continuing education, hard work, and a good deal of experience. In a perfect world, every leader under the enrollment management umbrella would have ideal mixes of all of these skills. In addition, each leader would have had plenty of “experiential runway” to sharpen skills and perspectives and the opportunity to make critical mistakes that enable learning and growth through paradigm shifts before being asked to make critical decisions for an organization.
Of course, as we all know, the ideal alluded to above is rarely achieved. In our higher education universe, leaders are very rarely brought up intentionally to be leaders. Few chief enrollment officers, directors of admissions, and registrars can point back to a linear progression in which they, in collaboration with their mentors, chose a sensible pathway to department or divisional leadership. In this context, a leader who has had plenty of on-the-ground professional experience already faces an uphill challenge in managing our very complex work.
The focus of this brief article will be those leaders who ascend to significant leadership roles before “their time,” when their age is below, sometimes well below, the average age of their colleagues in like positions at like institutions. The young leaders in question will consistently be in meetings in which they are expected to be key contributors but are amongst the youngest folks around the table. They will supervise teams whose average member is sometimes significantly older than they are.
Why This Matters
This topic matters for two major reasons. First, every institution will at some point need to promote a young leader into a significant leadership position. This promotion could be because of staff turnover, budgetary concerns that limit recruitment for a leadership position, or an appraisal of that young leader’s abilities that indicate the young leader is “ready for primetime.” Second, the U.S. workforce is aging. Members of the workforce that comprise the Baby Boomer and early Gen X generations are either quickly nearing retirement or are much closer to retirement than mid-career. In fact, a fulsome 43% of the workforce is over the age of 45 (“Demographics (CPS),” 2016). In higher education, the situation is even more dramatic.
The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) reports that 55% of individuals in the registrar profession have 20 or more years of experience in higher education (AACRAO, 2015). Napkin math indicates that the percentage of folks in enrollment management over 45-plus years of age could be as much as 10% higher than the general workforce. Over the coming years, retirements from the profession will lead to young leaders being increasingly called upon to serve their institutions as key decision makers.
The need to prepare to accelerate young leaders through the traditional learning curve will be pressing as the expected retirement boom takes hold in the coming years. It’s important that leaders of organizations ask themselves what pathways exist for young leaders to fast track through the growth process. It is also important for young leaders and those who are new in the profession with aspirations for leadership to start the process, empowered by their supervisors, of developing their leadership toolkits so that our organizations are prepared to move the next wave of do-it-all super humans into leadership roles.
A Framework for (Re) Thinking about Young Leaders
History is filled with examples of young leaders who have made a tremendous difference in their work and causes. John F. Kennedy was only 42 when elected President of the United States, nearly 13 years younger than the average elected age of presidents throughout history (O’Brien, 2005). George Washington Carver revolutionized agriculture in the United States. He became the first African American Professor at Iowa State University at 34 and was the head of the Tuskegee Institute’s Department of Agriculture by age 36 (Hersey, 2011). Mark Zuckerberg was only 20 when he launched Facebook from his Harvard dorm room; by age 23, he had earned his first billion (Kirkpatrick, 2011).
These are just a few famous examples to support the idea that a much-younger-than-average leader can be more than a stopgap or a backup plan. Young leaders in your organization can bring about new ways of thinking, provide a much needed creative spark for a team that lacks inspiration, and provide motivation for other early-career professionals on your team who may be working toward a larger role within your organization.
Understanding how we should think about young leaders starts by reframing the premise that experience is always useful. In order to explore this idea, let’s explore two widely understood and accepted factors that can help us predict whether someone will be successful in a particular role. The first factor is experience. Experience in this example is inclusive of time spent in related work, demonstrated excellence in particular areas of performance, and educational background. The second factor is aptitude. Aptitude is literally defined as a natural ability to do something. In our model let’s think of aptitude as potential for excellence in a variety of skillsets related to the work we anticipate a role fulfilling.
It is generally true in work and in life, if not axiomatic, that:
high aptitude for a type of work + lots of experience = high potential to succeed in role.
A great example of the experience plus aptitude model is Malcolm Gladwell’s oft cited ten-thousand-hour rule. Truly elite or phenomenal performers start with a high aptitude for a particular skill or skillset and then find ways to build upon that skillset. When the two come together at around ten thousand hours of practice, we generally find that the truly elite emerge (Gladwell, 2008). With the accepted wisdom that lots of talent and lots of practice combine for the best of all possible worlds, let’s take apart the mythology of experience. It’s not axiomatic that experience guarantees by itself the ability to be successful. In the case of our young leaders, they will all fail the experience test when examined under strict scrutiny of years on the job.
The question becomes: what other demonstrative points can be used to identify those who may be a bit short on the experience side but may have significant potential for success in leadership roles? Can you identify young leaders who have demonstrated high-level work, excellent communication skills, the beginnings of expertise, and a high degree of accountability and then substitute those qualities for the pure experience that would normally be desired in a candidate for a leadership role?
Developing Young Leaders
When a youngest person in the room has been identified within your organization and assigned to carry out a leadership role, a plan must be put in place to help that leader grow in three major areas which we will explore with more detail in a moment. The plan for developing your young leaders needs to touch three major areas.
Coaching and Mentorship
Who will serve as a coach for this young leader? Every organization has explicit and implicit rules for its leaders; someone must be responsible for explaining those rules to the young leader. Who will help the young leader figure out her leadership identity? A leader must develop a personal style that reflects the values of your organization for everything from how to run a staff meeting to the way priorities and accountabilities are organized within a team construct.
As your young leader takes the reins for the first time, someone or a group of someones must be made accountable to train the young leader on the work for which he will be responsible and how that work fits into the big picture. Assuming that your young leader hasn’t had organic, on-the-job training from a previous role, this is information that will either be learned through intentional training or through repeated mistakes as the leader stumbles about the organization trying to figure out what is going on.
Affirmation and Challenge
Every person who is asked to take on a new role in your organization, but particularly your younger leaders, must hear two messages from the department head or division head. First, “You were hired into this role because . . . .” An intentional affirmation of what qualities you think the young leader brings to bear is essential to helping that person further develop what you think is great about what she does. Second, “The items I need you to develop, in order for you to be successful in this role, are . . . .” It is crucial to send a clear signal to your young leader that he needs to develop in particular areas and that you expect that development with support from you and other mentors from the team.
The most important thing to understand is that when you have hired someone who will have a steeper learning curve than someone who has had years of on-the-job learning, you must structure the learning environment to accelerate the paradigm shift. It simply is not enough to reward a talented person with a promotion and a raise. If time and effort are not invested in helping that person learn, the risk is high that the results of the person’s performance will be below your expectations. With that in mind, let’s move on to the three major areas in which a youngest person in the room will need to develop and grow in order to thrive.
The Three Qualities a Young Leader Must Develop
Magnanimity can be generally described as a sense of generosity, forgiveness, altruism, and unselfishness. In addition to those characteristics, there is another lens that is worth considering that comes from outside higher education. This lens is derived from the work of a Jesuit priest named Dean Brackley.
After entering the priesthood, Father Dean Brackley, S.J. taught at Fordham University and served as a community organizer in the South Bronx. In 1989, in the heat of the civil war in El Salvador, six Jesuit priests were assassinated at the University of Central America through what turned out to be coordinated action by the Salvadorian military in collusion with the government in power. Following that event, Father Brackley put his name forward as a replacement for those fallen priests.
Amongst many other accomplishments, Brackley (2004) developed a concept of magnanimity that is relevant for any professional. Simply put, magnanimity involves the following attributes.
- A willingness to shed false humility. If you have gifts to share, ideas to put forward, or contributions you know you can make, you are obligated to find a way to share yourself with the organization in which you work. Holding back your gifts because it’s the “humble” thing to do is in fact a selfish act.
- To be a generous colleague, you must be able to acknowledge and appreciate your gifts and the gifts of those with whom you work.
- Finally, and most important, resentment and grudges will derail your personal and professional equilibrium severely.
It seems that there is a good deal of wisdom in simply stating that leadership and magnanimity should be dependent variables. Help young leaders see that their contributions must be shared lest they hold the organization back, that appreciation of their gifts and the gifts of others is critical, and that their world cannot be driven by political gaming based upon resentments and grudges. Additionally, encouraging young leaders to see that their ultimate role is to serve those that they lead (Lencioni, 2010) will help center the principles of leadership where they need to be centered.
Grit in psychology is a positive, non-cognitive trait based upon a leader’s passion for a particular long-term goal or objective, coupled with the drive and motivation to achieve that goal or objective. In higher education, we’re familiar with the idea of grit as a student attribute that potentially predicts future success. Duckworth’s (2016) ongoing work on this topic is notable.
In short, grit is tricky because we’re born with a certain degree of grit or lack thereof. However, the idea of resiliency, toughness and determination as a suite of career success attributes can be honed and coached. Coaching in this area is necessary. Every leader could share a chapter’s worth of stories in which mettle was tested by an outside influence and required the ability to respond fairly but in a way that put a clear line in the sand. These moments and a leader’s reaction to them are what will define a leader, more than anything else perhaps, as a leader who can be trusted to do what is right.
Whether it is responding to criticism, standing up for a team member who has been wronged in some way, or making tough decisions, grit is necessary in leadership.
While leadership identity is the last and perhaps hardest quality to quantify, helping a young leader develop a leadership identity is perhaps the key to unlocking the rest of the puzzle. The difficulty in this arena is that examples are rare in higher education in which leaders have been walked through the process of developing a leadership identity.
The following questions can be asked to aid this process.
- What type of leader(s) do you want to emulate? Why? What leadership practices do those leaders embody that you admire?
- What kind of communication style do you respond to best? How can you adapt your style for a variety of other styles on your team? What are systems of communication that you can put in place to ensure information keeps flowing?
- What individuals can serve as off-campus mentors for you? Who can you call when you need to vent and get advice without compromising the internal dynamic?
Youngest people in the room must not be left in the lurch when it comes to developing a leadership identity. When failure is not an option for your organization, you must invest the time and resources needed to help young leaders build the foundation on which all leadership work will exist.
If you are a senior leader, make room for youngest people in the room in your organization. Perhaps you already have them contributing on your team. In either case, it is vital for you to consider the ways in which you serve (or do not serve) those young leaders with their overall development in mind. If you are an aspiring youngest person in the room or are already a young leader, take stock of yourself and how you might empower yourself to seek the skills and leadership attributes necessary to become the leader you need to be.
 For the purposes of this article, I am defining “significant leadership roles” as roles that encapsulate both the leadership of people and responsibility for a portfolio of duties that are critical for institutional functioning and/or strategic goals.
 It is worth noting, and germane to the topic at hand, that the ten-thousand-hour rule is one of the most often misrepresented assertions in modern business psychology. Gladwell was not asserting that you need ten thousand hours of practice under your belt to be good at something. He was stating that you need ten thousand hours to be a phenom, to be truly exceptional. The bar for good is somewhere well south of ten thousand hours.
 If you are not familiar, it’s well worth it to read the history of El Salvador and its decades-long civil war. El Salvador’s situation provides a historical toolset for understanding foreign policy and its intended and unintended consequences. Joan Didion’s work, Salvador, is particularly recommended.
- Brackley, D. (2004). The call to discernment in troubled times: New perspectives on the Transformative \ wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola. New York, NY, United States: Crossroad Publishing Co ,U.S.
- Demographics (CPS). (2016, September 9). Retrieved September 16, 2016, from http://www.bls.gov/cps/demographics.htm
- Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. United Kingdom: Vermilion.
- Gladwell, M. (2006). Tipping point, the: How little things can make a big difference. Boston, MA: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co.
- Hersey, M. D. (2011). My work is that of conservation. ; an environmental biography of George Washington carver. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
- Kirkpatrick, D. (2010). The Facebook effect: The inside story of the company that is connecting the world. New York: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.
- Lencioni, P. M. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.,U.S.
- O’Brien, M. (2005). John F. Kennedy: A biography. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press.
- Retrieved August 24, 2016, from http://www.aacrao.org/docs/default-source/surveyresults/aacrao-2015-registrar-career-profile-report.pdf?sfvrsn=2
James Miller, BA is the director of admissions at the University of Washington Bothell (UWB). James has worked in admissions for over 10 years. In addition to working at UWB, James has worked in the admissions offices at Oregon State University, University of San Francisco, and University of Puget Sound. His career has spanned every area of the admissions office: campus visits as a student, data and operations, recruitment, and marketing. In particular, James has focused on providing access to higher education through process innovation and improvement, recruitment strategies that work to leverage both revenue-enhancing and mission-based results at a local and national level. In addition to his work in higher education, James has served the profession through a variety of professional organizations; currently he serves as President-Elect of PACRAO.