How to Retain and Motivate Staff Amidst the Great Resignation


How to Retain and Motivate Staff Amidst the Great Resignation

Episode 98. April 5, 2022.

Welcome to the Office Hours with EAB podcast. You can join the conversation on social media using #EABOfficeHours. Follow the podcast on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud and Stitcher or visit our podcast homepage for additional episodes.

EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer and the University of Rochester's Dr. Robert Alexander explore the challenges of managing a successful team and department during a tight labor market. The two discuss the importance of building trust and promoting effective collaboration.

Robert and Madeleine also reveal strategies for assessing your team’s inclination (or resistance) to adapting and embracing change to overcome performance gaps.



0:00:12.8 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, our experts discuss one of the biggest challenges facing nearly every institution and business in America, How to retain support and motivate staff in the midst of the Great Resignation. It's an important topic, so give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:37.0 Madeleine Rhyneer: Well, hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Madeleine Rhyneer, and I'm EAB's Dean of Enrollment Management, and I manage our consulting practice. And today we're here to talk about creating a culture of accountability and engagement in Admissions. To set a little context before we get started, Admission teams have always managed to KPIs, including macro enrollment targets, net tuition revenue, and diversity metrics broadly defined. In fact, they may be held to numeric goals more than almost any other functional group on campus, because their success fuels institutional resources to fulfill the mission. Every year there's pressure to hit the numbers despite growing demographic headwinds, and certainly those have been exacerbated by the pandemic and students who have stepped away from higher education. So really what we wanna talk to you about today is how do you coach and mentor your admission staff to get the results that you want and need? And also, how do you support your staff who, like many in today's workforce, are stressed and vocal about what they need to be successful? With me today to discuss these provocative questions is my friend, Dr. Robert Alexander, who is the Dean of Admissions at the University of Rochester. Hello Rob, thanks for coming to Office Hours with EAB.

0:01:51.9 Dr. Robert Alexander: Hey, Madeleine. I've always been someone who was willing to go to Office Hours, especially if it helped my grade.

0:01:56.8 MR: [laughter] Well, perfect. We'll ask the listeners at the end to give us their sort of parenthetic thumbs up or thumbs down. Would you mind, Rob, briefly introducing yourself and telling us about your recent transition to lead enrollment efforts at the University of Rochester in the Spring of 2020. And I'm sure there was absolutely no challenge at all in taking on a new leadership position like that in a fully virtual world. So please, talk to us.

0:02:25.2 DA: Yeah, well, it was an exciting opportunity, and I inherited a very, very strong team at Rochester at an institution that was very much headed in all the right directions, but it was certainly a real challenge to figure out how to start engaging with people individually and with the culture of the office at large when it was literally impossible to be together in person. I was also starting from an opposite coast, which was an added dimension of challenge, but thankfully, both the technology tools generally open to anyone these days really made that an excuse that was completely illegitimate to surmount that distance. But I also had the benefit of a team that was already working with the technology tools because of a large proportion of our engagement was with international students, so the team knew how to use Zoom and knew how to work asynchronously. We also have a pretty unique model with very senior regional admission staff members, and their ability to lead projects, to lead teams, to even supervise staff members back on the home campus, despite them being located in areas all around the country, meant that there was already that facility with using Zoom, using shared documents to collaborate on projects.

0:03:53.3 DA: So that was a great way in, to a team that was already comfortable with the tools. What wasn't there was trust in me. I had probably a lot more trust in them given the track record and the plans that they were already developing, and I really started out by asking questions of "How can I help?" and "Where shouldn't I try to help?" "How can I stay out of your way in areas where you know you've got a solid strategy, a great team, and you just need to implement?" So that helped to build some trust, me being transparent about not wanting to intrude and step on their toes when frankly it was an all hands-on deck, everybody was working hard to try to get the work done amidst those challenges.

0:04:41.4 MR: I'm really taken by your approach. Many new leaders come to positions and they think, "Well, I was hired for this job because I really... This will sound unkind, but I know it at all. I know what to do. I know how to lead. I know how to bring about successful enrollment results." And I really like that you started by asking a lot of questions because it is true, in almost every circumstance, there are things that are working really well where if you start to stick your nose in, people don't love you. But then there are other areas where they say, "Hey, we'd love to get your ideas to collaborate, to think about something new moving forward." Well, it sounds like you really had that. Go ahead.

0:05:20.8 DA: It helped me get a sense of where the trouble spots were because I was allowing each team member to meet with me individually via Zoom. And that was helpful to get to know them as human beings and to ask some critical questions and see what they would share. But another tool that I used was some anonymous surveys, just using a Google form, so that people could tell me what they didn't necessarily want to share with attribution. So there was an ability there where they could indicate who was sharing this or what, but I think it was a quick way to get at what was going on below the surface without people feeling vulnerable that they were putting themselves out there. So that was also really helpful. And I didn't learn anything that I think was a deep dark secret. But it did give more freedom and ability to see what was popping up more than once from more than one person, and where were those pockets that could use some work?

0:06:30.2 MR: Well, I love that, and it's ironic. I'm thinking in a more traditional setting, if a new leader had gone to work, it probably wouldn't have occurred to them to... Certainly, they would have had those conversations one-on-one, but to use the anonymous survey, I really like that idea, so thank you for sharing that with our listeners. We're almost two years ahead of where, fast forward, you clearly survived your trial by fire, and I think you've actually really flourished in your trial by fire. Let's talk a little bit right now about setting expectations and holding people accountable in the Admission Office. We know that employees today, in every industry kind of have a new set of expectations about work flexibility, about demands upon their time, their work-life balance. And we certainly know that Millennials and Gen Z highly prize work-life balance and really need to be persuaded about mission as part of their commitment to success in work. We know that higher ed is not and I don't think should operate like a for-profit enterprise. However, what kinds of techniques and opportunities have you used or taken to motivate your team, keep them on task to achieve the important goals that you have at the University of Rochester?

0:07:46.2 DA: Well, the first thing I will say is that a collaborative approach and a humanistic leadership style, that level of transparency really builds trust, and I think trust is the foundation of great leadership and accountability. People have to trust that the work that they are putting in is gonna be similarly reflected in their colleagues, alright, so that it's not an imbalance in terms of who is pulling their weight relative to those around them. I'll also say that the opportunity rather than the obstacles of the pandemic, those were able to be exploited in terms of that flexibility, so giving people the opportunity to work when and how they saw best and still being able to see amazing outcomes. In a nearly fully virtual year, we were still able to enroll the largest entering class in the university's history with amazing academic credentials, diverse demographics, and meet the revenue targets. That in and of itself demonstrates an ability to meet those metrics and giving people some latitude of how they can do that while still trying to keep a cohesive work culture. That's the real trick.

0:09:12.1 DA: Ultimately, I think College Admissions was once a very well-defined, cyclical role and results could largely be predicted by comparing data with benchmarks from prior years, but that historic predictability was so disrupted by the challenges of the pandemic, I think it's gonna continue to be exacerbated by geopolitical crises, by the demographic shifts that are already happening under foot. So I think what we need, all of us in enrollment, in other higher ed divisions across different industries, is an opportunity to think through ways to be adaptable, vulnerable, authentic, humanistic, 'cause people need a sense of psychological safety and cooperation, so they can provide that honest feedback, so they can feel enough freedom to innovate and shift and make decisions. My mantra is that the best decision is probably gonna be the one suggested by the person closest to the problem.

0:10:28.8 MR: I really like that. I appreciate that very much. It's interesting. A lot of times when people talk about accountability and meeting goals, I think it's said with affection. I think sometimes what they're thinking about is sort of top down. I'm gonna tell you your goals and then you are going to do them. And the approach that you have just outlined is, how is it that we build a sense of shared enterprise so that reaching goals together feels like something that each one of us wants to do? We wanna participate, contribute to the success of the whole, so it's not just me working on my own particular individual goals. Does that sound like a good restatement of the philosophy you used?

0:11:08.4 DA: Very much, and I think there's also an element of making people understand that it's not my goal, it's our goal. And in fact that even across some of the frankly siloed divisions and departments on a college campus, there can really be no us and them, there has to be only us, and that takes framing a goal in a very collaborative and shared way. That might mean breaking it down into chunks. What is... When we're talking about admissions readers, thinking about the thousands of applications they may have to read, that's pretty daunting, but breaking it down and talking about what are we looking in each individual student? What are our goals for this week? We have great leadership in that area in my office, so that we have a sense of how everybody's doing, not so that we can be punitive, but so that instead we can offer support and resources right as someone starts to fall a little bit behind in their reading, rather than waiting until we're at a crisis point, and then it becomes something where everybody feels badly about it.

0:12:22.4 MR: So I think you've already touched on this a little bit, but I wanna dig into this perspective, so it sounds like you were really focused on the individual strength, skills, abilities and talents that your individual employees brought to the work, not just to their individual work, but to the team as a whole. I also recognize that one has to kind of meld those individual styles and talents into this cohesive team, and very occasionally I know from my own work experience that you will encounter people where... Even when they're thinking about how they would like to do something better, achieve a better result, they get a little bit stuck in the group think of, but we've always done it this way, and it doesn't mean they're not open to a new idea, but they can't picture what that new idea would look like. Did you encounter any of that? And what's your kinda go to response, if someone were to fall back in that, but wait We've always done it this way.

0:13:18.4 DA: No, certainly some of that happens, and sometimes I do that myself. If you're someone who is used to swinging a hammer, sometimes everything can look like a nail, so that's where I think real conversation, really trying to make sure that both parties or all parties are listening, not just talking, is a very, very important skill. Again, the foundation of that kind of relationship is trust, so sometimes it is listening to the reasons why it was always done that way, and trying to get to the heart of that history, and maybe some of the baggage that comes along because of past staff members, because of past processes, past relationships with external departments.

0:14:14.4 DA: So I also had to trust folks to make sure that they could tell me what I didn't know about the organization and about their strengths and their expertise, but then there are coaching conversations that have had to happen, both, that others have had to give to me and that I've had to have with them about helping people to see perhaps things weren't happening to them, things were happening for them or around them, but trying to take the personal element out of it, talk about why that goal was strategically important for the institution and ask them the critical question, How could we get there in a way that's more efficient or more effective than what we've done in the past? And once you give them the opportunity to weigh in and you're recognizing their expertise and giving them some ownership over the process, typically attitudes improve very quickly.

0:15:22.2 MR: So I've heard you talk about something that you call the Change Style Indicator, would you talk to our listeners about that for a minute, I think they'd be really interested.

0:15:29.6 DA: Sure this isn't the first time that I've changed jobs and entered a new organization with a level of complexity and detail that I was just unfamiliar with. At a certain point in one's career, you are no longer in a leadership position because of your technical expertise of any given area. You're instead in that position because you can provide a vision and direction and empower the team to utilize their individual sets of expertise. So a way to understand the change that was about to happen when entering two previous institutions was to use a psychological inventory test that you can do online. It's pretty inexpensive. Perhaps even your organizational behavior department or human resources office already has a license for it, that's called the CSI, The Change Style Indicator, and it was first recommended to me by a friend who is himself an industrial organizational psychologist, and very quickly, it's probably no more than 20 to 30 minutes for each individual to fill out this inventory, and what it provides back to both the individual but also in aggregate, is individuals orientation towards change on one end of the spectrum, a conserver, folks, stereotypically, more of a registrar or financial aid staff member that really likes having a rule book, a playbook, and a routine.

0:17:09.9 DA: On the other end, your stereotypical graphic designer or maybe new admissions counselor that loves recruitment and wants every day to be different and wants a whole lot of creative agency over their work. The greatest insights from that exercise never came because of what any one individual learned about themselves, but instead arranging everyone in a room with some group facilitation across that spectrum, and then looking at where everyone fell and understanding some different ways to communicate, some different attitudes that they might bring into a highly charged or a highly transitional environment, and just that level of mutual respect, understanding and communications, really opened people up to understanding each other and be able to collaborate in some really new and important ways.

0:18:17.1 MR: I really like that. So that sounds like a great tool that people might wanna implement to both to understand themselves, if they haven't already done it but it's truly to understand where others are because, I don't know about you, but I'm probably on the far leading edge of, "I like to change things up". Sometimes you like to change the things, because you need to believe they need to be maximized to get to a better result. Other times I think, "I just don't wanna do it the same way year after year." and that can for people who are not as... It isn't that they're resistant to change, but change isn't the thing they're always looking for, it can be exhausting. And so that actually can be a tool to help you manage your own approach to the work, because you can change up your own stuff radically that does not impact others. But if you are impacting others, recognizing, it isn't that they're against you, but it may take them a while to get with you, can be super helpful. Because no one likes to feel like they're either pushing too hard, or at the same time, that people are impeding progress that you believe, reasonably, should be going forward.

0:19:16.7 MR: So when you think about this tool, the CSI, and when you think about this incredible transparency, and openness and humility that you brought to the University of Rochester in your transition. Let's talk for a little bit about data. Because I'm gonna bet, at the University of Rochester, you use a lot of data. How are you using data to inform decisions, to inform changes in operations that you might wanna make, and also data so that everybody is pretty transparently aware of what's going on in the office?

0:19:46.1 DA: I think the democratization of data and the ability for everyone to not only see it, but to understand it, interpret it and discuss it, is really the key. For example, one of the ways that we've really tried to change some of our internal staff meetings, is getting away from starting the meeting, and then sharing a bunch of data in the moment. Instead, we're making data and reports, critical questions, available as part of a living and breathing agenda earlier on. That was not my idea, that was the great idea of some staff members, who really wanted more opportunity for what I would call generative discussion during the meetings. Less reporting out, more collaboration and strategizing about where we go from here. So that we're not having the analysis paralysis of just looking at the data and being dumbfounded. I think as a manager, I've experienced both ends of the spectrum. A manager in the past who loved the data, wanted more and more data, but couldn't effectively make a decision. So every question that brought an answer, only brought more questions. Then on the other end, a manager who shoots from the hip, goes with gut instinct, doesn't bring any data to bear on the situation. That's not a fun place to be either, because you'll end up making some really bad shots if you're not aiming properly.

0:21:32.1 DA: So I think there's a balance there of making sure that data is being utilized, but that we're also cognizant, that in many respects, in this era of exponential change, a regression model is gonna regress you to the mean of the past. And true leadership takes some vision on an imagined possible future, that might be radically different from what that regression model might be telling you. So it's a careful balance of the quantitative and the qualitative, and again, that's where having those relationships and getting some of the choir voices to speak up and share their insights, can be really, really valuable. Because that's how you're gonna come to understand some of the blind spots that every one of us, no matter how much knowledge and experience we have, just wouldn't be able to understand without those diverse perspectives, and the inclusivity to have those perspectives, and those voices eager to share and invited to be at the table, and to share that incredible input.

0:22:52.8 MR: So is that a little bit to help people manage their... If I'm a hammer, everything looks like a nail, a little bit of that.

0:23:01.1 DA: That's right. Sometimes you need some tape measures, and maybe even a laser first, to make sure that you're gonna put that nail in the right place.

0:23:11.0 MR: So, digging into data just a little bit more. I've had the experience sometimes in transitions where people know that they want to do some things differently, but they're not sure where to start. And often I have found data in terms of an analysis of, what are the contacts, what are the interactions, historically or actually leading to enrollments, is a way to bring people from the work that they do where they feel really good. They feel that they're sharing the great news about the institution, and they're out there meeting students and families. But if it's actually not producing the desired results in terms of applications, and then enrollments. So you feel good about it, but then it's not actually driving the behavior that the institution really needs. Do you have any examples you could share about how you use data to inform not just strategies, overall strategies. But if you're thinking about, we have limited human and cap financial resources, where our greatest opportunities to double down, and we're gonna use some data to try and figure out what our best bets might be, and then apply that wonderful human lens and collaborative approach that you were talking about. Have you seen that? What have you done there?

0:24:24.7 DA: Right. I've been thinking about that a lot, because the pandemic provided a great case study in what would happen if we eliminated all traditional high school visits. Well, all of a sudden, we had to eliminate all traditional high school visits.

0:24:37.7 DA: That's an area where I think every admissions leader, every admission counselor who's sitting in a high school lunch room, questioning some of their life decisions at that point has had to think about. Now, we've got great data on what is really possible in the virtual environment, what's possible with admission counselors working with hybrid schedules, what's possible in terms of even with international recruiting, asynchronous and synchronous digital communication. Now what I think we will be doing going forward is really trying to be incredibly thoughtful about where we are investing our time, talent and treasure for in-person events, and how do we make those in-person events do something more meaningful than what we could be doing on Zoom or through a YouTube video, how do we maximize the interactive and engaging aspects of an in-person interaction, whether that's at a student's high school, in a prospective student, student families, local region, or even in terms of the campus visit.

0:25:57.8 DA: How is that going to change when a traditional lecture-style information session can be accomplished, perhaps even more effectively virtually than in-person. So these are the questions where looking at the data from the virtual interactions and the kinds of results we've got will lead us to, I think, better and innovative solutions that if there hadn't been a pandemic, might have taken us a decade to get to. Well, now we're getting there in 2-3 years.

0:26:37.5 MR: Have you contact manage any and... Sorry, I'm getting on a backward way too. In some instances, I have observed teams that were incredibly nimble and agile during the pandemic, and my hat is totally off to them for their success, but as things are... As we're reverting to a somewhat more normal environment in terms of personal interactions and travel, there's always this kind of human tendency to revert to the mean, and it sounds like maybe with the experience that your team has had, that they really are thinking about the virtual experience versus the in-person experience in a very human way, but also in a very data-driven way, so that you can take that time, treasure and talent, and put it to your great impact. Would you say that's true, Rob?

0:27:24.7 DA: Would and I think we have to. It's not necessarily because we're any smarter than anybody else, it's frankly because we can't continue to do everything we used to do in-person, plus everything that we have now rolled out to great success virtually. So now it's really having to be thoughtful and select which of those options are gonna be the best for that particular moment in the enrollment life cycle for that particular student demographic, so we think it's pretty important to have an opportunity for some of our underrepresented students to really have the opportunity to visit campus. That simply wasn't possible last year, this year, we had to really work hard to devote some financial resources to making that happen, and a lot of staff time, but that was one where it was just very obvious to everyone that this would be well worth the investment for those students going through their college process, that's one example where we know we're gonna reinvest in-person. At the same time, when we think about international recruitment, I was having a conversation today that spring travel just... We really don't see that happening, because the investment of time and money that would take to get somewhere and still see a lot of restrictions in terms of what we might really be able to do in-country just doesn't seem to be there compared with the...

0:29:06.8 DA: Zero additional cost of continuing to do things virtually and perhaps having many more times the impact in terms of numbers of interactions with schools, with students, with families. We're gonna have to be flexible and nimble as we go forward. I don't think anybody thinks that we're post-pandemic, I think we're in the midst of a trough, and I'm hopeful and optimistic that perhaps the next peak won't be very high and won't last very long, but only time will tell, so I think we've gotta continue to be very careful and thoughtful and plan some long-range plans, but include a lot of flexibility in those and firm things up just in time, in terms of making those commitments in terms of our in-person events and strategies.

0:30:07.0 MR: Got it. Well, I think one of the things that I have really appreciated is I feel that you have brought kind of a next-gen leaders lens to this topic in the conversation, because for many people, accountability, how do you motivate people, how do you hold them accountable for reaching their goals, it sounds so last century, it sounds like the kind of top-down management style that worked with previous generations, but is not totally effective today, and honestly, I don't even know if it was that effective in the past. So the transparency and humility that you brought to the process that building trust and relationships through collaboration and lots of communication, I think our listeners have gotten that loud and clear, but if you could just summarize, Rob, a couple of key pieces of advice that you would give to those who are hanging with us about how is it that higher ed leaders can most effectively help their staffs and themselves manage goals and expectations in a challenging market.

0:31:14.6 DA: I think that motivation is a myth. When you learn to change your behavior, to create the feeling that you want, instead of trying to change your feelings to get the behavior you want, you kind of take that control there. There's a... I believe that in a lot of aspects in my personal and professional life, motivation often comes after starting not before. So to me, action manifests momentum. That's one element that in a crisis, I think we often shine and we find that our people shine. Because they're not staying around, waiting to get motivated, they're plunged into action. And they have a freedom and flexibility to experiment and try things. And that in and of itself, is so motivational for people, when they feel a sense of agency, that's gonna lead to a sense of excitement and engagement. So, then it's really providing support for people and helping to empower them as a leader, as opposed to necessarily dictating exactly how they should be spending their time. I'd much prefer to be on a team where our goals are clear, but our tools and the particular strategies are very much left open to individual interpretation and for teams to work out their best way to get from here to that goal.

0:32:57.7 MR: Well, I really appreciate that. I think that's a critical piece of information. I also know that, I think you've... I've heard you also talk about staff need to feel the value of their impact, and they need to feel valued because of the impact that they're having, and have a sense of both individual and shared satisfaction about the opportunities that they're creating for the students and families with whom they're interacting.

0:33:22.8 DA: I think that that value... Serotonin is a very important component of the human experience. Knowing that those who work the hardest to help others succeed, that's what really helps a leader emerge. It's not about what they're doing, it's about their work for others. That's very central to our mission and our motto at the University of Rochester, it's about being ever better, not just for oneself, but for the community, and ultimately making the world a better place. And that's what we're all trying to do in higher education. Motivating people and helping them to feel valued comes down to not just their immediate supervisor or their director or their dean, but really the whole institution. And I've certainly also tried to let folks outside of the enrollment shop see behind the curtain and understand that it may seem like a black box, but it's not magic, it's a whole lot of hard work, and when we do it well, and when we achieve our goals, it's often our net revenue generation that's facilitating the whole campus to get raises or to see improvements in their benefits. So, we carry a heavy burden as enrollment leaders, knowing that we're often the chief revenue officers in addition to the chief enrollment officers. But there's incredible, incredible satisfaction to knowing that our work contributes in such meaningful ways to the success of the whole enterprise.

0:35:19.4 MR: Well Rob, I can't think of better words than those to end this episode. I wanna thank you so much for joining us with Office Hours with EAB, and for sharing your insights and for your friendship over the years. I'm truly grateful to you. Thank you so much for being with us today.

0:35:34.5 DA: Likewise, Madeline. Thanks so much for having me.


0:35:43.0 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we host a discussion on leadership with UMBC President, author and civil rights pioneer, Freeman Hrabowski. This is an episode you won't wanna miss until then, thank you for your time.


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