College Presidents and Chief Enrollment Officers: A strategic bond

Forging this crucial link begins at the hiring stage and pays long-term dividends in higher ed

Enrollment management presents one of the most pressing challenges for many institutions in the current higher education landscape.

Uncertain economic conditions, stretched institutional budgets, dependence on tuition revenue, increased competition for top students, and changing demographics have all intensified the need for effective enrollment strategies—and for exceptional managers to champion those strategies.

As a search consultant focusing on enrollment leadership, I’ve seen firsthand how chief enrollment officers (CEMOs) feel about their relationships with their presidents and the need for presidents to understand, support and collaborate with their enrollment leaders. 

Competition for top enrollment talent is strong, and a solid relationship with one’s president can mean the difference in whether a CEMO is content to remain in their current role. A stronger relationship with a president at another institution can compel a candidate to look elsewhere. 

In the current landscape—with what seems to be more enrollment openings than ever—CEMO candidates can be choosy. The partnership  between a president and chief enrollment officer can’t be underestimated. 

What do CEMOs look for?

Chief enrollment officers want to work for presidents who “get” enrollment. They want to know that the expectations for them are achievable, that they will have the resources to be effective, and that their president will be supportive. Conversely, candidates also want to know that they will have the autonomy to use their own judgment and make decisions for their area. 

This is a fine balance. CEMOs want to work with presidents who are engaged, but they also want to be empowered to lead and advise others on the best decisions for enrollment.

Support recruiting

Early participation in the search process indicates to candidates that a president will be a great advocate for and partner with enrollment. Presidents can do so by having recruiting conversations, in person or on the phone, with top prospects. Nothing beats a one-on-one conversation in which a president can convey enthusiasm and vision for enrollment and eagerness to partner with the next enrollment leader.

It can also be particularly effective for a president to participate in first-round interviews, even if this means meeting with candidates for only 20 minutes. It says a lot to a potential CEMO that a president will take the time to meet early in a search process. 

Another benefit is that the hiring officer—that is, the president—and candidate will get to know each other early on to see whether there is a chemistry match. This is an effective strategy to help guarantee that the president and CEMO will enjoy working together.

How to retain good CEMOs

As noted, CEMOs hope for a president who will support them through the inevitable ups and downs; they want a president who will have their back. While not every CEMO reports directly to the president, it is important for them to have a voice at the senior table. The best CEMOs are interested in being part of broader institutional conversations, and they want to be consulted when decisions are made that will impact enrollment. 

Presidents who create a space at the decision-making table for the head of enrollment will be those who tend to keep that person for the long haul.

It is important for a president and the CEMO to be in alignment, because CEMOs are key leaders in terms of institutional visibility, and their impact on public perception is often second only to the president. Through a close partnership and aligned vision, presidents and CEMOs can represent the institution with a common direction—this will help ensure enrollment success, and, more importantly, overall success as an institution. 

Amy Crutchfield is a consultant and co-leader of Witt/Kieffer’s Enrollment Management practice.

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