Ship Metaphors and Storytelling With Your Board

Ready for your board meeting?

Part 2 of 3

I’ve been having this recurring dream.

I’ve just clicked the red “Leave Meeting” button, which teleports me from a call with our predictive modeling consultant (whose predictions in a dataset without precedent have all the solidity of a cumulus cloud), and drops me into the Excel sheet I’ve been using to track our current “admitted student yes rate” compared to the same dates in 2020 and 2019 (which feels like trying to gain my footing while climbing a mountain of jello). I glance into my “Creighton Dad” mug on the kitchen counter, and wonder what truths the pattern of scattered coffee grounds at the bottom might contain.

(At least I think it’s a dream. The border between “asleep” and “awake” is still a bit wispy.)

For most of us who steer admissions or enrollment ships, it’s become a truism that navigating this year has been, and will continue to be, particularly tricky. But we still have to get our ship to port this fall, and, along the way, help our institution’s leadership prepare for that ship’s arrival and how its contents compare with the institution’s plans and hopes. 

And if you’re thinking that even ship metaphors look different this year (thanks Ever Given), well… that’s very 2021 of you.

Speaking of metaphors, this year, more than any in recent memory, calls upon us to be storytellers for our campus constituents—especially our trustees—as we head through the spring and into summer and fall.

Here are four things I keep in mind as I work to keep my own institution’s stewards informed and engaged. The rhythm and cadence of your institution’s communication channels with trustees may differ from mine, but the themes are applicable whether you’re preparing for a board meeting or sending a group message.

The end… begin there

“What do you want from us in this meeting?”

Early in my tenure as Lawrence’s Vice President for Enrollment & Communications, one of my trustee colleagues asked me that question while we were collaborating to prepare for our next enrollment committee meeting.

Until she had said that, I had been viewing my presentations as command performances, shows done at the request of very important people.

Her question reminded me—and empowered me—to see my role as a strategic leader and colleague, working shoulder-to-shoulder with them, not on a stage in front of them.

She went on: “Do you want counsel? Do you want approval? Do you want us to learn something? Do you want us to stay out of the way? Think about what you want the board to walk away with from your meeting, and then build your approach from there.”

Think in themes

You have access to vast sums of data—from your applicant pool, your students, the marketplace, your competitors, your consultant (if you work with one)—that can help you locate your institution in space and time. You may be tempted to throw wide the gates and share everything you’re seeing with your trustees.

But before you back up your dump truck of data into the board meeting, think about the other things your board has to digest in their meeting—the health of the endowment, the university’s balance sheet, faculty promotion and tenure, board governance, fundraising efforts—all their fiduciary responsibilities.

How can you use your data to help inform them as they work with your university leadership team on higher-level strategy?

Frame high. Think in themes. And use the data to support those themes. Not the other way around.

When I go into board meetings now, I literally write an introductory paragraph for my mental script, and highlight the three or four things I want them to know or do. And then I use the data to support those things.

(It turns out the model we used for our early high school composition papers has some practical applications for enrollment leaders.)

Remind-Report-Repeat

You live and work in the everydayness of the enrollment world. Your trustees do not.

That’s why it’s important in your interactions with them to remind them where in the year we are before your jump right into the present moment. What big dates or mile markers (think admissions deadlines or enrollment census dates) have recently passed or are coming up, and what will we know in the days after those deadlines?

If it helps, you could think of the year like a TV series (whether you want to think of it as a drama or a comedy depends on your outlook). Each touchpoint with your trustees is an episode in the series. Spend time at the beginning of your episode—whether it’s a written report or a real-time meeting—channeling your inner showrunner, courteously helping your audience join this episode by reminding them of what happened in the last episode and where you are in the arc of the series.

You already know the trick:

“Previously on Grey’s Anatomy…”

Then give them the episode. 

When you’re done with this episode, summarize it, and then—if you’re really into show running—preview what’s going to happen in the next episode.

And then do it again next time.

Be honest

Building trust with your institution’s leadership and trustees takes time, effort and, especially, honesty—even when the truth is hard to take and hard to tell.

Whether it looks like your enrollment ship is headed into port right on time with everybody on board or it’s—um—going to need some earth-moving equipment to help it get unstuck, it serves the board and your institution’s leadership team well if you are clear and open with what you know, especially if you know it well enough ahead of time so that plans can be adjusted and course corrections can begin happening for the next cycle and the cycles after that.

However your ship is sailing these days, may your winds be favorable, your skies clear, your waters calm…

… and your canals wide and deep.

Don’t forget to read part 1 from Rick Bailey and part 3 from Rob Zinkan.

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Ken Anselment

Ken is the Dan Saracino Chair of Enrollment Management at RHB.