Interim Leadership in Enrollment Services – What to Consider and How to Select the Right Candidate

Interim Leadership

Interim leadership is a sound strategy

Interim leadership in enrollment services adds value.  When a top enrollment services administrator leaves the institution, it can be a difficult time for the office and the institution. Ideally, the incumbent will give the institution sufficient time to evaluate what is needed for the future and to conduct a thorough search for that person’s successor. While the perfect scenario is having a new leader in place as the previous one steps down, this is the exception, rather than the rule. Even if the departing person gives considerable notice, and gets all things in order prior to leaving, very often the institution still is not in a position to bring on the new hire immediately as the incumbent departs. Given this situation, the institution finds itself in need of an interim to fill that top spot between the time the incumbent leaves and the new person takes over. In some situations that interim might be someone from within the office – a long time assistant or associate who has the confidence of the institutional leadership, the staff and the campus community to lead the office during this interim period. Often, though, such a person is not available and the institution must seek an interim from external sources. Finding the right person to fill this interim role can be difficult, however, as there are a limited number of experienced and highly qualified individuals willing to fill such a role. On the other hand, a firm such as focusEDU can provide this type of interim leadership, providing institutions with high level, experienced professionals in the field; professionals who enjoy the opportunity to assist schools during these transitional periods and who can bring fresh perspectives to these roles.

Interim Placements Higher Education

Consultants meet outside.When considering how to fill the gap between the incumbent’s departure and the new leader’s arrival there are several factors to consider.

  • Think carefully about promoting someone from within the office to be an interim, especially if that person is a strong candidate for the permanent position. Sometimes this can be an excellent choice – maybe even a chance to take this person for a “test run,” to see how they handle leadership situations. However, this could set up a situation where a longtime associate or assistant assumes the job is theirs and could make for a very difficult situation if, as the search unfolds, that individual is not selected for the permanent position.
    • Some institutions might feel that anyone can serve temporarily as an interim in enrollment services areas so they decide to move someone from outside that specific area into the position. While this might appear logical and cost effective in the short term, it isn’t necessarily the best decision for the long term health of the office and of the institution. Positions such as Director of Financial Aid, Bursar, Director of Admissions, Dean/Director of Enrollment Management and Registrar are highly specialized fields that require very specific skills and a very specific knowledge base to do the job well. One of the goals of an interim is to be able to jump into the position right away and keep things moving forward. While someone from within the institution, but outside of the office, has institutional knowledge, they likely won’t have the professional knowledge about the specific area and would take quite a while to learn those skills, especially if their support staff is small or inexperienced.
  • Decide what you are looking for. Do you want a caretaker, organizer, change agent (including making difficult changes, paving the way for a smoother transition for the new, permanent, person), “Coach” for less experienced staff, etc.?
    • If there are concerns about the office, an interim can serve as an impartial, objective observer/evaluator of policies, procedures and personnel – basically a consultant. With the right interim in place, that person is in a prime position to provide feedback on the status of the office and, in many cases, the type of person needed for the permanent position.
    • The need for an interim often depends on the size of the office/institution – with a small office do you have someone internally with the experience and qualifications to provide the necessary leadership?
    • While most positions in the enrollment services field are running at full speed all year long, the timing of the incumbent’s departure can also play a role in determining the need for an experienced interim candidate. Does the Director of Admissions leave mid-fall, right during the critical admissions cycle? Does the Registrar leave in mid-spring, immediately prior to the fall registration cycle and prior to clearance for May graduation? In these cases having someone who can jump right in and keep things moving forward could have long lasting positive effects, and make the new person’s transition much easier.

Factors to Consider When Hiring a Permanent Leader

  • Don’t underestimate the time it will take to find a new person, and to get that person on board.
    • Sometimes, especially when a long time leader leaves a position, the institution might need a period of evaluation to determine what it needs in a new leader. This process should not be rushed just because you feel the need to get someone in place.
    • A national search takes time for evaluating and advertising the position, screening candidates, interviewing finalists and getting the new hire in place. Hopefully, any high quality, experienced, professional you select will feel the need to give sufficient notice to their current institution – while this might delay that person’s move to your institution, this is the type of professional you want at your institution, and the wait will be well worth it in the long run.
    • There can be a benefit to having the interim involved in the search as well – the interim can speak to what the job entails and help the candidates understand the institution and its expectations. focusEDU also provides search services, and an ideal situation might be an interim who also assists with the search.

The Value of an Interim Appointment

Admissions consultants meet at a table.Once you’ve made the decision to seek an external interim, finding a qualified individual can be challenging. Here are a few things to consider when selecting an interim.

  • Find a firm that provides interim placements in the enrollment services field as one of its core functions.
  • Consider the experience level of the proposed candidate – you need someone who can jump right in and hit the ground running, while garnering the respect of the faculty and other administrators – credentials and experience mean a lot in this situation.
  • In today’s world technology is a critical component of any administrative position in higher education, but it isn’t the only component. The Registrar, for example, is heavily dependent on whatever student information system the institution uses. Ideally, the interim will have direct experience with the system your institution uses, but, if not, that shouldn’t be a deal breaker. You are looking for an interim leader who will provide direction and guidance to the office and the institution, not necessarily someone who will know every detail of the student system. Most student systems these days are very similar, and an experienced interim will be able to come up to speed on any system fairly quickly.
  • Interview potential candidates via phone, at least. A typical interim appointment could be for anywhere from three to six months, and maybe longer under unusual circumstances. Given that, you need to feel good about who you will be working with for that time.
  • Be flexible about the interim’s schedule. This person will be committing to leaving home for a significant period of time so some flexibility is desirable. That flexibility could also help with funding this interim position. You will be expected to pay a salary to the interim, plus all expenses – transportation, lodging and meals – so a schedule such as working on site only three days per week, for example, might be a win/win. Also consider whether or not you are open to the interim working from home on a limited basis. Most interims will be happy to answer a few emails when not on site, but if they have to work off site for a longer time, an hourly rate would be expected. This all can be worked out in the negotiation stage.
  • When you are ready to bring your new permanent leader on board consider a period of overlap – the interim could be critical in bringing the new person quickly up to speed. Also, most individuals doing this line of work would not hesitate to assist the new person with a few phone calls or emails as situations arise.

Consultants for focusEDU walk outside.Interim Appointments In Enrollment Management

Clearly, an external interim can be a real benefit to an institution at a critical time of transition. Interims provide day to day leadership to the office, bring fresh ideas and insights to the institution, and can serve as on site consultants to provide feedback to institutional leadership concerning the direction of the office and policies under which that office operates. A highly qualified, experienced interim, such as the interims provided by the team of focusEDU, can create a positive environment at a critical time.

About the Author:

Bruce Cunningham has over 30 years of administrative experience in Higher Education, most recently serving 19 years as Assistant Vice Provost and University Registrar at Duke University. Prior to coming to Duke in 1996 he served as University Registrar at Saint Louis University, and served as Associate Registrar at Old Dominion University and West Chester University prior to that. That combination of both public and private institutions provides Bruce with a unique perspective on the world of higher education. Prior to his work in higher education, Bruce served as an Economist for the federal Departments of Labor and Energy.

Bruce holds a Ph.D. in Urban Services/Higher Education Administration from Old Dominion University. He also has a M.Ed. from George Mason University and Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Cortland State University.

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