Want to Retain Your Employees? Rethink Your Staffing Strategy.

Don’t hire generals. Invest in tacticians.

By: Joseph Master

When I entered higher education marketing and communications, I joined a team with a gaggle of directors, assistant directors and assorted managers of miscellany. There was a pecking order based on the priorities of the team at the time and print reigned supreme. I was an online content manager. I’d just been hired to “tweet” and rewrite a website. Naturally, I was the bottommost of the bunch.

Facebook advertising wasn’t a thing. Twitter profile themes were, though. Game of Thrones hadn’t even premiered. It was positively B.C.

After passing my introductory period, I asked my supervisor, a seasoned higher ed VP: “How do I move up?”

He laughed with equal parts delight and defeat.

“I can only promote one person a year,” he said. “This is someone else’s year.”

“Why just one?” I asked. “What if you make a case for two?”

“This is a university,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. You’ll see.”

Since then, I have reported to five deans, an AVP and an SVP. I have worked for three colleges at two large universities; one public and one private. The menagerie of characters I have encountered are downright Dickensian. I’ve watched people linger for years, hunched over desks like stopped clocks on Miss Havisham’s mantel. They stay on as managers, assistants, directors, even VPs, for the usual reasons: They’re waiting for the kid to get free tuition; or that looming vista of retirement and a 403B. I’ve also watched talented people vanish before their 90-day review and others who busted the double-doors wide open, guns blazing, full of disruptive confidence, only to leave too soon, too stifled, too disillusioned.

Most of the time, they leave to work for agencies in the higher ed vertical. Sometimes, they come back.

We all fall somewhere in between those who linger and leave. Some of us lead, some follow and some step over. If you stick around long enough, you learn that there is utility in each; that following can be prudent so long as you’re learning; and that stepping over doesn‘t necessarily mean trampling underfoot.

Let’s start here: Staffing is a structural problem.

In higher education MarComm, the rungs in the ladder of upward mobility — those beams of professional development — don’t support much weight. We are structured wrong. We do not climb the Ivory Tower. We are separated by advanced degrees and tenure — that rigid caste system that frames The Academy. Yet the stakes are higher now than before. The need for those rungs to ascend ever higher outweighs the dollars we have to support the climb. According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the number of college-age prospects in the Northeast and Midwest is expected to drop by five percent by 2025 — and perhaps another decline of up to 15 percent beginning in 2026 and beyond. Many factors are at play, of course: the economic woes of 2008 that correlated with decreased birthrates; and a shifting college-age population that has rightly guided U.S. colleges and universities to turn their gaze to minority and first-generation students.

As Joseph A. Brennan wrote for HigherEd Jobs, there is now an increasing trend among savvy university leaders to “modernize communication operations that were designed and staffed to meet the needs of 30 years ago. They’re expanding marketing budgets and engaging external agencies to supplement their in-house teams. They’re starting to allow their chief marketing officers to have a voice in decisions about program offerings and pricing strategies.”

Do we have the staff we need? In large measure, the answer is no. Look at your institution’s strategic plan. Are you staffed to make good on those goals? Last year, a Gartner study estimated that CMO’s spent about 30% of their marketing budgets on their marketing technology stack. Yet, what did they spend on marketing staff? And say we do have the funds for those FTEs? Who should we hire? And how do we retain them?

Allow me to make a case for the two most valuable hires you can make: the strategist and the project manager.

Don’t hire generals. Hire tacticians who can lead.

What can we do now to stack our MarComm teams to scale gracefully and meet the onslaught of needs coming down our pipeline? How are we supposed to manage multifaceted marketing campaigns, full of buzzword tactics and acronyms that our higher-ups don’t even want to understand, without something changing? Short of reorganizing your staff, as I wrote about here, rethink your titles, reshape your positions and take a cue from our agency peers.

Stop. Hiring. Directors. Start. Hiring. Strategists.

The title “director” sounds great and is no doubt an incredible recruitment tool. But it’s also perhaps our most common and rarely addressed staff retention blunder in our business. Unless you work for a massive organization, directors have no way to move up. You cannot sustain a team of generals without the tacticians to get the job done. You’ll get them for two years and lose them to the competition, or to one of your agencies of record.  How do you think Volt got its start, anyway?

Here’s why strategists work:

No matter the vertical — be it digital marketing, Web development, social media, media relations, or even creative direction — strategists are horizontals that cut through the silos in your organization. The content strategist, for instance, isn’t only charged with developing content; the job is to think holistically about how content can be utilized to meet institutional goals across all channels. These roles foster more collaboration and require employees to develop professionally outside of their comfort zones — because they must work with so many different departments, systems and verticals.

Want to retain an employee? Don’t just show them a path up. Show them many paths up. Put them in a position to strategize for the organization, not just a beat, website or publication.

“We talk all the time about knocking down the silos within our organizations,” says Tom Durso, who heads marketing and communications at Delaware Valley University. “But with the exploding increase in the number of channels we have at our disposal, we’re seeing silos within our individual units. Having team members with the ability to work across all of those channels instead of being constrained by them is invaluable.”

Want to meet your KPIs? Invest in completing your projects.

Strategists can’t get the job done alone. They need help. Perhaps the most untapped and potentially most vital hires we’ll make in the near future won’t be directors or even strategists. They’ll be project managers. Remember this, because I’m doubling down on it. Project management is something our strategic partners get right and something higher ed has been extremely slow to embrace on our MarComm teams.

Project managers don’t have a beat. They don’t have a vertical. See all of those buckets on your organization chart? When positioned effectively for success, the project manager cuts through each one.

“Operations keeps the lights on, strategy provides a light at the end of the tunnel, but project management is the train engine that moves the organization forward,” project management expert and auditor Joy Gumz said.

I don’t know Joy, but she’s spot-on.

When paired with strategists, project managers don’t just manage projects — they manage people. Their beat is getting the job done and they gain incredible experience as the intrapreneurs on our teams — navigating the people and processes without concern for pomp so much as plan. So, to stretch the model out — by investing in project managers to help guide your tacticians, you are investing in the managers, future directors and VPs of the future.

Stephanie Zola, a project coordinator on my team, has worked in both the corporate and higher ed sectors — and she sees a consistency in the role that is industry-agnostic and more people-focused than her title suggests.

“Working with varied personalities, understanding different client needs and fostering relationships with everyone involved is the foundation of a good project manager,” Zola says. “In addition to managing the cycle of projects, the behind the scenes work of finding new ways to streamline processes brings me great satisfaction. Adding more efficiency to the everyday workflow of my colleagues directly impacts their ability to more effectively serve our clients, ultimately creating a well-oiled machine of production.”

When Stephanie joined the team, she was able to connect people from both the marketing and Web services arms of our operation in a holistic way. Now, we are closer, more aligned and we have more fun working together — from team happy hours down to what would be called Scrum meetings (if they weren’t so fun).

She is, perhaps, the best boss I ever hired.

The (quite necessary) mea culpa.

As I write this, I am aware that my own team — and most higher ed MarComm teams — are still structured the old way. Our titles are still etymologically and systematically anachronous to our needs. There is no blame to ascribe. There is no fault, no finger to wag. We have all become part of the apparatus. We continue to hire our associate directors of XYZ, because there are salary grades to consider and direct reports who must fall beneath. I mean, it’s hard to shake up a dramatis personae that’s been etched in stone for decades!

I’m not saying you don’t need the essential functions of the manager and director. Those skills will always be necessary. But, like our websites, they need to be reskinned. I’m suggesting that the responsibilities that now rest on the shoulders of those homogenous and antiquated titles that have persisted on our org charts for 30 years can be extracted and infused into more and myriad support positions that work left-to-right, not bottom-up. If you create positions with potential for outward growth, the path up isn’t so rigid. You open up multiple paths — and title isn’t the great disqualifier, kingmaker or reason why an employee stays at that desk for days or decades; performance is.

I have seen glimmers of the future, though. I’ve seen strategists and project-focused roles pop up. I’ve even gotten a few through on my team. Our Dickensian menagerie will be stacked much differently five years from now. I’m betting on it.

That’s a refreshing thought. Especially to the ambitious new employee who asks: “How do I move up?”

Better to say, “let me count the ways” than “this just isn’t your year.”

That’s my strategy, anyway.

Joseph Master

Joseph Master

Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Digital Strategy

Joseph Master is the assistant vice president of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His freelance work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, television commercials, and on tiny screens across the nation. He studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. He serves on the Board of Directors for the College and University Public Relations and Associated Professionals (CUPRAP).

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