If you’re like many marketing leaders in higher ed, over the past several months you’ve watched valued team members—perhaps some who have been at your institution for several years—leave their roles. They may be headed to other campuses or roles outside higher ed. But regardless, the impact on your campus is immediate and profound.
When a person leaves, they often take with them invaluable institutional knowledge and established relationships. In all likelihood—owing to the tried and true higher education job reality of “other duties as assigned”—they are vacating not just one role but multiple. Their departure may expose a resource gap, leaving leaders scrambling to hire, train and keep the trains running in the meantime.
While the Great Resignation introduces many challenges in need of urgent resolution, it also reveals longer-term issues that higher ed marketing teams should address to mitigate further impacts. Here are some areas we would prioritize.
Succession and Onboarding Planning
Even the most stable teams will see change at some point, whether through staff departures, promotions or other role changes. Succession planning should not be reactive—it should be a constant facet of managing your team. Turnover is a reality, and you’ll manage through it more effectively if you plan well before it happens.
For every member of your team, you should have a clear, documented understanding of what they are working on, its status, any related project documentation and anything pending in the pipeline. Create a document template to capture this information for every member of your team and update it in an annual or quarterly rhythm. (This will be helpful even outside turnover planning.) This should be centrally available on a shared/cloud drive or network and not trapped on the hard drive of a teammate that might be wiped when they turn in their computer.
Beyond the tangible things like projects and deadlines, consider the intangible work your staff does every day—namely, managing relationships and partnerships across campus. Maintaining a current understanding of where these ties stand will help you know where to prioritize your effort should a team member who is responsible for maintaining a particular connection departs.
Documentation, Planning and Strategy
When you have a team member who can be trusted to flawlessly execute on a plan, that’s golden. But no single team member should be the only person who knows the plan.
Standard operating procedures for day-to-day operations should be documented, such as editorial calendars, guidelines and criteria, design templates, how to update key sections of the website, how to use the emergency notification system, and so on.
Developing a standardized onboarding plan for all new staff to learn how documents and processes are stored and developed, whom critical partners are throughout the campus, what systems and tools are used for which operations, and more will help standardize and ensure all new team members are on the same page and same systems moving forward.
Systems Access and Cross-Training
The reality of our work is that we are logging in and out of multiple systems every day. Particularly if a system is the primary domain of one individual, it can be easy to not think about how to access it—until they’re gone.
Using an enterprise password-management tool like LastPass or 1Password can not only help preserve continuous access to your various systems and platforms regardless of turnover but can also help support overall security. Consult with your IT team to see if any of these tools are already in use on campus.
A companion consideration to access is training—now you’ve got the Twitter password, but do you know how to use the platform? Cross-training is an insurance policy for the continuity of your communications operation, whether somebody leaves for another job or is simply out sick for the week. Being proactive about investing time and thought into your team’s cross-training will save you headaches down the road. Have an understanding of what tasks will require in-house institutional history and knowledge, such as organic social media content, press releases, faculty-expert management, etc., versus tasks that external partners can be available to help for short-term transition needs, such as SEO, analytics, digital advertising, campaign management, graphic design, etc.
Remember the project documentation we discussed earlier? If this doc becomes especially wily, spanning multiple domain areas and role functions, it may be a symptom of an overtaxed organization.
When “other duties as assigned” becomes a management strategy and not a fail-safe, it may mean you need to rethink the roles and skills within your unit. Are roles clearly differentiated to allow for appropriate focus and avoid overwork? Is cross-training in place to ensure backups and collaborators are available and no one is left being a unicorn by default? There is a great vulnerability and long-term detriment to underfunding staffing roles and/or putting too much into one role.
Doing an organizational assessment of the staff will help uncover how closely aligned job descriptions and titles are with reality, what silos exist, where there are inconsistencies in operational and workflow practices, where there are skill sets missing, and where there are opportunities to expand areas of expertise and teamwork. Leaders should use transitions as an opportunity to advocate for more support.
Let’s say your team feels stable. It’s important not to rest on your laurels and assume no news is good news—you never know who may be looking for a job behind the scenes or who may have a life situation arise that will cause them to make a transition. It’s critical to be consistently taking the temperature of your team morale, workload and function. This is the first step in a proactive retention strategy.
Additionally, create opportunities for flexibility where possible. This could include work hours and location and being creative about other ways to acknowledge and support work-life balance.
Managers should look for opportunities for professional development to invest in their team and play an active role to ensure staff members are receiving salaries and benefits commensurate with their experience, expertise and market level.
Providing opportunities for open communication and feedback is another retention strategy that can go a long way in building trust and stronger relationships with staff.
We’re Not Going Back to the Way Things Were
The Great Resignation is not a temporary crisis that will eventually settle down. We aren’t going back to the way things were before March 2020. The global pandemic exposed a wide range of systemic issues, many of which were addressed with Band-Aid fixes as opposed to longer-term thinking and solutions.
This moment calls for substantive change to the way we lead and manage our teams. By doing so, you will be better able to weather any changes and challenges the future may bring. And by improving your team’s satisfaction and efficiency, you increase the likelihood of success for your marketing and communications efforts. We can’t control what comes next, but we can control how prepared we are to face it.