Dr. Roger J. Huston is the founder and principal consultant of Faith Works Consulting—a management consulting and leadership coaching company. Over the past two decades, he has served in educational leadership positions, including as the Dean of the School of Business and Leadership at Kentucky Christian University and as the Director of Testify—a religious education nonprofit organization. Roger enjoys consulting with and coaching faith-based human service organizations, higher education institutions, social enterprises, and congregations. He has taught undergraduate and graduate business, computer science, economics, entrepreneurship, finance, leadership, management, marketing, political science, and public policy courses at several higher education institutions. Roger graduated Summa Cum Laude with a B.A. with Honors in Religion from Simpson College. He then earned a Master of Arts in Religion from Yale University. Roger also holds a Master of Public Administration from Iowa State University and a Ph.D. in Public Policy from the University of Delaware.
Consultants serve a variety of important functions within the higher education ecosystem. We perform a variety of roles, including (1) talent advisory and personnel searches, (2) executive leadership coaching and strategic planning, (3) area-specific work such as admissions, advancement, events, grant writing, and marketing, and (4) and as liaisons for vendors, business development, and community relations. With such a wide variety of activities, being an effective consultant often requires both specific experience and broad knowledge about the inner and outer workings of higher education institutions.
So, what makes an effective consultant? There is a myriad of ways one can determine and demonstrate effectiveness. As a consultant, usually being effective includes ensuring the client is satisfied with the work you have performed, that the goals set out for you were achieved, and that you accomplished the intended outcomes you stated you would when you were hired. As an effective consultant in higher education, you should not “overpromise” your impact on the institution’s stated objectives during the hiring process. If an institution says, “We want to increase our enrollment by 25% next year,” you should clarify your role in that goal and how you can best help them achieve the goal. To the extent that you are able, you should also guide them through the steps needed to attain their goals and ensure that the goals are realistic and achievable. Finally, while the institution will likely assess your “fit” with its culture during the hiring process, you should attempt to do the same so that you can maintain the tenacity and resourcefulness needed to assist them in realizing their vision.
How do you help schools reach their desired impact? What things can you do as a consultant to guide schools toward their goals? The following 4 keys of being student-focused, data-driven, action-orientated, and passion-persistent can be helpful as a framework when consulting with higher education institutions:
Assisting schools in focusing on the student is crucial to your success as a consultant and will likely be the first key to being effective. While many institutions will say they are student-focused as a core value, not all schools know how to act upon that value. An organization should always stay true to its customers’ experience. Similarly, for schools, asking students about their lived experience—inside and outside the classroom, both on and off campus—is paramount for them to understand what will help their students thrive. Based on that information, schools should respond accordingly to ensure alignment with how students encounter all sorts of issues, from class scheduling and advisement to dorm life and extracurricular activities.
Should you be hired to advise on strategic planning, vision casting, value creation, and goal setting, the student experience must be first and foremost on your agenda. Students are savvy and can sense and feel a lukewarm institution—a school that tries to be all things to all people. So, to help your school avoid being a lukewarm institution, help them narrow their attention to current students and students who may fit the model for their enrollment targets. After all, future student recruitment and current student engagement are not created in a vacuum. Your current students and alumni are your best brand ambassadors and will usually be bluntly honest about their experience to any prospective student
As a consultant who wants to help their client school grow and provide their students with a welcoming and transformative learning environment, you must stay anchored to the data. Besides the specific areas that consultants serve, they can be most impactful as (1) an outside researcher for checking the validity and veracity of institutional data, (2) uncovering unknown or often concealed thoughts and feelings of students, faculty, and staff, and (3) a third-party voice for mediation and idea generation. With robust institutional data, you can ask and answer many questions to ascertain how to achieve a goal, by what benchmark you should act on an item, or the best way to evaluate a program. For example, enrollment professionals will likely want to know, if they do not already, what personas make up their prospective student base, how can they segment their prospective students to better serve and appeal to their needs, and what marketing channels can be deployed to ensure timely and accurate communication?
Assisting with data collection or critically analyzing data can mean the difference between an effective consultant who meets or exceeds their contractual duties and one who falls short of their performance promises. Regardless of outcomes, an effective consultant should always attempt to “do no harm” by protecting volunteer participants by (1) clearly explaining your involvement parameters of power within the institution, (2) expressly stating opt-out options, (3) providing pseudonyms should they participate, and (4) adhering to any additional institutional review board standards for safeguarding anonymity. Likewise, respecting the results and implications of the data will immensely benefit both you and the client. For example, understanding the higher education landscape and marketplace is easier when your client pays particular attention to internal and external data. Internal data could include employee performance reviews that inform institutional identity, belonging, and inclusion. External data could be information on the impending demographic cliff or the evolving views on the value of higher education and the post-graduate employment market. Both data sets can be utilized to enable everyone involved to make rational, fact-filled decisions.
Management consultants are usually hired to perform specific functions for the institution to enhance its strengths, mitigate the underlying weaknesses, explore new opportunities, and prepare for potential threats. Successful consults will always attempt to produce something of value for their clients—whether a novel approach, a risk-taking strategy, or an innovative vision. However, those outcomes must result in something that the client can implement. For example, suppose the school wants to establish new community-centered initiatives to spur adult education programs and increase its pipeline of viable and employable graduates for the local area. In that case, the consultant needs to demonstrate how advancement efforts can establish and cultivate long-term relationships whilst engaging with students to facilitate meaningful introductions and strategic partnerships. Similarly, action-oriented reports and planning documents can help recap both failures and successes but, most importantly, will contain calls to action and benchmarks for attaining goals. Accurate and comprehensive reporting, even in a redacted form to maintain anonymity and protect human subjects, should be distributed to all participants to help ensure transparency, accountability, and implementation.
Schools can be wrought with entrenchments and barriers that can be difficult to escape and navigate. Not only do higher education faculty, staff, and administration tend to “silo” themselves to their specific area of work and expertise, but creating a cross-campus collaboration culture may be difficult because there are so many tensions, oppositions, and contradictions in place that prevent optimized and supportive communication. While you probably will not be able to alter the school’s ethos radically, you can positively impact and lay the groundwork for systemic change by being persistent, persuasive, and passionate about your role. Passion can be contagious, and everyone wants to feel like they matter, are heard, and have a voice in the future of their institution. So, play to your gifts and abilities to encourage people, listen to them and their stories, and help instill a sense of belonging among those with whom you work. Although you will need to learn what is the appropriate balance between realism and optimism for your client’s specific situation, you can accomplish a shift from a “no culture” to a “go culture” by harnessing your holistic leadership and empowering those who feel unappreciated, undervalued, underrepresented, and underutilized.
Even if you become frustrated that things are not going as planned or that the client is not acting on your advice, remember that the client’s satisfaction is paramount to your work and success. You will not be able to solve all of their problems, but everyone wants to see or feel the result of the time and effort they put into their work. So, navigating toward areas of agreement and initiating positive improvement where you have the most momentum for sustained change and visible impact is essential. As a consultant, you are your own—and sometimes only—advocate for your work. You will succeed at overcoming obstacles, effectively add value, and positively impact your client by demonstrating perseverance in problem-solving, dedication to your craft, and enthusiasm for the school’s programs and its students, faculty, and staff.