November 18 2021

Who Are Middle Talent & How Do They Drive Student Success and Retention?

In our last blog, we highlighted the importance of culture change when working to improve and enhance the student experience at your college or university. In our connections and work with hundreds of higher education campuses, we have found across the board that culture change must have its roots not among the members of the presidential cabinet, but instead a group that we call middle talent: leaders among the faculty and staff who are directly involved in shaping and delivering student experiences. In this post, we’ll further explore the importance of your institution’s middle talent, highlight why now is a critical time to empower these individuals, and provide guidance about how you can engage the right mix of middle talent for culture change around student success and retention.  

What does middle talent mean?  

Middle talent are faculty and staff who are engaged in the student experience directly. They see, hear, and feel the problems and inefficiencies of that experience first-hand. These people may or may not hold supervisory roles, and they usually report to the leaders who make critical, overarching decisions for their college or university.  

Despite their direct knowledge of the student experience, however, middle talent are not often invited to be in the room when challenges inherent in that experience are discussed and solutions considered. Although it’s always important to have the buy-in and support of the president and university leadership for any changes in strategic direction, it’s the institution’s middle talent who can bring the truest perspective of how the institution’s systems and culture impact students. Additionally, they are the people who operationalize strategic plans on a day-to-day basis. 

Middle talent and the COVID-19 era 

In all likelihood, the middle talent on your campus are struggling right now, and some may even be in crisis. For the past 18+ months, institutions nationwide have struggled to manage the two-fold issue of pandemic uncertainties and staffing issues due to layoffs, furloughs, hiring freezes, and voluntary departures.  

Yes, middle talent like academic advising directors, financial aid managers, and faculty chairs have always been asked to do more with less. But the pandemic caused deep fissures that have required these staff members to enter the breach time and again, doing the heavy lifting of their own position as well as others’ jobs. There has never been a more important time to engage these critical members of your community, not only to gain an understanding of the problems that need solving, but also to reinforce to them that you, as a university leader, hear their concerns.   

How to identify your institution’s middle talent 

Keep these criteria in mind as you engage the right mix of faculty and staff in readiness around changing your campus culture for student success and retention:

  • Focus on mid-level positions.Titles vary from campus to campus, but some general levels to focus on include faculty chairs, directors, managers, and coordinators. On some smaller campuses, deans may be close enough to the student experience to provide the middle-talent insight you’re looking for.  
  • Go beyond your usual suspects. Ask your cabinet or other tuned-in leaders who they consider to be rising stars within their units or divisions. From those suggestions, try to select people who haven’t previously been asked to provide institution-wide service. Also encourage and ask your middle-talent leaders to identify trusted colleagues. They are likely already collaborating with those people to uncover inefficiencies or gaps and working toward student-centered solutions. 
  • Strive for inclusivity. Identify areas for growth and put plans into action in talent and leadership at all levels, ensuring the panel of middle talent you select represents a true inclusive, diverse cross-section, reflective of your institution—from academics to athletics, from residence life to campus security, from financial aid to dining services, from more recent hires to those with longevity, and beyond.
  • Empower existing talent. Depending on the size of your campus, up to forty or fifty middle-talent faculty-and-staff individuals can create overlapping, ripple effects through their departments, peer connections, and spheres of influence. To maximize the impact of talent, further equip already defined leaders and rising stars, and identify and develop untapped-but-promising faculty or staff. Offer continual opportunities for individual and department professional development. Create momentum between departments and initiatives, stemming from and geared around your institutional strategic plan, and tied to institutional mission and vision. 

Engaging your middle talent effectively 

When you approach staff with the opportunity to serve in your strategic culture-change efforts, it is important to express that you’re not looking to add work to their already full slate. Instead, their active engagement in building and implementing a student success strategic plan is intended to make their work more impactful and efficient. It’s not work for the sake of work; it’s work that’s intended to make their work—and their students’ experiences—better. 

“Moving the Needle with Credo empowered our faculty and staff to make a difference in our classrooms through improving teaching and learning. We’ve been able to launch new programs and interdisciplinary initiatives that stemmed from MTN collaborative efforts concentrating on student success.” 

–Dr. Lori Werth, Provost, University of Pikeville

Ask yourself and your teams, “When was the last time you had a chance to truly look up from day-to-day responsibilities, think alongside key campus partners, and be strategic?” So many of our middle talent have been resource-strapped for so long, prioritizing immediate work while struggling to find the time to step back and consider what larger forces might be causing the continuous challenges they’re facing. A culture-change student success strategic planning effort provides the space and time for this kind of thinking, as well as opportunities for faculty and staff from across your campus to see how they can work together to solve problems rather than operating in silos.  

Moving The Needle on Middle Talent Moves the Needle on Student Success

Credo’s Moving the Needle can not only help you identify your institution’s middle talent but also provide critical support in engaging this group in improving the student experience. Our core team and affiliate consultants provide the structured facilitation you need to identify systemic challenges and develop actionable, long-term solutions that can truly impact the success of a new generation of learners and move the needle on student success and retention metrics on your campus.  

 “The teamwork and leadership that were developed as a result of the Moving the Needle partnership with Credo over time has really prepared us for sustained growth. It was worth the investment.” 

–Alice Shelton, Director of Business Services, Marian University

Moving The Needle is a campus partnership that engages your entire campus community around student success & retention.

Find out how you can catalyze your entire campus community around student success:

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