All Things to All People

It’s so seductive, so intuitive, so logical. It stands to reason that casting a wide net will result in more applications and more enrollments. And when the economy is “hot,” perhaps this strategy will work. But the reality is that “being all things to all people” is a bad marketing strategy. It often becomes a default that leads to the slow march to mediocrity, perhaps even extinction. Enrollment, not mission, becomes the principal driver of behavior; tactical wins become strategic losses.

I feel certain that most independent school heads and their boards would readily agree that schools should not try to be everything to everybody. But their behaviors tell a different story. Each month finance committees pore over the latest budget reports; marketing committees want detailed reports from the admission offices about applications and enrollment; trustees, with the best of intentions, suggest more admission events, more articles in the local newspapers, and a greater presence on social media. The message to management could not be clearer: “Bring us some good news, and bring it now.” And some heads become adept at painting the rosiest picture possible. One head was skilled at presenting balanced budgets in the face of declining enrollments. As long as the budgets were balanced, trustees could disregard rising attrition, high teacher turnover, and anemic fundraising. With attention solely focused on survival, the school could ignore the future.

The harmful impact of the “all things to all people” marketing strategy is pervasive. The absence of vision, a corollary to this default strategy, means that faculty and staff no longer know which “sandbox to play in.” They don’t know where to innovate or how to make decisions that align with where the school is headed. One administrator commented that her school sees itself as innovative, and indeed, lots of initiatives bubble up and down throughout the organization. But she also indicated that most ideas never go anywhere. In the absence of vision, in the absence of making choices about what the school will be known for, innovation lacks an organizational imperative, a clear rationale that justifies the allocation of time, energy and resources. In this scenario cynicism and complacency come to define faculty culture. Slowly but unmistakably, the drive for enrollment crowds out institutional purpose. Faculty idealism, so critical in independent school education, fades in the background.

In Roger Martin’s superb book on strategy, Playing to Win, the author delineates the key elements of strategy. For any organization to be successful, it has to figure out where it wants to play in the market. Only when an independent school answers this question can it begin to differentiate, strengthen its value proposition, figure out the table stakes, and design program that meets the needs of the targeted audience. Most independent schools are luxury items, and as such, they better be clearly excellent in areas that matter to the targeted audience and fulfill a real need in the community. Bringing into sharp focus the school’s mission and identity is the responsibility of the school’s leadership—both heads and trustees. Heads need to convince trustees that survival is not thriving, that short-term solutions are not substitutes for strategic vision, and that sometimes market reality requires schools to build the plane while they are flying it.

Just as in higher education, some independent school thought leaders are predicting the demise of many independent schools over the next several years. Others see a period of mergers and acquisitions. Unfavorable demographics only contribute to the gloomy outlook. Casting a wider net is not the answer. For most independent schools trying to be “all things to all people” is a recipe for decline—slow and steady. It also reflects independent school leadership’s unwillingness to confront reality and muster the courage to change. Real strategy is about choosing, and often choosing will offend some group of stakeholders. But for many schools the courage to choose is necessary in order to avoid “death by a thousand cuts.” Marketing strategy is about segmentation; leadership is about courage. Combine the two and see what happens.