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Strategic or Operational?

Entering my sixth year as an independent school search consultant, I have enjoyed the opportunity of visiting several schools and researching several more. Coming out of a pandemic, many schools are left questioning “Where do we go from here?” and “How do we ensure future success of our school that we cherish so dearly?” Scouring websites, speaking with school leaders and board members, I am struck by how few schools have written strategic plans. Many independent school strategic plans are more operational than strategic. There is a significant difference.

The purpose of strategy is to position an organization relative to its competitors, something many independent schools are afraid to do. 

In my experience working with boards and school leaders, schools often neglect taking a hard look at their competitors, what they provide, and what makes them stand out. For some reason, many schools have a hard time being aggressive and decisive in creating programs designed to beat their competitors. 

Modifying the English curriculum, changing the food service and looking at different academic schedules may seem strategic, and in some cases might be, but most are not. Merging with another school, creating significant programs to differentiate your school from your competition, looking at new tuition strategies, and in some cases even reducing tuition in order to attract new families to your school are examples of strategy at work. 

I have had the opportunity to hear Rob Evans speak on multiple occasions. Rob is a well-known school psychologist from the Boston area who presents at independent school conferences and works with independent schools throughout the world. Rob has a wonderful presentation about how similar independent school mission statements are. The words they use are repeated and mission statements look like all the rest. The same can be said for independent school signature programs, delivery systems, and the ways in which we identify our strengths as a school. It is time for independent schools to think and act differently. 

In the recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Graham Kenny wrote Why Does Your “New” Strategy Look Just Like Your Old One? a wonderful article regarding strategy. His focus, much like strategy guru Michael Porter from Harvard, is that everyone has competitors. Independent schools must identify who their competitors are and build programs that differentiate their school. Strategy is also involved in clearly identifying, recruiting, and hiring teachers and administrators to manage and run these programs. 

Kenny defines strategic planning as “designing a system whereby various stakeholders of an organization interact to provide a virtuous cycle that is a source of sustainable competitive advantage.” I could not agree more. Many independent schools neglect this fact and don’t identify programs that allow them to stand out from a crowded marketplace. Independent Schools must do so! 

Several independent schools are afraid to be bold and decisive, instead they are doing what they’ve always done; by just changing the window dressing. Independent schools must distinguish between operational and strategic plans. Strategic is focusing on competitiveness. Strategy is designed to respond to change and future opportunities to find strategic advantage. Operations focus on efficiency and specific steps designed to roll out strategies. 

Kenny identifies that strategic plans must do the following: 

            1.  Have measurable outcomes.

            2.  Measurably improve the core program rather than improving the window dressing.

            3.  Decide what matters and improve it.

Strategic plans must answer the following questions:

            1.  How do we attract the best and most appropriate students and families for our school?

            2.  How do we provide our current students with the best core curriculum and program that money can buy?

            3.  How do we capture the loyalty of our alumni so they will share the success by giving back to school?

            4.  Identify and communicate what makes your school stand out programmatically so that your marketing plan is grounded in differential value and having a quality of uniqueness.

Doing this requires the ability to develop an awareness and understanding of your current situation; look beyond the data, set up a series of interviews with current and past families and students. Find out what sets your school apart, why did families choose your school and how can you expand on that?

I encourage schools and school leadership to be bold and decisive. Many schools I’ve worked with or have been in contact with have serious strategic questions to answer but are afraid to do it.

Some examples include: merging with a school in your local area, but are afraid to engage in the conversation for fear of embarrassing or angering fellow school leaders; dropping an academic or extracurricular program in your school that is not relevant any longer, but are afraid to remove faculty members who oversee those programs; adding new programs that will make your school more robust, but afraid to drop irrelevant programs. I am struck by how many schools have added personnel over the last seven or eight years without dropping any. This has added tremendous operational and financial pressure on schools.

I recommend that schools go about the planning process involving multiple stakeholders through large group retreats designed to focus and identify the strategic priorities and opportunities for their institution. The emphasis must be on using the data that’s available, creating programs that differentiate the school from your competitors and be bold and decisive in doing so.

Let’s stop creating the shiny strategic planning brochures that tell a wonderful story but end up sitting at a bookshelf collecting dust. A good strategic plan should be a 2-to-3-page document at most and sits open on every administrator and faculty members desk. Independent schools will not survive if we continue to operate under a culture of kindness rather than strategic boldness.

Be bold!