A few years back, I was taken with a podcast called “Presidential” which explores the unknown facts of all US presidents. In one episode, podcast host Lillian Cunningham asked Washington Post editor, Bob Bernstein, for a definition of “presidential.” He answered that presidential meant being able to name the next level of good and then to have a plan on how to get there. A great summary for leadership; and a great quality for being a head of a school.
Schools are looking for—or should be—candidates who can name the vision, but who can also build a clear, reasonable way to make good things happen. Beyond strategy, this quality is about naming, focusing and planning for the most pressing needs of a school, often while fending off the tyranny of another good idea. It’s about understanding both the school’s past and future, looking both forward and backwards in time to avoid what writer Francine Prose calls, “myopic eyes for the present.” It’s about being able to calculate, measure and secure the good work, while…yes, getting ready to find that next level of good.
The practice of planning comes in all shapes and sizes of experience, from the heads of school to senior administrators, and, happily, it is not the property of any single personality, charismatic or otherwise. Unfortunately, planning often takes a back seat to the visionary, but it should not, and candidates should be ready to talk about this important capacity when interviewing. Here are a few questions to consider:
1. Give a complete example of a process you led from conception to execution. Don’t forget to share how you designed an evaluation for the impact desired. How did you measure on-going success for change?
2. Be able to discuss the “why” of this initiative. How was this work mission-centered, and how, as custodian of the mission, were you able to name this work as critical?
3. Be sure to share how this planning is never just about you, alone. Pay allegiance to the collaboration of the others who helped make this happen. How did you build a team around the planning? (Note: avoid naming team members in any personal-possessive language. Is that person really “your” admission director?)
4. Be prepared to talk about what surprised you in this planning. What did you learn about the school, and, more important, about yourself as a leader?
5. Avoid school jargon and make it real. I used to hold administrative meetings in which jargon was not allowed. Imagine describing how “collaboration” lives rather than just saying the word. It’s rather powerful.
Back to that podcast. While I write about the importance of the planning around the vision, I also hold that phrase, “the next level of good,” dear to my heart. It lends truth to the work. Celebrate those who came before who worked to find that level of good and then planned a way to get there.