With declining or stagnant enrollments and the transfer of power to a new, albeit untested generation of heads, it’s imperative for independent school trustees and heads to connect strategy to innovation. And, more importantly, to make sure that first-time heads are trained to understand this connection, which is the first and most critical step in bringing about change that can help an independent school thrive in the future.
In the past, developing a strategy was easy for heads and trustees. In a strategic planning retreat, the leadership of the school reviewed the school’s mission and then developed goals that purportedly helped the school do a better job of living the mission. However, too often, especially for parent-dominated day school boards, these goals simply reflected the most immediate problems that the school needed to address. But at the time the stakes were low. Many independent schools thrived no matter the inadequacies of their strategic thinking. Unfortunately those days are over.
Today, post-2008, heads and boards must think strategically, asking themselves not only “How can we do a better job of fulfilling our mission?” but also “What do we need to do in order to win in the market place?” Moreover, leadership has to connect the answers to these two questions so that each strategic goal effectively answers both. The result should not only inspire constituencies, it should also help the school thrive in the future, creating a virtuous cycle that leads to financial sustainability and more opportunities for growth.
Here is the dilemma for many independent schools. They have boards, which do not have the time, expertise, and deep understanding of non-profit business models to think creatively about connecting mission and market. In addition, first-time heads simply do not know how to think strategically. They have the time; they just do not have the experience.
When schools connect mission and market, they put themselves in a position to win. Indeed, innovation is the logical result of thinking strategically and connecting mission to market. It is the proof that the school lives its mission, and it creates the stories that constituencies can tell in order to strengthen the brand of the school. Innovation derives from the head shining the spotlight on the critical areas that have the potential to create leverage by inspiring teachers and administrators to use their creativity to fulfill the goals identified in the strategic planning process. One head of school often told his faculty, “Here is the sandbox you can play in. Use your imagination to create something special; the school will support you. But you can play only in this sandbox.”
Leadership is not about being the “answer man.” It’s about clarifying the critical strategic questions, turning those questions into goals, and then tapping the expertise of talented people to achieve those goals. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard!