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In a few months a new crop of enthusiastic rookie heads of school will assume their new leadership positions. Some will lead schools that have stable enrollments and balanced budgets, and although there will certainly be challenges, there is no pressure to “fix” the schools in the near future. For others, weak or declining enrollments present immediate pressures. In many cases, a board of trustees, accustomed to the fast-paced world of business, will demand action and results in the near future. Often unsure of their responsibilities and power, new heads will defer to their boards and readily accept the need to take quick action. The seeds of failure are thus sown creating a perfect storm: declining or stagnant enrollment, a board of trustees demanding immediate results, and an inexperienced head of school. Herein lies the recipe for stagnation: schools running through heads every few years and thus, perpetually stuck in first gear.

Compounding the problem is a rookie head’s lack of knowledge about strategic marketing. Throughout my career I have heard new heads talk about the need to become more visible in the community as a cornerstone for their marketing strategy. Join Rotary, give speeches to local organizations, and be the face of the school to the outside community. All of these may be helpful, but they do not constitute a marketing plan for an under-enrolled school. Not even close. Boards hire extroverts in the misguided belief that enrollments will grow if the head becomes a real presence in the community. The confluence of trustee ignorance and first-time head inexperience produces a vicious cycle of quick fixes that lead to little positive change.

How does a school break the cycle? This is a complex question that requires much more detailed explanations than I can give in this space. Indeed, the answer extends back to the Board of Trustees, the search process and the kind of leader the school should be looking for. But regardless of the frequent and repeated flaws in the standard head of school search process a new head can break the cycle of failure that results in declining and stagnant enrollment.

What follows are critical questions that new heads should ask. These questions can lead to answers that will provide the head deep insight into the school and its place in the market. Once those answers are uncovered, a winning strategy, if one exists, can emerge.

  • As a leader, who are you and what do you believe? As a first-time head trying to “turn around” a school you have to understand your default positions; you need to know how your beliefs relate to what the school says it is, what the school really is, and what the school can be. Without this self-knowledge, you run the risk of losing objectivity, and objectivity is one of the most important qualities of an effective change-agent, especially one who is trying to turn a school around.
  • What is the school’s mission and how well does it live that mission? Rather than focusing on the “external,” you should be asking this question over and over, as it takes time to research and expertise to evaluate. In short, is the school’s product in line with the school’s mission? And is it excellent? Small classes with mediocre teachers are not recipes for success and will certainly not get the job done post-Great Recession. When you, as a new head, focus your time and energy on becoming a greater presence in the community, you are assuming that the problem is visibility when in fact, it may be that prospective families do not think your product is worth the cost. Often, new heads do not consider this question because the independent school world, in general, does such a poor job of promoting faculty growth and demanding high performance. New heads are often part of that culture; they do not know any better. But the development of marketing strategies is predicated on knowing how good (or bad) your product is. If the product is strong, then you can ask yourself two critical questions: 1) do prospective families know our school and 2) do they care? The point here is that joining the Rotary, as wonderful as that might be, is a solution to a problem that has yet to be identified.
  • What is the school’s brand? How is it perceived in the marketplace? What are the drivers and barriers for prospective family behavior? Getting accurate and meaningful answers to these questions can be extremely difficult and costly, but without those answers (or at the very least, reasonable theories based on some data), it is virtually impossible to develop a credible and sustainable marketing plan. A plan based on data will help focus the key decision-makers and move them beyond immediate results. Long-term financial sustainability for independent schools must be rooted in the development of a brand that drives prospective families to your school. Pumping up enrollment in the short term is easy and misguided, distracting the board and head from focusing on the real issue.

To be more succinct: you, as a new head facing enrollment pressure, need to answer the following questions:

  1. What do I believe?
  2. What is the quality of the school’s product and how well does it reflect the mission?
  3. Does the marketplace want that product?

It will take a lot of time and effort to answer these questions. If you can fit in a Rotary lunch once a week, that’s icing on the cake.