The pitfalls and limitations of strategic planning for many independent schools have been identified and explained by major industry thought leaders (Rob Evans, Ian Symmonds, Grant Lichtman). The sad truth is that most strategic plans lack strategic thinking. Most embody what other schools have included in their strategic plans or perhaps the “hot” educational initiatives, the “flavor of the month.” But most critically, these plans reflect a void in the skill set of many heads of school — the ability to think strategically. Rob Evans in his cogent article, “The Case Against Strategic Planning,” argues that it is incumbent on the head of school to be a strategic thinker. Mr. Evans wrote this article at a time when many independent schools were flourishing. Post-Great Recession, the landscape of reality is very different; the stakes are higher with many schools losing enrollment and worried about affordability. And yet too often I see schools in these circumstances hire heads that do not know how to think strategically. As Grant Lichtman has pointed out, the shallow process for identifying a leader mirrors the shallow thinking about the school’s place in the market, its central challenges, and a clear understanding of its unique vision and pathway to a sustainable future. The easy and readily available answer is: “If it worked at one school, it should work here.”
If independent schools are to continue to play a major role in American education, they need to find leaders who can think strategically or who have the capacity to learn how to think strategically. Consultants need to help search committees by probing the thinking skills of candidates and eschewing the tendency to select candidates based solely on interpersonal skills or the right pedigree. Yes, communication skills matter, but those skills alone are not a panacea; nor will they solve the myriad of problems independent schools are facing — most acutely weak enrollment.
Only the head of school can be the chief strategic thinker, not the board of trustees or the senior administrative team. Let me repeat that: only the head! Both of these groups can help the head to think strategically; both can give the head insights, but being the chief strategist has to fall on the head’s shoulders, because only the head has the capacity to see the whole, connect the dots and create and articulate a vision that inspires, focuses and wins.
So how do strategic thinkers think?
First, and most importantly, they are obsessed with understanding the landscape of reality:
- How well is the school living its mission?
- How good is the personnel?
- How good is the Board of Trustees?
- What’s the value proposition and is the school delivering its end of the bargain?
- What is the nature of the market place?
- How does the school distinguish itself?
- What is its brand?
- What does an honest SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis based on observation and data reveal about the school?
- What realities do the school’s narratives and myths disguise? (Every school has outdated mythologies.)
These are just a sampling of the important questions strategic thinkers ask. When experienced heads tell first-time heads to avoid making major decisions in the first year, it doesn’t mean that these first-time heads should do nothing. On the contrary, they should be learning as much as possible about the landscape of reality, both internal and external. Strategic thinking does not operate from a vacuum. Instead, purposeful strategic initiatives designed to shape a school’s future emanate from a deep understanding about the school, its challenges, and its place in the market.
Here is a real example.
One school did a brand study that not only confirmed the hierarchy of values prospective parents had in choosing a school (the survey went mostly to parents not connected with the school), but also indicated which of these values were not owned by any competitor school. More specifically, the data indicated that although most of the competitor schools promoted the value of “knowing, understanding, and valuing each student,” not one of them was strongly associated with that specific performance brand. In addition, from the brand study, the school concluded that excellence was a table stakes value. In other words, in order to compete successfully, the school had to demonstrate a certain level of excellence (not extreme excellence) before other distinguishing features began to drive consumer behavior.
The table was set for the head to connect the dots. And indeed, this is another critical component in strategic thinking. It just so happened that the school’s mission included strong language about caring relationships, and although its academic performance compared to its competitors was lacking, the mission and history of the school both included references to excellence.
Can you see the power that the integration of data, history and mission creates? The head of school used the interpretation of the data to harken back to a time when excellence at the school was revered (in other words, he was not creating a revolution; he was merely capturing the original essence of the school). He challenged faculty and administrators to demonstrate excellence and caring in concrete ways. He created a vision that integrated his deeply held beliefs (excellence and caring), the mission of the school, the history of the school and the opportunities identified by research.
Although this integration seems obvious now, there was definitely an arduous intellectual journey and an on-going process of trial and error. But the vision — demonstrate enough academic, athletic and artistic excellence and capture the open market space (know, understand and value each student) — never changed. The vision drove almost every decision the school made: personal attention in the admissions process, enhanced advisor programs, the addition of AP courses, and better communication with parents. New program initiatives, the allocation of time and money, the evaluation of faculty, and much more had to cohere to the vision. Furthermore, the vision was purposely designed to fulfill the mission and achieve success in the market place. The head’s vision integrated the inspirational with the practical resulting in more motivated stakeholders and more capacity for growth; a virtuous cycle was launched. Strategic thinking always has as its end game the launching of a virtuous cycle.
Strategic thinking leading to the creation of a coherent vision is a bet. Just as coaches cannot guarantee a victory after many hours of formulating a game plan based on a theory, a head cannot guarantee that the realization of the vision will create a virtuous cycle even if the execution is flawless. In fact, if a school’s strategic plan is not a bet, it probably lacks strategic thinking; there are no guarantees. But this kind of thinking has a much better chance of being successful than mindlessly adopting program ideas from another school. This mindless adoption reflects the preoccupation that so many schools have for the “Threats” part of SWOT, which in turn, stems from a simplistic plan of action — “Let’s do what the successful school on the other side of town did.” For prestigious, wealthy, highly branded schools, focusing on threats makes sense, but it makes no sense for other schools to simply copy their formulas. The circumstances for these other schools are vastly different and require a focus on “opportunities” in the SWOT analysis.
The identification of those opportunities begins with research and a deep understanding of the landscape of reality including what the school truly is and what the market will allow it to be. It continues with the formulation of a coherent vision that integrates the aspirational with the inspirational. And finally, it keeps its “eyes on the prize,” never losing sight of results that create more capacity for the school and open up new possibilities, hence, the virtuous cycle. Herein lies the foundation for real strategic thinking — thinking that will ultimately create value for the school and fulfill its mission.