Early in my tenure as a 34-year-old Head of School, a small group of trustees, the athletic director and I were chatting about the many ways in which we could make the school better. We were on a roll, one idea leading to another. After about ten minutes of riffing on each other’s ideas, the athletic director interjected, “Yeah, but what we really need is one idea.” I thought about his statement often over the next several weeks as I worked with trustees and administrators to turn around a struggling school. That statement turned out to be a gift, forcing me to reconcile my grandiose plans for change with the school’s actual capacity to implement that change in a way that had a lasting impact. In fact, many schools have been drained of their collective imagination because of a steady diet of new heads who simply did not understand the difficulties of bringing about change and thus, over-promised. Schools can be breeding grounds for cynicism, and that is ultimately the result of poor leadership, a failure to deliver on a promise. Each failure solidifies the resistance of the naysayers, making it even more difficult for the next leader to implement change.
What are some of the key principles heads should think about when implementing change?
First, if the fundamental trajectory of the school needs to change and resources are limited, resist the temptation to tackle a major challenge at the beginning of your tenure. Your effectiveness as a change-agent is rooted in the confidence your potential followers have in you. Before broadcasting your vision to the school, get some small wins under your belt in order to generate credibility. Leaders ultimately need constituents to believe, but they won’t believe until they see evidence that you are worth following. A few small victories, the proverbial low-hanging fruit that requires little in the way of resources to achieve, can go a long way to setting the stage for larger changes.
Second, before you implement the big idea, make sure you have talented people in the right places. While you are winning those small victories and formulating your vision, figure out what kind of talent you need to achieve the big goal and be relentless in getting that talent. You do not have to have talented people across the board; you just need them in the targeted areas of change.
Third, make sure your budget provides the resources to achieve the big goal. Put other budget goals on the backburner. Get thick skin to repel the complaints about all the other initiatives you should be undertaking. The quickest way to kill change is spreading resources around instead of concentrating them in order to achieve the big, transformative goal. The dilution of those resources is often the result of bad management, a failure to stay focused and too often, a desire to please everyone.
Fourth, just as you focus resources on the achievement of the transformative goal, so must you find the discipline to focus the use of your time. For too many heads, the easy default is to revert to “problem-solving” mode with the implementation of change taking a back seat. If you want to transform a school, you and your key advisors must discuss, collaborate, reflect, imagine, understand obstacles, and more. The resulting tactics will also have to be implemented. Heads who transform schools are not just inspiring leaders; they are also great managers, helping others stay focused by setting deadlines, creating a sense of urgency, and holding people accountable. If you want to bring about meaningful and lasting change to a school, minimize the “noise” and stay focused on achieving the vision.
Fifth, sell, sell, sell! It’s true that leaders can exercise power, but the core of their leadership is the ability to influence behavior not through fear but through the hope of something bigger than any one person. The teachers, administrators, trustees, and volunteers who are vital to the school’s success aren’t simply “employees” or “external constituent groups” of the school; they’re customers, and your job as head is to sell the change and articulate how critical they are to making that change a reality. In doing so, you are helping them find meaning in their professional or volunteer lives. Great independent school leaders are constantly focused on helping others fulfill a greater purpose.
Sixth, convince your Board of Trustees to dispense with the head’s annual goals. Annual goals are right up there with strategic plans as one of the most ineffective management tools. How is a head supposed to determine when a creative idea will emerge or a deep insight? How can a head anticipate every twist and turn on the path to achieving a meaningful and transformative goal? A time constraint should not be the most important factor; real progress should be. Heads should not be consumed with checking off mutually agreed upon goals defined artificially by a deadline. Assessing strategy and tactics is important, I won’t deny; goals are important. But annual goals too often constrain creative thought and become a shallow substitute for ongoing learning and the new pathways that come from it. There’s a difference between the appearance of progress and real progress. Annual goals too often devolve into the former at the expense of the latter. If the head’s vision is clearly articulated and understood by major stakeholders, annual goals are more often than not, a nuisance.
To bring about meaningful and long-lasting change in any organization, a leader must execute. It simply is not good enough to have a vision and a plan. Critical to successful execution is limiting the number of major goals, and thinking deeply about the change process given the specific circumstances the head is facing. “What we need is one idea.” In speaking these words, the athletic director understood the importance of execution and its inextricable connection to determining how many goals to pursue and the resources available to achieving them. Astro Teller said in his Ted Talk, “Great dreams aren’t just visions. They’re visions coupled to strategies for making them real.” Make your vision real!