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Strategic Leadership: How Heads Can Add Value to Their Schools and Have Fun at the Same Time

thinkerBy Thomas P. Olverson

Disgruntled parents, underperforming teachers, rogue trustees. Heads have a long list of headaches. But beyond those irritants is a creative and generative part of the job, challenging and satisfying. The world of strategic thinking, of focusing on adding value to the school can be that creative space beyond the daily grind. To my way of thinking, it’s the fun part of the job.

Creating value for independent schools has two meanings for a head, both of which come in the form of questions. First, how can I help the school do a better job of living its mission in a financially responsible way? Second, how can I create or enhance the capabilities of the school so that future school leaders will be able to do a better job of fulfilling the school’s mission? To answer these questions in a way that will create value requires deep integrative thinking, research, an understanding of context, an objective perspective of the school’s present capabilities, management practices that align with goals, courage, trust, talent, imagination, a competitive spirit and most importantly, a relentless commitment to learning. And that’s just the short list.

What must a new head do to avoid the trap of chief problem-solver and instead embrace the fun of being a strategic leader? The answer to this question would require a book-length response, but I want to focus on a handful of suggestions that derive from my work with heads of school as well as my own experience.

  1. Create time to reflect and think. Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, has written and tweeted about the unique attributes of introverts as effective leaders. It makes sense. Most heads could take a page from the leadership book of introverts. An introvert doesn’t mind being in her office, door closed, thinking deeply about the challenges the school faces. Now don’t get me wrong- there is clearly a need for heads to be out and about, to be the public face of the school, and there are certain problems heads must deal with because of their potential impact on the school. But in my experience most heads need to manage their time better and carve out periods during the day or week just to think. As Martin and Lafley have illustrated in Playing to Win, strategic thinking is hard. It requires focusing on key questions in a sequential process, but at the same time assessing the impact on the overall strategy. For example, a head can’t gravitate to a certain vision without thinking about the school’s capabilities and its ability to achieve the vision. Nor can she sustain momentum to create lasting change if she is not thinking about how to feed capabilities so that they remain the engine of change. Trusted senior administrators and maybe even thoughtful trustees might be able to check the reasoning behind a head’s thought process, but more often than not, they are not in a position to play a generative role. Only the head can do this because only the head has a deep and wide enough understanding of context to connect the dots. I once asked one of the most successful insurance executives in the world why he was so successful. His answer: “I know the business.”
  2. Never stop learning. The Harvard Business Review in its “Daily Alert” has written extensively about why strategy fails. Many of the blog posts indicate the prevailing assumption that the strategy was right but “we just didn’t execute.” This is the equivalent of what I hear from trustees so often: “We need to do a better job of marketing.” It’s such an easy default solution but reflective of the superficial insights that drive strategy. In your role as head, you have to keep seeking new sources of information so that you can continually ask yourself, “Is my vision really a “winning aspiration” to use Martin and Lafley’s term?” You have to keep looking for evidence that your strategy for success continues to make sense. I know a lot of heads who use dashboards with their boards of trustees, and as a general indication of the health of the school, it makes sense. But I’d rather see heads use data that directly speaks to the assumptions behind their strategic plans, data that helps school leaders draw reasonable conclusions about the efficacy of the vision and the strategy to realize that vision. The best heads are constantly learning. Their competitive spirits drive them to find evidence to support the direction of their respective schools. At the same time, they are objective enough to realize that it may be time for a pivot when the numbers just don’t add up.
  3. Make your first year more than just avoiding mistakes. It’s true that first-year heads should avoid big changes that question the traditions and culture of a school. Resource Group 175 consultant Bob Henderson advises new heads to think of schools as villages, not just businesses, and to take the time to learn their customs before introducing significant change. (September 2017 blog Blunt Alerts for New Heads of School) This is sage advice for establishing lasting positive change. But this advice should not be an excuse to ignore the hard work of understanding the challenges the school faces as well as the limitations that school culture and capabilities inevitably impose on planning. Pete Upham, Executive Director of The Association of Boarding Schools, argues that one of the most important jobs of a head is to define reality. Observing school culture, studying statistics, asking thought-provoking questions, probing potential opportunities, examining the school through the respective lenses of different constituencies, thinking like a customer- these exercises in data and perception gathering allow the head to develop and refine current reality as a precursor to strategic planning. It is the antidote to heads unthinkingly inflicting their values on the school or just as bad, imitating the school down the street. When there is a common understanding of current reality, vision and strategy can logically follow.

It’s true that being a strategic leader is hard work. It requires evidence gathering, analysis, a commitment to deep learning, the courage to execute, self-reflection and more. It also requires training because there are so many conceptual pieces to the puzzle, and like all puzzles, the pieces fit in certain ways. Institutes like The Leadership Lab at Greenwich Leadership Partners can be extremely helpful in teaching new heads how to think strategically in the context of their respective schools. In addition, mentoring with an experienced consultant can help a new head gain valuable insights that will set the stage for establishing a strong foundation for change.

So, heads, don’t lose sight of your role as strategic leader; resist the temptation to let those everyday problems define your headship. Play in the world of strategy. And go have some fun!

For information about Tom and his firm Resource Group 175, click here.

Make a Great Hire!

It is a pleasure to welcome our newest blogger, Coreen R. Hester, former head of school at The American School in London where she served for the last 10 years, and before that as the Head at The Hamlin School in California. Coreen recently joined RG175 as a consultant and is already playing an active role in on-going searches at United Nations International School (NYC), Riverstone International (ID), California Association of Independent Schools (CA), and Chandler School (CA).–Tom Olverson

hiringIt was a painful moment: the students were bored, the teacher looked miserable, the class was going nowhere, and I was embarrassed. This was fulfilling our promise to educate young people? Hardly. How did we get here? And how could I avoid ever being here again?

Hiring outstanding professionals is a critical responsibility for school leadership, and—like teaching—requires perspiration and finesse to get it right. Even the great guru Jim Collins says that great schools still make bad hiring decisions—they just turn over less competent employees faster than other schools. But the time and effort to “turn them over” is a painful distraction to the leadership team and, worst of all, hurts students! Best to get hiring decisions right from the outset.

Here are three pieces of advice to keep in mind for making a great hire:

1. Know who and what you need.
Starting a job search requires the discipline to analyze and articulate who you want and what the school needs. If you can’t say it out loud and write it down, you will definitely not find the person you want. It’s not enough to say you need a terrific new Middle School history teacher. Instead, you must clarify the professional qualifications and personal attributes you want and need at your school? Make sure you have that notion front and center in the job description and that your questions reflect that need. Is collaboration a priority? Do you need someone who understands how to implement problem-based learning? A person who exhibits cultural competence? Don’t assume you’ll get who you need if you cannot say what you’re looking for. A great international school leader told me that interviewers for his school asked three questions up front: How do you plan a unit? How do you use technology? And how do you collaborate? Those questions reflected the values of the organization, and the faculty came to reflect those values as well. They wanted a team who could design curriculum, use technology, and collaborate—and that’s what they got

2. Attitude is always the winning ticket.
You can deepen technical expertise, you can sharpen understanding of learning objectives, you can improve classroom management skills, but you cannot change a person’s attitude and work ethic. Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Ideal Team Player, declares that we want three characteristics in a good hire: people who are humble, hungry, and smart (meaning, “people smart” and able to work well in a group). Nothing about these qualities is about content; it’s all about mindset and attitude. Can you admit when you’re wrong? Can you listen to good advice? Will you put in the extra mile to make sure the lesson goes well? Will you use a caring and respectful manner with colleagues? Attitude beats out expertise every time.

3. Do deep reference checks.
The old adage is true: the best predictor of future success is past success. I loved the advice I got years ago (Hiring Smart by Pierre Morrell) to try to call references when the reference is unlikely to be available. (Cell phones make this harder, but I still try.) The measure of an excellent candidate can be calculated from how fast the reference returns your call. It works like magic! If a recommender is hesitant—and has to formulate what to say—that person procrastinates. But an enthusiastic recommender hops on that phone or computer fast, eager to support the candidate. And the message you leave? “I’m calling about So-And-So and would like your unvarnished opinion about whether or not So-and-So would be an outstanding member of our team?” Bold-face intentional. Set the bar high in your initial call to references. Their reaction to that language will be helpful to you as well. And never stop your reference calls until you hit something negative. If you cannot get a beat on a negative, I suggest asking, “If we hire So-and-So, how might we need to coach So-and-So?” That approach will usually yield something of concern for you to factor into your decision. Finally, always make that call to the candidate’s head of school or supervisor. Only regret arises from not following through on that step.

As the season approaches, “Be Intentional” in your hiring practices. It makes all the difference—to you, your faculty, and, most importantly, to your students!

For information about Coreen and Resource Group 175, click here.










School Crisis Management: When Not to Listen to Legal Counsel

It is a pleasure to welcome guest blogger Jerrold I Katz, former head of school at The Park School for 20 years, and most recently as the head of a Reform Jewish independent school in New York City. Jerry has recently joined RG175 as a consultant and is already playing an active role in searches at The Common School (Amherst, MA), Daycroft Montessori (Ann Arbor, MI), and Mother Caroline Academy (Dorchester, MA).  –-Tom Olverson

By Jerrold I. Katz

crisisMoments of crisis, when it feels like time stops and everything is at stake in a school, certainly are moments that all heads hope to avoid.

Yet, everyone seems to get “their turn,” and I had two awful crises to manage very publicly at moments in my 36-year leadership career. In hindsight, I missed the mark in the first situation by not questioning the advice I received from legal counsel. By the time I faced the latter crisis, I’m glad to say that I had learned what it meant to take a stand and to do the right thing for myself, for others, and for my school community.

From my perspective, here’s a fundamental problem for many heads of school. In moments of crisis, we often abandon our moral authority, when we simply let our legal counsel take charge and tell us what to do. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s always important to seek legal counsel, to listen, and to make sure one understands issues of privacy, legal responsibility, and potential liability. However, it’s only advice. Sometimes, in my experience, there are compelling moral reasons to take a calculated risk by claiming higher moral ground.

Silence in the face of a difficult situation can confuse faculty, parents, and children. Withholding information, when others are struggling to make sense of an unexpected turn of events can be a betrayal of trust, especially if, over time, the facts become widely known, as they often do. In the name of protecting a school’s reputation or limiting exposure to potential liability, a head can put his/her self at considerable risk of violating the school’s mission and core values.

It is essential to have the partnership of a strong board chair, if a head is going to buck the advice of an attorney. Nine years ago, I was one of a growing number of independent school heads to receive a call from a former student informing me that, forty years earlier, he had been sexually abused in a series of off-campus encounters with a then faculty member at my school.

My initial response was to let the caller know how sorry I was that something like this could have happened to him as a student at our school. I told him that I admired his courage in making what had to be a very difficult phone call. I arranged a time to meet with him later that week, and I immediately called my board chair and the school’s legal counsel.

My board chair and I agreed that we had three things to consider in managing this very difficult situation: our mandated legal responsibility, the school’s public relations image and potential exposure to liability, and doing the right thing in response to a former student (and potentially others) who had been deeply hurt by an experience at our school. We chose to err on the side of leaning into controversy, rather than trying to avoid it. We chose to respond with respect, openness, compassion, and a commitment to justice. After several very challenging weeks, my school came out feeling proud of its values and united in its efforts to uphold them.

School leaders need to actively evaluate where legal counsel says it’s safest to go. Crises are the moments that test the moral authority of a head of school, and they are opportunities to put that authority on display. Heads who get this right are, more often than not, heads who have successful careers.

For information about Jerrold and Resource Group 175, click here.

Win by Five Touchdowns

touchdownIn previous blogs I argued that many strategic plans lack strategic thinking. They are too often imitations of plans from other schools and thus, devoid of serious consideration about real opportunities, specific to the school, that can kick-start a virtuous cycle. We independent school people value our independence, but too often we goose-step to the beat of whatever the “hot” idea happens to be. It’s too easy to succumb to the tyranny of the fashionable.

And indeed, this was all fine and good until 2008 when the Great Recession hit independent schools full-force. Since then, declining enrollment, affordability, financial aid, net-tuition revenue, and softer waiting lists have moved center-stage, but the same mindless imitation persists.

Independent schools serving small to medium sized markets have particularly felt the brunt of a changing financial and demographic landscape so much so that many are barely surviving or at the very least, unable to move forward because of a dearth of resources.

If you lead a school serving this kind of market, what should you do?

Win by five touchdowns in a few areas that matter.

Demonstrate by traditional measures (college placement, SAT and AP scores, academic competitions, test scores, student engagement, etc.) that your school is, by far, the best academic game in town. In short, your school needs to convince parents who want a good education for their children, but are predisposed to think that the public schools are good enough, to see clearly that they are sacrificing their children’s futures by sending them to the public schools. If your academic program is perceived as being slightly better than the honors program at the public school, then the cost of tuition combined with its limited extracurricular program compared to that of the public school means there is nothing compelling about your school. Being a little bit better in a number of different programs with a skeptical audience will not drive behavior in the market. Your school has to demonstrate that academically it is vastly superior to the public schools. In short, don’t just beat the competition; crush it.

At the same time your school focuses on demonstrated academic hegemony, it has to determine if there are any table stakes that might thwart your strategy. Does your school need to have a certain level of success in some program—curricular or extracurricular—in order for your excellence to drive behavior and more specifically, what is that level of success? The answer to this question often depends on local circumstances. The critical point is that in order for your school’s excellence to be compelling, you must determine the significant barriers to behavior and account for them.

Too often schools in smaller markets follow the lead of schools in big markets by assuming they must add programs in order to remain competitive. These schools serving smaller markets are assuming that the “threats” part of the SWOT analysis should be the driver of program. Indeed, in large cities, this may be the case, but in smaller markets, more suspicious of private school education, independent schools must focus time, energy, and money on doing one or two things great. The point is to not establish excellence in a domain that is unfamiliar. Rather, demonstrate excellence in familiar territory, but at a level unimagined. Steve Jobs famously wrote, “People don’t know what they want until you show them.” Herein lies the path to financial sustainability.

Don’t get me wrong, in many ways the picture I have drawn is inadequate, void of creativity, imagination, and the very essence of 21st century education; it may even stray from a school’s mission. This picture is not my Platonic ideal. But independent schools have to deal with the reality of the market place. In many mid-size markets this reality, by way of example, must translate into parents bragging about the school’s college placement as well as the winning baseball team or great music program. In my first headship, a parent with deep roots in a major independent school on the east coast complained to me about the absence of programs compared to the school she attended. I would have loved my school, serving a population of 150,000 people, to offer these programs, but I could not fulfill her wishes and still maintain superiority in academics and a few key sports. The strategy paid off. In ten years the school went from 192 students to 360. Twenty years later and financially stable, the school has created exciting programs reflective of the community’s heritage and aligned with 21st century education. As Emily Brush has written in a BoardSource blog post, “Organizations must secure their own oxygen masks first. How? By focusing on sustainability first and then increasing impact.”

Heads and boards must understand that strategy is a bet, albeit one that is carefully researched and thought out. In small to mid-size markets hedging the bet is not an option; it will only result in a lot of slightly above average programs. The intuitive marketer in each of us is predisposed to go wide; it’s the wrong answer. Go deep; focus your efforts. Win by five touchdowns!

For information about Tom and his firm Resource Group 175, click here.

Blunt Alerts For New Heads of School

It is a pleasure to welcome guest blogger Bob Henderson, former head of school at Noble and Greenough for 17 years, and before that, at North Yarmouth Academy in Portland, ME. Bob has recently joined RG175 as a senior consultant and has already played an active role in searches at Fessenden School (Newton, MA) and Tenacre Country Day School (Wellesley, MA). In addition, Bob provides executive mentoring to the President of Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, CA. –-Tom Olverson

By Bob Henderson

alertServing as a school head is a profound honor and joy, which many describe as the greatest job in the world. Those who seek the role are most often compelled by the desire to do good for a community, and have the ambition to create an environment that will produce people who make a significant and positive mark on the world. Much is frequently said about the challenges and stresses of headship and its growing complexity, but most experienced heads will attest that the opportunities and pleasures of the role far outweigh the perils. Much of the strain of headship can be avoided or minimized by being attentive to the blunt alerts below about how you need to behave in your first few months on the job, whether you are starting your first headship or entering a second or third school as “The Boss.”

First, it is a certainty that someone in the community will not think you were the right choice. The most obvious source of such resistance may be a senior administrative officer who was at some point a candidate for the position and thought he or she was better suited. More subtly, it may be such a person who never actually threw a hat in the ring, but secretly harbored that ambition. Or it may be an individual or faction within the faculty, parent group or graduate body. Under those circumstances, the right course of action is simply to ignore it. Such sentiments cannot be confronted, appeased or consoled, and your confident daily performance and assumption of effective leadership will be the best balm over time.

Second, your isolation is likely to be immediate and sustained, even if you establish strong and healthy relationships among the staff and board members. If you are a new head, the sudden absence of any true peers in the institution can be a jarring revelation. A favorite topic of conversation among senior administrators will be how to navigate your style and quirks, and how to work with and around you. Some of it may not be flattering, were you to overhear it. You will not be privy to those exchanges and you must accept it as part of your role that—even if you have outstanding connections to your senior staff—they are not your pals. Trustees can be friends, but they are also your employers and will be evaluating your performance attentively if they are doing their jobs well. They too, are not your true peers. Building support networks outside of the institution, and perhaps hiring a mentor and thought partner, are crucial steps.

Third, schools are more akin to villages or parishes than to corporations. You cannot enter issuing directives, even when you think you have a hiring mandate for change. Doing so alienates empowered constituencies. Change requires a patient, nuanced approach, the construction of teams with specific focus, and the assertion of goals that make steady progress toward more narrowly grasped audacious long-term objectives. Moreover, a leader has to accept that she or he will be more successful when recognizing that some, if not most, members of her or his new community may be smarter and/or more creative than he or she is. It is certainly true that the collective intelligence of a good administrative team exceeds considerably that of the individual head. Suppressing one’s ego and allowing subordinates to shine is critical, trusting that the head will, in the end, be recognized for the institutional success this approach engenders. The exception is, of course, a crisis. The key is not to be confused about whether you are confronting a true crisis or merely some significant discomfort that emerges from anxiety over transition or, as Sir Francis Bacon termed them, “Idols of the mind.” If it is indeed a true crisis, it is in fact also an opportunity. It will provide a window to effect change more swiftly than under more normal circumstances, as well as a chance for you to demonstrate leadership skill and gravitas. In my first year as a head I had to confront a whole series of genuinely daunting crises, the most important outcomes of which were that I bonded closely with my board of trustees, displayed a degree of competence that cemented my acceptance as the leader of the community, and was allowed to advance my broad agenda for the school more rapidly than I otherwise could have.

alert 2The fourth alert is a corollary to the third – your EQ will probably take you further in your role than your IQ. The most important task for a head entering a new community is to ascertain the culture and values of the local civilization. The search process and institutional propaganda may have taught you a lot, but there are hidden norms, complex relationships, unspoken expectations and sacred cows that you have to ferret out and understand on your own, before you can, as necessary, challenge them. You need to establish a clear read on the personalities, minds and habits that surround you. There is an old adage that a fish can’t see the water in which it swims. A newcomer, however, has a unique and fleeting chance to comprehend the whole environment. In that sense, your first task is largely anthropological, understanding the entire milieu and zeitgeist of the planet upon which you have landed.

Finally, from the very start you must understand that you have to walk your talk. You are under a microscope, with people in every constituency looking for cues and clues in regard to direction, behavior, tone, values and expectations. You will be exhausted, looking for the chance to relax and simply be yourself, yet you cannot forget that your every utterance or interaction is likely to be imbued with meaning for others. You have to be honest, clear, consistent and direct, while at the same time effusively grateful, thanking others often and publically for their accomplishments and behavior that has advanced the community in the direction you prefer. Gandhi said that we must become the change we wish to see in the world; I never fully understood this burden until I became a school head, and I learned some of the reality of it through errors that took me much time and energy to undo.

I was very fortunate when I first became a head to have a board chair who was truly dedicated to my success and development. He was also a talented corporate executive with much to share of relevance from his professional experience. This is not often the case, nor, I would argue, can it be, given that the board president has an outside life and other pressing duties and responsibilities, including oversight of rigorous evaluation of the head’s performance. I could have used (and now strongly advocate for heads to have) a mentor and thought partner who is not connected to the school. I fully endorse the argument advanced by my colleague at RG175, Tom Olverson, in this regard. While I believe having an outside thought partner is incredibly helpful, even essential for all heads, this is especially true as heads first enter a new community, make their adjustments, sort out their relationships and the politics of the community, assess their overall personal circumstances, and establish their agendas. It is also of immense value for effective search consultants to help school communities in transition to understand these exigencies confronted by new heads and work consciously to ameliorate their impact.

For information about Tom and his firm Resource Group 175, click here.

Why Do We Have Meetings?

meetingI continue to be fascinated with the concept of the architect-leader as described by Hill, Mellon, Laker and Goddard in “The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School.” (Harvard Business Review) There are two compelling aspects to this kind of leadership. The first is intentionality; architect-leaders formulate strategy with a purpose. The second is structures; architect-leaders understand how structures shape perspective and influence decision-making.

As the most prevalent management tool in a leader’s arsenal, meetings represent an opportunity to shape learning, behavior and collaboration more than most structures. And yet, meetings are under siege. In the most recent edition of the Harvard Business Review, Leslie Perlow, Constance Noonan Hadley, and Eunice Eun advocate for a thorough evaluation of meetings within an organization. In “Stop the Meeting Madness” these three researchers cite damning statistics on the efficacy of meetings. Seventy-one percent in their study said meetings were inefficient and ineffective; 65% stated that meetings prevented them from completing their own work; and 62% agreed that meetings miss opportunities to bring a team closer.

Schools are certainly not immune from “meeting madness.” I recently spoke with a relatively new head about how she manages her time. “I’m racing from one meeting to the next,” she told me, acknowledging that many of the meetings did not advance the school. And, of course, all of us have been victimized by faculty meetings with an administrator droning on about a policy that has little or no relevance to teaching and learning. New heads of schools often inherit these structures and perpetuate them with little thought about what they want these structures to achieve.

What should heads of schools do?

First, new heads should examine the meeting structure as part of understanding the internal landscape of reality. As new heads interview administrators, faculty and trustees, they should include questions about the effectiveness of meetings as a tool to advance the school. Not only can the new head gain insight on how work gets done and the flow of information, but there may also be some low-hanging fruit in the form of simple changes that will serve to enhance the new head’s brand—a critical goal during a transition period.

For the veteran head, leading an evaluation of the effectiveness of meetings—composition of the group, agendas, collaboration, clear goals, efficiency, follow-up, and more—can be both scary and powerful. Because an evaluation of meetings can easily result in an indirect critique of the leader’s management style, the head will have to put herself in a vulnerable position—difficult for most of us who are used to being in charge. And yet the risk of vulnerability is well worth the opportunity to create new structures that promote better decision-making, the mission of the school, and the vision of the head. When the head insists on this organizational self-reflection, she signals the importance of focusing her team’s efforts on the achievement of the school’s goals rather than the massaging of the head’s ego. That pivot can unleash extraordinary effort and creativity.

Although reflection on the effectiveness of meetings can be liberating, it is important for the head to resist the tyranny of order. Citing a statement from a well-known executive, my first head of school often said, “Efficiency is the enemy of effectiveness.” Some meetings should focus on execution, but others should focus on learning from each other—gaining deep insights into a challenge or developing a richer understanding of the context. We learn from each other. One of my board chairs frequently asked, “Are you going into this meeting with a fixed outcome or not?” It was a great question that helped me focus on process and its relation to outcomes. Sensitized to emerging opportunities for learning, the best leaders can toggle between “fixed” and “organic” within the same meeting.

Meetings are organizational structures, and as such, they shape behavior. Architect-leaders understand this and use this management tool to help the school achieve the head’s vision and better live its mission. Systems thinker Peter Senge once told a group of organizational leaders, “If you want a seed to grow into a plant, you don’t stand over it and yell, ‘Grow!’ Rather, you put fertilizer in the ground and water the ground. You create the conditions that will maximize the potential of the plant.” Meetings can either bring out the collective wisdom and creativity of a team or they can stifle it. As such, heads should spend some time thinking about this critical management tool.

For information about Tom and his firm Resource Group 175, click here.


The Architect-Leader in Action

arhictect leaderIn my May blog, “Turning Around An Underperforming School: Do You Have What It Takes?”, I wrote about the exciting research being done in England to uncover the leadership characteristics of headmasters that actually turn around underperforming schools. The authors (Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard) describe five kinds of educational leaders and demonstrate that only architect-leaders provide leadership that translates into long-lasting, meaningful and significant change. Independent school thought leader Grant Lichtman further developed the ideas I presented in order to give a more complete picture of the architect-leader (you can read his article here.) After reading Grant’s blog and thinking more deeply about what an architect does, I see the richness of this concept for independent school heads and its power to reframe leadership in a way that produces real results.

Let me share a specific example from my career as a head of school.

Throughout my two headships, trustee meetings scared me. I was afraid that a group of people, well-meaning but often lacking in knowledge, would make decisions about the direction of the school. To be perfectly honest, as Head, I did not want to give up power unless I knew that the people making the decisions had a deep understanding, rich in context and nuance, of the issue at hand. Because they were trustees, however, they ultimately had the power to make decisions on important issues; in short, they had more power than I did. Now, before you accuse me of being Machiavellian, let me state that I was more than willing to give up power to a group of people who clearly knew what they were talking about. I was more than willing to turn over decision-making about how to structure five-year budget forecasts to trustees who deeply understood finances. I dutifully listened to the folks on the endowment committee who knew far more than I did about managing portfolios and learned from some of the leading strategic marketing consultants in the area.

But when it came to open-ended discussions at trustee meetings, I dreaded them. I had nightmares (okay, slight hyperbole) about trustees pontificating about school issues they knew nothing about. And as a result of their aforementioned power, senior administrators and I spent countless hours on “stuff” that would not advance the school—all because there was a structure that encouraged uninformed people to make decisions that either made no difference or cost administrators valuable time or at worst, caused harm to the school. I confess I never bought into the “generative board of trustees” concept. I admire Dick Chait and the wonderful work he has done with non-profit governance, but I determined during my first headship that relinquishing power to people who did not know what they were talking about or who often had hidden and perhaps counter-productive agendas (we all have hidden agendas) was not good for the school.

So what does this all have to do with the architect-leader? It seems to me that architect-leaders design with intentionality. They do not just accept existing structures that can negatively influence behavior. They design structures that lead to the behavior that will advance the school. In my second headship, I consciously decided to move power away from the full board and place it in the committees. I made sure these committees consisted of trustees and non-trustees who had deep knowledge of the area for which the committee was responsible. Thus, in these meetings I could comfortably relinquish power to people whose ideas would ultimately advance the school. And I was more than willing to do so. Because of their expertise, when they presented proposals to the full Board, there was little discussion.

Finally, I worked with the Board president to reduce the number of trustee meetings per academic year to four and a half (the last one was mostly a party), thus reducing the exposure for people lacking expertise to make bad decisions. In short, we changed the structure to fit with our intentions—let’s get knowledgeable people on committees and transfer governance power to these committees and let’s reduce the opportunities for less informed people to influence policy. Form follows purpose.

So what are the takeaways?

  • As head of school, you should be concerned about power, thoughtful about gaining it (see my previous blog posts) as well as relinquishing it.
  • Architect-leaders are intentional; ultimately, they want to create or add value, and they design structures that lend themselves to this purpose.
  • There is no substitute for talent. If the committees at my school were filled with people who lacked expertise, then the structure would not matter, and I ran the risk of leadership hubris. No longer would the mantra be “best idea wins.” Rather, it would become “my idea wins.” This is a prescription for disaster.

Too many day school boards meet too often and the structure can encourage decision-making that is detrimental to the health of the school or at the very least, a waste of time. The frequency of these board meetings is a structure without a purpose—the antithesis of what an architect-leader would do.

But beyond the issue of how frequently boards meet, heads must think more like an architect. Every structure should have a purpose that connects to the realization of the head’s vision and the fulfillment of the school’s mission. Business guru David Burkus writes, “Great leaders don’t innovate the product; they innovate the factory.” As head of school you do not need to be the smartest person in the room; rather, you need to create structures that allow expertise and talent to rise to the top, ultimately advancing the school in profound ways.

For information about Tom and his firm Resource Group 175, click here.

Why First Year Heads Need A Thought Partner

First-year heads need thought partners. In fact, all heads need thought partners.

thoughtWhat is a thought partner? They are the head’s key administrators who show signs of intelligence, imagination, and buy-in to the head’s emerging vision for the school. As new heads develop their political capital, engender confidence in their leadership, and develop a deep understanding of the landscape of reality, they need to seek these key people out, consciously testing over time their suitability to engage in thoughtful, meaningful strategic conversations about the “what” and the “how” of change. If the senior administrator oversees an area of vital importance to the school’s future, the head must determine as soon as possible if that person rises to the status of thought partner.

In order for thought partners to be effective, there must be trust and honesty in the relationship. It is the head’s responsibility to create this atmosphere of trust, by making it clear to the administrator that the goal is not to impress the head, but rather to create and achieve a great goal together. Despite the best efforts of heads, some administrators simply cannot engage in meaningful discussions. Their deep-seated view of power makes it impossible to have authentic conversations with the “boss.” Equally ineffective are negative administrators who always see the glass half empty, and bring little to the table because of their “fixed mindset.” Effective thought partners use their knowledge and imagination to poke, prod, question, and test, along with the head, for the purpose of establishing transformative and realizable goals. More often than not, they are curious and enjoy using conversation to arrive at a deeper understanding.

Thought partners are great strategic thinkers. They see the connection between the achievement of goals in their respective areas and the transformation of the school. Because of their deep contextual understanding, they can quickly determine if proposed pathways are worthy of further consideration or are futile. In addition, their conversations with the head do not focus on the typical narrow, somewhat bureaucratic wish list of programs and materials desired; rather these conversations connect to broader goals, such as:

  • How does the school carve out a niche in the market?
  • How does the school attract more mission-appropriate students?
  • How does the school strengthen its position for a capital campaign?
  • How does the school demonstrate that it is living the mission?
  • How does the school gain more confidence?

The alternative to thought partners is an isolated head, often operating from untested assumptions and susceptible to the mindset that “whatever worked at my old school should work here.” This, indeed, is a prescription for a failed headship.

As new heads of school spend their first year gaining deep insight into the school culture, the quality of the program, and the school’s place in the market, it is imperative they seek out those curious and creative administrators with whom they can test theories and verify impressions. David Burkus writes, “Great leaders don’t innovate the products; they innovate the factory.” Part of the head’s job is to create conditions that ultimately lead to talented educators advancing the school—in essence, innovating the factory. Essential in this effort is the head’s need to have honest and meaningful conversations with knowledgeable and dedicated administrators. Identifying these individuals sets the stage for a leader’s success and should be a top priority for any new head of school.

For information about Tom and his firm Resource Group 175, click here.

Turning Around an Underperforming School: Do You Have What It Takes?


leaderIn October 2016 The Harvard Business Review published a fascinating study of effective educational leadership. “The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School” is an in-depth research project on educational leaders in England who were charged with transforming under-performing public schools. The authors (Alex Hill, Liz Mellon, Ben Laker and Jules Goddard) conducted extensive interviews with 411 educational leaders, examined their background and experience, and used specific measures valued in England to assess performance. Moreover, these researchers focused on long-term results as a measure of high performance. What emerged from this in-depth study is the identification of five kinds of leaders, all with different approaches to change: surgeons, soldiers, accountants, philosophers and architects.

Not surprisingly, the five kinds of leaders identified in this study have similar counterparts in American independent schools. Because the British schools are government-funded, the analogies are not perfect; however, the description of each of the leader-types strongly suggests the approaches many heads in the United States have taken to turn around their schools. As such, this study has useful applications beyond British education.

Let’s take a closer look.

The surgeons “are both decisive and incisive… They often arrive with a reputation of being able to turn around a school quickly.” The authors conclude that surgeons are looking for quick and clear victories, thus their focus on the exam scores of older students. Surgeons concentrate time, energy and resources on producing immediate results. And they often do: “Unsurprisingly, the examination results improve dramatically,” but these results fade after the surgeon has departed—clearly the result of not allocating enough resources to the younger students. In short, the surgeons sacrifice long-term success for short-term victories.

The surgeons suggest a classic category of independent school leadership. For these heads, short-term perspective informs strategy. Focus is almost exclusively on early wins. Rarely do these heads take the time to understand at a deep level the landscape of reality. These heads most often establish a trendy program with a lot of buzz, but they avoid the difficult issues, the answers to which will lead to long-term success. Efforts and resources are focused on appearance. One underperforming school’s new head decided that if its quality could not match that of the competition, then it would polish up the product without really improving it. In effect, the Head was saying, “If we cannot compete, maybe we can look a little more like these other prestigious schools.” Tighten up the dress code, conduct workshops on the educational fad of the day, even give a day off of school in celebration of a team that had not won a game in a couple of years in an effort to improve student morale—these and other similar actions were designed to suggest a narrative of excellence but without its DNA. Needless to say, the strategy did not lead to sustainable excellence.

The soldiers “like efficiency and order.” Their focus is on the bottom line and eliminating “wasteful” spending. According to the authors, these educational leaders save money and balance budgets by making faculty do more. Support for teachers is diminished. Morale is sacrificed for the sake of the bottom line. But the result, as Hill, Mellon, Laker, and Goddard discovered, was that faculty and staff were “exhausted and demotivated working from a climate of fear and uncertainty.” Student performance changed little and after the soldiers left, the schools needed to increase expenditures in order to bolster the troops.

“We need a head who really understands finances and how to manage a budget.” Does this statement sound familiar in the independent school world? After several years of budget bleeding, it is understandable for boards to seek someone who will tighten the school’s belt and ensure that the school does not live beyond its means. There is nothing inherently wrong with this goal, and indeed, right-sizing may make sense in light of the demographic reality a school faces. But American soldiers often fail to focus on quality and the value proposition. They fail to seek out the opportunities that may give the school an advantage in the market. Their slash and burn tactics mean that quality takes a backseat to the bottom line. Indiscriminately cutting budgets may prove fruitless in the British public school system; in the American arena, it can create a death spiral for an independent school.

Accountants, according to the researchers, “try to grow their schools out of trouble. They are resourceful, systematic, and revenue-focused leaders…” The basic assumption of these leaders is that if the school concentrates resources on revenue-producing programs, it will overcome its limitations and begin to improve performance. The key is more money. But as the authors’ research demonstrates, there is so much focus on raising revenue that academic performance gets lost: “exam results hardly change.”

The independent school equivalent is obvious—the Holy Grail of “alternative revenue.” Since the 2008 financial crisis, boards and heads have rushed to this formula for success. Not enough students? Alternative revenue! Annual deficits? Alternative revenue! Accountants/heads in independent schools love this strategy because they do not have to face hard questions; they do not need to research and think strategically. Moreover, one has to ask why a school thinks it can establish a business for which it has no base of expertise. Alternative revenue is not a panacea; more often it is an avoidance of reality.

The fourth category of leader is the philosopher. Teachers love philosophers as educational leaders. Philosophers “believe that teachers are far more important than the people who support them or the students they teach.” The authors indicate that there is a heavy emphasis on professional development; teachers spend time outside of class talking about teaching. Although discussion of pedagogy seems a critical part of a successful school, Hill and his colleagues found that philosophers are not successful in turning around a school; in fact, they are the least successful of the five kinds of leaders. Exam results do not improve, nor do the finances of the school. The focus on teaching blinds the philosopher from seeing other crucial structural problems that affect outcomes.

Running an independent school in 2017 requires more than just an educational philosophy unless you are fortunate to head a school with a sizable endowment. It requires business acumen—a knowledge of marketing and its interplay with the program; it requires understanding a financial model; it requires dealing with personnel, the law, and fund raising—lots of areas that have nothing to do with course content or pedagogy. Generating lots of conversations with average teachers about pedagogy will not produce great results. The head of an independent school has to be not only an educator but also a C.E.O. in order to affect significant positive change.

Finally, Hill, Mellon, Laker and Goddard describe the one kind of leader who can turn around a failing school—the architect. According to their research, “Architects are the only leaders with any real long-term impact, as they quietly redesign the school…” Architects “take a long-term view of what they need to do.” The authors go on to explain that these leaders “combine the best parts of other leaders, but they make these changes in a different sequence and for different reasons—to transform students and communities.” Just as importantly, architects possess humility: “They are visionary, unsung heroes. Stewards rather than leaders, who are more concerned with the legacy they leave than how things look whilst they’re there.” According to Hill, et al. these are the only educational leaders that bring about long-lasting change and often they go unrecognized for their performance.

There is so much for independent school heads to learn from the architect. Although new heads charged with turning around a school need a few small early victories to build credibility, they must focus on the foundation, and this starts with an essential question: “What conditions must be created in order for students and teachers to do excellent work?” Successful heads that turn schools around dip their toes in the “early win” water, but their real focus is on building the foundation for excellent performance. One successful head who transformed a school, raised teacher salaries by 11% across the board, did not renew the contracts for several poorly performing faculty, and worked with two senior teachers to establish a salary structure that articulated the standards for excellent teaching and incentivized it. These moves, looked at as a whole rather than discretely, point to a strategy of attracting and retaining outstanding teachers—a refection of his belief that big change starts with high quality teachers. By raising salaries and providing mechanisms for making even more money, he kept strong teachers and also put the school in a better position to compete for the best teachers in the market. By not renewing contracts, he sent an unmistakable message—quality matters, as does accountability. In 17 years applications almost doubled to over 500, the acceptance rate dropped by almost half, attrition dropped by two-thirds, and median SAT scores climbed by 120 points. Just like the architects, heads that turn around independent schools focus on the long-term by establishing the building blocks for success.

Hill, Mellon, Laker and Goddard also demonstrate through their research that architects are not highly sought after in England, perhaps because of the very humility that helps them be successful. In many respects these real change agents defy our stereotype of what great leadership looks like, whereas the other kinds of leaders fulfill our stereotype. Of the five categories of leaders, they are the least recognized and the least paid.

American independent school search committees would be well advised to heed the lesson from this research. Charisma, extraversion, and a high dose of over-confidence may not be the best indicators of success when the school requires real change. Too many independent schools act like sheep, ultimately concerned more with appearance in the selection of a new head—educational pedigree, looks, experience at the “right” kind of school. Pre-financial crisis, focusing on these traits was just fine because the stakes were low; leadership didn’t really matter. Today, many independent schools need architects—real leaders who know how to affect sustainable change or can learn to do so quickly.

I fear more for the smug schools that suffer from an inflated view of their value, schools whose past glory blinds them from seeing an emerging reality. Like the “boiling frog,” these schools do not even know that they’re in trouble, yet they still seek the head that is more “sizzle than steak.” Of course, academic pedigree and experience at the right kind of school do not preclude a person from being an effective change agent. But search committees need to eschew a single-minded focus on appearance, and instead try to uncover the presence of real leadership skills. The future of independent school education depends on such an approach.

For information about Tom and his firm Resource Group 175, click here.