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.

Surgeons
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.

Soldiers
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
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.

Philosophers
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.

Architects
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.

Is Your Strategic Plan Really Strategic?

strategyIn recent years I have read many independent school strategic plans that are strikingly similar to each other; it’s as if they came from a clearinghouse of pre-packaged strategic goals. The goals are laudable—better facilities, more diversity, greater access, STEM and STEAM. However, their ubiquity leads me to believe that the thinking behind them is shallow, and herein is my frustration with strategic planning: there is often nothing strategic about it. The words long-term and strategic seem to be synonymous, since many of these goals will take years to achieve as opposed to months, while the “strategy” gets left in the dust.

It’s frustrating to watch heads of school re-package ideas from their previous schools based on the unexamined assumption that if it worked somewhere else, it should work here too. It’s not the quality of thinking reflected in independent school strategic plans that is the problem; it’s the absence of thinking. We in the independent school world need fewer strategic plans and more strategic thinkers if our schools are to continue to play a critical role in American education. Effective strategic thinking happens when a deep understanding of the landscape of reality is leveraged through imagination to serve a particular purpose or advantage.

One of the oldest and most effective tools for understanding your school is the S.W.O.T. analysis—strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. But this analysis should not be done in a perfunctory manner as if the goal is to get through it as quickly as possible in order to do the real work of strategic planning. If you race through this analysis, you run the risk of missing the connections between each of the categories and of eliminating strategy from your strategic plan.

Here’s a real example. A day school had for years been the doormat in a league of highly regarded independent schools with strong athletic programs. Its academic reputation in comparison to schools in the league was also widely perceived as a major weakness. The league consisted of many of the very best schools in the area; in other words, this weak school was in a league with a highly desirable brand. In the S.W.O.T. analysis the athletic and academic programs were weaknesses, but the league was a strength, so much so that many highly selective colleges often recruited student-athletes from schools in this league giving these student-athletes a real advantage in the college admissions game.

So let’s summarize:

Weakness: weak athletic and academic programs

Strength: membership in one of the most prestigious independent school leagues in the country

Opportunity: the chance to bolster the athletic and academic brand of the school by leveraging the league’s brand to attract student-athletes

The table was set to connect the dots. The school shed its “we’re not good enough to compete” mindset and hired coaches who had extensive contacts with athletes outside the league. These athletes often jumped at the chance to play in this exclusive league, and many of them ended up at highly selective colleges, thus bolstering the academic profile of the previously unheralded school.

There was no guarantee that the strategy would work. This is a critical element in the development of real strategic goals; if they are truly strategic, they feel like a bet, albeit a bet that is based on research, data, and systematic thinking.

Strategic goals are not just an end; they need to serve some larger purpose, typically fulfilling the school’s already existing capacity in some area, creating new capacity, and of course, helping the school better live its mission. The key question is this: “Will positive results from achieving the strategic goals put the school in a stronger position to be successful in achieving future strategic goals? Will those results lead to more applications, greater fund raising, or a more enhanced brand?” It is true that there are schools with large endowments that do not need to worry about these questions. Their focus should be exclusively on fulfilling missions and the “threats” part of S.W.O.T. But for most schools achieving strategic goals should lead to the creation of a virtuous cycle that strengthens capacity, helping the school fulfill its mission now and in the future.

Strategy is born from theory, a complex, albeit less-than-certain view of how a system works for the purpose of using that understanding to give a school a competitive advantage that in the end will serve its larger purpose of fulfilling its mission. Heads do not need to overthink the theory; but they do need to understand it well enough to be intentional in the development of strategic goals. This is where the thinking comes in. Independent schools need fewer generic strategic plans and more strategic thinkers.

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

“Know Yourself, Know Your Enemy, Know Your Terrain”

enrollDespite the slight uptick in enrollment over the past year, many independent schools continue to face enrollment challenges. Too often these challenges are met with quick fixes that provide temporary comfort, but are ineffective and often detrimental in helping the school attain long-term financial sustainability. Some schools have significantly “discounted to the market,” providing steep tuition reductions in order to meet enrollment targets. Others have cut back on programs or frozen teacher salaries. One school even offered its head a bonus for increasing enrollment. Despite their good intentions, these responses divert attention from creating a foundation for long-term financial health. It is painful to watch a school focus on the wrong solutions, ultimately compromising its ability to achieve the financial sustainability it needs.

Painful as it is to watch these schools struggle, it is understandable because most of them cannot afford to hire marketing consultants. And frankly, many marketing consultants offer only canned, broad-brush solutions that fail to account for the particular market in which the school operates.

So how can a school think more strategically and work more effectively on its enrollment challenges? By following the simple, yet effective words often attributed to the ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu: “Know yourself, know your enemy, and know the terrain.”

Let’s look at the application of each these elements to independent school marketing.

Know Yourself

Thinking strategically about your enrollment challenges first and foremost begins with taking a dispassionate, objective look at the quality of your service. How good is your school? Really? To what degree are you living your mission? Why do students leave your school? What value are you giving parents and students? Is there buy-in from all constituencies for what the school is and what it aspires to be? What assets can be leveraged to strengthen your position in the marketplace? What glaring weaknesses need to be fixed?

If your school has fundamental weaknesses, there is no amount of “messaging” or “branding” that will overcome these deficiencies. In addition, if you do not understand your assets, you run the risk of unwittingly foregoing opportunities to jumpstart positive change. One school in a major metropolitan area used a highly successful music school under its umbrella of operation, even though it was only loosely connected. A new head immediately saw the potential opportunity to use this auxiliary program to attract stronger students and shed its image as a third-tier school. Working closely with the music school director, the head tied the day school to the music school, creating innovative and distinctive programs that attracted stronger students who wanted to also pursue music seriously. In essence, the school created value by discovering an asset and leveraging it to achieve a marketing goal.

Know the Enemy

If you are not a competitive person, do not head a school struggling with enrollment. Being “smart” competitive means understanding the competition—its strengths and weaknesses and what position it owns in the marketplace. Herein lies Step One in developing a more complete understanding of the landscape of reality. That fuller knowledge is essential in identifying opportunities—an important step in designing and executing a plan that carves out a winnable position in the market. Every independent school marketing challenge is different, but in general, you want to avoid replicating what other schools tout as their distinctive differences. In order to do this, you must know these schools and recognize what makes them compelling choices for certain families. For example, in one highly competitive market with several high-powered schools in which students competed against each other, one school emphasized the personal touch. It strengthened its advisor program, created more opportunities for parent-teacher interaction, and established individualized course counseling. It looked at almost every aspect of its program and message and asked itself, “Without compromising our standards, how can we create a more personal experience for our students and families?” Within several years, it had drastically reduced attrition and doubled the number of applications to over 500 per year. And it did so without the use of a marketing consultant.

Know the Terrain

Knowing the enemy is Step One in carving out a sustainable market niche, but it is not enough. Not by a long shot. To create a successful marketing strategy, you need to study and understand demographics- income projections, population by age, growth areas, etc. More importantly, you need to develop a theory about the perceptions of your school in relation to the competition. You have to make some reasonable guesses about the values of the community so that you can determine what drivers and barriers to behavior exist. Are there table stakes that will limit your school’s capacity to attract students- sports offerings, AP courses, STEM programs? It is unreasonable to expect schools facing enrollment challenges to pay for brand studies; they are simply too expensive. But these schools can gather information through demographic studies and interviews in order to create a reasonable theory about the nature of the market. One head in his first year at a struggling school interviewed a number of private placement consultants who helped families identify appropriate schools for their children. He pushed the consultants to be honest, to share the unvarnished truth about the school and how it was perceived. The interviews prompted him to initiate some significant changes in the school’s program that eventually led to a stronger position in the market place. Too many schools focus solely on surveying their parents in an effort to uncover and market the positive attributes of the school. It’s not enough. They need to discover the outside perception of the school to fully understand the barriers that prevent inquiries and applications.

“Know yourself, know the enemy, know the terrain.” There are no pat answers in this maxim, just a template for better understanding the real marketing challenges a school faces and ultimately helping it take action to make a real difference.

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

Finding the Right Head of School Part II: The Role of the Consultant

consultantIn my last blog entry I discussed the pros and cons of closed vs. open searches. Though certainly critical to the outcome of the search, the paradigm of closed versus open misses a larger point—the consultant’s important role in helping the search committee identify real leaders. Although search committees understand their respective school cultures, they don’t truly understand the requirements of successful independent school leadership. They do not understand the complexities of the job—the varied hats heads must wear—such as C.E.O., pastor, change agent, politician, fundraiser, public speaker, crisis-manager and more. This is where a good search consultant comes in. She can fill this void.

Whether closed or open, a key to a successful search is the consultant’s work at the top of the candidate funnel. Some consultants tout their firms’ huge database of candidates as if more average candidates make for a better outcome. Spending time increasing the number of candidates may make the search committee feel better about its school, but it will not lead to better outcomes. Rather than focusing time and energy on widening the top of the funnel, a good consultant refines the candidate pool by using her experience as a former successful head to question candidates deeply and in ways that reveal their default positions, such as how they deal with problems, their ability to think strategically, their skills in bringing about change, their self-knowledge, and more. In other words, it is up to the consultant to draw a reasonable conclusion based on interviews and back-channel information (when appropriate) that the candidate has a baseline of leadership skills to be a successful head of school. The vast majority of candidates presented to the search committee should have passed some reasonable litmus test that suggests that they have the “right stuff.” Only the consultant who knows what the job entails can determine this.

At this important juncture after the search committee has narrowed the field, the consultant should start taking a back seat to ensure that the search committee is taking ownership of its decision. Selecting a head of school should never feel like it is being outsourced. Outsourcing might work at the higher education level or maybe some well-established boarding schools, but generally, it is a bad idea. Search committee members should share in devising interview questions with the guidance of the consultant, planning logistics for the finalists’ visits, coordinating the spouses’ schedules, distilling feedback from various constituencies, and checking references. Ownership of the process at this point translates into greater investment in the ultimate decision, and this investment, in turn, sets the stage for the new head’s success.

Critical to a successful search is finding the right fit, and that is the sole responsibility of the search committee and by extension, the board of trustees. The right fit has two components. First it means finding candidates whose capabilities match the challenges and opportunities the school is facing. In this regard, it is imperative that the search committee builds on the initial work of the consultant to uncover that handful of leadership skills or capabilities for each candidate that will have the greatest positive impact on the school. What does the school really need the next head to do? Does the candidate have the skills both in expertise and temperament to do this work? And what questions will help the committee draw reasonable conclusions based on the answers to these questions?

Second, the right fit means that the candidate’s leadership style matches the culture of the school. A head recently told me that in his school it has long been a custom that the head teach a class and have advisees. The trustees and teachers expect that the head will be a visible internal leader. For that school to hire a “corporate” head of school who is mostly away from campus would be a cultural disconnect. Search committees have to identify the leadership style defaults of its candidates and make sure they conform to the cultural expectations within the school community.

It takes a deft touch to provide helpful and timely counsel to a search committee. Though always mindful of adhering to an agreed-upon process, a strong consultant brings so much more to the table than just knowledge of the search process. Using her expertise as a former head of school, the consultant helps the search committee articulate the challenges the school is facing and clarify the vital leadership capabilities required. She screens candidates to ensure that they have a baseline of leadership skills to head a school. Finally, she recedes into the background as the search moves forward, allowing the search committee to own the process and fully invest in its ultimate selection.

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

Finding the Right Head of School
 Part I: Closed vs. Open Searches

open-v-closedProcess and outcomes are inextricably linked. This maxim is clearly demonstrated in the most important job of an independent school board of trustees—selecting a head of school. Before identifying a consultant, the board should discuss the merits of a closed search versus an open search, two very different approaches to selecting a head of school. One firm might emphasize a closed search with a heavy emphasis on confidentiality because of the fear of losing sitting heads who are worried about the repercussions with their present respective schools. Other firms tout the open process with lots of participation by constituent groups. In these open searches, candidates are paraded from one constituency to another, with each one providing general feedback. Transparency is the operative word.

So, open or closed?

Each has its benefits and flaws. A closed search is certainly more susceptible to group think and the confirmation bias in which the search committee quickly gravitates to a candidate and then cherry picks evidence to support its original positive impression. Despite this flaw, a closed search does create more opportunity for the search committee to do a deep dive into the leadership skills of each finalist. Untethered by a fixed finalist schedule, the search committee can have lengthy and productive conversations with each candidate, thus allowing it to assess the degree to which the candidate’s capabilities align with the challenges the school is facing. However, without the counsel of a knowledgeable consultant who understands the leadership requirements for being a successful head, a closed search can lose this advantage.

An open search can suffer from an excess of democracy. Candidate interview performance becomes confused with the presence of leadership skills. Personal attributes, like being extraverted, often take on more importance than they should. As I have written before, winning the job is very different from doing the job. The open process puts a premium on skills needed to win the job, but may obscure the candidate’s ability to do the job. Independent school search committees are often prone to the optics of selecting the right candidate—the family photograph and the short biography that delineates the requisite pedigree. An open search, however, is more likely to appropriately address the issue of cultural fit. Does the candidate’s personality mesh with the culture of the school? It also provides more opportunities for the search committee to detect red flags as different constituencies provide feedback on each finalist. Moreover, an open search has the potential of building a foundation of support for the new head with many members of the community feeling that they played a part in the process.

In the final analysis, open searches done properly with a knowledgeable consultant are superior to closed searches as long as the search committee maintains its focus on discovering the true leadership capabilities of each finalist. Furthermore, the search committee can gather feedback from many constituencies and use it to determine if the candidate is a strong cultural fit with the school. In addition, a typical open search ensures confidentiality until the finalist stage, thus minimizing potential negative consequences for many of the sitting heads. Disciplined and thoughtful open searches with proper counsel maximize buy-in, provide opportunities to explore the capabilities of candidates, and ultimately, increase the chances of finding the right fit.

Next Month: Part II The Role of the Consultant

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

 

Boards Behaving Badly

3bsThere is a lot of talk these days about independent school governance. And it’s not good. One executive director of a large regional independent school association receives over fifty requests for trustee workshops each year. Another executive director is looking to form a cadre of experienced heads to provide counsel to board chairs on “hot” governance issues. Stories abound of first-time independent school heads seeking advice on how to temper the expectations of their “get it done now” boards of trustees. And head of school turnover appears to be unusually high (Advanced Placement, Marc Levinson).

A typical response to the “Three B’s” (Boards Behaving Badly) is trustee training in the form of workshops, specifically the Trusteeship 101 retreat. The thinking behind trustee education is that if trustees know the Do’s and Don’ts of trusteeship, if they understand the proverbial line between administration and governance, and if they are knowledgeable about “best practices” in governance, then schools can avoid the problems of dysfunctional head-board relations.

But this thinking only addresses part of the problem.

I don’t discount the value of trustee education. Workshops about proper board behavior can be incredibly valuable, especially for novice trustees. But in my experience, trustee education is not enough. It provides a false comfort to heads of school that education is the answer to all trustee problems and assumes that if trustees understand the “how” of governance they will behave appropriately. But trustees need more than just a list of inappropriate behaviors; they need to derive meaning from their trustee experience. How is this done? By putting their expertise to work to make a difference.

For instance, early in my tenure as a head of school near Boston, MA, the chair of the facilities committee and I went to a town planning committee to seek approval for a curb cut required for a major construction project. Neighbors were up in arms, vilifying me in all the typical ways that neighbors attack schools planning physical expansion. These attacks went on for forty minutes. My blood was boiling, more because the facilities chair, a well known, highly respected developer in town, didn’t say a word. How could he not give me any support? When the meeting ended, multiple side conversations broke out full of continuous chatter and expressions of anger. At that point, the chair of the facilities committee ambled up to the town planning committee members and said, “Can you vote right now on the curb cut?” The chair of the planning board, responded, “Sure.” Then they quietly voted. After the vote, the chair of the facilities committee turned to me and, with a smile on his face said, “We got the approval for the curb cut.”

The point is that the trustee had deep expertise in dealing with neighbors and getting approvals from town planning boards. He knew not to engage and fight back during the uproar, but waited for the vote. In using his expertise, he helped advance the school and got results, helping to set the foundation for better facilities and expanded programs. In other words, his efforts mattered, and he felt good about making a difference.

So how, as a head of school, can you get your trustees on board?

First, have a strong orientation program in which you and the board chair review the basic tenants of proper trustee behavior with the new trustee. The board chair should make it clear that one of his/her most important jobs is to make sure that trustees are held accountable for improper behavior. Furthermore, it’s imperative that you and the board chair communicate to the new trustee that there will be times when her service and expertise will be acutely needed and other times when her service will be more routine and less intense. Both levels of service will depend on the strategic imperatives at the time. Most importantly, let the new trustee know that you will not fill her time with busy work.

Second, sell your vision to get everyone, including trustees, on the same page. And I mean everyone! Some will be enthusiastic; some will be skeptical. In the beginning, that’s okay. Their skepticism will only make you work harder to prove them wrong. The ones who refuse to buy in may need to move on. When trustees support your vision, then their respective roles in the achievement of the vision contribute to the dominant narrative, and the issues with the 2nd grade Spanish teacher, for example, recede in the background. Vision has the power to focus and align.

visionThird, no one gets on the board unless she can use her talent/expertise to help the school realize the vision. Trustees are like all of us; they want to know that they are making a positive difference. If the facilities committee chair is not channeling his efforts to obtain town approvals, will he be complaining about the upper school math program in an inappropriate effort to make a positive difference? Let me be very clear—it is the head’s job, along with the board chair, to help each trustee find meaning in his/her volunteer work for the school. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves—even trustees. It’s the responsibility of the board chair and the head to help each trustee be a part of that “bigger.”

Fourth, a trustee should rarely play a key role in deciding the direction the board will take on a critical strategic decision unless he or she has significant expertise in that area. Many heads have suffered through marketing meetings with committee members who know next to nothing about marketing, and yet because of their power as trustees, school administrators end up wasting time implementing ineffective solutions. Your board talent has to be deployed and utilized in ways that add value to the school (i.e. helping the school do a better job of living its mission).

In order to turn your board into an asset, you need to create an inspiring and unifying vision, persuade talented people to help you realize that vision, and organize them to do their best work in service to the vision.

Nothing Speaks So Loudly As Your Actions

hiringPublished originally in Independent School Magazine, Fall, 2016

The statistics are alarming. According to Marc Levinson, Executive Director of MISBO, in his study “Evaluating the Head of School Transition” from 2009 to 2014 there have been 102 head transitions out of about 160 schools in Florida. For that same period in Georgia there have been 122 transitions out of 158 schools. For North Carolina, 74 out of 90. For Connecticut, 45 out of 100. In the Northwest Association of Independent Schools, there have been 60 new heads for 115 schools. Based on interviews, Levinson concludes that central to this disturbing trend are search committees lacking expertise:

“Former NAIS Presidents Pat Bassett and John Chubb, along with several other association leaders I spoke with, expressed concern with the lack of resources and training for search committees. Most agree that hiring (as well as supporting and evaluating) leadership is the primary responsibility of our school boards, but most are ill-equipped to tackle this assignment.”

Clearly, there is a problem. It is true that some of the transitions cited by Levinson are most likely the result of “boomer” heads retiring, but the staggering volume along with the statements by national and regional association leaders suggests flaws in the way schools select new heads.

There are many possible reasons for the failure of so many head searches: a lack of understanding about what leadership really is and what it looks like, dysfunctional boards, a premium on appearance over substance to name a few. But even more fundamental and, in my opinion, more prevalent, is the bias that inflicts the selection process and the absence of protocols to suppress this bias. In this regard, the work of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning behavioral psychologist at Princeton, provides us insight into the flawed thinking of so many search committees. In Thinking, Fast and Slow Kahneman details the prejudice that runs rampant in human decision-making and highlights the illusion of objectivity that pervades human thinking. A summary of research that he and other psychologists conducted over the last 30-40 years, Thinking, Fast and Slow provides a conceptual framework for exploring the prejudices that inflict any group’s collective judgement.

And nowhere is this flawed decision-making more evident than in the work of independent school search committees tasked with selecting a new head of school. In fact, the bias that inflicts many search committees is so palpable that Kahneman’s book should be required reading for all members of a newly formed search committee (Note: for a condensed overview of Kahneman’s research and its application, please see the 2015 Winter edition of the Harvard Business Review OnPoint).

Let’s look at some examples.

The “priming” bias is well known in the hiring process. It is sometimes referred to as the “deficit hiring bias.” This particular irrational thinking involves identifying the attributes of the present head of school and assigning them unwarranted value in the selection of the next head. So if a head is perceived as having weak relationships with students, the search committee decides, almost unconsciously, that it is imperative that the next head be someone who will develop great relationships with students, and indeed, it may be helpful for the next head to have this attribute. But too often, search committees unthinkingly and unwisely elevate the importance of the attribute in their selection process. In these situations, the search committee’s perception of the current head primes the unconscious value placed on student relationships.

The “halo bias” is yet another example of the irrational thinking that goes into selecting a head. Perhaps a candidate comes from a highly regarded, prestigious school that search committee members admire. The perception of the prestigious school becomes a powerful proxy for all the candidate’s attributes leading to thinking that goes something like this: 1) this candidate comes from a prestigious school; 2) we wish our school were more like the candidate’s school; 3) we should hire this candidate. Many of us “rational” folk might scoff at the simplicity of this thinking, but it is the kind of thinking that sells cars, soft drinks, and a myriad of other advertised consumer goods.

And finally, there is what I call “the beauty contest bias” or as Kahneman refers to it — the “availability heuristic.” Absent the hard work, discipline and rigor of amassing evidence that demonstrates that a candidate has the attributes that the search committee identified as critical for the next head to possess, the search committee instead asks itself the easy question: “Do we like this candidate?” The fact that the committee consists of representatives from multiple constituencies, hires a consultant to lead it through the process, and champions transparency provides the false comfort and illusion that objectivity rules the day. This is often not the case. A candidate may “knock it out of the park,” in an interview by demonstrating that she really “gets” the school.  In essence, the candidate is validating the committee members’ love of the school. Perhaps her enthusiasm for the school and her desire to “land” the job draw committee members to her. Post-interview, the committee looks for evidence to support its initial emotional connection with the candidate. It fails to go back to the attributes of the ideal leader and ask the question, “What evidence in writings, interviews, and recommendations demonstrates that the candidate has the requisite skills, experience, personality, and knowledge to be the leader the school needs going forward?” To answer that question requires hard work and, as Kahneman so convincingly reveals, we humans would rather go with the easy, intuitive answer than the answer that is supported by evidence.

leadershipA powerful tool to neutralize the impact of bias is an extended interview with the candidate about past behavior covering a range of leadership skills. Although the search committee can conduct this interview, I think it is more productive if the consultant does it. Without the time constraints typical of the first-round interviews, the consultant can delve deeply into an issue, using follow-up questions to uncover not only the candidate’s philosophy in action but also her default behaviors as well as her capacity to learn. Unlike the typical search committee member, the consultant can often leverage his/her experience as a former head of school to probe beyond the superficial with follow-up questions to ascertain what leadership qualities the candidate possesses. The result of this kind of interview is the establishment of a robust narrative that will be reinforced or modified with evidence from subsequent interviews, meetings with constituents, and reference checking.

One of the most illuminating interviews I have conducted was with a very successful head of a grammar school in a mid-size city in the Northeast. Using the SBO method of interviewing (Situation, Behavior, Outcome), I asked her about the biggest communication challenge she had faced since becoming a head. For the next twenty minutes we delved into a problem with a veteran teacher. I peppered her with questions as she told the story. In the process, I began to learn about her leadership strengths- a belief in collaboration and a willingness to hold teachers accountable for demonstrating it, an insistence that teachers contribute to the growth of the school by bringing their imaginations and initiative to the table every day, and her admission that she had yet to solve the problem but was determined to do so. In twenty minutes I knew why this head in four short years increased enrollment by almost fifty percent in a city dominated by Catholic schools and bereft of knowledge about independent school education. She’s a leader, not content with mere action but focused on results. Riffing on a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, former football coach Chuck Knox once said, “Nothing speaks so loudly as your actions.” Because I had the time to listen to her story, the knowledge to ask her probing questions and the expertise to recognize the significance of her actions, I could hear this effective head of school loud and clear.

But imagine this candidate in the typical head search process. It would have been almost impossible for the candidate to convey this story, much less have the search committee glean the substance behind her story. In the standard semi-finalist interview, she might have been able to talk generally about faculty morale and communication. She may have touched on collaboration and its importance, just like all the other candidates. But lost in the sea of superficiality would be the opportunity for her to demonstrate what makes her so special.

Of course, probing a communication challenge is only one of many leadership areas for a consultant to mine. Difficult decisions, hiring failures, disagreements with the head of school or board chair, initiating and implementing change- these are just a handful of the rich treasure-troves that can provide insight into the leadership skills of a candidate. Absent the probing interview, it is simply too easy for search committees to gravitate to an easy default that distinguishes candidates on the basis of “how well they performed.” Interpersonal skills- unquestionably, an important consideration in choosing the right Head of School- drive decision-making at the expense of other vital leadership skills. “Cultural fit” wins the day.

But even the concept of “cultural fit” is riddled with bias. As recent studies have shown, cultural fit often has nothing to do with the compatibility of the candidate with the school’s culture- certainly a critical factor in selecting a head. It has more to do with whether the interviewers feel like the candidate could be someone “they enjoyed hanging out with or could foresee developing a close relationship with.” (Lauren Rivera, Associate Professor at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University).

During the finalist stage the committee gathers feedback from various constituencies and individuals about each candidate’s interpersonal and communication skills. With each finalist talking with parents, teachers, alumni, students, and trustees, there is ample opportunity for the search committee to learn the degree to which the candidate possesses these important skills. In fact, the typical search process almost guarantees that the search committee will receive an abundance of information about each candidate’s interpersonal skills. In contrast, the committee must be intentional and deliberate in creating and executing a protocol that insures that it has relevant information on other previously identified leadership skills. Here the consultant can play a critical role by conducting in-depth interviews that focus on past behaviors as indicators of leadership competencies. Moreover, the consultant can urge the search committee to set aside the long litany of leadership skills so prevalent in glossy position statements and instead, focus on a handful of qualities essential for moving the school forward. Finally, the consultant can design questions that will lead to evidence of the presence or absence of these qualities.

For schools that choose not to use a consultant, I believe it is critical to modify the process to allow the search committee an opportunity to ask probing questions about past behavior. In this scenario the school may choose to have only 4-5 first-round interviews as opposed to the typical 8-10 in order to have time to focus on key leadership qualities for each candidate. Lengthier interviews allow for follow-up questions that lead to answers that reveal the presence of leadership skills. For example, if the committee is probing initiative, it might begin with the following topic: “Tell us about your leadership role in a major change initiative.” Probing questions could include the following:

  • Why was this initiative important?
  • What factors contributed to the selection of your team?
  • Did you have a fixed outcome in your mind? Explain.
  • What research did you conduct?
  • Were there dissenting voices on the committee? How did you deal with them?
  • How did you maintain the momentum of the committee?
  • What factors slowed you down? How did you respond?
  • How did you share the committee’s on-going work with the faculty/staff?
  • How did you achieve consensus?
  • How did you deal with resistance?
  • How did you roll out the plan?
  • Did you develop an implementation plan, a communication plan?
  • How did you measure the effectiveness of the change?
  • Did the change bring about the desired outcomes?
  • What did you learn from the experience?

Of course, what is missing from this list are questions prompted by the candidate’s answers. But in general, search committees should be looking for evidence that the candidate can think strategically, can manage the process of change including dissent, has a clear rationale for the kind of outcomes she wants, possesses a political sensibility, knows when to push and when to pull back, can communicate and execute effectively, knows the difference between action and results, and is able to gain new insights as a result of the experience.

According to NAIS, two-thirds of sitting heads will retire by the end of 2019. In addition, concerns about financial sustainability point to difficult times for many independent schools. The process for selecting heads and in particular, the quality of thinking that informs that process must improve dramatically if our independent schools are to thrive and continue to play a vital role in American education. Consultants and trustees can start by understanding the bias that search committee members bring to the table and work to mitigate it. Most importantly, search committees must never forget that winning the job is different from doing the job.

Published originally in Independent School Magazine, Fall, 2016

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

Mitigating Bias in Decision-Making

decisionsI used to assume that quality decision-making was an innate leadership skill, more a matter of instinct and personality rather than something learned. Turns out, I was wrong.

Recently, I read Chip Heath and Dan Heath’s book Decisive, which explores the nature of decision-making, delineates the inevitable bias that inflicts most decisions, and offers practical advice that can lead to better decisions. The authors target the primary villains that lead to bad decisions:

  • Leaders too often narrow decisions to an either-or scenario, thus precluding the use of imagination to discover another path;
  • Leaders are subject to the confirmation bias–locking in on a solution and then cherry-picking evidence that supports the solution;
  • Leaders often let short-term emotion influence their decisions;
  • Leaders tend to be over-confident about the outcomes of their decisions.

In short, leaders are human and can fall prey to subjectivity though they are quite clever in making those subjective, often illogical choices look quite rational.

Research has shown that a diversity of perspectives actually leads to better decisions. The senior administrator with the contrarian view may exasperate the rest of the leadership team, but the fact that the group culture allows him to express his views without fear actually results in a better outcome. The naysayer who is always dampening enthusiasm for an idea by asking, “Now what can go wrong here?” is actually forcing the team to set aside its rosy projections and look at the possibility of a downside. In both cases the transparent culture, a culture of trust and honesty, promotes a diversity of opinion, which in turn leads to better decisions.

So how does a head of school establish such a culture?

First, know yourself. What behaviors push your buttons and why? Which is more important to you: learning or being right? Do you need to maintain control? Do you use power reflexively or intentionally? Self-awareness is a good thing for anybody; but for a leader, it is essential because it allows her the possibility of checking her worse default behaviors.

Second, establish a culture of trust in your meetings by intentionally applauding divergent thinking. The first head of school I worked for told me, after a contentious administrative meeting, that “efficiency is the enemy of effectiveness.” In making this comment, he gave me a clear signal that honest dissent was not only welcomed, but also expected. When meetings veer into uncomfortable questions, contrarian perspectives or alternate scenarios and things get messy, the desire for resolution only increases. However a head who allows these kinds of discussions is protecting the very foundation of sound decision-making. It’s true that teams can fall prey to “analysis paralysis,” but the leader blinded by the “efficacy of efficiency” is sending a powerful message to the team–alternative views are not valued. Thus, the seeds are sown for flawed decisions.

Third, look for an opportunity to be wrong during your team meetings. Yes, you read that right. Be wrong! Most people equate leadership with power. They sometimes defer to the head unnecessarily, and see their roles as good lieutenants who execute the commands of the general. To jolt them away from this deeply held assumption, the head needs to be wrong, acknowledge that’s she wrong, and applaud the dissenting voice. This is one of those defining moments when power takes a backseat to the “best idea wins” culture. It is a strong signal that power is not the supreme value, but making the best decision is.

Peter Drucker once famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” This has certainly been the norm in my career. Culture can either enhance positive change or kill it. Thus heads must navigate an existing school culture in order to bring about meaningful change. But heads can influence culture as well. They do this by modeling behavior that signals an unswerving commitment to finding the best answer. This process begins with self-awareness, a genuine desire to learn from others no matter how difficult, and the self-confidence to be wrong.

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

What We Need Is One Idea: Make Your Vision Real

one ideaEarly 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!

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

“At the Edge of Inside.” Where Heads Need To Be

edge picOne of the most powerful tools an independent school leader has is perspective, an ever-evolving practice of seeking deeper and deeper insights into the landscape of reality. Those insights can lead to better strategic thinking and better strategic decisions.

But clearly seeing and understanding reality without a commitment to the mission and culture of the school is a prescription for disaster. It makes the head an outsider, a real threat to the long-standing values of the school. Independent schools are typically not ripe for being blown up and put back together. When heads try to do this, they often get fired. On the other hand, too many heads are oblivious to the landscape of reality, unconcerned about how the school’s mission might intersect with the market or more often, hamstrung by orthodox independent school beliefs that blind them to the particular circumstances that define the school’s challenges. Some heads enter their new school communities, tenaciously holding on to principles learned at previous schools and determined to replicate them. It’s like a doctor prescribing a treatment before understanding what the illness is.

It’s easy for independent schools to be bubbles; many of them are. In an effort to establish a brand, schools tout their student achievements, publicize their victories, and tell stories about what makes their communities different and special. They want parents, students, alumni, and faculty armed with positive information that engenders loyalty and a sense of pride. These are good things. However, they can be debilitating when the head is swept up by them, paralyzing efforts to learn and gain deeper insights about what the school really is and how it is perceived in the market. A head must be committed to the mission of the school, but she cannot be a “true believer,” to use Eric Hoffer’s term, and fail to ask uncomfortable questions in service to the mission of the school.

The proper perch for a head of school is one that embraces what for many, might be a contradiction — being “all in” while maintaining a distance. David Brooks’ recent editorial in The New York Times offers sage advice to a head of school or any leader in order to reconcile this tension: live “at the edge of inside.” At the edge of inside allows a head to use her imagination to integrate the school’s mission and how it is expressed with the existing reality: “insiders and outsiders tend to think in dualistic ways: us versus them; this or that… but the beginning of wisdom is to fight the natural tendency to be dualistic. The person on the edge of inside is more likely to see wholeness of any situation.” A head of school has to be both a champion and a skeptic. She has to be both head cheerleader and chief questioner. As chief questioner, the head, in reality, is chief learner, believing that deeper and deeper insights create leverage that will help the school do a better job of living its mission.

So new heads of school, look for “the edge of inside.” That’s where the journey to meaningful change begins.

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