The Right Strategic Choice

Remember always that the grand business is not to look dimly into the future but to do what lies clearly at hand—Thomas Carlyle 1829

I have not worked on my blogging lately because, well, I have been busyyou know, traveling, talking to and working with people, reading papers and articles, walking and thinking with the dog. However, with some time back in South Carolina after my last trip, it seems a good idea to consolidate some of my work experience and current thinking with another venture into the blog-o-sphere, or wherever these things go.

Let me start by reflecting on the various conversations I have had with trustees and professionals from a variety of independent schools and organizations. One of the issues those conversations have raised is a question that follows the line of, “When should a school be embarking on a strategic planning process?” And my initial answer is pretty much the same: “Do you think the school would be going into this planning from a position of strength or are there concerns about the school functioning?”

To answer that question, let me begin with this assertion: choosing to improve the internal functioning of a school community, to make management and school-wide communications better and more dynamic is a strategic choice. Even strong schools with effective management can become complacent, failing to ask essential questions about the daily effectiveness of community functions. More common is a school governance team sensing that it could use a management tune-up but resists doing so because the process of change is invariably disruptive and foments adult discomfort. Nevertheless, a school governance group (trustees, head of school, administration) considering a strategic planning approach must start with a frank analysis of the realities of the school’s current strengths and weaknesses, and in particular how well the school’s daily life is aligned with the values and mission of the school.

If a school does not conduct an inventory of its management/administrative health and effectiveness, it risks a jump into strategic planning as a way to do something generally seen as productive, yet in fact ignores the more pressing realities of the school’s position. Like what? Like this: are leadership groups’ communications effective, positive and problem solving? Is there healthy trust among and between various constituencies in the school? Is administration attuned to faculty/staff development and successful functioning? Are students at the center of the adult community focus? Is the school community spirit/morale good? Do faculty and parents support and work well with the school leadership? Are the board of trustees and the school administration/leadership aligned in their work? Finally, is the recent history of the school’s arcadmissions, staff retention, student outcomes, fund raisingascending or declining? Answers to these questions reveal the realities of your mission’s relevance, the strength of your value proposition, and the quality of your organization’s health.

Sure, a few of the above questions may not be as positive as leadership would like, but if most of them have to be assigned negative or even neutral answers, then any “strategic planning” needs to be clearly centered, rather than on goals that are aspirational and ideal, on the pragmatic work of making the school better in each area of uncertainty or shortfall. In this case, capital campaigns, campus planning, and ambitious new programming may not be off the table, but should prudently be pushed to the edges of the work at hand. Doing so allows school leadership to focus on the essential, pragmatic work of making the school better. And school communities become stronger and more effective not by hand-wringing over external issues (there must be more money!) but by using the human resources, talent and commitment already extant in the community. For such schools, strategic planning is not about campaigns and campus planning but largely consists of establishing action plans and teams to meet and address the school’s shortcomings. While there is still room for innovation, new approaches, and inspired initiatives, these fresh ideas should occur in a realistic setting, established in a positive, intentional manner with time-centered checkpoints and measures on goal achievement.

Such a strategic approach to being a stronger and better school allows for the aspirational, visionary cycle of traditional strategic design to occur in due course, and that time should be part of the ongoing discussions of being a better functioning school. Specifically, school leadership should ask itself these questions: what do we say we do here? Are we doing those things in a consistent, reliable way? Can we do them better?

So what does this “improving the school” look like? “Being better” means raising the individual standards and accountability for both students and faculty, a process which offers a richer meaning and worth to daily activity and community life. (Further, acting strategically from a position of improving the current school should not necessarily require more money or resourcesthough an increase in financial flexibility is not uncommon with positive internal progress.) In this case, “small” things loom large: better and active communication, responsive and decisive behaviors, doing/completing work in real time, showing up, being part of, and being there. These daily qualities rarely get noticed in strategic planning documents and reports, but all good, healthy communities embody standards that enhance both work and growth; further, good schools hold themselves accountable for meeting those positive living, working standards. Once improvement starts, effectiveness and confidence will grow as intentional behavior invariably affirms the best values of community health: offering praise and gratitude to community members, giving direction and advice constructively and thoughtfully, living and working mindfully, and taking advantage of progress to celebrate publicly the positive movement.

In sum, a school that considers strategic planning must first appraise its internal strength and health, and if an honest assessment finds deficiencies, then the strategic plan should be to address the school as it is, not as an aspirational hope for what it someday will be. There is certainly a time for embarking on BIG GOAL planningcampus growth! new programs! increased resources!and every school should look to that day. Just make sure that there is a consensus of belief in the school’s positive arc and confidence in the strength of leadership right now.

And what is the answer if a school is approaching strategic planning from strength? Next blog.