People Matter Most: One Solution to Education Disruption!

This is the first part of a blog series focusing on the importance of investing in people for the sustainability of independent schools.

For anyone concerned about the sustainability of independent schools, this headline is hard to ignore:

“How Independent Schools Can Ward off Disruption.”

Predictably, Michael Horn makes a strong case for leveraging online learning. In a nutshell, he argues:

“Independent schools can and should adopt online learning as a sustaining innovation to slow their cost increases…they can boost their offerings and focus on what they do best. They can also deploy new blended­ learning models that allow them to create new staffing models that stem cost increases.”

Not to disagree that there may be real value in introducing some element of blended learning to independent schools—and many have done so—the bottom line continues to be that online learning is essentially content-driven teaching focused on imparting information, collecting data and driving instructional strategy. Helpful, but not at the core of transformational learning. Horn is falling down the rabbit hole of hope that online learning serves as a cost effective approach to attract new students to independent education and allow schools to reduce staff by increasing class size. While this model might prove successful in higher education, what brings families to independent education is the promise and delivery of adult guidance and involvement, time consuming individual growth and skill building, and hands-on learning in project-based, experiential and traditional classroom settings.

Here is the simple truth for great schools: real learning is a combination of exploratory curiosity, trial and error and the authentic connections built between experienced adults and engaged students. Therefore, schools don't create value or change lives; the people and experiences inside them do. Students excel when they feel the attention, interest and support of mature adults and engaged peers, each of whom helps them grow and thrive. Online learning is primarily a content provider, but without dedicated, on site people to provide structure and manage its potential, the tool is not unlike a fully equipped new science center—exciting uses but not a long-term game changer for transformational student learning and successful outcomes.

So let me pose a “What If”:

What if we declare excellence in talent our priority for a sustainable future?

When considering the long-term survival of a school, we often forget that the shortest distance to great outcomes is between students and adults. At present we focus on different issues: tuition growth, fundraising, administration bloat, cost cutting and discounting. But if we lose the core value of our schools, we become not only unsustainable but also irrelevant. Deep connections, authentic focus on and involvement of students, and a culture of continuous learning and growth are what drive results for kids—and that’s what really sustains a school. Leadership and talent are what ensure these criteria, but I submit that the effective investment in talent is the biggest challenge (or opportunity) schools must face in the future if they are to “ward off disruption.” Whatever the pedagogies, tools, programs or facilities, the efficacy of a school and the adherence to certain principles that ensure deep learning and great outcomes rely entirely on the leadership, the talent, the culture, the opportunities and the conditions created by people for learning in schools.

Then, I’d like to offer another way to ward of disruption:

Achieve transformational and sustainable advantage with a talented, well-managed and engaged faculty. Ensure this with a leadership team that includes the top three most strategic positions to sail your ship: your Chief Operating Officer (COO), your Chief Learning or Academic Officer (CLO) and your Chief People Officer (CPO).

Two of these positions may be familiar, in some shape or form, but you may be asking: What’s a Chief People Officer? Just another name for Dean of Faculty?

My concept for this position is someone who understands both the individuals on the faculty and staff, but also the overriding issues of human capital management, from professional growth, to evaluation, to integrating collaboration and individual autonomy throughout the culture. This is a role that school leaders must intentionally define and develop, since it is rarely encountered “in the wild,” within schools. Of course, glimmers of this role may exist in the traditional dean of faculty model, but the aspirational possibilities of human capital management is frequently watered down by the confusion of the faculty’s sense that the Dean of Faculty is their dean, while the Head of School wants the dean to be an extension of the head’s oversight of faculty.

Here’s my vision of the CPO:

Jane is a hypothetical CPO: She has an enterprise-wide mindset, understands what adults must do and do well in schools, and knows how to build an organization that attracts those people and creates the conditions for them to thrive. She understands the dispositions, skills and knowledge she needs to round out a great faculty. Clearly serving the head of school and board of trustees’ goals, she leads a culture that invests deeply in the people who strengthen and sustain a student-centered school. She also makes the tough decisions of refusing to follow the tired educational trend of propping up the mediocre at the expense of the best talent and, as importantly, at the expense of human morale inside the school.

Not necessarily always popular—those faculty who want a paid advocate for faculty issues might be frustrated—Jane acts and communicates pro-actively and positively, listens and coaches, manages crises with a calm, consistent presence, and daily earns respect. She seeks to cultivate trust, while facilitating the difficult conversations with inconsistent performers, freeing up the high performers to focus on what matters most. Many often tell me that this sounds like the head of school’s job, but I would counter that the scope of responsibilities for contemporary Heads of School preclude being able to focus solely on human capital—the job is too big and too complex, requiring too many hats for such a singular priority. See The New Paradigm for Leadership.

In a small school, the CPO may indeed serve as a traditional Dean of Faculty inside of his broader scope of responsibility. She may work through the nuts and bolts personnel issues in partnership with the COO and the CFO/business office. But in a larger school, the CPO, who looks over all employees, may need support, perhaps the addition of a dean of faculty-like assistant, allowing him/her to focus on the full complement of talent and the investments and strategies to effectively manage all of a schools’ human capital. Still, the goal of this position should be to synthesize administrative work, not add to administration bloat.

Here’s a job profile for a great CPO:

CPOs have a mind for strategy and can make sensible and sound predictions about the future—for students and for other schools. They understand the essential role people play in value creation and they understand where and where NOT to compete. They understand how time, organizational design and teaming can empower learning and unleash talent.

CPOs value learning and learners; they know students learn best with adults who learn, and that a dynamic and adaptive organization relies on learners who approach their work with a growth mindset and a capacity for change.

CPOs celebrate success and recognize the factors that sustain it, by using the right data effectively and without burdening the organization. They know past performance doesn't predict future success and can actually do an assessment that doesn't rely on gut feel. They know how to create growth and “stretch” assignments that offer room to learn. They can teach others how to do this. Most of all, they understand, deeply value and respect the day in and day out service of gifted, committed teachers and know that data can never tell the whole story.

CPOs eschew championing programs that burden people and recognize teachers as designers. They avoid programmatic interventions that fail to deliver sustained growth and development and offer little lasting or measurable value: programs with no contextualization or opportunity to practice, design and assess deep learning. A CPO partners with a CLO to develop people who can collaborate, learn, execute, manage and lead— together. They make the core strategic work of the school the context for all professional learning—and thus make learning everyone’s work—as part of the daily practice inside your school.

CPOs know that building the pipeline for talent and leadership is even more important than effective search and recruitment and recognize that the traditional search practices are an obsolete means to solving your school’s core talent issues. CPOs build new networks for recruitment and then invest more deeply in the people inside their organizations to unlock potential, provide pathways for growth and cultivate a strong, deep pool of talent. The ROI at times of transition is justification alone—even before you consider the powerful culture of learning that blooms for adults and kids.

CPOs earn and hold the trust and respect of the Head. Their relationship is characterized as a partnership—and the CPO can empower a Head to be decisive and clear when difficult people issues arise. Your CPO can diagnose what is not working in your school early on and why (people are always part of the solution). She is your secret weapon in addressing talent challenges early, saving you time and money before learning and culture suffer.

CPOs know that objective and good strategic decision making cannot be decoupled from the related questions of talent. She can analyze and cultivate human potential and reliably tell you if the school has the right talent to achieve strategic choices and aspirational goals (like introducing and experimenting with online learning) throughout the community. Moreover, she can anticipate challenges and create solutions in partnership with your teachers.

CPOs collaborate closely with the Head, the COO and the CLO to align learning priorities, budgets and talent so you can strengthen the school. As part of the leadership team, a great CPO will help determine how to measure what matters and she can partner with a savvy CFO and a gifted CLO to unleash the greatest value (and ROI) of talent and human capital to a school.

What would it be like if this person was at your school? What would be different?

Next: How to find and empower your CPO