Strategy, Luck, Leadership: School Success Factors via Ian Symmonds and NBOA

Jeff Shields, President of the National Business Officers Association, posted comments and a link to a white paper by Ian Symmonds, one of our most respected consultants to independent schools and colleges. In the article Ian cites seven factors common to successful tuition-paying institutions, and Jeff invited comment.  I did, as follows (it will not surprise my followers that some of these comments are provocative!):

I have the greatest respect for Ian’s work, particularly in the areas of marketing and communications.  I agree with the first five of his categories which amplify the importance of value, market position, culture, and just being really good at what you do.  I take a degree of exception with the last two, and add one more. (My comments are only relevant to K12 schools, not colleges,)

The fact is that many independent schools that have been relatively successful by most measures over the last 20-40 years are NOT terribly strategic.  Five year plans are increasingly out of phase with external changes, and many of these schools pay lip service, if that, to annual reviews of their plans; they do not display nimbleness in their planning or actions.  Their strategic plans tend to be highly internally-focused, and many are largely a laundry list of ideas that sound good to those on the planning committees.  I do not see a significant objective difference between the success of schools with this form of strategic planning and those that have a much more active, externally-focused, value-driven approach.  We may want this delta to be obvious, but I don’t see it.  The bottom line is that many schools with vastly outdated models of strategy were able to succeed in the past several decades due to relatively soft market conditions.

Which brings me to Ian’s last point: luck.  I think this is a much more powerful force than we have recognized in the past. In a local sense, both in time and space, it is reflected in things like market competition.  Schools with few competing independent schools or highly stressed public schools in the immediate market have been able to be sustainably successful independent of great planning or strategy.  “Luck” has been with our entire industry for decades: good demographics, rising demand for higher education, and rising incomes…all the stuff NBOA and NAIS have pointed out and in which the curves have now turned.  We have entered an era of decreasing “luck”:  dramatically increased competition in learning options for families; costs that are affordable to something less than 1% of American households; a rapid rate of change in the world; dropping student populations.  Those schools that succeed in the future will do so with less of a buffer to competition and less time to make adjustments, which means they are going to have to be better and more nimble at the value-driven factors that Ian correctly outlines as numbers 1-5 on his list.

My addition: My work suggests that, today and in the future, perhaps the key factor that will ensure success in schools is leadership.  As with the arguments above, in the generally softer markets of the last 20+ years, leadership has come and gone, tenures were short, and the institution goes on based on legacy reputations.  That era is gone.  Leaders must be more nimble in their thinking; their willingness to take and model risk; and their understanding and implementation of organizational structures and processes that enable innovation.  We have those leaders in the world of independent education, and in public education as well. It will be up to trustees and boards to hire and support leaders with these characteristics and track records.

Thanks Ian and Jeff for priming the discussion!

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