For the past 20 years, I have been an administrator in three different independent schools across three states. During that time, I have participated in six strategic planning cycles and watched countless other schools do the same. Through it all, I watched my industry treat strategy-making as a perfunctory obligation so deeply entrenched in one way of doing things that many of the schools I knew across the United States were all using one of three strategic-planning consultants. It should be no surprise that the results were reworded versions of the same pro forma goals, which each school attempted to make unique by publishing them beside photos of their own campus or their own students. I will never forget the day that a head of school called me after discovering that another school in another state had lifted his school’s entire strategic plan verbatim—including the accompanying leadership letter to the community. That nobody noticed this plagiarism is an indication that the industry ignores a central fact: true strategy is about doing, not about planning to do.
A recent call with a colleague in New York led to a robust conversation about the work of Peter Drucker as a lens through which to consider the strategic opportunities and responsibilities the pandemic has illuminated for schools. Drucker was an Austrian author who developed volumes of scholarship and popular writings on the topic of leadership, management, and strategy. In his book Management Tasks and Responsibilities, Drucker asserted that many organizations stall in strategic planning when they become too focused on forecasting as a means to eliminate risk. This leads to a lack of innovation and discovery that discourages leaders from considering what the “right risks” might be in what will always be an uncertain future. Here is Peter Drucker’s famous definition of strategy-making: “Strategic planning is the continuous process of making present entrepreneurial (risk-taking) decisions systematically and with the greatest knowledge of their futurity; organizing systematically the efforts needed to carry out these decisions; and measuring the results of these decisions against the expectations through organized, systematic feedback.”
My sense is that if we were to use Drucker’s definition to develop a rubric for all of the strategic plans that have come and gone, very few schools would receive a passing grade. The only glimmer of hope that we have had is that roughly 20 years ago schools decided it was cutting-edge to leave the 10-year strategic planning process behind in exchange for a five-year version. Unfortunately, that just meant the same old, tired process on a tighter timeline; the same three independent school consultants made more money, but the plans did not come any closer to Drucker’s ideal.
The reason I am thinking about all of this is that Shore completed its strategic planning
cycle just prior to the arrival of the pandemic. After months of COVID-19 distraction, Board leadership and I began to talk about “restarting” the work on our plan by drafting the initiatives that would help us achieve the strategic goals
our community identified during our February 2020 Visioning Day. Stepping back into that work was eye-opening; I soon came to realize that COVID-19 had not distracted us as I had originally assumed. Rather, the pandemic has propelled us
(albeit like being shot out of a cannon) into doing—we are no longer in the mode of planning to do. I think it is quite possible that Shore is the first school I have seen in some time that comes close to the behavior that Peter Drucker laid out as best practice.
This is a testament to the entire Shore community of educators and a Board of Trustees willing to consider the “right amount of risk.” The best example of this is the decision to create two new positions: Director of Instruction and Inclusion
(strategic goals one and two) and Revenue Development Officer
(strategic goal three). Most boards would identify budgets for this work and charge the current administration with getting the work done. Unfortunately, this would add new levels of responsibility onto already full-time loads—and onto the plates of current employees who might not have the expertise to meet the new needs.
The Shore Board chose a different approach. It feels strongly that unless we are clear about the definition of the task and recruit the specific expertise for that task, we will be unable to measure success and hold ourselves accountable. Revenue development officers are rarely seen in independent schools that view revenue sources primarily as fundraising and tuition. Shore’s plan is to recruit someone with the expertise to “explore, develop, and launch new revenue-generating ventures, with an emphasis on sustainable, recurring revenue business models.” This would be a game-changer for Shore families in terms of generating hard income (beyond tuition) to drive innovation in our children’s education. And as talented as our Shore colleagues are, not one of us has this professional expertise. If this new position works, it will generate at least three times more than what it costs. This decision, as well as the decision to add an equity and inclusion professional, meets Drucker’s standard for the right amount of risk.
The next step for Shore is to do it, not plan to do it. While it is true that we will need to identify how to measure success, I am confident that our approach will put Shore on the map in the industry. If this works, we will not only be the model for how to fix the broken paradigm of independent school finance, but we will increase our comfort and cultural flexibility to continue innovating in ways that benefit Shore students for generations to come. We will spend our time doing and not planning to do.