Strategic Planning: Taking Appropriate Risks

Seven years after conducting a strategic planning session for a School, Littleford & Associates received two unexpected emails from its just retired Head and his long time Chair. The emails were a day apart and were a complete surprise to us.

The note summarized as: “Thank you for pushing us to take the risk of exploring seriously adding a high school to our program, as we may never have done it without strong encouragement from you that flowed from the parent feedback in your strategic planning approach.” The notes went further to describe the success of the first graduating class, the innovative campus and the excitement about it in the internal and external community.

The recently retired Head had invited our Firm onsite for one week of strategic planning. This Consultant interviewed about 175 constituents: parents, teachers, staff, board administration, and older students. This School like most Montessori programs was very strong in the early childhood/preschool grades but then enrollment in the early elementary to upper elementary grades tapered off ending in a weak middle school of only 25 students in grades 7 and 8.

The School “bled” students off to other area independent schools not because of parents’ desire to leave but because parents are always concerned about transitions as well as access to other good area schools. Thus when a local K-12 or 7-12 school had openings in grades 4, 5, 6, 7 or 8 the parents of this Montessori School seized upon those opportunities. That caused a weakened economic condition, less effective fund raising, and split school loyalties. Even board members left early to ensure that their children had access to good local independent middle and high schools.

Interestingly, many parents loved the inquiry-based Montessori model in action at the School. Many also came from parts of the world where Montessori was trusted and well established. There was a good international balance of students to the local US clientele. The resultant mix was really quite intellectually and socially stimulating.

The parent focus groups revealed a powerful undercurrent of parent anxiety and worry about when and whether their children would gain entry into the very good independent K-12, and 7-12 schools in the area. When those schools had strong enrollment demand, they were willing at times to wait for these qualified Montessori students after 8th grade, but after the 2008 recession those schools began “robbing” schools like this Montessori School. In other words, they were protecting their own turf by “eating their own seed corn” or using this feeder school in a way that harmed it but protected the larger cross town K-12 or 7-12 schools. One could understand this. The frenzy after 2008 was due to a steep drop in the entire early childhood and elementary marketplace right up through 8th grades. In many parts of the country only high school enrollment demand held up during this time.

It was also clear was that the younger parents in particular had not yet begun to think about leaving the School but they wanted a clear path to a PK-12 grade school with NO transitions to another school, thus reducing family anxieties. As the market picked up again access to the prestigious schools again tightened.

Very few Montessori schools have high schools. During the strategic planning feedback session, this Consultant pressed the case with the Board and leadership team that the undercurrent of support for building a high school was strong and powerful through lower elementary and even into upper elementary. Admittedly it was less strong in grades 5 and higher as those parents were already thinking about how fast they could gain slots in the other private schools before 9th grade when the doors would be shut effectively on them. Therein lay the risks.

The group gathered for the planning session were at first incredulous. “We have thought about this before and it never went anywhere. There is insufficient demand. Where would we put a HS? What would the program be? How could we compete? It is not a financially viable model.” But was it? It was sufficiently clear that if the space could be leased, built or found in some other way, and if the program could offer mission continuity with the Montessori model, the parent body would stay.

Out of this session came some interesting ideas about exploring the IB as many of the parents had heard of the curriculum and felt that there might be some basic similarity between the inquiry based model of 1B and the Montessori approach. There was also a sense that any High school program would need to be a creative, innovative approach that would attract new 9th graders as well as keeping the upper elementary and middle school families with the School for the long haul.

The Head and Board took this challenge on in serious ways by exploring the very few Montessori programs in the nation that have high schools. But from one strategic planning visit and extensive dialogue, exploration, and marketing analysis, the School now has its high school housed in a lovely new facility in another part of town with abundant civic, research and cultural opportunities. It has enough students whose families are attracted to higher learning based upon Montessori traditions. The IB is offered in Grades 11 and 12, and this makes it one of the few high schools to offer it in the area. The Head has just retired having stayed on several years longer at the Board’s request to ensure the financial and educational viability of the new high school.

This is also a story of a great Head/Chair partnership; a trusting, believing Board willing to take appropriate risks; and of a Head who wanted to leave a legacy of a school that could compete effectively with the K to 12 rivals and offer a desired and alternative approach.

Taking appropriate risks, seriously discussing options that are often tossed aside too easily, and exploring risks, threats, challenges but also opportunities, is a major part of creative and effective strategic planning. We are proud to have been a part of this School’s successful experience.

Strategic Planning: Leading and Not Following the Process

Strategic planning does not have to be a complex, drawn out process that takes a year to conclude. And yet many schools find themselves in interminable discussions and meetings that can take up to two years to result in an actual planning document.

In an effort to engage multiple constituent groups in strategic planning and produce a plan that pleases everyone, many boards fail to realize that each group has different needs and working styles. For example, board members with business-oriented backgrounds usually want closure as quickly as possible and do not believe necessarily that one obtains a better outcome with longer deliberations involving many people or groups. In other words, they want a thoughtful discussion but prefer a process that concludes within six months.

On the other hand, board members who are professionals, doctors, lawyers, professors, HR personnel, consultants, accountants, or homemakers tend to enjoy and feel more comfortable with the longer process involving more dialogue. By their very nature, parents and teachers also want and need time to express their opinions, so they line up with the faction of the board having the same desire to draw out the strategic planning exercise. No wonder that as soon as some schools finish one plan, it is almost time to start another. Or, because the process itself was so arduous, the plan languishes on the shelf as enthusiasm for it comes to a halt.

I. Preparation

Many school heads and chairs who hire this Consultant for strategic planning will ask anxiously what they can do in advance to lay the ground work for that visit. Often they suggest using some type of a widespread community survey to engage the parents and staff before any actual dialogue or process begins formally.

It is not uncommon for subsets of faculty and/or parent groups to organize and agree to respond to such surveys in a certain way in order to influence a particular outcome. While surveys can be a broad community wide participatory tool, they need not precede or be part of the strategic planning process. Furthermore in order for them to be statistically significant, a return rate of at least 60% is very important. A school should also avoid launching any survey in the last few months of a school year. By that time, the typical gripes about proposed tuition increases, re-enrollment, workload, certain teachers’ performance, etc. have accumulated so that normally fairly happy constituent groups turn “sour.”

This Consultant believes that facilitating community discussion in focus groups of parents, students, faculty, board members, community leaders, alumni, school donors and friends can draw out precisely and carefully the same, and even clearer, more relevant constituent views on a wide range of topics. A careful, deliberative and guided set of questions engages the participants in listening to one another, but does not allow them to influence each other beforehand because they have not been privy to the exact questions.

II. The Process

There are two general choices about how to engage in strategic planning:” top down” or “bottom up.”

In the bottom up approach, parents, faculty and alumni mostly drive the initial goals of the plan, which the board then sifts, cogitates over and then settles upon. In this Consultant’s view, this approach lacks a leadership-centered interpretation of the mission and core vision that requires the passion and commitment of the head/director and board. It is their job alone to set the tone and the pace of the execution of the mission. They should be able to foresee the vision unfolding in the future more clearly than the other constituent groups can.

“Top down” sounds undemocratic or not collaborative and maybe even a little too directive. But it implies that someone is leading and then testing those strategic ideas against the constituents who are carrying it out or benefiting from it

III. The Outcomes

Generally, strategic plans should settle on no more than five to seven priorities or goals. Typically those will fall into these categories:

  1. Curriculum change and direction
  2. Technology
  3. Facilities improvement
  4. Recruitment, retention, development and compensation of staff
  5. Student life, counseling, pastoral care
  6. The financial model as influenced by enrollment, admissions, fund raising, profit centers, market position, financial aid, etc.

Many strategic plans include a goal relating to developing further and implementing a “21st century curriculum”. That phrase means something different to everyone. To some it means personalized instruction or a focus on the different learning styles of students, and to others it means a wide range of specific curriculum programs with “tags” that educators, but few parents and board members understand fully.

In this Consultant’s opinion, the adoption of a student laptop or I Pad program or the purchase of more smart boards should not drive the strategic planning process. Ultimately these are tools to carry out the vision/mission.

IV. Summary

Clearly, this Consultant generally favors a strategic planning process whereby the school leadership (board/head/leadership team) retains the ultimate decision making authority for the selection of the school’s strategic priorities and goals. They should be influenced appropriately by input from the typical constituent groups and including perhaps even from neighbors, competitors, local political contacts, donors, corporations and friends with a less insular point of view. This input can be gathered from carefully managed and well-timed focus groups and surveys (as long as the school is aware of the limitations of surveys noted above).

This Consultant, based upon experience in leading strategic planning exercises in hundreds of schools worldwide, cautions against: a process that takes more than six months from beginning to end and one that insists upon a community wide survey in advance of the actual on site consultations with the strategic planning committee, board and leadership.

Creating a visionary and doable strategic plan that is efficient and reflects the views of various groups within the school IS possible.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Fall Out from Strategic Planning

A new client recently contacted me to say that a consulting firm had used a “broad brush” approach to strategic planning at his School by engaging much of the community and interviewing all of the teachers and staff. His next comment was “Can you come and help us to sort this out because one of the outcomes of the process, which was a recommendation to improve our faculty compensation and delivery system, has triggered a “hornet’s nest” of feedback from teachers and a deterioration in school climate.”

This need not have happened at this School and it can be avoided at your school. Before hiring a strategic planning consultant, there should be a careful assessment of the kind of strategic planning format that is most suited to the school’s needs, climate and culture at the time.

The “broad brush” approach mentioned above is meant to involve as much of the parent, staff, and alumni community as possible in providing input for the board and senior leadership team to consider in formulating vital strategic priorities for the next three to five years. In this format, often a large committee is formed of board, administration, parents, faculty, alumni and students. Such a committee can be as large as 35 individuals who meet in a front end planning workshop, followed by some months of home work and a final workshop where they hammer out priorities, potential action plans, budget implications and examples of Key Performance Indicators.

The major benefit to this approach is inclusion, which may also involve an online survey seeking constituent opinion. This method should not be used, in this Consultant’s opinion, under the following circumstances: when heads are in their first year or two; when the school has just been through a major crisis; right before the search for a new head; or when the board and/or leadership is concerned that the process may be hijacked by a disgruntled group making a concerted effort to promote their own, potentially narrow or controversial views. Furthermore, if an online survey is used, it must be designed and tabulated carefully and professionally, and its timing is crucial. If launched at the wrong time or worded poorly, it can backfire.

An Efficient Effective Process without Backlash

The broad brush approach IS appropriate when the school is stable; when the head is trusted and has been in place for several years; or when there has been no recent, real or perceived constituent crisis or an incident that triggered a crisis. The broad brush approach fits best with mature schools not in the process of transition or turnover and where school climate is healthy and there is little teacher unrest.

Another approach is the “direct” or “focused” approach which begins with the vision and guidance of the board and head and then extends outward by conducting focus groups in order to gather input from a cross section of constituents. This information is then summarized and presented to the board and management at the beginning of a four hour workshop. During the remainder of the workshop, participants vote on key strategic priorities from as many as 40 themes heard in the focus groups; work in small groups discussing themes, budgets and time lines; vote again to agree on a manageable set of final strategic goals; and engage in a preliminary discussion of action plans and KPI’s. After the workshop, committees are formed around the 5 -7 key priorities. board members and administrators chair these committees who then meet over a 2 to 3 month period to develop specific action plans and KPI’s to be presented to the board for final approval.

A third approach is very similar to the “focused” approach but the workshop may also contain a “sprinkling in” of a few key teachers, alumni, parents and/or students.

The latter two approaches obtain a great deal of constituent feedback through the participation of as many as 100 to 200 constituents in active focus group discussions. However, the final decisions remain in the hands of the board assisted by the senior leadership team.

What is the right approach for your school? Littleford & Associates undertakes strategic plans for all types of schools and organizations including all three of the approaches described above. The key is to choose the right approach for the times, the culture and the needs of the School.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Efficient And Effective Strategic Planning

Most school leaders, especially board members, want a planning process that is effective and focused and yet listens to a wide range of community input.

Strategic plans can drag on for months or even longer. Then they become enervating and overblown rather than mission-driven and inspiring. Trouble arises when the very constituents whose input is sought feel that they should have a role determining actual policies and priorities. Thus, how do we engage the community while ensuring that ultimate policy decisions are made only by the board with the administration’s counsel?

This Consultant recommends either a “broad brush”, directed or “blended” approach, all of which bring appropriate and prompt closure without wearing out the participants. Key to all is listening to the community through carefully managed focus groups that can include: parents, students, alumni, staff, board, community leaders, neighbors, donors, competitors, receiving or sending school leaders or others.

The consultant should synthesize the focus group information and summarize it for the participants at the start of a four hour workshop. The participants may be the board and administration, or board and administration with a few constituent representatives.

After hearing the feedback, each person votes on the top five to seven potential strategic priorities from an initial list of 40 to 60 drawn from the 100 to 150 constituent voices heard in the focus groups.

This Consultant assigns the five topics receiving the most votes to groups of five. There is a competitive feel to this exercise as each group not only ranks the priorities but reports back hoping that its outline will draw the most votes on the second “round”. After one more round of voting, the chair and head tabulate and announce the top priorities agreed upon by all.

Next the groups work on four to six action plans for each priority and develop some specific key performance indicators. The management team and/or committees formed around the approved final goals will do most of this work. However, discussing action plans and KPI’s is important so that the follow up committees will already know HOW to formulate them.

The process is fun, fast paced and effective. It jumpstarts strategic planning and establishes a clear timetable and process for closure, followed by a written summation sent out to the constituents.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Strategic Planning: A Wise Political Investment

Strategic planning has powerful and often unanticipated political outcomes, many positive and some negative. Historically used mainly to lay the ground work for a capital campaign, it is now used increasingly to develop a model for long term financial sustainability. Few realize that the process of strategic planning is also potentially an important tool for averting the governance crises that continue to plague our schools.

Outlined below are three examples of schools where the planning process revealed messages, information and directions that the leadership of the School may not have expected, but that became crucial to ensuring healthy board governance as well as mission clarity and stability.

I. A Unique Finding: A Surprise

One very successful Preschool to 8th Grade Montessori School launched a strategic planning process by having the Consultant first interview the entire board and management team and then meet with small groups of parents, students, alumni, staff, feeder schools and receiving schools.

At the workshop that followed the interviews and focus groups, the participating Board members and administrators considered the 40 possible challenges facing the School that those interviewed had raised most frequently. They were surprised that one of the topics mentioned multiple times was the lack of a high school.

The focus groups revealed a deep seated parental anxiety about transition and change from a Montessori program that families clearly love to the largely unknown world of the traditional high school. The current middle school parents do not like the anxiety and pressure of applying for admission to private high schools in their very competitive urban market, especially to those that they perceive as not offering the creative curriculum to which they have become accustomed. Early childhood and lower elementary parents find the idea of a high school appealing as well. They imagine a unique Montessori high school that would be community based, potentially in the City’s bustling cultural and university hub.

Although very surprised by the apparent high degree of parent support for the idea of adding a high school, the workshop group voted to make this one of the School’s top seven strategic priorities to explore further. Before developing potential action plans around this goal, the Board asked this Consultant to conduct additional focus groups to determine the depth of support for the concept and to begin to envision what the high school might look like and deliver programmatically.

It was suggested that the new School could also offer the IB, possibly the most logical high school curriculum to follow the Montessori, child-centered exploratory approach. The disciplined IB appeals to these parents looking for a rigorous academic program with measurable outcomes that has some nontraditional aspects as well. Adding to the uniqueness of the experience would be the School’s possible location in a different area of the City offering unique cultural and research opportunities to supplement and enhance the classroom work.

Whether this School actually develops a high school or not, the very process of discussion and exploration has reinvigorated and excited the parent body, Board, staff and inspired everyone, including the Head, to think at a higher level. One of the expected outcomes of the planning process had been a decision to renovate the existing plant. Instead this Board engaged in real, “generative” discussions. The investment in strategic planning reaped far more benefits than this School had ever imagined.

II. Avoiding Political Fallout in Head Transition

In this K to 12, day school of about 800 students, a new Head of School has inherited a somewhat sleepy culture. She follows two long term heads, both of whom remained actively involved with the School either directly or indirectly. Their ongoing influence had encouraged the School culture to be even more resistant to change than most schools already are.

Yet this School has complex physical plant needs that represent massive change. These needs are forcing serious consideration of whether the entire School should move to a new campus; close down one; or invest in the modernization of the lovely but “tired” flagship campus.

The new Head is not from the region and thus not completely attuned as yet to its local values and traditions. One of her first tasks is to hire a new Division Head. She believes that she has found the ideal candidate, also not from the region. She is confident that she will be able to form a senior management team that will reflect her vision for the School and help lead it in new important directions.

The new Division Head has a fast-paced decision-making style that causes the faculty to miss the preceding Division Head even more. A new Head of School and a new Division Head, both from out of the area and with a different leadership style, was simply too much for this culture to handle. When this consultant arrived to lead a strategic planning process, it was clear that morale was low and that the new Head was taking the heat for it.

The strategic planning process helped to bring to the surface the Board’s deep support for the new Head. This was extremely gratifying for her to hear. While she acknowledged the fact that the new Division Head was not a fit for the School by not renewing his contract, she was also able to point out through the planning process, the exciting opportunities that the Board and the School community had been reluctant to consider.

In sum, the strategic planning process began at a moment of political vulnerability for the new Head, but resulted in these outcomes: it strengthened her position with the Board; and it opened the Board up to new knowledge about prior patterns of leadership and traditions within the Division and within the School as a whole. These patterns and adherence to tradition were standing in the way of progress on several fronts and potentially undermining the School’s ability to raise money for important necessary initiatives.

Had this process not taken place when it did, the new Head might have found herself among the almost 80% of school heads who do not make it beyond their first three to five years, mainly due to transition issues or the lack of planning for them.

III. Strategic Planning That Opens Enormous Doors

In this large international School, the Head and Chair wanted to employ a unique approach to strategic planning. They were both very clear about the five key goals that would set the course for the School’s near future. They wanted to explore how a cross-section of constituents would respond to these potential goals. On the other hand, the Chair and Head were clearly open to considering other ideas that might come forward powerfully and consistently from these groups.

Thus the process unfolded with perhaps 20 focus groups of faculty and staff, parents, alumni, students and the full Board. More than 150 individuals were interviewed. From the hundreds of pages of this Consultant’s notes came interesting, creative and mostly supportive reactions from the constituents. The feedback confirmed that the community felt that at least four of these five suggested priorities were clearly ones of great importance for the School.

Starting from a very “directed” top down approach, this process then opened up when about forty of the focus group participants were invited to attend a strategic planning workshop. The workshop was structured around the five priorities. A discussion group co chaired by a trustee and an administrator and made up of a mix of staff, board, students, parents and alumni was assigned to each priority.

After the initial workshop presentation of community findings and attitudes, the five “teams” then continued their work for the next several months. In these follow up meetings, the trustee/administrator partnership helped to keep the Chair and Head informed closely of the dialogue and to ensure that the dialogue did not move from appropriate constituent input to micromanagement. These set the stage for community “buy in” BUT also set clear boundaries for the separation of those ideas that were welcome, from those that were associated with operations, management and policy, all of which clearly lay within the purview of the Administration and the Board.

Ultimately, the five strategic priorities on which everyone agreed led to unique and creative campus planning opportunities, outreach, and the launching and completion of one of the most successful annual fund raising campaigns in any school’s history. That campaign has laid the foundation for additional fund raising and community support.

So, what began as a clear vision, articulated first by the Head and Chair and grounded in participation and input from the full Board and 40 other constituents, has now taken shape as a blue print for an exciting future. But now the vision also has a massive following that has translated into very impressive results on several levels. Powerful stuff, all around.

IV. Summary

The strategic planning process can be politically liberating but also politically dangerous, if not managed properly and scheduled at the right time in the life and culture of a school.

Littleford & Associates helps schools assess both the timing for this process and which of our Firm’s strategic planning models may be best for the School, given the current health of the board, the head/board partnership, the faculty culture and its overall financial picture. Assessing the value/cost proposition that parents place upon the school’s product is an important part of any strategic planning process, and Littleford & Associates excels at helping schools find and market that value proposition effectively.

Schools that do undertake planning, and all must at periodic points in time, should realize that from it will come information that may have been unanticipated. But from that information may come the ability to mobilize the constituents of the School in ways that will energize it for a healthy future.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Strategic Planning And Why The Process Generally Frustrates Boards

Amazing to me as I walk through the halls of hundreds of schools a year is the relative absence of any sign of a consistent, clear and concise portrayal of the school’s mission or any constituent’s accurate expression of it.

I see periodically rather long and verbose mission statements on a few walls, framed modestly with small print. These are seldom noticed and not driving either the core curriculum or the behavior of the school community. Nor is such a mission statement being used regularly by board and administrative leadership to exhort and explain constantly the core values embedded in a mission statement.

Rarely I will drive up to a school and will notice amidst the parent car pool line a series of 3-5 flag poles, each one with a bright banner in the school colors and on each, one or two words of the school’s mission-tag line or core values statement. These make the tag line easily memorable as parents (and visitors) drive by these banners each day.

What does this have to do with strategic planning? Most board members with business backgrounds would say that all employees at least should know the corporate mission. It should be clear and simple, and referred to regularly.

If your school does not have a truthful mission driven by a short memorable “tag line” that separates it from the competition and sends a chill up the spine of those who see it, then the board and the head have some homework to do. Internal marketing always precedes external marketing and both are critical to any strategic planning process.

I. A Model That Fits the Times

Traditionally, strategic plans covered a five year time frame and board members, faculty and staff, parents, past parents, alumni and older students provided input. Often, the strategic planning of independent schools is very narrowly based, seeking input primarily from the faculty first and the parents second.

Ideally, strategic planning involves an outside facilitator listening to a cross section of several constituents in focus groups. Previously this consultant has recommended that the process should be either focused and “board driven” or more broad based depending on school culture and climate and a range of circumstances unique to that school at that particular point in time.

Increasingly strategic planning is looking BOTH at shorter term goals and actions plans within just three years, and some schools are looking at longer term financial and planning models that go out ten years.

However, to ensure that our schools remain competitive, mission-driven and demonstrate the value that parents demand (see prior article), additional input to the process may be desirable and in fact essential.

Few schools think “outside of the box” and include focus groups such as any or all of the following: one of college admissions office directors or assistant directors dealing with your region and accepting your seniors; one of current or prospective donors; one of area church leaders; one of area business leaders; one of families who did NOT accept an offer of admission; one of neighbors; one of the schools to which you send graduates (if ending before 12th grade); one of feeder schools for those schools attracting significant numbers of students from area pre schools, K-5, K-8 or K-6 schools.

There might also be a focus group of realtors and perhaps one of city officials and planners that relate to the school’s ability to expand its enrollment, its plant, or other land use issues.

There may also be a focus group of competitors, i.e., principals and counselors of local public schools; and perhaps even some of the heads of area independent schools. Not knowing what the public and private school competition is thinking leads to narrow minded discussion and thus narrowly focused, uncreative strategic plans.

All these groups, whether “users” of the educational process or just those who observe it or are affected by it can provide critical input. Such input gathered in this manner is far more valuable and cost effective than that gathered by elaborate and expensive written surveys.

In one school’s experience, an outstanding nearby public school’s 125 acre campus that had closed due to demographic shifts became available. The client had the opportunity before any other potential buyers to take an “option” on this property from the local school district. The Head and the Board had six weeks to study the opportunity. As part of this analysis, the Head met with several of the Heads of the other (including two much stronger and wealthier) independent Schools in the area.

A key to the decision to buy the new plant and sell the old was the strong opinion of the Heads of the two most directly competing schools that this move was conceptually flawed and could only pose risks for the client.

Those conversations and their tone convinced the client Head that the prospective move was viewed as a direct threat to the competitive position of these two Schools. It has turned out to be just that, as the School did move to this new campus with 250,000 square feet in a better and more easily accessible geographic area. It grew to 1500 students with one of the best physical plants in the country. Without seeking the input of local public and private School Heads, as well as the input of all current constituents, the School may have been strangled by the limitations of its immediate area.

When developing a strategic plan, should we not know how the neighborhood will change? Should we not know the city planner’s vision of the health of the local economy, new roads going through the area or the attraction or departure of core businesses? Should we not know what the local university thinks about our program and the readiness and appeal of our students?

In another case, a School wanted to use the planning process to generate the momentum to raise the funds to build a new performing arts center and gym. Had the School been willing to consider input from outside sources, it would have accumulated some valuable data. It would have learned from the city planner that a nearby right of way road exchange would cause potential access issues for the School. Corporate leaders would have told the School that the unemployment rate in the city was projected to rise substantially. The peer group of other school Heads would have told the School that two local private schools were planning to add grades and that a new Christian school was about to open nearby.

With all of this information, should this School be adding physical plant or contemplating moving elsewhere? Or should it be thinking more strategically about how to use its resources for funding more scholarships in its current setting or developing a partnership with a nearby former competitor or small college?

Money and time determine how many such people and how many focus groups one should include. A good facilitator can obtain important information from these “outside” focus groups, as well as the “inside” focus groups in 45 minutes and with 4-15 participants in each focus group.

The facilitator then becomes the agent for presenting the potential strategic priorities that could form an overwhelming list when drawn from so many groups. But that need not be the case. In a lively, fast paced workshop, it devolves to the participants to select (and the “voting” can be fun) the top 7 or less of these potentially many and even contradictory strategic priorities, challenges, risks and opportunities.

There should never be more than five to seven strategic priorities. Otherwise it is unlikely they will be carried out. The board and administration need to spend time, money, energy and wisdom on the few key goals that will ensure the health and relevance of the school.

III. Summary

Strategic plans have historically been used as a fund raising tool, and not nearly often enough to establish mission clarity and integrity or to gather critical information.

The strategic planning process at many independent schools is not “strategic” at all. It is all about engaging the school community in a dialogue that is exciting and generates expectations from faculty, parents, students and alumni. The input of information from all sources, both constituents and from the community at large, is critical to the ability of the board and administrative leadership to formulate a plan that is appropriate to the school’s current and future needs and focused on the external as well as the internal. Yet the process can also mobilize factions, fragment constituents, polarize groups and lead to disappointment if not handled properly. The process needs to be carefully managed.

While the actual participants in the strategic planning workshop itself (which should last no more than 4 hours) should be mainly board and management team, sometimes it is wise to include a few key teachers and non board parents or alumni. However, board leadership and the vision of the head or director (and the senior management team) should always drive strategic planning.

This is because participants without training as board members who become involved in detailing action steps could saddle the board with aspects of a plan that are controversial, not mission-based, represent a narrow agenda or cannot be funded.

Most strategic plans, once completed gather dust or become obsolete as one set of board members leaves and another arrives. An effective strategic plan is a “living” document that is relevant to present and future.

The chair of the planning committee has the responsibility to ensure that the plan is reviewed and updated regularly and that the goals are either implemented or with the gathering of new information, modified.

Boards appreciate a strategic planning process that is simple, clear, focused, short and results in a working and useful document. Boards by and large are very discouraged and frustrated by long, drawn out processes, with too many of the same participants, and too many meetings, leading to too many initiatives most of which may never be achieved fully. Our schools can do better.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

Transitions, Strategic Planning and.. Failure: How to Avoid the Trap

Schools which attempt major change or a new strategic plan at the same time as a head transition often run into difficulties. The effort is made with good intentions, but often boards and heads are unaware of the dangers which so often torpedo their efforts. This article outlines the dangers and recommends measures to avoid them as well as laying out effective ways to launch and focus a strategic plan.

Recently, a prominent, respected independent School began a strategic planning process at the same time that it was undergoing a search for a new Head. The thought was to complete and approve the plan before the final search decision, so that the new Head would have his marching orders immediately. All candidates were asked in their interviews if they could endorse the plan wholeheartedly. All said yes. No one, including the candidates themselves, asked the question: “How can a leader be expected to lead if that person is not given a role in guiding the direction of the School?”

The prior head had been a “soft touch”, much beloved by teachers for his kindness and lack of close scrutiny over them in and outside of the classroom. The faculty equated this freedom with “professional” treatment, but the reality was that with all good intent very little substantive evaluation or supervision was in place. The new strategic plan included “dashboard indicators”, a jargon that was foreign to the faculty and culture of this school which was unaccustomed to formal performance measures. Driving the plan was a board member who was an engineer by training, brilliant but not attuned to faculty issues and not in touch with the school’s faculty culture or aware of the concept of school culture as vastly different from corporate cultures.

Nor did anyone appreciate the critical underlying need to understand the pace of change in schools versus the pace of change in the corporate world. The essence of a successful business strategy is innovation and hence change which needs to be ongoing and dynamic if a business is to remain competitive. While schools need to remain competitive in their own marketplace as well, change moves at a snail’s pace in comparison, and certain changes should only be attempted when the timing is exactly right so as to avoid upsetting the culture and key constituents. Understanding faculty culture, and school culture in general, is a sine qua non before launching a strategic planning process.

The new Head arrived to serve a Board and Chair who prided themselves on following the best guidelines for healthy board governance. However, it became immediately apparent to the new Head that the Board had several factions: one small faction that backed the Chair; another larger one behind the Planning Committee Chair whose constant theme was “accountability”; and a third group of more distant trustees, mostly alumni, who were removed from the School and its current culture. While they felt well read on the topic of board governance, the Board had never been through a formal training session, at least not in anyone’s recent memory. The concept of “transition” was never discussed.

The Head was reminded often that his evaluation would be based upon on how well he carried out the strategic plan which had nine broad goals and seven to ten “dashboard indicators” attached to each goal. Progress and success would be monitored closely according to detailed measurements. No Board member (and certainly not the new Head) thought to revisit the scope or manageability of the Plan.

The new strategic plan included the development of a substantive teacher evaluation process as only one type of accountability to be put in place. It did not occur to anyone that formal teacher evaluation would be foreign and threatening to this faculty.Faculty in many K-12 day schools fear meaningful, substantive evaluation because they have not been shown that it can be (a) done well or consistently; (b) a tool for professional development; and (c) potentially one way to predict and influence their compensation.

A second reason did not occur to anyone as well: that this School, like so many others, was characterized by close professional and personal interrelationships and often “boundary crossing” among teachers and parents. The Board was not trained to recognize that some of these very close school relationships were potentially undermining to the success of its well-intentioned goal of becoming less of a “mom and pop” family operation.

This raises another point about the difference between corporate and school cultures: teachers and even most Heads, who tend to be former teachers themselves, are caregivers while successful business people are “builders” and/or detail-oriented managers. School heads and boards need to find the “middle ground” in order to lead with vision AND sensitivity to the pace of change and the unique nature of school relationships.

Furthermore, at this School each of the Division Heads was “in tight” with his or her own faculty and parent group, but not in close coordination with one another on curriculum and other matters. Effective coordination across divisions is lacking in many of our schools. Many division heads run their own, almost feudal kingdoms with little or poor communications among divisions.

The leadership team unanimously supported the choice of the new Head, but none really believed that the strategic plan was viable or realistic. The senior management team HAD been included in strategic planning subcommittee meetings but felt compelled to support it due to the driving willpower and energy of the Committee Chair. To be successful, strategic plans must have both board buy in and staff support.

It was apparent to the new Head that he had to move fast enough on the strategic plan to satisfy the “engineer’s” faction yet at the same time slowly enough so as not to antagonize the faculty and staff who neither knew nor trusted him yet. The faculty was aware that the prior Head had been “nudged” out the door. The new Head therefore walked into a culture that would have resented any replacement for the beloved (and perceived mistreated) predecessor. The Board wanted in the succeeding Head a “driver” who would guide the strategic plan. Most search committees unconsciously hire a head with a polar opposite style from that of the prior one and furthermore do not understand the pitfalls of doing so.

The Chair, while an advocate for, and a frequent writer on healthy board governance, had only shallow support on the Board for her leadership. She had made a few missteps in reading personalities and judging reactions of trustees. This power vacuum on the Board enabled the Planning Chair to gain support for replacing her as Board Chair. Selecting a chair is second in importance only to selecting the head, and sometimes it is more important.

The Head’s middle school children were having difficulties adjusting to their new school. As their father began to implement the plan, teacher resistance led to inappropriate remarks in the classroom about the Head’s leadership and initiatives. Some students began to tease the Head’s children. Difficult adjustments for the children and spouse of a new head are not unusual, especially if the head is seen as a change agent.

The Head remained stoic about his goals and leadership even when confronted by a confluence of forces that made leading almost impossible.

Teachers became increasingly disgruntled as the Head moved on several new fronts which affected them directly: substantive teacher evaluation, curriculum mapping, and computer based communications between teachers and parents, all part of the strategic plan. No one had given any thought to the nature, pace and number of changes on the table and how much this faculty culture could handle. This School needed a transition plan first and a strategic plan second.

The combination of all these changes sparked some faculty leaders into action. By the beginning of the Head’s second year, some teachers were speaking to students and parents directly about their unhappiness with the new Head and the emerging “cold and business like” expectations and atmosphere. They signaled that they might begin shopping around for other options. Even if these teachers (mostly senior ones) had no real viable alternatives, they successfully frightened parents into thinking that there might be a wholesale loss of key teachers. Such threats are common when a new head is hired, and uncomfortable changes begin to occur.

The Board told the Head that he was responsible for this backlash for having failed to build sufficient connections to parents, teachers and students. They urged him to attend even more games and events. He did, now having even less time for his family and their adjustments.

The concept of “transition” was totally foreign to the Search Committee and certainly the faculty. Thus, there had been no transition plan in place or the new head and his family to support him publicly and privately.

The Head stronly suggested a workshop on board governance The Board reluctantly agreed, as the Chair was convinced not only that the Board was healthy but that it was a role model for other good schools.

The consultant conveyed a strong sense that the strategic plan was the root of the problem by virtue of its ambitious corporate nature; absence of faculty and staff buy in; Board insensitivity to the School’s culture; and aggressive timetable. Compounding these problems was the lack of formal and informal transition support for the Head and his family. The consultant recommended that the strategic plan be put on hold for a year or two to allow the Head to understand better the tone of the faculty culture and how to operate within it successfully. It was also suggested that the Head should be allowed to put his own “stamp” on it.

The Board agreed to these suggestions verbally. Meanwhile, the resentment against the Chair’s style had grown sufficiently powerful that a faction of the Board, meeting secretly, decided not to support her reelection and nominated another candidate instead. As expected, that was the “engineer.” The Chair resigned. Back stage maneuvering by one faction or another to ensure the election of its candidate as chair is not unusual in some independent schools.

The new Chair tried to create ostensibly a working relationship with the Head while still insisting that he move expeditiously to carry out the strategic plan. The faculty continued to fear the new Head’s agenda (as they understood it), and they were wary of the new Chair whom none had ever really known.

After the Head’s third year, it was clear to him he would not clear the typical transition hurdles, and he began to search for other options before inevitably he was asked to leave. He was allowed to stay on long enough to implement some of the needed changes according to plan and to allow for an orderly search for a new Head. The Head has found another attractive opportunity.

Lacking a transition plan to follow the search, following an overly mechanistic strategic plan more suited to a business model and overlooking truly healthy governance practices, this School failed on several fronts. All of this could have been avoided.

This “trap” or a similar scenario could and does occur in many schools worldwide. In fact, this case has been repeated multiple times in multiple schools almost exactly as stated. These are the keys to avoiding it:

  1. When launching a search, always lay simultaneously the groundwork for a transition plan. Whether or not the board establishes a formal transition committee, there must be a small group of mainly trustees who help ensure that in the head’s first two or three years he or she avoids misreading the school culture.
  2. Involve division heads in transition and in planning for any substantive change. Without their support, the head may not survive beyond his or her first three to five years, and change will meet with faculty opposition.
  3. Do not impose a prior strategic plan upon any new head in which he or she has had no input.
  4. It is advised strongly to undertake a strategic planning process at least two years before a head search OR two years after his or her arrival. Unless absolutely necessary, avoid either initiating or implementing this process in a head’s first year. It is far better to devise instead an “entry plan” or a “transition plan” consisting of a short list of manageable politically sensitive goals for the first one to two years of the new head’s tenure. Again ensure that these efforts are supported publicly and privately by the Board and a transition strategy which includes senior administrators.
  5. In initiating a strategic plan, it is wise to be sensitive to the resistance of school and faculty cultures to the tools, jargon and measuring sticks normally used in the business and professional worlds. When a Head or Board hears or senses resistance either to the process or the elements of the plan, it is wise to step back and “take the temperature” of the school community. It is important to determine its source and the explanation for the pushback which is usually failure to be sensitive sufficiently to the school’s unique culture and climate. It is critical to assess how much and what kind of change the culture will tolerate and how quickly and to adjust if necessary. Failure to pick up on warning signals such as those described above can lead to more than just the derailment of the strategic plan.
  6. Communicate, communicate, and communicate. An absence of internal and external communications was evident at all points in this School’s planning process. Communication builds support for decisions and mitigates fears which are so prevalent in school cultures that prefer predictability and the status quo in all aspects of school life.
  7. This consultant recommends assessing the school culture and ensuring some degree of constituent buy-in BEFORE beginning the process. One way is to have an outside facilitator conduct focus groups with parents, faculty and perhaps older students and alumni. This is one way to allow these groups to feel heard objectively without necessarily having them participate in the actual strategic planning workshop.
  8. Healthy board governance is the foundation of all strategic plans, and it is achieved through effort. It does not exist just because the Board assumes it does. Governance requires training, preferably annually. Consider using an outsider to educate the board on “norms” of behavior in independent schools; the politics of process-oriented, slow-moving school cultures and the complexity of change in such a culture; and when and how to begin strategic planning.
  9. Plan for healthy leadership succession. The tone and attitude of the board members toward the chair and each other as well as toward the head form a crucial element of healthy governance. Ensure first that the head transitions effectively and safely, ensure healthy board governance is in place, and only then launch a strategic planning process.

Having taken steps to avoid this “trap”, what should be the key elements of any strategic plan for an independent or international school?

  1. Establish mission clarity that resonates with all crucial constituencies. There should be a few key words upon which all agree that form the core statement defining the school’s unique character and strengths. This is the starting point for all planning. If this clarity does not exist, then consider having a facilitator conduct a “visioning exercise” before the planning process begins.
  2. Include within a healthy governance structure a strong Committee on Trustees (or Nominating Committee) that guaranteesinstitutional memory on the board and the longevity of service of effective heads. A board without institutional memory becomes one in which trustees do not remember why the head was hired and what he was charged to do.
  3. Develop a strategic long range financial plan that will guide how money is raised and spent to enhance and preserve the mission. This involves examining the trade offs in financial management. It is not possible, for example, to have low tuition, high faculty salaries, small class size and state-of-the art programs, plant and technology although that may represent the ideal, unless there is a massive endowment.
  4. Understand potential future political, economic and legal challenges and design appropriate contingency plans to meet them.
  5. Provide for healthy faculty cultures which includes designing a salary philosophy, salary system and evaluation planthat meets the strategic needs and mission and guarantees schools the ability to attract, retain and reward those who most reflect that mission.
  6. Develop a communications and marketing plan that attracts and retains students and builds parent and alumni trust in and support for the school.
  7. Ensure that management is discussing innovative educational programs and centers of excellence that reflect mission and history, contribute to the bottom line, serve as a marketing tool AND convey relevance to the future.
  8. Manage risk ranging from ensuring physical security for children at school; dealing with contagious disease; handling a scandal; reviewing policies regarding sexual harassment; and addressing school attitudes towards alternative lifestyles.
  9. Avoid financial and other conflicts of interest, especially on the Board but even within the faculty and staff.

To create such a plan, the Board and the Head can employ a direct, “broadbrush” or a hybrid/blended approach. The more broadbrush the approach, i.e., the greater the involvement of other constituents outside of the Board, the more delicate the task and in some cases the riskier it becomes. The choice depends upon the culture, needs and stability of the school. Littleford & Associates can help you determine which is the best choice for your school.

Our Firm undertakes searches; transition planning for schools and boards; head compensation reviews to “land” a new head or to keep a current valued one; board governance training; mentoring boards in chair selection and transition planning; and strategic planning that fits the culture and needs of the school. Our services have the added dimension of providing the perspective of the “norm” in independent school trends and behaviors which helps the leadership of schools develop workable, politically sensitive approaches and solutions that will “stick”.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

The Strategic Decision: Choosing a Planning Process that Fits the School's History and Culture

  1. The Responsibility of the Board of Trustees: Mission and Strategic Thinking

    The word “trustee” conveys the responsibility of boards of independent schools to hold the mission of the school “in trust” and to plan for the long-term preservation of that fundamental mission. Setting, modifying and agreeing upon a powerful mission ARE the jobs of the board. The mission should be rooted in history, implemented in fact, and relevant to the future. It should motivate and empower the board to act on strategic matters not micro manage operational ones. The focus should not be on what one wants as a parent for one’s own children but on ensuring that the school will serve future children.

    Strategic planning is one way to carry out mission but the process is never without risk to the body politic of the school community, to the board and to the head of school.

    BEFORE entering into this critical process, many schools make a major mistake. They fail to consider the INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL culture and political tone of their school. This can be the difference between developing a successful plan that lends new energy and direction to the school, versus one that results in the dilution of mission and a loss of forward momentum. In the worst case, there is the risk of damaging school culture and stirring up a hornet’s nest of constituent opposition and intrusion into board policy and school management.

    Having successfully guided many schools worldwide in the strategic planning process, Littleford & Associates believes that the crucial, first step is to select the appropriate approach tailored to your school’s internal AND external dynamics. This assumes however, that there is also general agreement on the School’s mission among the key constituencies in the school community. Without that consensus, the entire process may become stalled at the starting gate.

    Our firm recommends EITHER a broad-based “democratic” model or a more “focused” approach. Both are highly effective and can deliver the desired outcome. There is also a middle ground process: a “hybrid” approach which a majority of schools seem to be using today. The differences among these three relate to the number and type of constituents involved and how their input is managed.

  2. The “Democratic” or “Broad Brush” Approach

    Historically, most schools used the “broad based” process in order to appear inclusive, but failed to consider first the political tone of the school community and how the involvement of various parties potentially might play out. The broad based approach involves board members, administration, faculty, alumni, parents and students. Members of these groups serve on a steering committee. This process involves:

    1. Interviews with a cross-section of people from all of these groups using focus groups and/or a survey.
    2. Those interviewed who are also on the steering committee participate in a workshop that effectively lays the groundwork for the initial strategic planning work. That work may take about three months and use a committee of 15-35 people drawn from all the constituencies and divided into subcommittees.
    3. The process comes to a close by screening the subcommittee reports.
    4. There may be a wrap-up workshop at the end of the planning period about three months later. Or, the first workshop can be a day long, intensive one which brings closure to most of the process.
    5. The last step is writing a final document for dissemination. The advantage of this approach is a greater sense of consensus building from a broad base of constituent opinion. It is the oldest one used in independent schools because the underlying assumption is that by involving more people, a stronger mandate for change with a greater chance of “buy-in” will result.

    The “democratic” process can involve multiple voices in refining and updating the school’s mission in a positive way. It can build support for raising money for buildings and/or endowment perhaps in the form of more leadership gifts. The approach works best in stable schools with mid to longer term heads in office.

    It is NOT, however, recommended for a school in which any of the following exist in its climate and culture: serious tension between the faculty and/or the board and administration; friction between the parent body and the school or board; and during the head of school’s first two or three years on the job.

    What can, and often does result from using this “wide-net” approach in schools with the above dynamics? During the planning process, any of the groups represented may come armed with their own narrow agendas, and if their expectations are not met, they may use the process as the basis for further actions or mobilization to achieve their objectives. The climate of the school may become even more politically charged. One of the original goals of the process, consensus building, breaks down. The school may lose sight of that important beacon, its fundamental mission.

    When the decision makers are steering committee members, not all of whom or maybe not even a majority of whom are trustees, there may be a tendency to stray towards micromanagement. This is a risk of involving in planning those who are not trained in trusteeship and the school’s mission. The experience and skills of a facilitator are key here in keeping such a diverse and large group on track.

    It is seldom a good idea to initiate a planning process in a head’s first or second year although that is often one of the first “charges” that a board gives a new head. A better idea is to give a new head an “entry plan” rather than expect him or her to carry out or be immediately a part of a strategic plan.

    In one well-known school, with a new head barely two years into the job, a broad based strategic planning process was undertaken recently. Faculty members upset by the decisions of the new head, and missing some of the power and privileges they enjoyed under a previous long-term head, used the planning process to undermine her with parents. She became isolated and unable to build the crucial political capital with key members of the school community. Only the determination and support of her chair and the decision to conduct a workshop on board governance prevented the board from yielding to faculty and parental pressures and terminating the head.

  3. The Focused Approach

    This is the recommended approach for any school with a moderately healthy or somewhat troubled school climate or a relatively new school head. It solicits input from all key constituencies without involving them directly in the decision making process. It avoids the risk of fueling underlying political tensions that threaten consensus building and the stability of the school.

    This approach involves more leadership and direction from the head and the board. The facilitator conducts confidential interviews with the head, key administrators and every trustee during the first two, three or four days of an on-site visit. He or she leads focus groups for each of the following: students, parents, alumni and faculty, all selected randomly. In this setting, all groups have the opportunity to express their views. Other focus groups may include community leaders and heads of area receiving or sending schools.

    On the last day, having established an important connection with all of the key players through the interview and focus group process, the facilitator conducts a workshop for the board,management team and head ONLY. The workshop:

    1. Outlines the strategic initiatives supported by the trustees and head; any areas of disagreement; and challenges and opportunities facing the school.
    2. Provides feedback on the views of the focus groups; and highlights agreement and conflict between those views and the vision, direction and strategic initiatives preferred by the head and board.
    3. Addresses any issues of board governance or structure that may have surfaced.
    4. Gains agreement on the rank order priority of five to nine strategic initiatives, the timetable for each task and preliminary estimates of the budget required to accomplish each.
    5. Initiates a discussion of action plans that may need o be adopted in order to carry out each initiative.
    6. Leads to the formation of small committees that may meet once or twice over the three months to finalize four to six action plans for each strategic priority. These are led by board members, include key administrators and may also include a few teachers, parents, and alumni.
    7. Documents the resulting agreement which may or may be sent out in some form to the school’s constituents.

    One school which used this approach was still in the transition phase of leadership. Outwardly, everything seemed relatively calm and smooth for this five year head whose predecessor had been there 23 years. However, there were many issues in this boarding school that were bubbling just below the surface, including maintaining the balance of boarding versus day population, preserving athletic traditions, and the raising the quality of teaching in the classroom. The former head had arranged special deals with certain teachers and often teachers who were not the better performers in the classroom.

    The Head and Board Chair initiated a “focused” strategic planning process and interviewed all members of the Board plus groups of parents, students, faculty, alumni, board and administration. Some solutions to enrollment concerns became apparent, and some interesting pricing and recruiting strategies emerged which could ameliorate the feared loss of the essence of boarding life.

    However, mixed in with this good news were clear indications of a faculty revolt brewing and aimed at some of the new head’s personnel and curriculum changes.

    The particular “focused approach” allowed the issues to be addressed thoughtfully, firmly and yet sensitively. The process moved forward with caution as opposed to a more explosive outcome which could have resulted from a too large or “public” aspect to the strategic planning effort. Faculty concerns, especially about accountability, were addressed appropriately.

    Focus groups can be chosen in a way so as to represent a “random” selection and represent a fair balance of opinion. This consultant prefers face to face focus groups or interviews as opposed to surveys to gather opinions and feedback. The confidentiality of information from surveys, even on line surveys, can never be totally be assured, and the activity can also encourage excessive unproductive “venting.” In one client school, some trustees got carried away with on online tool that resulted in thirty pages of feedback some of which was unnecessary and even hurtful.

  4. The Hybrid Approach

    This concept uses the core elements of the “focused” approach outlined above BUT includes a small sampling of parents, alumni and perhaps a student or two in the actual strategic planning workshop. Board members, the head and the management team still comprise the majority in the workshop.

    This approach tends to convey a sense of greater participation and “voice” of constituents, who are also heard in the focus groups that precede the workshop. HOWEVER, it provides an element of guided conversation that is conveyed by a board, as the constituency trained and experienced in establishing policy for the school. The workshop should be structured in a way that the board members are always the substantial majority present.

    A school which had been recently founded by two dynamic and generous entrepreneurs was already thriving after just a few years. A great deal of money, time and energy had been committed by the founding families. The rest of the Board had taken a backseat to the leadership of the donor families. In this particular school, it was important NOT to use a broad brush democratic approach because the Board and founding family were not yet ready to put their “baby” at risk from challenges by newly enfranchised independent school parents.

    The full Board was insufficiently engaged and still developing into a true functioning entity. The “hybrid” approach was used to engage parents, teachers, and students but in a workshop context where the majority of those present were board and administration. It was made clear that the policy decisions remained in the realm of the Board. There were five discussion groups formed from a mix of constituents at the workshop. All participants applauded the results.

  5. The “Corporate” Model

    It is important to keep in mind that whichever approach is chosen, a purely corporate model rarely adapts to the independent school culture.

    In another school, a new Head was hired shortly after a Board invested significant time and money in developing a long range strategic plan. The Plan followed an elaborate corporate model that key Board members embraced. The Head understood when he accepted the job that he would be expected to adopt it and “live” it, including regularly monitoring the progress of the school relative to plan through the use of extensive “dashboard indicators.”

    However, in his first year, it became apparent that the staff was growing increasingly disgruntled. The Plan included accountability measures. Accountability of performance inside and outside of the classroom was not part of the culture under the previous head.

    Parents began picking up on the faculty’s unhappiness through conversations with teachers and their children. The Head began to feel a lack of support from both faculty and parents. The Board remained very firm in its expectations that the head be responsible for carrying out the plan. They periodically reminded him that this was his charge when he was hired.

    An “entry plan” would have been a better way for this new head to develop political capital and become acquainted with the culture of the school. Unfortunately, this head did not survive the typical five year transition period.

  6. A Combination of Choices

    There are times when one approach should follow another. If the last strategic planning exercise used the “broad brush” approach, then a few years later it may serve the school better to use the “focused” or “hybrid” approach.

  7. Choosing an Outside Consultant

    Many schools hire an outside consultant to facilitate strategic planning, one of the most critical responsibilities of the board as a policy-making body. The consultant should NOT bring to the school a pre-packaged approach. The “broad-based”, “directed” and “hybrid” models are flexible and are not predisposed towards any particular outcome. All three provide an opportunity for constituencies to be heard, create a shared sense of the school’s direction among planning participants, and infuse them with renewed energy to achieve its goals. All guide the school wisely in developing an effective strategic plan that supports the mission and vision of the school. It may be wise to choose an experienced consultant who is likely to be available when your next plan update is due.

    If the School is not certain which approach to employ in launching its own strategic planning process, raising that question is an important first step in seeking the advice and input of a consultant to assist the school.

John Littleford

Senior Partner

Protecting Our Schools Through Strategic Planning

One of the key principles in healthy governance is: “Management manages and boards govern.” The NAIS Principles of Good Practice for Boards state: “Trustees do not become involved in specific management, curriculum or personnel issues.” Recently at a Littleford & Associates workshop on board governance, a trustee responded to this statement by protesting, “But that is all the fun stuff!” Indeed, sometimes boards become entrapped in the internal “fun” stuff and lose sight of the external “powerful” stuff. The latter forms the strategic issues that will determine whether the school survives and thrives, or falters and fails.

What are those strategic issues? Schools have focused consistently on funding new buildings, improving technology, and increasing endowment. However, the real strategic issues go beyond these classic (but still important) goals to include:

  1. Using a few key words to establish mission clarity that resonates with all crucial constituencies. They form the core statement defining the school’s unique character and the starting point for all planning.
  2. Providing protection to schools by ensuring a strong foundation of healthy governance through the careful work of the committee on trustees that guarantees institutional memory on the board and the longevity of service of effective heads.
  3. Developing a strategic long range financial plan that will guide how money is raised and spent to enhance and preserve the mission. This involves examining the trade offs in financial management.
  4. Acquiring appropriate understandings of potential future political, economic and legal challenges and designing contingency plans to meet them.
  5. Providing for healthy faculty cultures, the heart and soul of our schools, includes designing a salary philosophy, salary system and evaluation plan that meets the strategic needs and mission and guarantees schools the ability to attract, retain and reward those who most reflect that mission.
  6. Developing a communications and marketing plan that attracts and retains students and builds parent and alumni trustin and support for the school. This includes knowing how to avoid “attacks” by constituents and when they do occur, how to address them.
  7. Ensuring that management is discussing innovative educational programs and centers of excellence that reflect mission and history yet convey relevance to the future. Here there can be an important tie in of the strategic plan to self study and accreditation.
  8. Planning for risk management ranging from ensuring physical security for children at school; dealing with contagious disease; handling a scandal; reviewing policies regarding sexual harassment; and addressing school attitudes towards alternative lifestyles.
  9. Avoiding financial and other conflicts of interest, especially on the Board but even within the faculty and staff.

Ignoring these strategic issues may undermine fundraising for important long range needs.

  1. One Example of Clarifying the Mission was a head’s invitation to 25 selected community leaders, students, parents, past parents, faculty, administration and the Board to participate in a strategic planning retreat led by Littleford & Associates. This represents the “broad based” approach and is one way to do this exercise. The other is “focused planning” that can provide important linkages to the accreditation process. Littleford & Associates interviewed separate focus groups of board, students, faculty, parents and community leaders in one hour feedback sessions to seek insights as to strategic challenges, opportunities, threats, priorities, and risks.

    A three hour workshop for all 25 participants followed. It began with “word development” on mission. Each participant was asked to write down three words that most accurately and passionately conveyed the School’s mission. Those words were placed on flip charts. Each person then voted for the top three words on the flipchart. Five focus groups, each with a cross section of participants, then used the words with the highest votes to formulate a mission phrase that would accurately reflect the past, honestly convey the present and apply to the future. The group was asked further to formulate a phrase or acronym that would be memorable for any student, parent or teacher and could have a “story” related to each.

    The five groups presented their ideas and voted that the best word representing this residential school for troubled boys was “SHAPES”. “Our School SHAPES the boy by providing a:

    Safe and Supportive Environment

    Hope for his future

    Advocacy for his needs

    Preparation and education for life long learning

    Empowerment and assurance of some

    Success in his life.”

    Not only was the acronym memorable, but the words were powerfully accurate and generated excitement.

    A similar process was followed for giving feedback on the 42 possible challenges listed by the focus groups. Through discussions, votes, and filtering, they agreed upon and ranked five key strategic challenges and decided upon the timeline for implementation. They formed committees and planned meetings to generate 4-6 action plans for each of the five challenges. The process was empowering, and the enthusiasm created was palpable and refreshing.

  2. Protecting Schools by Ensuring a Foundation of Healthy Board Governance, through effective functioning of the Committee on Trustees and the preservation of a healthy board/head partnership, is among the most important topics in the pantheon of strategic planning needs for all schools. Previously, we have addressed the seven areas of focus of this committee: cultivating, screening and inviting prospects, and orientating, training, evaluating, warning and if necessary, removing trustees. The resulting healthy board is a policymaking entity composed of members who do not pursue shortsighted personal agendas.

    Boards need a deep familiarity with the principles of good governance and the importance of retaining the head of school whenever possible. The board should sponsor an annual retreat to review the progress of governance and the strategic plan. The boards that claim they do not need such annual governance reviews are often the same ones that “trip” over an issue, fire their heads and/or precipitate a crisis.

    Real board development and training is a delicate process that involves a dialogue, discussion of substantive issues and objective feedback that seldom can be accomplished solely through the use of questionnaires.

    A client had a board member with close ties to a long term faculty member and former classmate. Feeling that this teacher was underpaid, he asked to see individual salaries for all teachers.

    The Head declined, with the Board’s support. The board member then asked the state’s attorney general’s office to intervene and threatened a lawsuit against the School unless the information was forthcoming. The trustee finally admitted that he disagreed with the Board’s recent positive evaluation of the Head and felt he should be dismissed. Absent the ability to achieve that goal, he pressed on other fronts where he and the Head had clashed, including this salary issue. This individual cost the School energy, focus, time, and money for eighteen months until he was finally persuaded to resign. The pursuit of a personal agenda derailed this board from focusing on strategic goals.

  3. Strategic Long Range Financial Plans are five to ten, even twenty year, projections of all aspects of independent school issues. While twenty years may seem like a long horizon, there are modeling programs that offer tools to adjust, massage and monitor these numbers annually. Our Firm helps schools design these financial plans with an important added dimension: a focus on mission.

    One recent client found that due to lack of business office oversight, and some overly aggressive annual giving projections and accounting practices, it had an annual deficit of three million dollars with a nine million dollar budget. The School was unable to meet the covenants on its bond debt. To complicate the situation, a new head and the Board learned of the budgetary crisis for the first time shortly after the head’s arrival.

    The School retained our Firm to recommend corrective measures that included cutting expenses, improving efficiency, raising more funds, increasing enrollment modestly and generating more revenue from profit centers. We added a crucial dimension to this assignment: When faced with a range of potential major cuts, how does a School retain institutional culture and faculty morale? How does it convey a sense of health (versus anxiety and fear of change) to prospective parents and students? The School utilizes its strengths such as a strong board chair/head partnership, a rich history and unique school culture. Mission clarity and sensitivity to history and tradition are central to controlling costs, balancing budgets, and returning to fiscal health

  4. Ensuring Appropriate Understanding of Potential Legal, Financial and Political Challenges is one of our weakest areas of planning in independent schools. We are highly reactive to events. Examples of this are the increased frequency and intensity of focused angry parent, faculty or alumni reactions to school or board decisions or policies, even when the reason for the policy or decision is clear and serves the school’s best interests. Our 2002 Newsletter entitled: “Fortress Head, Fortress School: Attacks from Within and Attacks from Without.” describes how such events unfold and how to address them. This article was one of our most requested from around the world.

    Another example is the vulnerability of a school to a lawsuit as a result of not admitting or retaining certain children even if the school can demonstrate that it lacks the structure, staff, mission or tools to meet their needs successfully. After unusual efforts and support, a client school felt that a child could not succeed and graduate without compromising the integrity of its diploma. Even when the court ruled in the school’s favor, public opinion was divided. A board member “crossed a boundary” by throwing his personal support behind the student.

    Another school was confronted by an alumnus who claimed a teacher long since departed had molested him sexually. Unhappy with the School’s response to him, he filed a law suit. When the newspapers reported the story, other alumni made similar claims about the lack of school oversight of this teacher. The current head responded with dignity to alumni anger and hurt. Nonetheless, the School was still beset by a series of unfavorable newspaper articles. The School had resources, reputation and power on its side and yet, was battered consistently for three years. We know of seven great independent schools worldwide where a similar situation has occurred within the past five years.

    Plans are needed for preventing such events and outlining their proper handling and the nature and mode of reporting them if they do occur. Clear boundaries need to be set, however, relating to the board’s versus the administration’s role here.

  5. Providing Healthy Faculty Cultures is truly the heart and soul of our schools. All parents hope for that special independent school teacher who may be a mentor, advisor, coach and friend to their child. However, many of our faculty cultures are under stress. Tension between administration and faculty is common, even though seldom acknowledged publicly. Knowing how to build and maintain faculty cultures, where faculty are responsive to legitimate parent demands, but protected from overbearing ones, is a crucial element of any strategic plan.

    It only takes five seriously unhappy teachers in a faculty of fifty to undermine a positive school environment. Schools can assess and help turn around a school culture by “engaging teachers and administrators in deep reflection, clarifying their thoughts, actions and language and thereby helping schools to move beyond symbol and rhetoric to real strategic issues.” (Quote from a recent client).

    Another school has a unique niche in serving gifted students. It lacks the green space and impressive facilities of many of our independent schools. Yet this consultant found high parent satisfaction and a very professional unified (and modestly compensated) faculty which has created a learning environment where children feel academically challenged, emotionally safe and socially comfortable. Why?

    Faculty culture in this school was healthy due at least in part to strong leadership by the head, her careful hiring for “mission”, and a strong and committed faculty who like and trust each other and their head and believe deeply in the mission of gifted education.

  6. Developing an Effective Communications Plan for the community at large is essential. Vehicles of written and oral communication should be examined. Large public or town forum meetings for open discussion of grievances are usually NOT productive and can turn adversarial very quickly. On the other hand, discussions in parent homes in small grade level groups with key teachers, board members and administrators have proven to be a much more effective means of generating healthy dialogue and building bridges.

    Building a trusting relationship with the local media will help to manage a story or issue that may be misrepresented because of a complete lack of knowledge of the school’s mission and goals and the facts surrounding an incident.

    Another recent client handled a media event in a positive and a politically savvy way. When students were penalized for using drugs on a school sponsored field trip, the School communicated with the local reporter about its firm disciplinary stance and the high moral road the School chose. A few involved parents had contacted the same newspaper to try to undercut and challenge the School. The newspaper chose to highlight the School’s position and the lesson for all. Community respect for the School rose.

  7. Ensuring that Management Is Discussing Cutting Edge Educational Programs and Centers of Excellence does not mean that the Board should micromanage the very area which the head and professional staff were hired to lead. Rather, it means that boards have a responsibility to raise appropriate questions as to larger “educational issues”, patterns and trends. Management has the responsibility to discuss with trustees how new and creative approaches to program keep the mission directed towards the future as well as grounded in tradition.

    An ideal opportunity to launch a strategic planning process is when the school is undertaking a self study toward accreditation. The two processes go hand in hand and support one another.

    Curriculum for the future must go even further than serving each child’s unique needs, preparing them better and prompting them to think more critically. We have struggled to introduce collaborative learning in schools where teachers do not even visit each others’ classrooms out of “discomfort” or fear of invading a peer’s turf.

    Real cutting edge learning must examine how faculty cultures become ones where self reflection and honest evaluation by peers and administration are a daily element of enhancing the collegial dialogue. Effective evaluation does not destroy but supports real collegiality and is not simply “peer review”, “portfolio sharing”, “goal setting” or “professional growth”. Littleford & Associates has helped over 700 schools implement evaluation systems that make teachers feel valued, accountable, and supported while providing the meaningful feedback that all teachers need to improve.

    Designing an evaluation process is the management’s responsibility. Ensuring that such a system IS in place is a board responsibility.

  8. Risk Management Requires that the Board and Administration Anticipate and be Prepared to address “Unlikely” Possibilities.

    In one week a school experienced a bomb scare, a tragedy involving a faculty child and the death of a student from contagious meningitis. Any one of these events could have been a major crisis. Yet the head and board worked cooperatively each time to defuse panic, sadness and fear, resulting in community bonding and stronger communications. The appropriate calm response to each incident was based upon the trust that the chair and head had in each other. They could then command broader support and engage everyone on a range of levels in implementing plans already in place for handling a medical emergency and school wide trauma.

  9. Avoiding Real or Perceived Conflict of Interest

    Insurance agents, architects, psychologists, attorneys whose firms represent the school or any other vendor should not serve on the board of an independent school, immediately before, during and right after providing any PAID service to the school. Violating this rule can invite a crisis, a lawsuit or a loss of community credibility in the integrity of the board and thus the school.

    In one case, a board member whose company insured the School was sued by the Board when the school building developed cracks, and the insurance company refused to provide replacement coverage, citing a little known provision in the policy.

    The average tenure of school heads is about 5.5 years and the average length of trustee service is 3.5 years. Due to these patterns, there need to be more “touchstones” of approved and understood tools to retain mission integrity and protect the school from a crisis. The strategic plan helps to ensure this. Simultaneously, we must improve governance practices to define boundaries of authority and to extend the tenure for heads, board chairs and board members.

    The strategic planning process should not be a mechanistic uniform checklist of “do’s” and “don’ts” but rather a discussion about how to maximize the opportunities and minimize the risks facing the school. Littleford & Associates uses strategic planning (“broad brush” or “focused) to engage participants in an enthusiastic and thoughtful dialogue centered on the unique mission of each school while retaining the ultimate decision making authority in the board of trustees.

John Littleford
Senior Partner

The Strategic Planning Process:

The Importance of Choosing the Approach that Suits School Climate

  1. The Responsibility of the Board of Trustees: Strategic Thinking and Planning

    The word “trustee” conveys the responsibility of the board of trustees of the school to hold the mission of the school “in trust” and to plan for the long-term preservation of that fundamental mission.

    The strategic planning exercise is “non-cyclical”; a school should never postpone this important process in order to conserve its resources in economic downturns or when facing budgetary pressures. The strategic planning process assists schools in allocating and maximizing its personnel and financial resources in order to meet its short-term needs and ultimately, fulfill its mission.

    However, BEFORE entering into this critical process, many schools make a major mistake. They fail to consider the INTERNAL culture and climate of their school. This can make the difference between developing a successful plan that lends new energy and direction to the school, versus one that results in the dilution of its mission and a loss of forward momentum or the risk of damaging school culture.

  2. Which Approach to Strategic Planning Fits Your School?

    Having successfully guided many schools worldwide in the strategic planning process, Littleford & Associates believes that the crucial, first step is to select the appropriate approach tailored to your school’s internal dynamics. This assumes however, that there is also general agreement on the School’s mission among the key constituencies in the school community. Without that consensus, the entire process may become stalled at the starting gate.

    Our firm recommends EITHER a broad-based model or a more concentrated, less inclusive approach. Both are highly effective and deliver the desired outcome.

    1. The Broad-based Approach

      The broad-based approach involves these school constituencies: board members, faculty, alumni, parents and students. This process involves interviews with a cross-section of people from all of these groups over a three-day period. Having built credibility and rapport with these individuals through the interviews, the facilitator should engage all participants in a subsequent workshop that effectively lays the groundwork for the strategic planning process. That process occurs over a three to six month period and uses a committee of 15-35 people drawn from the interview group and workshop participants.

      The process comes to a close by screening the subcommittee reports and conducting a wrap-up workshop at the end of the planning period. The final step is writing up a final document for dissemination.

      The advantage to this approach is that by involving more people, it can serve as a stronger and wider basis of consensus for change.

      It is, NOT however, recommended for a school in which any of the following are present in its climate and culture: serious tension between the faculty and/or the board and administration; tension between the parent body and the school; and during the head of school’s first year on the job.

      What can, and often does result from using this “wide-net” approach in schools with the above dynamics? During the planning process, any of the groups represented may come armed with their own agendas, and if their expectations are not met, they may use the process as an opportunity for political gain, “stirring up a hornet’s nest.” The climate of the school may become even more politically charged. Consensus- building breaks down, and the school may lose sight of that important beacon, its fundamental mission.

      With a new head barely one year into the job, a broad based strategic planning process was undertaken recently by a well-known school. Faculty members upset by the decisions of the new head, and missing the power they enjoyed under a previous, long-term head, used the planning process to undermine the head with parents individually, and then collectively. It is seldom a good idea to initiate a planning process in a head’s first year.

    2. B. The Directed and Concentrated Approach

      This is the recommended approach for any school with a moderately healthy climate and/or culture. It solicits input from all key constituencies without involving them directly in the strategic planning process. It avoids the risk of fueling underlying political tensions that threaten consensus building and the stability of the school.

      This approach involves more leadership from head and the board. The facilitator conducts confidential, 45 minute interviews with the head, key administrators and every trustee during the first two days of an on-site visit. On the third day, he or she leads four, one-hour focus groups for each of the following: students, parents, alumni and faculty, all selected randomly. In this setting, all four groups have the opportunity to express their views.

      On the fourth day, having established an important connection with all of the key players through the interview process, the facilitator conducts a workshop for the board and head ONLY. The workshop accomplishes the following:

      1. Outlines the strategic initiatives supported by the trustees and head; any areas of disagreement; and challenges and opportunities facing the school.
      2. Provides feedback on the views of the focus groups; highlights agreement and conflict between those views and the vision, direction and strategic initiatives preferred by the head and board.
      3. Addresses any issues of board governance or structure that may have surfaced.
      4. The resulting agreement is documented and sent out (or not sent out) to the school’s constituents.
  3. Choosing an Outside Consultant

    Many schools hire an outside consultant to facilitate strategic planning, one of the most critical responsibilities of the board as a policy-making body.

    The consultant should NOT bring to the school a pre-packaged approach with a pre-determined result.

    The broad-based and directed models are flexible and are not predisposed towards any particular outcome. Both provide an opportunity for all constituencies to be heard, create a shared sense of the school’s direction among planning participants, and infuse them with renewed energy to achieve its goals. Both guide the school wisely in developing an effective strategic plan that supports the mission and vision of the school.

John Littleford
Senior Partner