Strategic Planning And Why The Process Generally Frustrates Boards

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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