Strategic Planning: Managing Rising Stakeholder Voices and Expectations

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Strategic Planning: Managing Rising Stakeholder Voices and Expectations

Many schools’ strategic plans from the prior three years are no longer relevant, vaguely remembered, only partially implemented, or simply no longer making sense in the current mid and post pandemic context.

Strategic planning has always been necessary, important, exciting, engaging, empowering and risky. Independent and international schools, however, have often overlooked the risks. Today parents especially, but alumni as well, want more influence over the planning process and they are advocating for certain outcomes. 

Teachers may want more input as well, possibly pushing in an opposite direction. But can administrators and boards afford not to listen seriously to them since teachers are leaving our schools in unprecedented numbers?

In these times, many heads and boards are being swamped by input that may be only partially informed but driven by anger, frustration and new found social media attacks on school leaders and their decisions.  How do boards and heads manage these voices and the rising expectations inherent in them without violating core governance protocols and best practice?  

Listening does not mean ceding governance authority. Engaging does not mean making the stakeholders the arbiters of a school’s mission. Boards must always remember that they own the strategic planning process, and the school’s leadership team assists and implements it. Only the board has the legal, moral and duty-bound responsibility to ensure that strategic initiatives fit within the mission, are financially viable, and will serve the long term, not just the short term, needs of the school. 

Strategic planning that becomes too democratic i.e., too broad brush or too inclusive could end up either costing the board and the head the ability to govern and lead the school or marginalizing them. A governing board has only three functions.  The first is mission integrity, and under this fall governance and strategic planning.  The second is fiscal oversight which includes monitoring all income and expense items, most of which (about 70-75%) are salaries for staff. The third is hiring, evaluating, supporting, guiding and if necessary, changing the head. 

Stakeholders include the board itself, the administration, the faculty and staff, the parents, the students, the alumni, and relevant parts of the community such as past parents and major donors.  There are effective ways to listen to them. But one very dangerous way is to use online surveys and tools that can be manipulated by a disgruntled cohort to try to move the board in a specific direction or take over functions of the board, the head and the school’s leadership. Online surveys must be very carefully designed and timed to elicit the most objective response possible from a significantly meaningful percentage of the participants. It is a challenge to get this right.

The second dangerous way is to hold a town meeting which is likely to attract the unhappiest and most vocal stakeholders. There is no way for the school leadership to prepare for such an event, and the outcome may make matters worse.

Littleford & Associates contends that the best way to listen and to engage is to hold focus groups with each stakeholder group in a structured, organized series of sessions. The strategic planning consultant takes verbatim notes, engages every focus group member in a range of questions and asks everyone to respond not to each other but to the facilitator.  In this way, no one person or persons can disrupt the ability of others to speak…and listen.  Those participating in the strategic planning process consider the input from these focus groups in forming the key strategic initiatives.

We know a School where the Board hired a strategic planning Consultant who planned a wide-open listening process using an on-line survey to which 800 alumni and parents responded. The resulting strategic plan, while useful in some ways, did not include some key themes that a group of “concerned” parents felt should have been included. 

The Concerned Parents group asked to see the results of the survey which they regarded as a democratic vote which the Board would honor in its final strategic planning outcomes. Now the Board and Head had a major political challenge because two or three themes that this group of parents were pushing were not included in the plan. Parents felt misled and cheated.

Board and heads must be very careful about how a strategic planning process is announced, launched and developed to make stakeholder groups feel heard, but they must also make it clear that while data and opinions gathered will be shared, the ultimate decision-making will be in the board’s domain. Certainly, the leadership team and perhaps a few highly respected teachers, parents or alumni will assist in that decision-making process during the workshop, but the board always has the majority vote.

With heightened parent confusion, frustration, fatigue and even anger about the pandemic era protocols, new expectations are arising about the appropriate parental voice in board deliberations. Parents often feel that boards are there to represent their interests as stakeholders and certainly as paying customers. But boards represent the past, the present and the future and the mission/history/culture of the school is much more than the views of the current parent body or any subset of that parent body

The cautionary words here are “appropriate” strategic planning, as well as “safe” strategic planning.