Sears and Schools

The news that venerable, old Sears Roebuck & Co. is filing for bankruptcy protection in the USA comes as no surprise to anyone, except perhaps the venture capitalists who bailed Sears out a few years ago. Seriously, in an age of Amazon and imitators (even WalMart), where is Sears needed? We are long past the day when a (snail) mail order catalog was a lifeline for much of the country.

My guess is that few school heads and board chairs would disagree with the above, even though some might mourn Sears imminent passing. But would these same heads and chairs know when their school’s time has come? Would they, like investors in Sears, try to revive a no longer needed model? More importantly, would they recognize the need to act while radical change might help?

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Even the Giants Stumble

Two items in today’s news remind me that sustained organizational excellence is very difficult to achieve. First comes the news that General Electric (GE), one an extremely stable and successful company, is sacking its CEO after only two years on the job. Company performance is lackluster and the challenge of surmounting bad decisions made by the previous CEO (also a former high-flyer) is a further drag on profits. Then, we see that corporate struggles are not just a North American phenomenon as Tencent, the Chinese digital giant is pursuing a corporate restructuring.

Sustaining excellence is very, very difficult. Most organizations–and we suspect schools are the same–have to reinvigorate themselves periodically to stay in business. The trick is to do it continuously so that the dips are not as low–see this item from McKinsey.

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An Eye on the Future of Markets

With the recent news that the contemporary bull market is the longest in U.S. history comes an increasing spate of forecasts of impending recession or worse, an event that would undoubtably ripple world-wide with implications for all private schools. What makes these stories especially scary is not that there is data behind the news–in fact, not much has changed among economic indicators–rather that the psychology that moves markets seems to be shifting in a negative direction.

An example of the above is this hot-off-the-screen story reporting global corporate executive responses to McKinsey’s periodic confidence survey. For the third straight quarter, McKinsey’s survey shows declining confidence in the strength of future corporate performance. Sooner or later this will translate into reality.

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The Certainty of Uncertainty

This item by Rebecca Jennings in Vox got us thinking again about the role anxiety plays in domestic and international private education. Edwin Friedman described churches and schools as “anxious systems,” full of people with unslakable existential anxiety from a fundamentally uncertain future. We see parental anxiety about their children’s unknowable futures at every school we visit. Much agita about exams, grades, university admission, and attending the “best” school is driven by displaced anxiety about what lies ahead for one’s children.

Jennings’ article highlights the rise of anxiety, at least in the USA, as both an ambient and clinical condition. Back when in the 70’s and 80’s, depression was the common cold of mental health; today it is anxiety. A quick Google Trend (2004 to present Google search terms) query for “anxiety” shows that searches for “anxiety” were flat from 2004 until roughly 2010 and have risen steadily ever since. Just more angst to displace! Simply searching for “living with uncertainty” turned up almost 90 million sites this afternoon.

School leaders need to do better at helping anxious people cope with uncertainty. One approach would be this from the for-profit Fairmont Private Schools in Southern California, promising top-100 university admission. Don’t like the idea? There’s much we don’t like either, starting with the notion that elite university acceptance is what high school tuition buys. Then best for us all to become adept at helping others live with anxiety, because just saying “results may vary” only makes them more anxious.

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Heads (Not Hands) in the Tent

A terrific encapsulation of the role of independent and international school board members vis a vis school administrators:

“a good [member] can put their head in the tent and look around and ask questions but, as a non-executive [member], you cannot put your hands inside the tent and tinker with things.”

This quote of INSEAD Visiting Professor Tim Rowley in an article about being a new non-executive board member–those not actively employed as managers of the business–captures perfectly the spirit of leaving operations up to the head of school and staff. We can put our heads, but not our hands, into the tent. My experience is that way too many board members seek to serve precisely because they want to have their hands inside as well.

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Making Meetings Better

“Too many meetings,” is a common response we hear during faculty and staff  focus groups or read on employee surveys at independent and international schools. But, when we probe deeper into the issue, it becomes apparent that people want fewer unproductive meetings and more useful ones. Administrators would do well to note the more nuanced distinction, as opposed to simply reducing the frequency of gatherings altogether.

Pat Lencioni’s recent guidance on the subject is a good point of departure.

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