What Board Chairs Can Learn from Soccer Referees

Uruguayan FIFA referee Andres Cunha put on a master class yesterday in how to manage a football (soccer, for my fellow Americans) game in the Iran-Spain World Cup match. On paper it was a lopsided affair with a much stronger Spanish team facing an ambitious, but lower ranked) Iranian crew. A large part of Iran’s strategy was to slow the game down, sometimes by laughable flops and feigned injuries, thereby limiting Spain’s ability to score. The Iranian strategy worked surprisingly well as Spain ultimately won by only a 1-0 score.

Cunha’s ability to tightly referee the game and maintain control was crucial to keeping the match from becoming comic, notwithstanding the bizarre attempt at a late-game flip throw-in with seconds left on the clock. Board chairs can learn much from Cunha. Laxity amid disruption invites misbehavior. Firm board management counts!

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Two Lines Diverge on a Graph …

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— 

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference. --Robert Frost (The Road Not Taken)

This graph from McKinsey illustrates the financial benefits of leveraging technology to increase productivity by plotting change in labor cost vs robotics from 1990-2014.

The economic advantage in robotics-driven manufacturing (or AI-driven anything) comes from the resultant gain in productivity for each remaining human employee. Since private education has yet to find a means of production that truly leverages productivity, we have financed cost increases along the upper line via (1) higher tuition prices, (2) thinner margins from greater discounting, and (3) lower than optimal wage increases for teachers and staff.

This is not a call for robots to replace teachers (necessarily), but rather a suggestion that boards bothered by higher-than-CPI rates of tuition increase accept the limits of our no productivity growth model and instead discuss how the means of production can change to something less labor intensive. A few schools can avoid this reality via a shelter provided by their endowments, but for the overwhelming majority the brutal fact is that following the upper line dictates higher-than-CPI price increases. Whether or not this is sustainable for all is another question. And the answer is probably not.

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100 Days of May

Summer is here and not a moment too soon! May is a challenging month for private, independent schools, with a trifecta of factors converging to create much unnecessary turbulence.

Attrition – it is in May that the extent of any exodus from one or another grade or division becomes apparent. Numbers that could be rationalized as “tentative” solidify into fact as the school year ends. Rarely is attrition evenly distributed; rather, it seems almost inevitable that it concentrates in middle school or maybe 4th grade. Sometimes the culprit is singular—as in one particular teacher or coach—but it often seems diffuse—“my child needs more challenge”, or “we are looking for a larger peer group.” Regardless, few things galvanize a board like attrition spikes, especially if some of the departing families are members’ friends.

Annual Head Evaluation – it is late in the school year when most boards conduct the annual head of school performance appraisal, the results of which are often shared with the full board in executive session at its last meeting of the year. Even in good years, board input to the head’s evaluation is frequently mixed, with at least one (or more) members availing themselves of the opportunity to critique one (or more) area(s).

The Last Board Meeting – the ending of the board year means not only Heads evaluation season, but that some members are rotating off—and feel compelled to make a mark as they exit—and others are arriving—fired with enthusiasm to change things up. All the more so if it is from their child’s class that some or all of the attriters are attriting. Regardless, just knowing it is the final meeting of the board year can propel a frenzy of activity.

Where the ugliness happens is when all three factors line up just so: higher than typical attrition becomes the basis for a lower or more critical head evaluation, leading to a spasm of firefighting by the board in its final meeting. The animating idea for the board goes something along the lines of, “our house is on fire—attrition—and the head isn’t taking it seriously, so rather than let it burn down we must rush in and take charge; indeed, it would be irresponsible and maybe even negligent of us to do less.”

I am usually not convinced things are as bad as they are made to sound. Boards rarely know how to take attrition in context (e.g., in terms of the usual base rate for similar types of schools) and are easily agitated by emotional cases (e.g., a friend’s child leaving the school). Lack of context and agitation lead to over-generalization and an assumption that the smell of toast burning means the house is on fire.

I have written earlier in this space about the need for heads to signal to their boards that they do take attrition (and the like) seriously. Boards, likewise, should take a deep breath and step back from the abyss of precipitous action, at least in most cases. The house really isn’t on fire, summer is short, and another board (and school) year is already close at hand.

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Keeping One’s Head Above Water During A Media Storm

It is every head’s worst nightmare: an incident that draws lots of media attention. At some point, rather than just reporting, the tone of the stories in the daily newspaper or on the web site shifted toward commentary on whether or not school leaders had acted appropriately. From the beginning, these are high stakes moments for school heads. Get it right and you and your school will emerge damaged but still in business; get it wrong and your career is over and the school takes a lasting hit. The trouble is that no one can predict where the “right” and “wrong” diverge!

The Chronicle of Higher Education, whose readership among university administrators knows the above all too well, has this piece on surviving a media blitz. Good reading before an incident happens and essential to have on hand when it does.

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The Future of Education Is Cradle-to-Grave

School leaders contemplating strategic options need to anticipate where the education field itself is heading. A new report from the Georgia Institute of Technology (GA Tech) Center for 21st Century Universities describes a future research university that looks little like those of today. Since private, independent and international schools are in the business of (among other things) preparing students for entry to those universities, the ideas in the report are worth some attention. In most instances, even the provocative ideas are really just extensions of trends already well underway.

Private K-12 schools should take note of what is happening farther along the education food chain since higher ed is grappling with some of the same issues we are: soft demand, price-point resistance, and rising costs to name a few. One of the more intriguing notions is the report’s envisioning of education as a field no longer tethered to the age and developmental stage of the student, but rather as something that humans engage with in different ways all across the lifespan. While this seems innocuous enough, the impact on the field’s business model might be transformative.

One idea envisioned in the article is that education will become a subscription model service, either accessible via a monthly, yearly, or lifetime fee. The money party may or may not work out, but the notion that education is literally a cradle-to-grave industry seems inevitable.

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Me or your lyin’ eyes …

Imagine you are a board member at the Ford Motor Company. Imagine that you also drive a Ford. Imagine that the Ford you drive is a lemon; it has had numerous seemingly intractable problems that the dealer, despite knowing your role in the company, can’t seen to fix. You have mentioned the problem to Bill Ford, Chairman and CEO, and he has been sympathetic, but still your keep having the same problem with your car.

Now imagine that you are sitting in a board meeting listening to someone on Bill’s executive team report that Ford’s customer satisfaction rates are in the industry upper quartile and that “scrap” (cars known to be defective right off the assembly line) is at an all-time low. Who are you going to believe: your own lived experience as a Ford owner or what management is telling you? In short, will you believe Bill or your lying eyes (apologies to the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup”)?

Bill will certainly insist that you believe him; after all, good practice says that the board should trust management. But it will be harder and harder to trust every time you hear the same old rattle from underneath the dashboard. At some point, you will likely just conclude that Bill and his team are blowing smoke to obfuscate a serious quality issue.

Now imagine that your neighbor–who bought a Ford precisely because you are a board member–tells you his model is a lemon, too. What will you do the next time Bill’s CEO report mentions the company’s tremendous gains in quality?

This scenario plays out every day in independent and international schools. Heads do themselves a disservice when they gloss over the lived experiences of board members, and board members do their heads a disservice when they fail to recognize that their child’s experience may not be typical of everyone. In my experience, the onus is on heads, not board members. It’s hard to disbelieve your own eyes.

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