Someone Always Wants the Job

With word that Margaret Spellings is stepping down as president of the University of North Carolina comes a headline from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Margaret Spellings Is Stepping Down at UNC. Will Anyone Want to Replace Her?

It is always tempting to think that an institution is so troubled or that an incumbent leader has made such a mess of things that no one will take the job. But, our experience is that this is just not the case. We have seen open headships at schools that no one should try to lead attract applicants. In every case, the applicants either minimize the troubles or believe that the only missing ingredient in that school’s success is them.

Will anyone want to replace Spellings? Sure, but the more important question is about whether success in the role is even possible. That requires a more rational assessment than it’s usually the case in searches.

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It’s Chaos Out There!

The 70+ international school heads and board members attending all or part of our two-day course in governance at the EARCOS Leadership Conference in Kuala Lumpur represented an astounding variety of school types and board configurations.

  • Size of board: from two to 127.
  • Number of overlapping and interlocking boards: from one to five.
  • Corporate form: from nonprofit to corporate to family business to one school that is a joint venture between a host country government and a toy manufacturer.
  • Some heads of school attend board meetings ex officio but do not vote (the norm in U.S. private, independent schools) while other heads do vote and some heads do not always attend board meetings.
  • Some countries require a high degree of supervision of the board (e.g., the statutory auditors in Japan or the tri-level board system in Indonesia) while others mandate less, but almost all expect closer board oversight of management than is typical in North America;
  • Some boards were self-perpetuating while others were fully parent-elected and others were hybrids; some boards were all members of the same family and others were appointed by sponsoring religious organizations.

We have been at EARCOS (and other regional association) meetings for years, but this year marks the largest range of schools and boards in our memory. But, it is just the continuation of a trend reaching back more than a decade, ever since the numbers of Anglophone expats began dropping in most parts of the world.

While we are just beginning to digest the data and consider implications for our work with schools, we can make a few observations worth sharing with your boards and administrative teams:

  1. Market fragmentation is accelerating almost everywhere (more options with more types of schools);
  2. Everyone is offering the same IB or AP or GSCE product and is accredited by the same handful of agencies (mostly CIS);
  3. One-size-fits-all governance training is so 2015–we need new models appropriate for family businesses, corporately-owned schools, and those with different degrees of governmental supervision;
  4. Parents are less likely to be the Anglophone expat of yesteryear–and so are less likely to have themselves experienced anything like the program the school has on offer; and
  5. When viewed through the customer’s eyes, the education market must look confusing at best and chaotic at worst, never a good thing when people are already anxious about their choice of school.

More later, but some things to think about in the meantime.



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Amazon and You: What Independent School Boards Can Learn from Jeff Bezos’ Letters

Lots of people know about Warren Buffet’s annual shareholder letter; indeed, commentary about Buffet’s observations has become a ritual in the business media. Fewer know that Jeff Bezos of Amazon has done much the same every year since 1997, compiling a fascinating and useful trove of business wisdom as Amazon became a US$1 trillion company.

Buried in the original 1997 letter is the following:

“…we want to share with you our fundamental management and decision-making approach so that you, our shareholders, may confirm that it is consistent with your investment philosophy.”

While Bezos was specifically addressing shareholders–in effect co-owners of the company–his wisdom has something to offer independent school board members (and parents), all of whom are counted at stakeholders (those with an interest) and not shareholders (those who own). Because Amazon was and is famously counter-cultural for normal business practice (e.g., not particularly concerned with profitability of share price), Bezos wanted shareholders to be aligned in their investment philosophy. Those not aligned could simply opt out.

Independent schools need to do the same when it comes to selecting new members of the governing board. Much turmoil could be averted if every board member were aligned with the educational philosophy and mission of the school. Waaayyyyy too much time and energy is spent handling trustees who really don’t buy in; in other words, it would be like being an Amazon shareholder and demanding immediate returns.

I can accept the parent in the school who decides that what the school offers no longer is what they want for their child. Find another school–no harm, no foul. What I cannot see room for is the rogue board member who uses his or her seat to agitate for the school to become something other than what its mission dictates. Best to find a school where you can be aligned and offer your talents there.

Bezos’ focus on mission and purpose comes through in the 1997 letter: “We aren’t so bold as to claim that the above is the “right” investment philosophy, but it’s ours, and we would be remiss if we weren’t clear in the approach we have taken and will continue to take.” The Amazon board recruits for alignment; independent and international school boards should do the same.

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Is Independence a Strength Overdone in Independent Schools

Any strength done to excess becomes a weakness. Could the same be true of the independence of independent schools? We cherish our independence from governmental control and the freedoms that gains for our schools, but is it possible that independence about everything costs us in return? Must every school, no matter how small or how close to another school, have its own business office, or human resources department, or food service, or gymnasium and performing arts center? By “independent education” do we mean that the school is independent in every imaginable way, or might there be benefits to a shared services model that can scale beyond a single school?

Food for thought.

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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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