The Smart Money Bets on Culture

This item by Matthew Tzuker in the Chronicle of Higher Education brings up an almost metaphysical question for those of us in the education sector: Just how different are we from other sectors, and which differences are endemic—must be honored no matter what—and which are malleable—subject to change given the right convergence of forces. Tzuker, an executive recruiter who used to work in higher education, argues that the industry standard model for recruiting university presidents, like that for independent K-12 school heads, is dysfunctional in that it allows rank-and-file faculty to weigh in on who will be their new boss. Instead, Tzuker would have recruitment, interviewing and placement be a quick, private thing, entirely outside public view, much as is the norm in the for-profit corporate sector.

We understand Tzuker’s frustration, having orchestrated searches ourselves, only to watch things derail on subjective and openly hostile feedback from a rogue faculty member. Tzuker’s quote above could have been my sentiments late in the evening after a long day of chaperoning candidates through interviews at a school. However, I am also mindful of Peter Drucker’s famous dictum that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and faculty engagement in the executive hiring process is part and parcel with independent and international school culture. As long as this is the case, boards and search committees should think twice (or three times) before trying something blatantly counter-cultural. Such acts rarely go well, and, in several international school cases of which we are aware, have ended quite disastrously.

Almost no corporate middle manager, let alone front-line worker, expects to have a say in who should be their next CEO. Almost all teachers (at least in the western world) fully expect to be consulted and behave as if they own the school. Interestingly, many CEO’s I have spoken with over the years wish their subordinates felt more ownership of what happens in the company. They wish their front-line retail personnel (for example) acted as if they owned the place. Maybe there are no unmitigated goods; that is, in exchange for employees that do act as owners, as a great many academicians do, the price we pay is inefficiency and frustration in giving them a say about important matters like who will be the next boss.

In any event, tempted as I am to chuckle at Tzuker’s quips and agree with his main premise, I quickly pull myself back from that abyss (and it is very much an abyss) as I remember Drucker. In academia, it is never a good idea to be counter-cultural, and in organizational life it is always prudent to respect someone like Drucker. The bottom line is that stakeholder input into leadership search is cultural to our sector whereas it is not in the corporate sector. 

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Embedment and Diagnosis as Keys to Leading Change

Todd M. Warner’s recent manifesto on the Change This website, “Rethinking Execution: The Salsa Scale of Embedment,” makes two crucial points that are often neglected by those seeking to effect change in independent and international schools. First, Warner writes about the importance of “embedment;” that is, the process whereby a change becomes part of the warp and woof of school culture. His point is that larger scale changes (school-wide or cultural) require more effort to become embedded and therefore likely to stick. Inattention to this fact is why so many organizational changes founder or fail to survive the head who implements.

The second point is about the importance of diagnosing the status quo at the front end of change; e.g., understanding and working with those who have informal power (and we at Triangle find that this is the most important power in schools). Push come to shove, as it often does around large-scale change, and informal power holders usually win. Failing to have a strategy for them means embedment is doomed from the start.

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Don’t Make Your Competitive Advantage More Ephemeral Than It Already Is

Competitive advantage is notoriously fragile, as reflected in the widely held notion that it lasts, at best, only about five years in most industries. Advantage in the private schools space is perhaps even more fleeting, as good ideas become ever easier (and cheaper) to copy in the digital age.

Even fortress positions of market dominance can quickly wither when organizations shoot themselves in the feet. As an example, Boeing, the American airplane manufacturer, is having a very bad run of very bad press due to quality issues on two of its newest and glitziest planes and is paying for it at the order desk. Self-inflicted wounds hurt the most.

The lesson is that the work of keeping an advantage may be even harder that finding one in the first place.

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Just How Different Are You?

With the totally expected news that Barney’s New York is filing for bankruptcy protection, one more bricks-and-mortar store finds itself in a tight spot from the ongoing restructuring of the American retail sector. What is notable about Barney’s is the notion of being different from all other stores.

“From the beginning — especially in the beginning — Barneys held itself apart from the other department stores, not only in New York but pretty much everywhere … As Gene Pressmen, the grandson of Barney Pressmen, the founder, told The Times: ‘Of course, there are a lot of stores uptown. But there’ll be only one Barneys. We’re different.'”

In the end, though, Barney’s is governed by the same iron-clad law of retail that covers all other stores and every private, independent school: one must generate sufficient margin to remain a going concern. Maybe no one is really as different as they wish to be.

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What a Stray In-N-Out Burger Means for Your School

We have long said that what people don’t know they make up, often in the most extreme and dramatic way possible. That’s we humans do as sense-making beings. This truism applies to parent, teachers, alumni and anyone with a stake or interest in your school, and it underscores the importance of clear and timely communication.

The advertising and media world, to say nothing of the New York food scene, was briefly in an uproar about the meaning of a pristine, wrapped In-N-Out burger found at a busy Queens intersection. The nearest In-N-Out store is at least 2000 miles (3200+ km) away, so the burger’s presence in a NYC borough must have some significance, mustn’t it? Well, not really. Despite breathless conjecture on various ad blogs that this was really a clever ploy by which the chain would announce their arrival in the city, it turns out to merely have been dropped by a teenager who purchased it in California, flew to JFK, and then lost it from her luggage on the way home.

Just a great illustration of the sense-making phenomenon and the power of rumor to take hold in a community. On the other hand, anyone with So Cal connections probably understands how desperate a New Yorker could be to have easy access to In-N-Out. [Full disclosure: I am a trustee at Wildwood School in Los Angeles, and an occasional In-N-Out patron despite not living in the area.]

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Transcending the Founder: A Necessary, If Fraught, Step for Schools

Every founder’s dream is to create a school that transcends them, that endures long after they are gone. My son attended The Wilson School in St. Louis for elementary school, and its creation story was as Miss Wilson’s School, begun in her house in 1913. Miss Wilson’s impact, by virtue of having started a school that endures to this day, has been multiplied many times over by succeeding classes of students.

At the same time, the actual moment when founders depart schools is one of the most fraught and problematic of times in school life. Few seem to go quietly and many end up doing damage to the school they ostensibly love in the process. Triangle has worked with several schools through such transitions.

Blue Avocado’s recent post addresses precisely the issue of founder transition. In a thoughtful, caring way, the author, Julie Stiles, raises points about how boards can navigate these treacherous waters while remaining true to their fiduciary duties. Useful reading for anyone facing (or expecting to soon face) this sort of leadership transition.

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