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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Don’t Make It Easy To Leave

Many schools make it too easy for parents (and their students) to leave. Earlier, we wrote in this space about the fragility of trust in the private, independent school environment, and we keep hearing instances where students leave due to its erosion.

One administrator we know said that parents seem “to be looking for reasons to leave,” suggesting that the market for education has become more transactional and transient. No doubt it has, but in our exit interviews with parents, we find hypervigilance born of escalating anxiety; to put it another way, today’s parents are more anxious because they are making a complex, expensive decision with massive (and unknowable) consequences. In this overheated emotional zone, it doesn’t take much to break whatever ephemeral trust may have existed and prompt thoughts of exit.

Because brand name entities tend to be trusted more to begin with (as demonstrated by several marketing and e-commerce studies), schools with strong reputations as a leader in a given market or category may be more likely to receive the benefit of the doubt. However, most schools do not have a leverageable brand that provides a trust cushion. For them, the game is about fixing the things that reduce trust in the first place.

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Nailing the Video Interview

After sitting in on dozens of video interviews with head of school candidates, I am amazed that only one or two have been stellar and most have been somewhere between awful and horrendous. The common problem derives from the fact that video interviewing using Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, or any other platform is very different from doing so in person.

Setting matters a lot! Give thought to what will be in your background. Family members wandering in and out of the bathroom or a romantic partner suddenly sitting up in bed behind you mid-interview telegraphs the wrong message (yes, both of those things have happened).

Camera angle matters a lot! The usual position of a laptop aims the camera up your nose or forces you to be in an awkward position looking down for the whole time. Set the computer on a stack of books to position your camera straight on with your face. Likewise, cameras mounted on top of video screens on the wall sometimes give the appearance of a videotaped police interview on “Dateline” (you know the downward looking view I am talking about).

Where you look matters a lot! Simply put, make eye contact with the camera lens. I know that it is more natural to look at the people on the screen, but eye contact is important and only happens when you look straight into the lens. Put something near the lens opening to remind you to look there instead. Above all, don’t forget the camera is there and start gazing off into space. That just looks weird after a while.

Distractions matter a lot! Mute your mobile phone. Turn off your television. Put the dog in another room, unless it is extraordinarily telegenic and cute. A dog running around in the background (or barking off-camera) pulls attention away from you.

Sound quality matters a lot! Most laptop mics are too weak to pick up quality sound at more than a four or five foot range. Best to invest in an external USB mic if you plan on sitting back in your chair or more than three or four feet from the computer.

Your acting skills matter a lot! Stage actors must exaggerate their motions because of the distance between them and the audience. Film actors under-act because the camera magnifies everything. Keep in mind that you are on close-up throughout the interview. Small movements show up big time.

How much you say matters even more! By far, the most common error is with excessive verbosity. The winner is rarely the one who says the most words in an interview; rather, it is the profundity of what you say that lingers with interviewers. Rehearse tight, seemingly spare answers to predictable questions. Less is more when it comes to video.

Candidates for almost any job in a school, not just headship, should expect to have at least one round of video interviewing. The good news is that each of the things that matter above can be corrected or avoided via forethought and preparation. Download and set up the free versions of Skype or Zoom and practice, practice, practice. You can even record yourself and ask trusted colleagues to critique your video.

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Why It Is Hard for a School to Become a Hot Brand (and what might be a better goal)

Ad Age is out with an updated list of “America’s Hottest Brands,” and the 2019 set (the last list appeared in 2011) is instructive in multiple ways. Not the least of the ways is how new the brands are—only two or three are legacy companies, say, those with decades of  experience in front of customers. Just as there are no sustainable competitive advantages (copying is just too easy), being “hot” as a brand is both fragile and ephemeral. The shiny new toy gets more play.

Instead of being a hot school—one that attracts students just because it is so hot—maybe a better aspiration is to be loved. Being loved is a stronger glue than heat, one with bonds that transcend momentary circumstances. Hot brands have mass appeal, while loved brands have smaller, more loyal followings.

Heat happens quickly, while love takes a series of emotionally evocative experiences to emerge. Too many marking initiatives aim at temperature and not enough at cultivating love.


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Social Purpose, Woke-Washing, and Your School

The recent Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for the the advertising, media and communications fields was notable in a number of ways, but perhaps the most salient was the earnestness and seriousness of the Grand Prix awards. Missing, according to this piece by I-Hsien Sherwood and Ann-Christine Diaz in the June 21 AdAge, was any hint of humor, long a staple of the advertising world.

Also notable, and a harbinger of a new sensibility among those in leadership roles, was the speech by Unilever CEO Alan Jope. Jope said that Unilever brands (Unilever is a giant British conglomerate, for those who don’t know) must show social or sustainable meaning and purpose or risk divestment. Going even further, Jope chastised his peers for “woke-washing“–where a company or institution claims to be engaging in specific action to make the world a better place but, in reality, is carrying on as before–saying that the practice is polluting the purpose category.

Jope’s remarks about social purpose and woke-washing prompted me to remember Al Adams’ Independent School article about the public purpose of private education. As holders of 501 (c)(3) tax exempt status, it seems that private, independent schools have a “higher calling” to demonstrate public purpose, else we risk being justifiably painted as schools for the children of rich parents. If called to account for your school’s public purpose, what would you say?

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