The Responsive Leadership Series, Part 3: Building Capacity for School Transformation | Joshua Freedman | 11 Min Read

CSI: Capacity Before Strategy & Implementation

The previous two articles (Part 1 & Part 2) in this series have highlighted the deficiencies in the current governance models in failing to incorporate capacity, the key element in determining what is achievable for schools. The result has been a landscape of failed strategic plans and tactical approaches. ​​

Would you teach high school physics to kids who never learned algebra? Sure, great teachers could do it… but over and over you’d say, “we’ll have to go back and teach them this skill before we can move on…” In other words, there are building blocks missing; if the kids had the prerequisites, they’d have more capacity to learn physics (and even MORE if they’d done calculus).

Similarly, school leaders are attempting to implement strategic change without sufficient capacity-building. Sanje Ratnavale’s recent articles have challenged schools to re-envision governance because the old models are not working well. Before schools can reinvent themselves, they need to invest in building the underlying prerequisites for change.

Most Change Fails. Here’s why.

In the last two decades, I’ve worked with leaders in a wide range of organizations around the world… from FedEx to HSBC Bank to Qatar Airways to independent schools as well as colleges & universities around the world. I frequently ask: “If you want to be effective at change, what do you do?” They have great answers about building a plan, measuring success, developing systems… they know what to do! When I ask, “Are you able to make change happen?” The answer is, in short, “No.” The issue isn’t knowing what to do. The issue is having the capacity for how and the clarity on why.

For example, I worked for two years with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps on building capacity for change (here’s the case study). In one program, the officers were supposed to create an example of how they’d use the concepts we’d taught to implement change. One Marine Major’s plan was, basically, “yell at people.” When I criticized this, he literally said, “Son, I guess you don’t know how we do things around here.” I wish I’d had the fortitude to say, “No sir, and that’s why you’ve hired me to help you get better at change.” In other words, this officer was stuck in a system, in a culture, and didn’t have the readiness to look outside the box.

In writing Inside Change, I looked for statistics on organizational change. Around 70% of organizational change efforts don’t reach their goals, primarily due to a failure to bring people into the process. To get people READY to change. To give them the Why and the How.

To build capacity for change, here are three essential steps

1. Why Change: Getting aligned on direction

You know when you’re talking with colleagues and you can feel that “buzz” of working as a team? You’re on the same page. You’re in it together. Ideas flow based on a shared vocabulary, passion, and purpose. I’ve been on the board of three private schools, and I’ve never felt that “aligned buzz” with the board and Head. I’ve talked with dozens of school leaders on their board relations, and only one has ever told me they feel totally aligned with and supported by their board. 

Alignment doesn’t mean everybody agrees on all portions of the strategy. Rather, it means that those involved trust that leadership has a meaningful vision and reasonable path forward. Thus trust is an essential part of alignment, and measurement of that path forward helps build it. Note that some people will pretend agreement to avoid conflict, aka “go along to get along” — that is not alignment. This “quasi alignment” has historically tripped up school heads and boards who believed they had buy-in from stakeholders; this is where emotional intelligence is key: Leaders need to be able to see beneath the surface to assess the real level of commitment.

How about you? Irrespective of position, when you look at your school’s leadership, what’s the level of alignment? Do your stakeholders have a shared picture of where the school is, where it’s going, and are they all on the same “side” trying to get there?

I was coaching a Head of School around these topics, and it became clear that their stakeholders were not aligned. I asked, “If ‘you get what you measure,’ then have the measures changed to line up with the changing vision of the school?” Answer:  No.

Like many schools, they’re grappling with a foundational issue: What is success? Is it enough to have good enrollment numbers? To have a good financial outlook? Schools tend to use these kinds of measures, and over time, the measurement tool becomes the focus. The challenge is to step back and ask the bigger question: How are we adding value to our students, families, and the larger community?

As Ratnavale explained in the first article in this series, the typical “good-sounding mission” isn’t the answer. We need a North Star plus a measurable, actionable path toward that direction.

2. Ready for Change: Building trust for honest conversation

I was coaching a senior DEI leader in a major tech company who told me that senior leaders are committed to equity, but she still faces near-constant microaggressions. People from marginalized groups don’t feel safe. Managers don’t have the needed skills, and she’s pouring her tremendous DEI expertise into a leaking bucket. I asked, “What happens if you start by building readiness before you try to make the changes… what would “readiness” mean?” Her answer: “Trust.”

If school personnel and board members can’t have open, honest conversations, how likely are they to be able to transform their schools? If parents feel either alienated or entitled, how well are they going to support change efforts? If kids feel marginalized by ageism, how much energy will they put into change?

Google spent millions of dollars learning what any good Kindergarten teacher knows. Project Aristotle was designed to discover: What makes a high-performing Google team? Across hundreds of teams, they tested dozens of variables such as expertise, education, influence… and in the end, the largest factor was simple: psychological safety. One of the top drivers of feeling safe, they found, was when team members can share ideas and feel heard.

Psychological safety is a fancy way of talking about trust. We measure trust in schools, teams, and organizations, and the 2020 Vitality Study found that 62% of the variation in organization performance outcomes are predicted by trust scores… and that globally, trust scores are low. We also found three essential ingredients for trust:

  1. Transparency: share more truth 
  2. Coherence: walk the talk
  3. Care: foster genuine connections

These are actionable steps; you can read more about building trust in our library here.

3. Get Real: Basing a strategy on reality and measurable success

“Strategy” is a term that’s bandied about. I mentioned working with the U.S. Navy, and I found their writings on strategy highly applicable. The U.S. Naval War College describes “Three Levels of War” — here’s a simplified version:

  • Tactical: short term; how do we move forward today to achieve concrete steps toward the goals? “We need to keep the enemy ships from leaving this harbor, so half of us will stay here to draw the enemy fire while the other half maneuvers around the island to block them from behind.”
  • Operational: mid-term; to achieve the mission despite constraints… What are the pressing goals & objectives we need to reach — by whom, when & how? “We need to get forces into a place where they can block enemy ships from attacking.”
  • Strategic: long term; given current reality, what constitutes success (overall mission) and, based on this context, what are the most powerful ways to move toward that success? “The enemy is planning to send ships to invade our shores. We have more ships than they, but we have too much shoreline to defend effectively, so we need to dissuade them from trying to leave their ports.”

One of the often-overlooked aspects of the strategic level is the phrase, “given current reality” — which must include the capabilities of the people who will execute the strategy. I was facilitating a “strategic planning retreat” for faculty at a prestigious business school, and conducted an exercise where the MBA professors made a plan, then silently tried to execute — with abysmal failure. What fascinated me was the discussion after:

Me: “Did you have a good strategy?”
Professor: “Yes”

Me: “But it didn’t work…”

Professor: “The strategy was good. The problem was execution.”
Me: “But shouldn’t a good strategy be achievable by the people for whom it’s designed?”

Professor: “…”

This is one reason it’s a terrible idea for a board subcommittee, or worse, a consultant, to create a school’s strategic plan. They’re too far away from the reality of what’s achievable by the people who will have to execute the strategy. For example, I worked with a group of boarding schools where they’d outsource the planning for marketing, and the schools ended up with missions that made them indistinguishable — thereby making it impossible for parents to identify which was right for their families.

Often this “outsourcing” or “insourcing” is due to a lack of capacity. “We can’t easily have this conversation with a wide group, so we’ll let a small subcommittee make the plan.” Then, school leaders are left trying to ‘sell’ the plan to stakeholders who were excluded from the planning. One antidote is to ground your planning in reality. School leaders who want an effective strategy will start by getting meaningful, clear data about the current situation. 

There are multiple ways to collect this data; Six Seconds (the nonprofit where I’m CEO) publishes a validated, normed measure of school climate called Education Vital Signs. One important discovery in the statistical validation: From a psychometric perspective, trust is the central component. All the other aspects of school climate link, in some way, to trust, and trust (of all the factors we measured) is the strongest predictor of performance outcomes. Trust is something leaders either support or undermine through their relationships. As mentioned above, the keys are transparency, coherence, and care — and, just as we can measure this at an organizational level, we can measure individual leaders’ and teams’ capacity to develop trust.

For perspective, here are two, real, school climate results — while we could discuss all the factors, just focus on trust for a moment, and imagine trying to have a meaningful dialogue about strategy in School A vs School B:

School A: Education Vital Signs Summary

School B: Education Vital Signs Summary

From A to B: Putting It together

In short, strategy is choosing the path to get from Point A to Point B. To do so effectively, leaders will engage with simply powerful questions:

  • What’s “Point B”? Do we agree? How will we know if we’re getting there?
  • What’s “Point A”? What’s our current capacity and readiness?

These simple questions carry a lot of complexity, especially when we overlay the “Three Levels of War.” For example… if you’re setting out to build a SEL program, but you don’t have that clear alignment on “Point B” and the measures, a typical school plan would be:

Goal: Implement SEL

Operations (without clear strategy): Get more school counselors so 30% more students can get counseling.

Tactics (reactive): Hire additional counseling staff.

The typical measure of success would be that operational milestone of 30%. But… do we know if students feel less anxious, more trusting, more understood? You get what you measure… and this measure doesn’t actually address the problem. In many cases, schools focus on operational success criteria because it’s easy to justify and doesn’t require the hard work of building alignment. Another of the benefits of this refocus on measurable outcomes and capacity building is enabling the formulation of meaningful, data-informed incremental plans (which will be a topic of a future article in this series).

So the foundational questions are: Do we have the skills, vocabulary, and data we need to talk about where we are and where we’re going? What will it take to have these conversations? 

Lessons Learned

In this series, we examined the governance failures that arise when schools use the generic criteria advocated by leading independent school associations. As the first article explained, this approach doesn’t work because:

  • Missions are not clear enough
  • Most schools have insufficient measures and accountability for their goals
  • Schools, boards, parents are not aligned
  • Students are struggling

The second article was a deep dive into a specific initiative that did not meet the above criteria. While the strategy for this organization was well-intentioned, it was not realistic given the capacity of the specific organization (the MTC), the governance arm of independent schools, colleges and universities, and the schools themselves. Readiness for change and getting real were significant limitations.

Some school leaders may think that you are not up to the task; perhaps you think you need the leadership skills of Lincoln or FDR. Perhaps so, but think instead of Theresa, Gandhi, or Chavez. They led smaller communities at the start of their work and relied on trust to fuel a movement. They appealed to the needs of their constituents and gave them a reason to align themselves with a cause. Your cause is to make independent school learning a profoundly meaningful contribution to society and your student’s lives. That requires building the capacity to have the crucial dialogues so you can co-create a school where all feel belonging and safety while inspiring students to grow in mind, body, and spirit.

Joshua Freedman

Joshua Freedman, CEO, Six Seconds, is one of the pioneers in the field of emotional intelligence; he cofounded Six Seconds in 1997, is the bestselling author of At the Heart of Leadership and five other books and six validated psychometric assessments on EQ, and contributor to many EQ programs including Coaching Equity Essentials. He’s also an instructor at Columbia Teachers College SPA administrative credential program; he is cocreator of the world’s largest social emotional learning program, POP-UP Festival ­— in partnership with UNICEF World Children’s Day, bringing skills for emotional wellbeing to millions of children & adults in 200+ countries.

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