Not all stories are timeless. In fact, only a very few are, and yet there is a self-reinforcing practice at schools to keep repeating the stories of their founders and others. These last 18 months have shown the dangers of not paying attention to what narratives still hold water. The clearest evidence is that independent schools have found themselves at ground zero in the culture wars. The need to look for more context is urgent.
Part of the problem is, as we know, the role of Head of School has significantly evolved over the last 50 years into a visibly distant leader with a small, close constituency of Board Members and administrators. The result has often been a reactive approach to vision and problem-solving. That model is showing major cracks: Heads are asking for more Assistant or Associate Heads, and Boards are parting ways with Heads and looking for one- to two-year Interim Heads. The explosion in Interim Head appointments in the sector at large is alarming, no doubt, but at the same time, at a school level, it’s a major opportunity, for both the school and the next permanent Head. Why?
An Interim Head of School is free of ultimate accountability. And yet their known shelf-life affords them an unthreatening persona that can garner insights usually found only after long-term relationship building by a permanent Head. (That is not to say relationship building will not be a priority for Interim Heads — it absolutely has to be). These insights need to come from deeper contextualized data: not what’s in the student information system or even in DASL (Data & Analysis for School Leadership). They are often found in the social silences of the community and stakeholders, until an opportunity, often too late (the death of George Floyd), releases them to a new listening audience. The core timeless skill of our school Heads is not to raise money or build a budget or manage a Board or be the chief salesperson. It’s not even the ability to ask the right questions as an accreditation visitor might. It is an ability to see things, or to put it another way, form strong intuition based on listening; if only Heads had the time to practice it. This listening approach is the foundation of good strategy because it affords the opportunity to determine reality and capacity for any plan. Like anthropologists, they can see larger webs of meaning from the smallest practice, omission, datapoint, or participation.
As we entered the 21st century, virtually every sector except education had realized that their management and strategic models needed to move beyond neat-and-tidy 1970s authoritative narratives and professional associations of yonder year. The world was too complex and so were their customers’ experiences and needs. Simplistic analyses based on historic associations of product engagement using flat data, even under the guise of scientific methodology, had failed to provide a clear window into underlying needs and consents, and therefore solutions that would work. Instead, like interim heads of schools, these executives used the skill of effective listening to drive their corporate transitions. Here are some examples:
- The world of corporations and finance, influenced by the 1970 economist Milton Friedman, adopted the 20th-century mantra of “shareholder value”(focused on one stakeholder’s interests — the investor): this narrow focus was meant to be the north star of management decision-making and strategy. A few decades later, the world of finance and corporate management looked unrecognizable. Today, banks and investors focus on ecological sustainability for lending and investment, and/or on social movements around equality and opportunity as part of their brand promise. The focus is now on all stakeholders (including employee and customer sensitivities, not just those of the investors) as the foundation for sustainability.
- The world of technology realized that artificial intelligence and big data were not so intelligent after all, and needed much more lateral context: Facebook, Google, and other tech giants started hiring social scientists to make their products more human-centered and their engineers better developers. They needed answers to why they thought they were building community when they were actually enabling greater conflict and loneliness. One of the saddest management images of the last 20 years was of the founders of Google, the owners of the most data on the planet, dejectedly talking to their employees after President Trump was elected in 2016. They had missed the silent cultural motivations that led to the 2016 Trump election.
- The world of marketing realized that correlating consumer surveys did not provide a real picture of different consumer interactions with their products: famous faux pas have been made by brands that focused on the experience rather than the meaningful associations consumers make with products. My favorite is the infant formula company Gerber not realizing that their African customers associated photos on labels with what was in the container; the cute baby was not a great baby food ingredient!
- The world of healthcare realized that effective pandemic policy had as much to do with cultural sensitivities as what made scientific sense. The WHO discovered that Ebola policy was not working because local populations in West Africa were kissing the dead bodies of Ebola victims (and getting infected), because relatives saw the body as dead, but not the soul until after the burial. WHO burial teams were an essential part of the plan that succeeded.
- The world of political science came to understand that the silent cultural motivations that led to Brexit and the 2016 Trump election were more complex than one-dimensional polling. They reflected deep-seated cultural anxieties that polling never captured and often seemed at odds with rational self-interest.
There is a temptation to think that the stories that we tell ourselves increase in validity the more often we repeat them. Parents of teenagers new to independent schools quickly learn the flaw in this approach. The Black@Instagrams made many schools realize that established institutional narratives had made them poor listeners. What could be more ironic? Dennis Bisgaard, Interim Head of the Friends School of Baltimore, an OESIS Member School, explains:
As an Interim Head, your goal is to find out whether the school has good bones, and to unearth all that is good about the school, regardless of what the current issues or complications are. As you arrive, you listen and try to unpack the various narratives — and try to get to the authentic institutional voice. Most of the time, all answers and solutions reside right at school. However, sometimes school teams may rely on solutions that have worked in the past when new complex issues demand new approaches and problem-solving.Dennis Bisgaard
Strategy must recognize that schools have as much to learn from their communities (parents, faculty, staff, board members, and the wider local/regional community) as they do from their degree of influence on those communities. The corporate world and the political world have awoken to the jarring reality that unity and participation is not to be simplified and taken for granted. It’s time for non-profits and schools to interpret their narratives and stories in the same way. Schools are not immune to change and always need a fresh look from a new leader.
So, if you have an Interim Head of School this year you are lucky. You have a leader who has the time to listen. Open up and share.