At the Risk of Doing Nothing

Green-Light-732415Leaders representing fifteen member schools connected via our Green Light for Growth conference call last week to discuss a mindset and plan for growth. In addition to key ideas that have been discussed in earlier blogs [ie. growth should always be initiated from a position of strength and stability and only pursued if it is in the best interest of your mission and accomplishing what your school set out to accomplish; surround yourself with a high-performing board and a core team with a similar vision for growth; and effectively and regularly communicate your growth to internal and external stakeholders], the school leaders offered the following points to green light growth:

Board Growth Precedes School Growth: Though mentioned already above and in previous blogs, it bears repeating: A strong board leads growth. Board members who are stuck, uninspired, fatigued, uncommitted and/or overcommitted distract from growth. Rather, board members who approach growth with a vigorous spirit, who represent a diverse range of skills and assets and who are able to connect with various circles of influence fuel growth. Most importantly, a board is able to oversee smart and strategic growth that will not sacrifice the school’s strength and stability. This may require new board members and/or more board members.

Scan the Environment: Your board and leadership team should be well informed of the surrounding environment. This includes knowing the educational landscape [Where are the gaps in a seamless PreK- 12 system in the community? Are new schools opening? Are schools slated to be closed?] and what is on the horizon for the community [Are there changes in health care, economic policy, political elections, diocese or sponsoring congregation, etc. that will impact your community in the next one to five years?].

Growth By Committee: Your committee structure is your work horse during the growth process. To start, school leaders form committees such as Education, Finance, Facilities, and Advancement, each with a specific charter and set of tasks for each. The committees surface the topics, ideas, risks, that are then put before the full board for analysis and decision. This work becomes the framework for your strategic plan. As the plan is being implemented, your committees are actively engaged and supporting the head of the school and leadership team. The head of school may lean heavily on the Executive Committee during this time to discuss both immediate and long-term decisions.

Put it all on the Table: No idea is dismissed outright, and every idea is vetted and given consideration through proper research and exploration by the appropriate committees. For example, someone may raise the question, “Is it possible to convert to a charter school? If so, is that a viable option for us?” The response to this and other such questions should be supported by appropriate examination of policy, law, finances, and the perspectives of stakeholders.

Take Your Strategic Plan Off the Shelf: Your strategic plan does not work as a shelf document! It is your compass for at least three years and likely for an even longer period of time. Your board is revisiting the strategic plan on a regular basis, quarterly or monthly, and checking to see that the priorities in the plan align with the on-going work of the board and leadership team.

Right-Size Expenses Prior to Growth: What may have worked in terms of resources and personnel prior to growth may not work after growth. Given typically small staffs and leadership teams, are certain persons “wearing so many hats” that adding more students or more faculty will stretch them too thin with particular responsibilities? This may apply, for example, to the individual responsible for human resources or the teacher that is also serving as counselor or dean of students. Are there partnerships in place with external organizations that work well with 75 students that are not going to work with 100 students? Is your technology infrastructure ready for an increase in users? Normalizing positions and resources over a period of time prior to growth is a proactive approach rather than reactive.

Sometimes an Early No is Best: One school mentioned that an early request to kickstart growth with a significant gift from their sponsoring congregation was not granted. Looking back, the decision was positive as it compelled the school to think more strategically and completely about what smart growth would entail including a plan to mobilize a full slate of supporters.

Eggs in the Growth Basket: Similarly, the same school conveyed a conversation with a funder when they first started thinking about growth. The funder said, “If you double in number, we will double our annual gift to you.” While opportunities like that are tempting, smart and strategic growth requires the convergence of opportunities on several fronts. If a decision to double in size had been made based on that single assurance and that funder was unable to deliver on an annual basis, it could have been detrimental to the organization.

The Patience Paradox: Both points above demonstrate that a school needs to be patient with growth, not rushing into a plan that is either not bold enough or too ambitious. Smart growth will take time to get it right with full consideration of available opportunities and resources and what makes sense in terms of grade configuration, number of students, use of facilities, personnel. The paradox though is that being too patient can be crippling. Too much envisioning, discussion and planning can impede growth as a board and school leader gets stuck in the not-quite-yet mindset.

Know the risks: Anticipate all likely scenarios and be ready for that which you did not anticipate. A contributing factor to one school’s growth was a star Principal who had tightened school culture, built a teaching team, and solidified the academic program. Now, with growth underway, the Principal announced that she was moving on. While her decision did not red light growth, it did change the game plan as growth with a new principal will be executed differently.

Flip the Question of Risk: Instead of thinking only about the risks associated with growth, consider also: What are the risks if we didn’t do this? The answer to this question can be framed in both mission and organization. Without hyperbole, our mission represents future opportunity for the students and families who enroll in our school. If we didn’t grow, if we didn’t excel in our mission, if we didn’t educate at full capacity, or if we didn’t think about educating more students or doing more for our students, we are risking the futures of students, families, and communities. Furthermore, as an organization that is dependent on the support of many stakeholders, growth drives momentum, energy and support in a school, though it should always be pursued in the best interest of students.

Be Cognizant of the Necessary Shift: At some point your growth plan transitions from a big-picture, futuristic, visionary mode to a details-focused, immediate, practical mode. These modes are not separate from one another, rather it is important for a school leader to gauge when priority should shift to the practical questions of implementation: “Can we really fit 100 kids in the cafeteria at lunch time rather than 75 students? Do we need to add another lunch period? What does that mean for staffing and scheduling?” This is just one example of how growth will impact the systems, procedures, policies, staffing, resources. The latter mode is more dependent on the leadership team, faculty and staff rather than the board, who is responsible for the earlier mode. This is why communication about the growth that is occurring is so important; when transition to be certain that the full team is ready to step up when this transition.

Moments of Growth Feel like Survival: Earlier blogs described how growth occurs from a position of stability and strength. Yet, there are times during growth which may feel more like survival and crisis. This is the fear that often accompanies growth especially with board members, leaders, faculty or staff who may remember more chaotic times of the school’s history and would prefer not to return. This is when visionary school leaders shine, affirming that fear, refusing to let it paralyze growth, clearly setting a timeline with clear steps and goals, and moving beyond it with conviction and confidence in what lies ahead.

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