Call it chance, if you will: I encountered two well-written stories this week, both of which treat the theme of a communications strategy vis-a-vis social media.
The first appeared in the May/June edition of The Trustee's Letter. Rhonda Durham, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of the Southwest (ISAS), writes in "It's Gone Viral" about the notion of "scandal" in a school community, and the associated spread of that scandal through the various channels of a school's constituencies. She refers to gossip and rumor as "electronic missiles," which can "emerge in blogs, community chat rooms, even national media and courtrooms. Thus, perhaps now more than ever, an embarrassing event may spark an urge to manage the content and circulation of the story."
What is not treated overtly, however, is the role of social media as part of what truly makes the issue "viral." In fact, I would submit that the scandal is far more likely to be spread by means of Twitter and Facebook (and other social media in that same vein) than by blogs, email, or community chat rooms. Twitter and Facebook are akin to accelerants placed on an already-burning fire. There ought to be an entirely separate article on the true viral nature of message-spreading. Please understand that Durham's focus is NOT on what kind of media are used to spread the message, but rather on what the school's true role is in dealing with scandal. It is a very insightful piece, and you ought to read it sooner rather than later. I commend it to you.
Enter Andrew Hill, whose weekly column "On management" in the Financial Times (May 15, 2012) touches on this very theme. The opening sentence reads, "Last Thursday I was, briefly, head of communications for a large Canadian widget maker, coping with a wave of Twitter-borne rumours about the arrest of its chief executive." Happily, though, it was a simulation. What a great idea -- a virtual exercise that the PR firm put the company through in order to give it some hands-on experience in handling this kind of crisis. (Schools would benefit from such a thing...) He then highlights the irony that, while this simulation was occurring, a real event was happening between two beverage companies. It was "amplified through Twitter, Facebook, and other online media."
To make a long story short, Hill draws attention to the nature of the "media relations crisis," showing (rather convincingly) that the tactics and the stand-off itself turned out to be rather traditional, meaning that the social media participation didn't change the actual nature of the crisis. I like his point, and there is instruction in there for schools.
What is remarkable about the beverage stand-off, from my point of view, is that a young upstart beverage company was able to disrupt (rather seriously) a well-ensconced, elder company with a global presence. What's more, that global company has a strong social media presence and savvy, on which they pride themselves quite openly. However, that strong presence was unable to handle the upstart's attempt to start a mini-campaign via social media within the space of mere days.
Social media = speed and agility, when it comes to potential communications issues for a school. There is much that is positive for schools, when it comes to social media, but the potential negatives should be planned for. And so, I return to Hill's tale of the PR simulation.
We ought to be simulating those kinds of events, then share the results of those simulations with fellow schools, so that we all acquire those needed skills.
So I ask: what is your school's social media communications strategy?
As I continue to engage in (and follow fervently) conversations regarding innovation in independent schools, I feel compelled to shine some light on something of tremendous importance, something about which schools haven't thought deeply enough, in my opinion.
That something is a formula: existing school culture + innovation = ?
Culture is a big deal in schools. We might be talking a lot about innovation right now, but a question schools should be asking is this: "Is our culture ready for innovation?" There are consequences to innovation within your school's culture. Why? Schools have always thrived on rules, predictability, and systems (hierarchies would qualify as a 'system', for example). This triumvirate of "how we do school" makes it difficult to deal with change, generally speaking, let alone the kinds of change that go hand-in-hand with innovation.
Schools should not tread lightly into the territory of "innovation." This is not how we "do school" or "do business," if you like. As Luke Johnson wrote in his Financial Times column, "The Entrepreneur" the other day (May 9, 2012), "The essence [...] is a willingness to do what it takes to get things moving. That means foregoing the joys of clarity for the messy truth that comprises any new venture -- imperfect products, clients who don't pay, the wrong staff, insufficient capital and so on. Such projects prosper thanks to many incremental wins and plenty of errors, rather than a few clean victories."
Schools would do well to heed his cautionary note. Foregoing the joys of clarity? Good luck. Plenty of errors? Not something with which we've been comfortable We need to think about how to realign school culture in order to allow for messiness, to embrace it. Engineering culture is not easily accomplished. I commend to you Gideon Kunda's work in this regard.
Many entrepreneurs, as Johnson highlights, "hate to give a definite 'yes' or 'no' to difficult questions. They prefer to say 'perhaps', and delay to see if more information emerges or their bargaining position improves. Most of us are impatient to know the detailed price and exact terms of a transaction; but actually tolerating vagueness for a while can be the more profitable path in the long term."
Furthermore, "This approach does not reflect a lack of decisiveness. Rather, it demonstrates realism about the future: our ability to predict is weaker than most of us would like to admit."
Are we, as schools, prepared to "muddle through" in such circumstances? Are we prepared to realign cultures? Are we prepared for the time and effort it will take in order to make that happen?
We should be purposeful and intentional about innovation, not simply talking about it because "it's cool" or "the in-thing" to discuss.
In the end, it's all about culture.
Luke Johnson has a fun piece in today's Financial Times -- "Muddling through is a strategy that works." As he points out, "our instinct is to look for the black and white solution to a problem. But that approach applies rather better in theory than in practice."
Johnson is a serial entrepreneur, and, given how much we're now talking about entrepreneurship (as a concept) in independent education, there is much to glean from his insights.
For instance, he writes that "one needs to be adaptable and opportunistic to make progress. Unfortunately, [...] schools [and other entities, consultancies, etc.] can't offer guides to 'muddling through' - so it is rarely promoted as a wise philosophy [...]."
Isn't that the very issue with which we are grappling right now in schools, as we transition from an industrial economy/culture to a creative economy/culture? We are struggling with how to transition our curricula and programs from discipline-specific approaches with a "this is how we do it, always" mentality into approaches that promote adaptability and resilience? As Johnson says, "entrepreneurs tend to be experts at muddling through. They can cope with significant uncertainties in their work, while retaining a sense of confidence and a feel for priorities."
He cites able founders of start-ups who have learned what he calls "the art of the pivot," meaning that they've been able to change their business model(s) completely because their initial concept didn't succeed. Resilience, n'est-ce pas? Or, to use another word, muddling.
Instead of the 'strategy' of muddling through, we ought to consider it the art of muddling through. An aspirational goal, perhaps?
I happen to be an amateur de vins (literally: one who loves wines). I often see relationships between wine and people, meaning that wine is like people.
Imagine my delight when, in the weekend edition of the Financial Times, I read an article called "Secrets of the Soil," in which the author delves into the importance of soil to winemaking. He spent some time with a couple, Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, who perform biological analysis of soils in winemaking regions.
Lydia states that "we [the winemaking industry] are in the middle of homogenizing everything, and that's not what wine is about." Claude adds, "I want to understand the fields and the vineyards, not impose my law on them. We are dealing with something incredibly complex. [...] When you work with a soil, you become its co-creator."
Substitute "education" and "students" (or "families") for "fields" and "vineyards," and it sounds like the independent school perspective on education!
Heads Speak for Themselves: May 2012
It's May, which means that despite the underlying awareness of all the end-of-year events and unresolved matters, one eye is glancing hopefully at the calendar in search of an opportunity to schedule the season's first round of golf. Meanwhile, the other eye notices with somewhat less enthusiasm the e-mail that has just come across the screen from our Board Chair, reminding me that we need to arrange time for my yearly performance review. I should say at the outset that I embrace the concept of the review. Years ago, in encouraging me to undergo with the proper spirit my first performance review as a rookie head of school, the Chair reminded me sagely that "even though we might be in good health, it's wise to get a physical every year." Yet I am guessing that your experiences with evaluations of your own performance as school heads, like mine, have been as varied as I fear the results of my swings will be whenever that first round of golf comes to pass. In some years, there were no performance assessments done; in one way that was a relief, but also not conducive to professional growth. At other times a process was followed, but there was lack of clarity regarding the criteria on which the assessment was based. A third variety of review entailed exhaustive gathering of evidence, several times during the year, to demonstrate the scope and value of the work I had been doing as head. This approach generated a lot of information for analysis; the difficulty lay in the amount of time involved in chronicling the work on top of actually engaging in it.
Two years into my current tenure, I was asked by the Board leaders to compile a semi-annual portfolio as a key element of my self-assessment. I recoiled at this directive initially, concerned once more about the time it would require and bothered by how tedious and redundant it might turn out to be--given the reports I was already doing prior to each Board meeting. Three years later, rather than being simply a compilation of meetings held, constituents contacted and plans developed, the portfolio has evolved into a “Journal of Leadership Practices.” It is the fruit of any progress I have made in becoming more self-reflective, and of our Board's great care in defining the leadership practices that are required to serve the school's best interests. These include: strategic thinking, pre-planning, maintaining thoughtful oversight of objectives the head and his/her team are pursuing, managing and shepherding the Board to advance the school's mission and vision, demonstrating initiative and focus, serving as the “voice” of the institution and its highest aspirations, and being an agent of positive, necessary changes. Thus, each January as well as June, I consider any relevant examples and enter them into the Journal. The list of entries is not so much a “snapshot” of discrete individual activities, but rather a “video” of a related series of actions which may (and I hope that is the case) or may not underscore a pattern of leadership behavior.
Considering the Journal entries in toto is similar to analyzing clips of great golf swings, something I have been doing with unwarranted optimism during the off-season. Unexpectedly, I've discovered a few interesting parallels between the elements of strong school leadership and what makes for a successful golf shot. We begin with club selection, the choice of the proper resources-- and personnel for the school head-- to make possible all that follows. The approach to the ball, proper stance included, are akin to the leader deciding to take initiative and to act. He or she must exercise foresight, carefully considering the intended goal, just as golfers visualize where they want the ball to wind up, and how to get it there. Proper grip is essential for a great shot, just as the school head needs to have a handle on issues both large and small. The swing is of course the key component, like the action the leader takes or the decisions the leader makes. The swing must occur in the right plane, with the club pointed at the target--and for the school head, actions must be aligned with the school's mission. The head and eyes of the golfer serve as anchors for the swing while the legs and arms turn; they are apt metaphors for the focus and steadiness that the school head must provide. And finally, there is the importance of follow through, whether we are referring to the golf swing, or to our leadership roles.
All of these elements and others must be in the mix in order to put together a beautiful swing or successful leadership. Watching the video reveals to the golfer why his or her shot was so good--because the golfer can pause the action, see the component parts of the shot, and then admire how well they flowed together. The process inspires the golfer to maintain and perfect those components to the point where they become habitual, routine, embedded in muscle memory. In the same way, by considering the inventory of leadership practices through the portfolio process, I have become more aware these past several years of the components or “stuff of school leadership,” to the point of noticing when I am engaged in those practices, and seeking to replicate them in a variety of circumstances. That is the ultimate value the “Journal of Leadership Practices” portfolio has had for this head of school.
Good luck with your own review process, and best wishes for a successful home stretch!
Richard J. O'Hara is President of John Carroll School (grades 9 to 12, Bel Air, Maryland). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.