Congratulations! You took the helm at your new school this summer and you’ve rung the opening bell. This school year will be like none your school—or any school—has ever experienced, which is why the importance of designing an intentional entry process and committing to a comprehensive listening tour is paramount.
You’ve probably already mastered the art of managing by Zoom, and visiting from a distance, but the questions you ask this year will make or break your ability to understand your new city, your new school, its culture, its brand, and opportunities for you to leave your mark.
Based on our two-decades of experience diving deeply into a school’s history and culture to help uncover the right strategies to move it forward, here are three points of focus your listening tour should include in 2020/21.
You were hired by a Board of Trustees that has two jobs. Hiring you and setting a long-term vision for the school. Sure, there may be a strategic plan document on your desk, but is it truly actionable and devised to move your school dramatically forward?
Your current strategic plan will typically include a mission statement and your school’s core values, but it may not include a vision statement. If it does, chances are it points to a vision for what the school will look like in the future, rather than what your stakeholders want the world to look like. In our strategic planning engagements, we coach schools to adopt vision statements that describe the world after you’ve finished changing it, not before. That’s an exciting game-changer that inspires the parents and donors of today and tomorrow, unites the faculty and staff, and serves students immediately and ever after.
During your listening tour, considering prompting community members to finish sentences like these: “we would move mountains in order to _____________” and “our school exists so that ________.” Your stakeholders may not all be on the same page about your school’s reason for being (that’s a finding, and a valuable one), but the answers you hear will be instructive for you as you to lay the groundwork for your headship.
We heard recently from the community of one school we coached that they would move heaven and earth to “unlock the human potential in future women leaders” and that their school exists to “develop women who lead the world.” Isn’t that more inspiring than “become the premier school for girls?”
If your school does not have a strategic plan in place, kicking off an initiative in the fall of your second year will serve to deepen your understanding of the opportunities your school can seize under your leadership.
Your school’s brand is not the name, logo, or tagline. It’s not your mission statement or viewbook, either. At Mission Minded we teach that brand is just another word for reputation. Which means your school already has a brand because of the reputation it has created through past efforts, whether those were intentional or not.
Your school’s reputation is built as much by the informal chats between parents in line at the grocery store as by your current website. Each interaction someone has with your brand—deliberate or not—contributes to their overall impression of your school and affects its reputation, and ultimately who applies, enrolls, donates, and chooses to work there.
To get to the bottom of understanding your school’s brand (reputation) consider including questions like these during your listening tour with community members:
Your stakeholders may also not all be on the same page about your school’s reputation (another important finding), but the answers you hear will inform you about the strengths and weaknesses of your school’s brand, and give you the insights you need to determine whether or not the brand you have is the brand you need to achieve your goals.
You’re new to your school so you likely don’t have its “elevator pitch” committed to memory, but think back on the search process—did the Trustees, staff, faculty, parents, and students use the same words to describe the school? Where they a well-practiced chorus trying to woo you to join them, or were they a bunch of soloists with different song sheets? And more importantly, when they described the school, did they do so by listing the programs and features, or did they start the conversation with a more compelling idea—one that caught your interest intellectually?
If some of your search process was a blur, fear not, you can do it all over again—with greater intention—during your listening tour. By simply integrating the question below into your conversations with community members, you’ll know if and when you need to prioritize brand and messages during your headship.
The question is: “describe our school to me like I’m new to the area(!) and I know nothing about it. Oh, and do it in three sentences or less.”
Our team at Mission Minded wishes you luck in your new role and invites you to reach out if we can help you get to know your new school, strengthen your strategic plan, brand, admissions campaign, or messages.
Director of Education Strategy Romayne Levee leads our education practice, working with independent schools and educational organizations to raise their profiles with strategies that benefit school leaders and their communities immeasurably. She has developed dynamic strategic plans and brand strategies for Mission Minded clients from coast to coast, including San Francisco Day School, Friends School of Baltimore, and Marlborough School (LA). Romayne is the founding Board Chair of Vistamar School, an independent high school in LA, and currently serves on the Board of Lewis & Clark College.
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