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Simultaneous Strategic Planning and Branding with Sterne School

Posted by on January 24th, 2020
Posted in Blog, Independent Schools, Strategic Planning   

If your organization is considering undertaking both strategic planning and branding work, you might consider tackling both simultaneously. Doing this streamlines a multi-year process down into a more manageable length, demands less time and energy from stakeholders, and empowers you with the tools you need, when you need them.

Sterne School in San Francisco recently applied this unified approach, completing a process led by Mission Minded Director of Education Strategy Romayne Levee. In addition to being transformative for Sterne, the innovative process also made the most of precious staff time and financial resources. 

I recently asked Romayne to share some highlights of this work.


Sterne School knows there simply is not a one-size-fits-all educational approach in a world where everyone’s learning profile is unique. Every day, they teach students how to unlock the learning style that works best for them. They believe that when support is a part of, not an exception to the school day, kids can focus on being kids while also becoming confident, capable learners.


What was Sterne School looking to accomplish?

Sterne had just moved into a fantastic new space and wanted to strategically plan their future. They wanted to get the most from their location and to open possibilities for students and the school. There was a lot of optimism and enthusiasm, but, at the same time, they recognized that their school was misunderstood. 

Sterne is a school that offers truly transformative experiences for students and families, but that benefit wasn’t being successfully communicated to families. 

They put out two requests for proposals: one for strategic planning and one for branding, assuming they would need to hire two different teams of consultants. Then they learned about Mission Minded’s unique approach. We’ve developed a uniquely streamlined process that achieves both objectives in tandem. We guide schools in developing a strategic plan and a brand strategy, plus we produce key messages that help advance both objectives.

These aren’t two major projects competing for everyone’s time and attention; it’s one efficiently interwoven effort.


How did this unified process benefit Sterne School?

Strategic planning and branding are different but related processes. Strategic planning is about envisioning where you’re going and how you’ll get there; branding is about developing the reputation you need to achieve your goals. Ideally, each informs and supports the other. But if you develop a strategic plan first, then it can’t be informed by brand, and vice-versa. You end up tripping over yourself and, in some cases, having to redo work so that everything jibes. 

If—like Sterne School, however—you work on both simultaneously, then you end up with two elements that elevate each other. The outcome is so much richer. It’s a very smart way to approach strategy. It’s sound, logical and focused on what matters most to your success.

And because a unified process is both inclusive and efficient, you also conserve resources in three distinct ways: the whole process is quicker; there are fewer demands on staff and community time; and that results in significant savings.


How did you help Sterne craft the right approach?

When a nonprofit or school undertakes a strategic planning process and doesn’t honestly assess where they fit into the market, the finished plan—especially the vision statement—can end up being lofty or irrelevant. 

And while audacious goals are great, if they aren’t conceived with a realistic consideration of the current picture in mind, they ring false. Think: “children are our future…,” or “changing the world one child at a time…,” etc.

Similarly, a brand strategy that’s developed without regard for a school’s strategic vision can quickly become outdated, or worse, work against the school’s long term vision.

So, we knew that examining the current market situation and the Sterne School’s brand and admissions conundrum had to be addressed together to inform their vision. We set up a process that included examining their strategic plan in the context of their brand, their reputation, the market dynamics, the competition, and their target audiences. 


What other guidance did you provide?

We advised them to include the right people at the right time. For those of you who’ve been involved in a branding or strategic planning process that didn’t do this, you know how disastrous that can turn out. Even so, many well-meaning project managers fail to think early on about who the right players are and how to engage them. 

We worked closely with Sterne to install the right steering committee members, then helped everyone on the staff and board understand their role. This paid huge dividends when it came time to make decisions.

And, this might seem unimportant, but it isn’t: we helped them calendar and plan for each meeting, for the duration of the project, so no one got caught off guard or left out or lacked the time or energy to stay involved at a critical point. 

At most organizations, no one has branding or strategic planning listed as part of their duties, so allowing everyone to see added demands coming is key. Effective project management is no small part of a successful effort, whether we’re leading a branding initiative, strategic plan, or both. 


How did the project turn out?

Their new vision: Every person has a learning profile is game-changing for Sterne. It strongly influenced their branding and it will have a huge impact on their marketing, admissions, and enrollment efforts. But more than that—because a vision statement is meant to describe the world after you’ve finished changing it—this vision statement is meaningful for learners far and wide.  

Their new brand promise, start strong, gives them the focus to stand out in the competitive San Francisco independent school market. Now, that’s not a tagline or even an external message; it’s a focal point to help them ensure that they remember, every day, where they want to aim their energy and why. 

And Sterne School also produced a powerful mission statement: Build on the foundation of individual strengths to discover and nurture each student’s version of greatness.

Each of these elements impacts the other. The school can effectively position itself in a more compelling way because we articulated a vision and mission that advances the institution and is focused on students, not operations. It all works as a family, each piece supporting each other to create a stronger whole. 

We helped them create a big picture vision, to narrow in on the right mission and brand positioning for the school, then to operationalize both the mission and the brand strategy in tangible, effective ways—such as increased enrollment. 


What was most surprising?

I was taken by how bold their thinking is. They weren’t only looking to benefit students at Sterne; They want to benefit every human who learns. They want what they do inside their walls to meaningfully impact everyone outside as well.

I was also impressed by how well everyone understood their role throughout the process. The board understood its role as being charged with setting the vision and strategic priorities of the school, and didn’t step on the toes of the administration, which was charged with developing brand strategy and operational goals. Both the board and the staff were respectful of each other’s roles. 

That doesn’t happen everywhere and it was a real boon to this project.


What are you most excited about for Sterne School?

They have a new head of school who’s taking the helm in the 2020-21 school year. She gets to begin her tenure with a clearly articulated vision, and an edict from the board about what her priorities should be. She’s got a robust brand strategy that will enable her to reach the school’s strategic and enrollment goals, too.

And she was part of creating all of this, since she was already part of the Sterne School staff! She’s going to hit it out of the park, with the potential to positively impact thousands and thousands of students.


What can others learn from Sterne School’s experience?

Beyond the benefit of tackling both brand and strategic planning simultaneously, I hope people see how important it is to help your board understand their role and choose a good steering committee—and then trust that committee.  

Even when the Sterne board had hesitations about the recommendations of the steering committee, they respected the work, time, and context. Their board contributed appropriately. So I suggest that anyone reading this works to ensure that their board understands the bounds of its role, which will set any project up for success. 

Sterne School also discovered how crucial it is to balance community engagement correctly. There is no one-size-fits-all plan; you need to engage stakeholders enough so that they’re genuinely heard, but not so much that they feel overwhelmed and begin to reset the process.


What’s your favorite memory from the project?

There was a moment when the steering committee presented the results of the strategic brand work we’d done. One of the school’s core values spoke to honoring the educator—but because Sterne teachers are so humble, they didn’t want to be seen as asking to be honored! 

Even so, honoring the educator really is a major differentiator for them, above and beyond what happens at other schools. The magic that students at Sterne experience is, in a large part, due to the precision and expertise of each teacher. It’s one of their core values, whether we call it out or not.

Still, it was hotly contested. We watched them wrestle with the idea and, then, finally come to love it so much they put it on t-shirts! It was so inspiring to watch them lean in to a value they hold dear but hadn’t found a way to articulate comfortably. 


Anything else you want to add?

That’s my favorite memory, but it’s hard to pick the process apart into moments. Everything builds, and that momentum is powerful. 

Having worked on many branding projects for schools and led others through strategic planning, I’m not sure why we don’t always do it this way. If you need to work on both, running a unified process makes so much more sense.

Thanks Romayne!



Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.

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