First Things First, Know Thy Company
New leaders may be champing at the bit to get some wins under their belt, but they should step carefully and resist making big changes too quickly in an unknown environment.
Culver Academies Head of Schools Jim Power remembers being told there are three questions every institution must ask itself: Who are we? What are we about? How do we do it? New leaders often put the third question first, Power said, spending a lot of time on tactics when purpose and identity should be the priority.
For the past five years, Power has worked for the National Association of Independent Schools, mentoring new school leaders during a weeklong summer institute. He said the profile for those who lost their jobs in their first couple of years were typically people who arrived at the school with preconceived notions about what the school needs to become. Not long after, the leader tried to “grab the institution by the neck and yank it in a certain direction.”
That approach isn’t uncommon in or outside of academia. A May McKinsey study revealed that new CEOs don’t hesitate to make bold strategic moves during their first two years. Reshuffling management, launching a new business or product, or a merger or acquisition were among the top actions new executives initiated no matter what the context. Of course, the outcomes for those moves trend toward the context they were made in, which is why Power suggests new leaders take time to thoughtfully explore the terrain before racing toward some quick wins to strengthen their credibility.
He retold the story of a New England priest who, upon arriving to his new assignment, made a priority of installing a brand new, expensive air conditioning system in the historic church that sat near the coast. But the AC was so noisy the priest was forced to have a sound system installed, too. As a result, the church was no longer cooled by the breeze off the water and everyone would sit in the back of the sanctuary in sweaters.
“He took what worked for him in the big city of Providence and grafted it on an oceanfront church,” he said. “It made sense on paper but didn’t make sense in reality, and people were less than thrilled when he realized we need a campaign to pay for the new air conditioning and sound system that we never really needed.”
That’s not say a company wouldn’t benefit from a new leader’s bold moves, but the manner in which they’re taken makes a world of difference. While Power likens schools more to large dysfunctional families than to corporations, his advice for new leaders looking to make an impact — and keep their jobs — can be applied across industries. He served as head of schools for Upper College Canada for 12 years and headmaster of Georgetown Preparatory School for 11 years. But in both cases, it wasn’t until the fifth or sixth year that he deeply understood the institutions. Consider the students, their parents, the employees and the employees’ families, all of them interacting on the same piece of land. “There’s a lot going on, and they have different definitions of success,” Power said.
He said new leaders should spend that first year listening, observing and being more of an anthropologist. Every place has its own special charms. Power said he’s done a number of accreditation visits at different schools, and while typically one might scratch their head at the puzzling pairing of peanut butter and pickles in the lunch hall, by the third day, the visitor realizes their importance and may want to adopt the staple as well. “It just takes a while to appreciate the goodness of a place,” he explained.
Get out of the office and discover. In Power’s case that meant spending time in classrooms, the dining hall, going to student athletic games, concerts and plays — informal spaces that offer vivid insight about the school. And it means getting to know the school and its culture through conversations and observation. Power said he was fortunate to have some overlap with his predecessor who’d been head of the school for 17 years. It allowed him the chance to hear his thoughts on some things and observe how the man went out of his way to meet with board members, teachers and staff members.
Power also said it’s important to observe who’s standing on the edges of things, whether that’s students or employees, and leave talk of yesteryear at the old company behind.
“Nobody wants to hear about your last school,” Power said. “You could have been Ernest Hemingway’s English teacher or Tom Brady’s quarterback coach — focus on the right here, right now.”
Nurture the r-factor central to leadership: relationships. Power recalled having a conversation with a student leader. The teenager discussed her difficulty trying to enforce the dress code; she’d been ignored. “It almost seemed like she wanted me to give her an electric prod so that she could shape behavior by rewarding or punishing.” The exchange reminded Power that leadership isn’t about those types of measures but about developing a sense of trust so that people buy into a collective vision.
Anyone can use power to get what they want, he said, but “how do you influence people, their thinking, their behavior in a way for the greater good? It all boils down to relationships.”
Power said he works to establish trust by being his genuine best self as often as possible and not offering judgments but asking questions. He also prioritizes spending as much time as he can with colleagues and with students, doing as much paperwork as he can at night. Just like anywhere, there is a business dimension that must be taken care of, but he said new leaders can’t let it consume them and cloud their line of sight.
Make time to reflect. Power does so daily. Schools and businesses can be frantic places, marking periods, quarterly reports — the next milestone always top of mind. But it’s important to find time to step back and observe the big picture. “Think about what went well, what didn’t go well and what did we learn today,” Power said.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.