About a week after I began my first year as a high school principal, I received an invitation to join a network of principals who met once a month at Stanford University to discuss leadership and delve into problems of practice we were facing at our schools. Frankly, I was hesitant to join. It was my first year as a principal and even with just a few days on the job, I could tell that being off campus could be a major leadership liability. Everything I had heard from colleagues and other principals indicated that year one was not ideal for embarking on a major professional learning initiative. Don’t go back to grad school. Don’t make big life commitments. Just spend as much time at school as possible – build relationships, be visible, familiarize yourself with the system, and try not to make any big hairy mistakes.
I joined anyway.
One of the big ideas that we wrestled with as a cohort of principals was the balance between doing the work and strategically planning the work. There is a natural forward propulsion in school buildings – constantly pushing you ahead to address the latest crisis or incident. It’s hard to escape the constant ringing of bells. Sometimes you just can’t think – you are constantly reacting and hoping your leadership intuition and training serves you well. The metaphorical need to “put out fires” sometimes, at least in my experience, included actually putting out fires.
Which is all to say – you need time to think, and plan, and strategize. You probably can’t do it on site. There are simply too many distractions.
I get it. It’s a hard balance and being off campus always feels uncomfortable, but there is intellectual and conceptual work that needs to be done that in many ways only you can do. I would make similar arguments for teachers who need to attend to the instructional architecture of their classrooms.
Lots of organizations pay big bucks to hire professional consultants to facilitate this type of strategic thinking. For the most part, we don’t have the resources for that type of support. And frankly, I think building your strategic muscles internally is a key leadership practice. So here are a few practical ideas to help you attend to your unique role as a strategic leader.
Go on a retreat
A retreat sounds relaxing, but in reality there isn’t a lot more cognitively demanding work than mapping out a strategic plan. It’s not the type of work you can hammer out in a series of one hour meetings. You need extended time to entertain different possibilities, lay out priorities, and design systems for communication and ongoing progress monitoring. You need different types of interactions – sometimes the more informal conversations that happen during lunch or over dinner are where the pieces really start to come together. You need moments to deeply engage an idea, and more open-ended time to allow an idea to percolate.
And a retreat has a dual benefit. Not only do you have the possibility of developing a strong strategic plan, but you are helping to build the sense of trust and purpose that will serve your team well in those moments when the work inevitably gets difficult.
Phone a friend
You need thought partners outside your organization. People who you can trust. People who aren’t afraid to disagree with you. People who will tell you the truth about your contributions to the mess.
When you’re inside your own organization, you always wear your authority on your sleeve. You may work hard to minimize your positional authority, and your staff may genuinely recognize your efforts not to lead solely from a place of power. But you are the boss – and that impacts the feedback and input of the people around you. You need to be self-critical, and an outside friend can help you gain that perspective.
My wife is an incredible thought partner. She is the first to point out that in my work stories, I always paint myself as the protagonist. We typically tell stories where we are the super-hero or the victim. She helps me think through challenges and opportunities without paying any attention to my positional authority. Yes, sometimes it takes time to share enough context for a thought partner to understand the organizational boundaries and limitations, but having access to fresh perspectives is a critical leadership commodity.
Keep Coming Back to It
In schools, summertime is usually the default time for strategic planning. The lack of students in the building creates a very real sense of space and possibilities. It’s a little easier to laugh and the time of the year lends itself to reflection and planning.
The summer, unfortunately, isn’t enough.
We don’t learn best in isolated moments. It is when we engage in an ongoing cycle of learning, planning, experimenting and doing, and then reflecting on our efforts, that we really start to get traction. The same can be said for your strategic planning as a leader. You have to keep coming back to it. You need to reflect on your implementation and direction as it unfolds.
One of the best organizational structures I experienced as a principal was our quarterly Key Performance Indicator (KPI) meetings. Of course, a data-centric meeting with your boss can easily default into an evaluation meeting, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In my case, we would gather data on our strategic initiatives and then engage in data dive and consultancy protocols designed to elicit diagnostic thinking from everyone in the room. Our time together deepened our understanding of the organizational factors at play while strengthening our capacity to move the organization as a team towards realizing our strategic goals.
Regardless of the strategies you use to make it happen, don’t allow the “dailyness” of education leadership to pull you off your top priorities. My one-day-a-month sessions at Stanford were the birthplace of many of my most important strategic ideas and intentions. It’s never convenient to take the time out for deep strategic thinking – but the momentum and improvement of the organization you lead certainly rely on you being an effective strategic thinker. Give it the time it needs.