Because our work at iSchool TT bridges the world of education and the world of business, it is easy for us to see similarities and differences. We've noticed that sometimes school administrators don't see themselves as business executives even though their roles and responsibilities are nearly identical.
As today's school principal or educational administrator, whether in a public or a private school, you have to focus on running the business as well as answer for how you are running it—just like any corporate CEO. The primary difference is that when a business fails, it shutters its doors, while a failing school will often remain open for years, propped up by government funding, while the school's performance and reputation takes and nose dive, and the school leadership becomes a revolving door of change.
In the 'olden days' having to market your school's successes and retain or grow your 'customer' base wasn't an issue. Those days are behind us. So, our school administrators have to expand their expertise and think like CEOs if they want their schools to become the school of choice. Let's compare the business model with the educational model to see how they have merged. Two primary requirements of a successful business are to:
If you don't do these two things well, it really doesn't matter how well you do the rest of it because you won't be around to do it. The same criteria now applies to schools. If our business (or our school) doesn't attract customers (students, or more accurately the parents of those students) and then satisfy them (that we are doing a good job of educating their children) then, if allowed, they will take their children elsewhere. To make matters worse, it doesn't even matter if we ARE doing a great job of educating their children if they don't perceive that to be the case. School or business, the requirements for executives or administrators boil down to the same basic requirements, like it or not. The best school administrators focus on the following areas.
The first customers for a school are the parents. They decide how their children will be educated and by whom. So your first hurdle is winning over the parent. Start by considering what promises you are communicating to parents through your various messages. Whether it is implied or stated, you are making a promise to do something for them through your messaging. Does your school have a formalized message? If not, that becomes step one. If you have, then you need to walk through your entire "customer experience" as if you are a customer to see if you are consistently reinforcing your key messages at every touch point. Everything that pertains to your school either delivers on your message or it fails to do so. That includes everyone who represents your school, from the principal to the security guard. Marketing your school is a part of that strategy, and everyone needs to be on board with that purpose.
Seeing through your customer's eyes
Start with the school website, as this is often the first stop when a parent is checking out a school or district. What will they see, hear, feel? Does the website reflect the caring, professional attitude of the staff that you so carefully selected? Is information handy, convenient, and up-to-date to show that you respect parents' time and want to make dealing with your school a positive and efficient experience? Does it highlight your programs, activities, and successes?
Next, walk with them through every contact they are likely to make throughout the year. Is your office staff friendly and inviting or obviously inconvenienced by interruptions? Would parents feel welcome when they show up at the school or like they just stepped into hostile territory? Do they feel like the school is their advocate or an opponent to their role as parent? How vibrant is your Parent-Teacher committee (or do you have one)? Are meetings well attended and if not, then why not? How do you communicate and involve parents when it comes to grades, attendance, or events? Are they kept in the loop when a teacher notices slippage in grades or attitudes?
Using a business strategy for school improvementAsk yourself what steps along the way will dilute or possibly destroy the desired experience you want to create for your customers. Look at every touch point you have with a parent. Consider putting each of these into a flowchart to see if there are any inconsistencies with your messaging at each point. If they are there, fix them. You can give teachers and staff permission to help you fix inconsistencies that degrade your message—have them be on the lookout for them. It might be food service personnel who see that the layout of the cafeteria could be changed a bit to make it easier for parents to make a payment or to have lunch with their child. It could be the groundskeeper who can see ways to fortify your intended message. It could be as obvious as clean hallways and manicured grounds to show that you take pride in your school.
As principal, and your school's CEO, consider making this the topic of a staff meeting. Ask your staff to walk with you through the typical parent experience—pointing out the inconsistencies between your intended message and the actual experience. Encourage them to suggest ways to fix any inconsistencies. If they recognize the importance you put on this issue, it will become a focus for them as well.
If we integrate common business methods into our school management, it might look like:
There are some excellent resources available to you as your school's top executive. Don't be afraid to grab the best business books and apply the successful practices to becoming the best school around. After all, success is success, and many of the honorable principles are the same for business and education. Broaden your leadership knowledge base—steal from other fields and improve your own in the process.
What does a good leader to do?
Making marketing a priority
One thing that school administrators should make a priority, which all experienced CEOs consider critical to their business success, is how to effectively market themselves. School marketing is equally critical.
Effective school administrators, like leading CEOs, know what their customers need and want. They have a written school communication strategy that is transparent and engaging, and it addresses those customer needs utilizing school marketing strategies. They will use their school websites as their primary communications hub, integrated with social media, media relations, and storytelling. They have mobile friendly websites to make finding them easy and convenient from any device their customers use.
It would be unheard of for a CEO to use the corporate website as an afterthought, managed by a secretary, customer support representative, or IT manager. School administrators need to follow their lead and give this valuable resource the attention it deserves. The best school websites are a school administrator's primary strategic marketing and communications tool and their school public relations hub. Use it well.
School leaders deserve the same respect that highly paid corporate executives garner. But in order to get it, they need to recognize that they are accountable for the areas of branding, marketing, communications, and customer service. While these are areas that will make or break a business, they are often given low priority in schools. Administrators must control the message or someone else will. Take control and enjoy customers (like your parents, students, and staff) who are advocates instead of adversaries.
Apply the tips in these books to your educational administrative roles and enjoy the positive changes. What applies to the corporate world applies to your school leadership roles as well:
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey (still a favorite and must read)
The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, by Clayton M. Christensen
Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Box, by Arbinger Institute
First Things First, by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill
Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organization, by John Wooden
Tribes, by Seth Godin