From news media to social media, every organization, every leader, every decision is open to public scrutiny as never before.
In this environment, business leaders might learn a lesson or two from public school administrators, says Mike Renn, a long-time educational administrator and, most recently, manager of CCL’s Education Sector work for 10 years.
“For years, principals and superintendents have understood that any decision they make can put them — and their schools, teachers and students — on the front page of the local newspaper,” Renn notes. “Today, those same decisions are opened up to the critical judgment of thousands of people within hours or days through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter.
“Imagine if every time you named employees to a team or task force or made a job assignment, you were blasted by opinions and counter-opinions. And if every decision had to be explained (sometimes defended) to multiple constituencies. And if the measures of success for you and your organization were moving targets,” Renn continues. “This is the reality for school administrators and, increasingly, the reality for business leaders.”
How do successful leaders navigate leading in the public context? Renn offers a few tips:
Look out for collateral damage. Don’t underestimate the consequences of your actions and decisions. You must be thoughtful on a moment-by-moment basis. Ask yourself: Am I really clear about this situation or decision? Do I need more data, more input, more time? What if I get this wrong? Do I need to change my decision-making processes?
While taking more time slows you down on the front end, it may save you hours or weeks of time and resources in dealing with the fallout of a preventable problem. “Of course, there is always an element of risk and uncertainty,” says Renn. “If you get a decision right for person A, you automatically get it wrong for person B, and person C is unhappy either way. You need to learn to live in this reality.”
Learn to span boundaries. Educational leaders must interact with many people and meet the wide-ranging needs of numerous constituencies. “Even in the context of a single school, a principal is responsible to a huge number of communities that span geographic, cultural, language, socioeconomic and educational boundaries — as well as ages, interests and values,” Renn notes. “Many school leaders have found that CCL’s boundary spanning leadership work accurately describes their challenges and approach to leading in complex, diverse settings – and offers new ideas and specific tactics.”
Consider your legacy. Educational leaders are often in a specific school or district for just a few years. While they personally move on, the best school leaders leave their teachers and employees more energized, more capable and well-prepared to come back and educate students tomorrow, next month, next year. “A school administrator’s job is to buffer the students and teachers from anything that pulls their focus off teaching and learning, and to invest in them for the future,” says Renn. “As a business leader, what are you doing to ensure your people are focused on what matters most — for now and for the long-term health of your organization?
“In public education, the leader’s job is one of navigation, moment by moment, of all the people and parts and needs – and every move is transparent and public,” Renn concludes. “Why not seek out a savvy principal or superintendent to be a peer and sounding board as you navigate your own white water?”
Investing In School Leadership
If public schools need strong, effective leaders, what does it take to develop them?
CCL’s Karen Dyer, group director of the Education and Nonprofit Sector at CCL, has worked with experienced educators and leadership development professionals to answer this essential question.
CCL takes a customized approach to the development of public school leaders. “We clarify the skills and capabilities that are so critical for success in the unique context of educational leadership,” says Dyer. “And it is so crucial for principals, superintendents and administrators to have learning experiences that allow them to practice skills and techniques that can be applied and shared back home.
“We know that leader development is related to student achievement in public schools,” says Dyer. “Making the right investment in the leadership capacity of administrators and policy-makers is essential if U.S. schools are to prepare young people for the challenges that lie ahead.”
Karen Dyer and Mike Renn share more about CCL’s approach to developing educational leaders in the article “Getting an Education: School Leaders Need Specialized Development.”