I will be honest; I escape from the pandemic and other news as often as I can. Two weeks ago, the SAIS team had our first in-person staff retreat since March 2020. We ventured to Pigeon Forge, where we certainly got plenty of work in, but we also spent time as a team enjoying Dollywood and the Smoky Mountains. It was the most some of us had laughed in over a year, and it was sorely needed.

Since the staff retreat, I have spent some quality time in the car and have been listening to Dolly Parton’s America, a podcast recommended by a head of school. If it is possible to binge-listen, that is what I have been doing. There are many things that are incredible about the podcast, most of which I have not processed yet, but her adaptability through her many years in the spotlight is remarkable. The podcast reflects on her life as a third-generation feminist, even if she was born in the ‘40s, which may be the perfect example her extreme of adaptability. She was not reflecting her times; she was ahead of them. However she did it, her longevity has made her the wealthiest country star of all time and one of the most beloved celebrities.

Adaptability is where there are windows of amazing happening right now on our campuses. As I have been speaking with boards, heads, students, and friends, we are adapting and starting to move on, some with incredible results, regardless of the everyday stressors. One school has received its biggest donation of all time as their pandemic performance made them that much more of a worthy recipient to major donors. Other schools that experienced pain and transformation a few years ago have found this time of pandemic chaos much less disruptive as their families are mission appropriate, their boards are aligned and focused, and their communications and community trust are exceptional. These schools are leaning into managing the current challenges and seeing how their adaptations create long-term rewards. These lessons will be crucial to us in the years ahead.

Adaptability should not be confused with resilience. Resilience is about bouncing back. Adaptability is about managing the shifts and moving forward with the changing circumstances. This McKinsey article is a great one on the topic, and it outlines key steps for building “evergreen” adaptability that allows us to hold onto learning and changing rather than doubling down on the safety of known practices and approaches. While the majority of the piece speaks more to the individual, it also applies to our teams within our schools. This quote captures the essence of its importance: “Learning agility, emotional flexibility, and openness to experience are all part of a multidimensional understanding of adaptability. They help us maintain deliberate calm under pressure and display curiosity amid change. They allow us to respond in ways that are the opposite of a knee-jerk reaction by making thoughtful choices.”

The article provides these step-by-step insights:

  1. Building well-being as a foundational skill. We all perform better when we have rest, time to reflect, and a healthy personal space from which to operate. Applied to your team, this includes taking the time to laugh and have fun together. The work we did on our staff retreat was better for the experiences we had outside the meeting room.
  2. Make purpose your North Star and define your non-negotiables. This point resonates individually with educators as purpose is such a strong driver in choosing to do this work. This point also helps set boundaries. In the organizational context, this is a place where you can define your sacred spaces for your school. Your purpose is in your school’s mission and values, but don’t lose those other aspects that make your school uniquely yours.
  3. Experience the world through an adaptability lens. The graphic in this section illustrating the adaptable learning mindset is a great one. This point is about not falling back on pre-set behaviors. An adaptability lens brings fresh eyes to situations, something that can be incredibly difficult to do, maybe more so when you are trying to build it from a team perspective. Consistent systems and processes create efficiencies and make it so much easier to respond to or manage a situation. However, we need to recognize that these systems need to morph to meet the ongoing changes we are seeing. For more on this front, Adam Grant’s new book Think Again is a great one. This quote is particularly apt: “Under acute stress, people typically revert to their automatic, well-learned responses. That’s evolutionarily adaptive – as long as you find yourself in the same kind of environment in which those reactions were necessary.”
  4. Build deeper and more diverse connections. One of the points in this section reflects on how leaders tend to engage directly with tasks, and much less directly with people. Needless to say, this undermines deep connections, but it also keeps us from developing the network we need to call upon when we struggle. As organizations, we also need to think about how we engage with our broader community and the feelings we ignite in those who engage with us.
  5. Make it safe to learn. As educators and educational institutions, this should come naturally but it doesn’t always. This quote is particularly on point: “Leaders can have a unique influence on which team culture is adopted depending on the degree to which they foster psychological safety. This is a shared belief held by team members that interpersonal risk taking is safe—that ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued.”

Some of these steps have a few suggestions and the authors note ways in which to take these suggestions and scale them to the entire organization, namely trying mini-trainings as practice, creating learning communities across the organization, role modeling, and creating tools to build long-term capabilities.

When we build adaptability, we also need to keep building capacity to adapt further. This is a new era, one of managing pandemics, social unrest, and climate disruptions. All these challenges have been appearing and changing much more quickly than before, and they are having much larger impacts. Our ability to adapt, not just to bounce back, but to see opportunities and provide continued excellence, will define us in the times ahead.

As always, the SAIS team is here for you. If we can do anything to support your school and your work, do not hesitate to let us know.