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:
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.