Throughout this year you will see the voices of many SAIS board members in this spot as the organization transitions to new leadership. Our August news comes from Brett Jacobsen, chief executive officer at The Mount Vernon School in Sandy Springs, GA.

Traversing Transitions

Hello there! On behalf of everyone at SAIS, welcome to the 2023-2024 school year.

As Debra transitions to her new role as president of NAIS, members of the SAIS Board of Trustees have been asked to take on the daunting task of scribing our thoughts in the opening article of each monthly newsletter this year. Drawing the short straw, I am honored to start.

Entering my 29th year as an educator and 19th as CEO/head of school, I find myself in a personal period of transition. This past summer, I transitioned to parenting my aging parent. Watching parents get older when they can no longer take care of themselves is one of the most humbling experiences in my life. You can sense the pain of what they are going through, the autonomy they are losing, and the dependence and trust of care that are required.

On the other end of the spectrum, my oldest daughter is a senior representing the Class of 2024. My wife and I are in a transition of losing her daily presence in our home. Yet, it is reinvigorating to witness a sense of readiness to impact the world underscored by bold naivete to start a new adventure.

Transitions have such a range of give and take, celebration and challenge, and clarity and complexity.

Do you find yourself or your respective school community in a transition? Actually, we all are, all the time.

In William Bridges’ book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, he describes three important stages of organizational transitions.

  1. Endings – Transitions start with endings. In the midst of identifying what has been lost, organizations determine what people, partnerships, processes, and systems will be left behind and what will be kept.
  2. Neutral Zones – During this in-between gray zone of transition, a sense of place and direction doesn’t seem as easily accessible. While the pace of change leaves many disoriented and mired in ambiguity and conflict, seeds of renewal, realignment, and repatterning are being planted.
  3. New Beginnings – Unplugging from an old world and plugging into a new world, organizations begin to ask new questions, gain new insights, and design new ideas with integrity and quality. A regenerative transition of growth and purpose begins to take shape and an exciting, energized story unfolds.

As we begin the 2023-2024 school year, the nearly 400 elementary and secondary schools in SAIS today paint a beautiful picture representing the natural rhythms of transitioning from one stage to the next based on their unique mission and identity. Highlighting this, more than 50 SAIS schools are welcoming new or interim heads to their communities. Seventy-six self-studies will be peer-reviewed by SAIS accreditation teams throughout the year. Others are conducting a strategic planning process and engaging with students, staff, parents, alumni, and partners to launch new beginnings. And yet, many leaders, boards, and organizations continue to find their footing navigating the residual effects of the pandemic, cultural shifts, political polarization, teacher shortages, and technological accelerations.

Regardless of the stage of development you find your organization in, I want to take an opportunity to seed your respective transition by amplifying the following major trends and topics, embedded with a variety of research-based tools and resources.

  • People in Transition: Sounds like the “Great Resignation” is over … now what?
  • Organizations in Transition:  Smells like “RE” (renewal, reinvention) is all the rage
  • Technology in Transition: Feels like we are playing a tech version of “red light, green light”
  • Education in Transition: Looks like learning is not limited to time, place, or space
  • Leadership in Transition: Tastes like a new leadership recipe for a new era

Engaging all of your senses, this opening letter is intended to encourage and challenge you throughout the year. So, knowing you are busy right now with very little margin, bookmark it and come back, skim it now for curiosity, or camp out in an area that will empower your leadership team and trustees. Enjoy!

People in Transition

As Handshake and ZipRecruiter, leading career recruiting sites, describe the transition of current college grads joining millions of others in the workforce, a recent headline emerged. The “Great Resignation” is Over. During this softening period, there is no greater time to analyze and strengthen your approach to talent development to increase retention rates across all divisions and departments. Filtered through your respective professional competencies, check out a versatile talent management tool, 9 Box Grid, to assist you in the process of assessing performance and potential. An additional study to understand the intrinsic motivation of employees is amplified in The State of Motivation Report 2023. Ranging from altruism to financial needs to innovation to security, Attuned reports that motivational needs have changed since 2018 and “people’s values have shifted from before to during to after the pandemic.”  As a matter of fact, Indeed-GlassDoor, in their 2023 workplace trends report, highlights that measuring wellbeing is becoming vital to attracting and retaining talent. Ultimately, research shows that organizations that focus on people + performance possess a distinctive competitive advantage and cultivate long-term sustainability.

Organizations in Transition

In my weekly “re”search (no pun intended) study, “re” is all the rage in organizational life … renewal, refactoring, reorientation, reinvention, regeneration, repatterning. Before getting to a “re” state of being, it might be worth measuring the shifts in society against your respective mission, vision, and values. No doubt, especially if you feel you are in a gray zone of transition, there seem to be a lot of shifts taking place, but you may not be sure about what direction to take or the impact they will have on your school community. Consider walking through a recent report of the ten most significant shifts facing organizations today. I particularly like #5, closing the capability chasm suggests that “organizations need to build institutional capabilities–that is an integrated set of people, processes, and technology that creates value.” Connected to shift #8, making meaningful progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion, is right in front of us as EdWeek and Fisher Phillips weigh in on college admission post-affirmative action. As an activity with leadership teams or board members, place each shift reflective of your school on a scale from novice to resilient to regenerative. What does it reveal? What emerges? Develop some key priorities with small teams to address vulnerabilities or scale strengths. Finally, if one is really ambitious, see Accenture’s research on how companies have a deliberate strategy pursuing a concept called “total enterprise reinvention.” Ok … enough talk about “re.”

Technology in Transition

Do kids play red light, green light anymore? Not sure, but they should. With the acceleration of technology, it feels like we are playing red light, green light. Should we start? Should we stop? Reflecting on the ChatGPT talk in and out of our schools, the Office of Educational Technology provides insights and recommendations for AI and the future of teaching and learning, while McKinsey poses four essential questions for boards to ask about generative AI. Maybe we should consider them in order to cut through the noise of starting and stopping. Illustrating an example of value creation with risk management, examine Deloitte’s research on how the next generation campus should be a “smart” campus, driving positive outcomes, providing a sense of safety for all, and improving operational efficiency and effectiveness. At the end of the day, is the AI disruption in education a bad thing? Maybe this is an area where you want to be ready to move when ‘green light’ is called.

Education in Transition

Rummaging through closets to assist my mother in preparation to sell her house, I discovered all of my report cards from Wink, Texas. Reflecting on my 1st grade report card in 1978-1979 from Ms. McGehee, I wondered how much has really changed in education? Yet, today, a number of signals in our ecosystem point to a variety of divergent pathways for students, knowing that learning is no longer limited to time, place, or space (even for kids in Wink). Hmmmm … Verizon’s myPlan may be onto something. Generally calling for a skills revolution, various organizations have envisioned a future of education and learning – Education Reimagined, Google, OECD, UNESCO, Future Design School, McKinsey. Guided by your school’s unique mission and values, design your future of education. Go on an adventure. Check out Institute for the Future to learn how to collect your own signals and discuss their potential implications on your community. While strategic planning is challenging, it should be fun. To infuse some creative thinking in the process, imagine your future by utilizing a design fiction technique highlighted by the Near Future Laboratory in order “to open up the ways in which we can address uncertainty and traverse new possibilities.” Finally, I love how Scott Belsky, chief strategy officer at Adobe, in his blog Implications empowers us to play (novelty precedes utility), pilot (pick one low-risk project and do it the “new” way), protect (permission to fail), and provoke (where difficult questions can be asked and debated) to get started. Start from where you are, not where you want to be (or where others are perceived to be).

Leadership in Transition

With each transition, change can be hard, stretching, and exhausting compounded by the current leadership plate piled high with daily school life, binary expectations, political polarization, the next crisis, teacher shortages, and much more. Stating the obvious, leadership itself is in a transitional period. Living out a set of new roles of leadership as visionary, architect, coach, and catalyst in a complex, uncertain world necessitates a toolkit of sorts. If anything, Nathan Furr, research strategist at INSEAD, found that focusing on values over goals holds the key to ultimate success especially when, at times, you can’t control the outcome. During moments of turbulence for new or tenured leaders, Adam Bryant in his new book, Leap to Leader, encourages us to build self-awareness through keeping our emotions in check, knowing our triggers, and uncovering our blind spots. To design for belonging, investigate Equity Lab’s or create your own team agreements to fuel curiosity, collaboration, and commitment when challenges arise throughout the year. When convictions on positions are strong, tap into the polarity management model, dialogic model, and participatory decision-making model to deepen the container of trust, strengthen organizational identity, honor all voices, and scale impact. Regardless of the circumstances, when your ability to act and to adapt are high, you are able to engage and navigate ambiguity rather than just endure organizational transitions and tough it out.

As we embrace our respective stage of transition, I join you on the purpose-driven journey and high calling of educating students in our schools. Ultimately, my hope is that your students and mine will be able to describe our communities as their safe landing spot, where they feel the most confident. This will traverse any transition ahead of us.

Happy transitioning,

Dr. Brett Jacobsen
Chief Executive Officer
The Mount Vernon School | Mount Vernon Online | Mount Vernon Ventures