Throughout this year you will see the voices of many SAIS board members in this spot as the organization transitions to new leadership. Our September news comes from Will Kesler, head of school at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, TN.

Strategic Planning

It has been my privilege to be involved in SAIS schools my entire professional career. For the past 27 years, I have served as a teacher, coach, department chair, division head, and currently serve as the head of school at Battle Ground Academy, a co-ed day school for grades K-12 founded in 1889. Throughout my time as an educator, I have had the opportunity to work through countless strategic plans and processes at schools in which I was serving, through accreditation committees and visits, and as part of my own personal study and fascination in a process that always seems some combination of intellectual exercise, excessive task management, and downright dark arts all rolled into one. My goal for you, regardless of where you are in the planning cycle, is that you might have greater clarity in the purpose of your strategic plan and a commitment to the right process to see it come to fruition in a meaningful way.

As an English teacher, I taught a semester of Existential Literature on a few occasions – I can see your eyes glazing over now. Don’t worry, it’s just an analogy. The parallel that I want to draw is that in order to help students understand what we meant by the term “existentialism,” we spent a good bit of time explaining what it wasn’t and particularly its inverse “essentialism.” With that same line of thinking, I want to spend a bit of time on the front end explaining what strategic planning isn’t in order to get to what it is and how we can use it (more effectively, I would argue) in our schools.

What Strategy Isn’t

  • Culture – the ethos of our schools made up of rules, practices, traditions, and the subtle elements that make each institution unique
  • Generative / Visionary Thinking – the bold aspirational possibilities associated with blue sky thinking and unrestrained planning
  • Operations – the day-to-day business of school – teaching, schedules, moving resources and people around

By now we are all well-versed in the famous Peter Drucker observation that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and as succinct and appealing as that statement is in the abstract, I can say with confidence from observation and experience that if your culture is off in some areas of the school, a good strategy will be a Band-Aid at best, not a cure. In other words, if you cannot articulate with confidence and clarity the reason for your school’s existence, its unique approach to education, and the artifacts and unspoken markers of what it means to be a part of your community, then your first strategic priority is to define and clarify your culture. This process may have to happen across multiple iterations. Asking questions regularly about staying true to your mission or identifying tacit expectations of community members that need to be examined more closely should be a part of any process, but without a clear sense of core identity and purpose, strategy feels like an add-on and not transformative.

Secondly, strategy is not generative thinking. Visionary, generative thinking should be a part of every strategic planning process – what might we do? if we were starting from scratch what would be the core elements of our curriculum? if resources were not an obstacle what programs might we initiate? All of these are great questions and can get you to start thinking about possibilities and priorities, and as you seek such feedback, they also might demonstrate your community’s interest and appetite for innovation, growth, and change, even if it is not in one of the specific areas mentioned. Despite those benefits, that thinking does not ultimately drive action. A plan that remains aspirational only will struggle to gain traction in the day-to-day work of our schools.

Finally, strategy is not operations. We’ve all seen or been a part of a strategic planning process that feels like a “to-do” list and not a very strategic plan. Often, we are papering our pre-existing priorities without regard to our broader context. Sometimes, we want to make sure that we can accomplish the plan and measure it well, so we simplify it to a series of checkboxes and pat ourselves on the back for saying we were going to do something and then doing it. To be clear, your strategy should greatly inform and affect your operations and tactics, but we confuse those at our own peril. Creating a STEM program that prepares students for the next wave of emerging technologies might be a key strategy for your school. Requiring all math classes to include one computer-based math project or presentation at every grade level is operational. Detached from strategy it becomes a to-do list; integrated into a strategy it becomes a key component of measuring your plan’s effectiveness.

So, at last the big payoff – what is strategy and how can we do it better in our schools?  Here is my personal favorite definition of strategy: “a series of decisions, made in concert together, in order to optimize performance in the face of competition.” We’ll look at those elements individually.

  • Note first, strategy is going to include multiple decisions made together in the same timeframe – they are connected, aware of each other, complementing and not competing for airspace. 
  • In addition, these strategic decisions make us better. That may sound obvious, but how often in schools are we discussing likes and dislikes, comfort and discomfort in our strategic planning process? Strategy is the coordinated plan to make us better at what we do. Identifying those needs may require hard decisions about what to keep, what to jettison, and what to remake.
  • The end product should help our school thrive in our market context. While I believe schools have improved tremendously in this area, too often we still shrink from market imperatives. In order to respond well to your market, you must understand the market and your place in it. Whether that is internal research, an outside consultant, or additional resources, understanding your context is imperative to craft a coherent and cohesive plan that will allow your school to flourish.

If that’s the definition, I would argue that the secret sauce for the process boils down to these components:

  • Give it ample time and attention. Assume that this process will take the better part of a year or more, and then be ready for the real work – implementing, tracking, and measuring – to begin. Make sure you spend the time gathering the information about your school, its community, and your market before you begin. “Where are we now” may be a more critical question than “where do we want to go.”
  • Understand the framework you will be using to track and measure success. The “scoresheet,” if you will, is critical to this process. A whitepaper that spells out all that you are doing in this plan may be an appropriate internal document, but it will probably impede buy-in, clarity, and effectiveness in the broader community. Build a reporting tool and structure that offers a more compelling visual representation of the amazing work you are doing.
  • Link your strategy to actual work that actual people are doing. As the fable goes, one of the mice is going to have to string the bell on the cat. Look at your staff and identify the capacity and interest in seeing this work through to its end. Giving initiatives clear point people to serve as coordinators and champions can help your school accomplish each goal and potentially offer leadership opportunities that might not otherwise be available. Without that clear point person who has both responsibility and authority for seeing it through to the end, initiatives will often die on the vine before they get started.

Ultimately, if we aren’t thoughtful and intentional, strategic planning can become a perfunctory exercise in naming what we are planning to do – a glorified improvement plan. Instead, if done with the right definition and process in mind, a good strategic plan can drive deep innovation, growth, sustainability, and success long after the plan’s elements have been completed.

Good luck and happy strategic planning!
Will Kesler
Head of School
Battle Ground Academy