What Can Independent Schools Learn From IBM’s Success?

Samuel Palmisano

During Samuel Palmisano’s tenure as chief executive of IBM, the company became:

A textbook case of how to drive change in a big company — when so much of the study of business innovation focuses on start-ups and entrepreneurs.This column is a glimpse of the thinking behind some of the major steps I.B.M. has taken under Mr. Palmisano’s leadership, based on two recent interviews with him.He says his guiding framework boils down to four questions:

•Why would someone spend their money with you — so what is unique about you?

•Why would somebody work for you?

• Why would society allow you to operate in their defined geography — their country?

•And why would somebody invest their money with you?

via How Samuel Palmisano of I.B.M. Stayed a Step Ahead – Unboxed – NYTimes.com.

I have wondered if these same questions can be adapted to independent school leadership. Independent schools are both schools and businesses. Unlike public schools, they are tuition-dependent and have to raise funds annually in order to operate and finance various curricular initiatives and capital projects. Independent schools also compete with one another, parochial schools, and local public schools for students and families. So while one side of the coin represents the school’s mission and educational status, the other side represents its financial needs. These questions, then, can be interpreted and applied to independent schools just as well as they apply to any other business or institution. The following is my attempt at that interpretation:

  • Why would someone spend their money with you — so what is unique about you?

In a previous post, I referenced another news article that looked at rising tuitions in many Manhattan independent schools, with a few already touching $40,000 and others almost there. For many families attending our schools, mortgage payments and their child’s tuition are the two biggest debits each month. Schools must double their efforts on recruitment and retention, especially in a sluggish economy. Word-of-mouth advertising by current families is normally the best marketing tool for any school, and schools need to answer this question – what is unique about them? – for these families on a regular basis. Heads and division heads can utilize social media tools such as blogs and Twitter to link to or write about what moved them about a lesson they observed today, or an athletic victory, perhaps a student’s performance in the winter play, and so on. Schools are beginning to adopt Facebook and use the fan page as an opportunity to tap into Facebook’s massive database and people’s existing routines. Scheduled morning coffees or afternoon/evening presentations and parent education talks also keep families connected to the school, and give the school another opportunity to communicate its mission and philosophy. All of these initiatives must link back to a broader strategy of the school and convey a singular message.

  • Why would somebody work for you?

This question is key. Daniel Pink’s book Drive addressed three factors to motivate today’s 21st Century Worker: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. How does your school define and act on these clearly and explicitly with your faculty and staff? Are they part of a teacher’s evaluation process? Conversations about these three factors should be initiated by the school’s administrators with their direct reports, and not always the other way round. I am more likely to stay positive and motivated to do my best work if I know that someone, preferably my direct supervisor, is invested in my success. Leadership then should be cultivated at all levels of a school, and not just in the administrative team. The 21st Century School will have a stable and strong cadre of teacher leaders.

  • Why would society allow you to operate in their defined geography — their country?

This question is best answered with a comment made by Wes Moore, one of the keynote speakers at the last People of Color Conference held in Philadelphia in December 2011: Schools must be of a community, not just in a community. This statement is profound in its charge to all schools across the globe. From the faculty to families and students to curriculum and service projects, schools must actively engage their communities by first locating themselves within. How does your school reflect your community? What contributions can you point to within your community? How are you promoting civic engagement amongst your students and families, and inviting professionals, alumni, and others to come talk and share at your school?

  • And why would somebody invest their money with you?

Schools are different in that families are not simply investing their money with us, but their children as well. The question could then be rephrased to say: “Why would somebody invest in their children’s future with you?” I am not certain the answer here is vastly different from my response to question #1. The difference in the two questions hinges on the verbs used in both cases: “spend” in #1 and “invest” in #4. The verb “spend” could refer to the purchase of a product or service for the short-term, whereas the verb “invest” in question #4 points to a long-term relationship and belief in the company’s (or school’s) mission beyond its products and services. For example, at Alexandria Country Day School, we look at every prospective Kindergarten student and applicant family as investing in us for the full nine years. Looked at in that way, what is unique about your school should answer this question just as well. Every administrator and faculty member at your school should be able to answer this question with strong conviction. So why should somebody invest in their children’s future with you? Does your faculty know how to answer this question? And do you know what they would say?

**Another way to look at the difference between the two questions here is to use #1 for recruitment and #4 for retention.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.