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Developing the “Health” of Your School to Maximize the “Smart”

What makes your school successful? Is it your innovative curriculum? A modern building and extensive grounds? The color-coded strategic plan?

While none of these pieces are bad, none of them are what makes a school successful. 

During a webinar last month, author Patrick Lencioni discussed how many of the teachings from his books (The 6 Types of Working Genius, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, The Advantage…) can (and should) be applied to schools – including what truly makes any organization (or school) successful.

To explain, he used the terminology smart vs. healthy parts of schools. 

The “smart” part, he shared, includes things like curriculum, marketing, strategy, teaching methods, facilities, equipment. He argued, however, that while these things do matter, pretty much anyone can get pretty smart, so this is the easy part (and doesn’t truly lead to success – or else everyone would be there). 

The “healthy” part is more complicated as it involves minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and low turnover. 

The “healthy” pieces are much more complicated and challenging and altered and nuanced and require difficult conversations and hard decisions and risks. The “smart” part is so much easier and more comfortable, so we often rely on building up the “smart” part and push the “healthy” to the side.

And, yet, a key differentiator for an organization (or school, in this case) is how healthy you are. If you’re not healthy, you can’t tap into and maximize the smart part, no matter how smart.  

Why should a school care if a school is healthy? Lencioni posits that donor dollars and student numbers are the direct result of the health (or lack thereof) of a school. And for pretty much every head of school with whom I’ve had the conversation, donor dollars and student numbers are their top concern. 

So, if donor dollars and student numbers are our key outcomes, what are the inputs to get us there?

Lencioni four key steps:

1. Form and foster and cohesive leadership team

This seems self-evident, and, yet, so few schools put intentional effort and time into team cohesion. This goes beyond making sure you have the right people in place (that is, absolutely, an important first step). This involves a culture of emotional safety and feeling value. It involved communication and accountability. It involves a feeling of shared vision and personal contributions. 

2. Ensure and maintain clarity among team members

So many team members don’t even have clarity about their own job descriptions and roles, muchless the bigger picture, so common beliefs and language around the following questions can be really helpful:

  • Why do we (as an organization) exist?

  • How do we behave?

  • What business are we really in?

  • What’s our strategy for being different?

  • What’s the most important thing we’re doing in the next six months?

  • Who needs to do what in order to make that happen? 

  • What support do we need to make it happen?

3. Over communicate (especially anything related the questions above)

So many major challenges start by a simple lack of communication or a miscommunication. Prevent that by over communicating. No, this isn’t synonymous with “have a lot of meetings.” It means considering what different stakeholders need to know and what the best way is to make sure they know it is. It means reiterating important information and answering questions that might seem silly, but lead to clarity. It means being very explicit and transparent. 

4. Establish and execute a structure and protocols to reinforce

All of this is iterative and just be “done” once and forgotten. Team change. Priorities change. Needs change. Determine a system for evaluating different pieces of your “healthy” structure and be open to pivoting. The goal here isn’t to have team meetings. The goal here is to create that healthy system (and that may or may not involve team meetings). 

This all takes time, yes. And, Lencioni argues, we don’t have the luxury to not spend the time doing this, positing that when a school defines things, does them well, and communicates clearly, people will come to you.

When clients come to me, they often have something “smart” in mind – a new curriculum or a project or a specific type of professional development. And I always turn our focus to the “healthy,” considering what is the real problem we’re trying to solve (not just the answer we think will solve it) and what is really the most effective and efficient way to solve it (not just the simplest). 

Because, as Lencioni explained, smart gets us nowhere without healthy.     

And it really is that simple. 

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