Executing your strategy

Having a vision and a strategy for your school — and your school marketing — is not enough. The long-term key to success is execution. Relentless consistency. Every day. Every term. Every year.

At the School Marketing Journal we talk a lot about strategy. In fact, ‘strategy first’ is one of imageseven’s core principles. But we also know that without a system for getting things done, your strategy will forever remain an unrealised dream. To achieve something you have not achieved before means you need to execute in a way you have not executed before.

Most strategies — which are simply long-term plans to achieve something — will require one of two types of actions from the leader. The first is usually simpler. These are the actions you can achieve with a decision. It could be changing a process, a tuition pricepoint or an expansion in staff. The second requires people to change their behaviour. These changes could include improving the customer experience, faster responses to enquiries or striving for higher quality messaging.

When behavioural change isn’t happening in the way you want, it’s natural to look at the people you’ve charged with implementing the change … but people are seldom the problem. William Edwards Deming, an engineer and statistician who is credited with founding the quality movement, taught that any time the majority of people behave in a particular way the majority of the time, the people are not the problem. The problem is inherent in the system.[1] As the leader of marketing in your school, you own the responsibility for the system.

In an international study designed to uncover the root causes of weak execution, initial hypotheses ranged from clarity about the objective to lack of commitment to the goal and lack of accountability. All were proved to be significant issues when it came to execution but, as the researchers dug further, they identified the fundamental cause of execution breakdown. Which they called the whirlwind.[2]

The ‘whirlwind’ is your day job. It’s the massive amount of energy that is necessary to keep your school operational on a day-to-day basis. It is also what makes it so hard to execute anything new. The whirlwind robs you of the focus required to move your marketing (and other areas of your school) forward.

Removing the whirlwind to facilitate your focus is, of course, utterly unrealistic. However, the researchers did identify four disciplines for executing your strategy in the midst of your whirlwind.

Discipline 1: Focus on the wildly important

There is a blunt and unavoidable principle all school Heads must live with. The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish. There will always be more good ideas than you or your marketing team have the capacity to execute. (If there aren’t, then you have other marketing problems as well.) This is why your first test is to focus on the wildly important. You can start by choosing one or two exceptionally important goals rather than trying to advance everything at once. Make it clear to your marketing team that these one or two goals are what matter most. Then stick to it yourself. Don’t confuse your team with other tasks that masquerade as wildly important goals.

Discipline 2: Act on lead measures

Not all actions are created equal. Some actions have more power than others when you are stretching for a goal. It is those actions you want to isolate and act on to implement your strategy. There are two kinds of measures: lead and lag. Lag measures are what school Heads usually spend their time worrying about: student enrolments, attrition and revenue. By the time you get a lag measure, you can’t fix it. Lead measures are the things that your team must do to reach your goals. Good lead measures share two common characteristics: they are predictive of you attaining your goal and they can be influenced by your marketing team.

Discipline 3: Keep a compelling scorecard

“People play differently when they are keeping score,” says Chris McChesney, Global Practice Leader of Execution for Franklin Covey. At imageseven, we have found the highest level of performance comes from team members who are emotionally engaged, and the best engagement comes when they know the score. It doesn’t have to be more explicit than whether they are winning or losing. Unlike the complex scorecard school Heads are used to, this one should be simple. If the scoreboard isn’t clear, the game you want people to play will be abandoned in the whirlwind of other activities.

Discipline 4: Create a cadence of accountability

This is where the rubber hits the road. Unless you consistently hold your marketing team accountable, the goal will self-destruct in the whirlwind. Regular meetings — ideally weekly and for less than 30 minutes — are where the magic happens. Each week team members answer one crucial question: “what are the one or two most important things I can do in the next week (outside the whirlwind) that will have the biggest impact on the scoreboard?”

insight applied

  • The long-term key to success is execution.
  • You must execute in a new way to achieve different results.
  • Your day-to-day job gets in the way of executing your strategy.


[1] Aguayo, R 1991, Dr. Deming: The American Who Taught the Japanese About Quality, New York: Simon & Schuster, pp.57-63.

[2] McChesney, Covey & Huling 2012, The 4 disciplines of execution. 7th ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, p.6.

Brad Entwistle is the Founding Partner of imageseven. Since 1990, he has led his team on a mission to amplify the impact of schools by working directly with school Heads, tailoring solutions to maximise their communication and marketing effectiveness. imageseven.com.au 

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