Strategic or operational?

The purpose of strategy is to position an organisation relative to its competitors, something many independent schools are too afraid to do. 

Coming out of a pandemic, many schools are left questioning “Where do we go from here?” and “How do we ensure future success of our school that we cherish so dearly?” Scouring websites, speaking with school leaders and board members, I am struck by how few schools have written strategic plans.

Many independent school strategic plans are more operational than strategic. There is a significant difference.

School boards and school leaders often neglect taking a hard look at their competitors, what they provide and what makes them stand out. For some reason, many schools have a hard time being aggressive and decisive in creating programs designed to beat their competitors. 

Modifying the English curriculum, changing the food service and looking at different academic schedules may seem strategic, and in some cases might be, but most are not. Merging with another school, creating significant programs to differentiate your school from your competition, looking at new fee structures and, in some cases, even reducing tuition fees to attract new families to your school are examples of strategy at work. 

Everyone has competitors. Independent schools must identify who their competitors are and build programs that differentiate their school. Strategy is also involved in clearly identifying, recruiting and hiring teachers and administrators to manage and run these programs. 

In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, Dr Graham Kenny, Sydney-based CEO of Strategic Factors, defined strategic planning as “designing a system whereby various stakeholders of an organisation interact to provide a virtuous cycle that is a source of sustainable competitive advantage.” Many independent schools neglect this fact and don’t identify programs that allow them to stand out from a crowded marketplace.

Many independent schools are afraid to be bold and decisive, instead they are doing what they’ve always done; they are just changing the window-dressing. Independent schools must distinguish between operational and strategic plans. Strategic is focusing on competitiveness. Strategy is designed to respond to change and future opportunities to find strategic advantage. Operations focus on efficiency and specific steps designed to roll out strategies.

Kenny identifies that strategic plans must do the following: 

  1. Have measurable outcomes.
  2. Measurably improve the core program rather than improving the window-dressing.
  3. Decide what matters most and improve it.

Strategic plans must answer the following questions:

  1. How do we attract the best and most appropriate students and families for our school?
  2. How do we provide our current students with the best core curriculum and program that money can buy?
  3. How do we capture the loyalty of our alumni so they will share the success by giving back to school?
  4. How can we identify and communicate what makes our school stand out programmatically so that our marketing plan is grounded in differential value and has a quality of uniqueness?

Doing this requires the ability to develop an awareness and understanding of your current situation; look beyond the data, set up a series of interviews with current and past families and students. Find out what sets your school apart, why families choose your school and how you can expand on that.

Many schools I’ve worked with, or have been in contact with, have serious strategic questions to answer but are too afraid to stir change.

That could be merging with a school in your local area, but being afraid to engage in the conversation for fear of embarrassing or angering fellow school leaders, dropping an academic or extracurricular activity in your school that is no longer relevant, but being apprehensive to remove staff who oversee them, or adding new programs that will make your school more robust, but worrying about the backlash of dropping irrelevant programs. I am struck by how many schools have added personnel over the last seven or eight years without dropping any. This has added tremendous operational and financial pressure on schools.

I recommend that schools address the planning process, involving multiple stakeholders, through large group retreats designed to focus and identify the strategic priorities and opportunities for their institution.

Let’s stop creating the shiny strategic planning brochures that tell a wonderful story but end up sitting on a bookshelf collecting dust. A good strategic plan should be a two or three-page document at most that sits open on the desk of every administrator and faculty member.

Independent schools will not survive if we continue to operate under a culture of meekness rather than strategic boldness.


insight applied

  • Heads must distinguish between operational and strategic plans.
  • Strategy is designed to respond to change and future opportunities to find strategic advantage.
  • Operations focus on efficiency and specific steps designed to roll out strategies.
  • A good strategic plan should be a two or three-page document at most.
John Farber has nearly 40 years of independent school experience, more than 20 of those as a Head. Now the Managing Director of RG175, he is well-known for his skills in board governance, strategic thinking, fundraising and personnel management.

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