In the most simplistic terms, these are the three steps involved in the strategic planning process. The questions asked in the title of this article can also apply to a planned vacation or excursion, or, on a much deeper level, to one’s own personal journey. The steps involve blunt and truthful assessment, vision, and logistical/creative planning, setting milestones to gauge the process and the progress of the intended transformation (and in the spirit of “tetrahedronics” – that it, the need for 5 elements to create a complete system – that’s five things that NEED to be done!
From an organizational standpoint, consider these questions: “Where is Your School Now, Where Do You Want Your School To Be, and How Will You Lead Your School There?”
Just considering the first question bluntly and truthfully has stalled the overall process in many situations. But as Jim Collins says in chapter 4 of “Good to Great,” “Confront the Brutal Facts…But Never Lose Hope.”
Since Labor Day is coming up, plan on taking some time – perhaps a couple of evenings – and think about where your school you lead is right now, at this point in history. Then, ask yourself, “Why am I a leader in this particular school at this particular point in history?” This year especially, this is a VERY important question! If you ask yourself this question, you’ve actually started with the foundational question – “Who.” Simon Sinek authored an incredibly popular book titled, “Start With Why.” However, you really need to start with “Who,” and if you’re asking yourself the “why” question at the start of this paragraph, you’ve already identified the “who” – It’s you!
Perhaps you’re a development director, an advancement director, a board member, or a principal. To answer the question, know you are in this position right now for a particular purpose…and whether you believe it or not, you are in this position for a reason that is far beyond human rationalization and comprehension.
Now, ask yourself this question: “What are the strengths of the school?” Write them down. One always leads with their strengths. But now, don’t take comfort in these items, and think all will be well. You need to do a little more homework. The strengths are really the outcomes of your school, and, to paraphrase the words of Stephen Covey, you’re beginning with the end in mind…which is what you do in lesson planning AND goal setting.
Finding strengths is one of four things you must discover about your school, along with its threats, opportunities and weaknesses. Most strategic planning texts call this a SWOT analysis. Notice how the “S” for strengths comes first. Some experts advocate working the process in the opposite direction (TOWS) because it may be easier to focus on the things that are problematic, and are threatening to your school’s success. Personally, I like OWTS. Opportunities are things that you’d like to see in your school. Beginning with opportunities gives you the chance to dream big about your school, to brainstorm and to be creative. These three actions can assist in the creation of a vision for your school, which is encapsulated by the strategic planning question, “Where do you want your school to be?”
Before you do that, however, just make a quick list of your school’s strengths, since they should be the remarkable things about your school. Most school leaders are aware of them, since they are what attract parents to the school, making it an engaging and exemplary environment for education. Don’t spend too much time on it – just a quick list. Then, move into the OWTS framework, and identify the opportunities.
The process should probably be called SOWTS, since if you end on the Threats (as in a SWOT), then you’re certainly starting off correctly, but the Threats may overwhelm you. The point is to focus on the strengths at the start and at the end of the analysis so you can move through the process, and create a plan to be put into action to further enhance your strengths. Additionally, it gives 5 steps to the process – and any complete system has at least 5 elements (see what I did there?).
Only after focusing on the strengths as well as the potential opportunities your school holds, and maintaining a positive attitude of excitement, focus on the weaknesses of your school. Even though they can be negative aspects, a weakness is something that you have some type of control over, and knowing you have some type of control over them is the positive aspect of examining something usually viewed as a negative. You’ll need to hold on to that positive mindset when you look at the Threats in the OWTS acronym. They’re the concerns that can overwhelm school leaders, cause schools to stagnate and become fearful about the future, and move the school closer and closer to closure.
Threats are those things that are “out there,” but as a school leader, you have no control over them – like, oh, maybe a, pandemic? In this type of situation, you have 3 options – stagnation, panic or pivot. Pivot is the only positive outcome, and schools did that in the Spring of 2020 by going virtual. Faith-based schools were particularly prepared to do so, which led to some creative realizations. There are faith-based schools actually starting virtual academies with what they’ve learned! Indeed, need is the driver of creativity and innovation, and, in the spirit of Advancement – there is no going back to “the way it was.” That’s called regression, and the “new normal” will soon become “the normal.” To be clear, there is NO going back to “normal,” since the “normal” no longer exists.
To provide another “threat” example, I’ve heard that some schools in states with voucher programs are thrilled that most of their students will attend school on a voucher. But what happens if that program goes away? Does the school close? If so, that’s a threat. Interestingly, some schools that have finally attained the ability to accept students because there is a voucher program in place are finding that they can’t require those students’ families to pay the difference between the amount of the voucher and the published tuition, can’t charge the families a development fee if they refuse to participate in fundraising, and may have to make other accommodations for these families because they made the decision to “accept the voucher as payment in full for the students to attend school.” Even more than a “Be careful what you wish for, since you may get it” attitude, what was once thought as a great opportunity in many schools has now become a significant threat – especially if parents can’t afford to provide the required uniforms to be in compliance with the school’s dress code.
Ending this process by deeply focusing on your school’s strengths once again can then re-energize you, and provide that additional necessary boost to get to the next step. It’s not enough to simply think about those things…you need to write all those things down, and keep them close by as your energizers.
To review, remember that strengths and weaknesses are internal forces, while opportunities and threats are external. Internal items are things that you, as the leader, have control over; external items are things that you, as the leader, have little or no control over. Just to be clear, opportunities are positive potentials, but because they are not yet part of the school’s identity (or brand), it may take some time to make an opportunity become a strength of your school.
Experiencing the process as OWTS allows you to end with your school’s strengths. Experiencing the process as a SWOT begins the process with focusing on strengths, but ends the process on threats. And if you end the process by focusing on things that are negative, a depressed mindset may be formed, and could overwhelm those involved with a sense of futility and hopelessness.
To help you work through the framework, click http://www.quickmba.com/strategy/swot/ for a little more reading before you begin.
The most important thing, however, is to begin. The first step is the beginning of the journey. Change will never occur unless the first step is taken.
Some of the comments I’ve received about this article in the past focused on the title, especially the “Where Do You Want Your School To Be?” part. It was answered literally, such as, “I would like my school to be in a more visible location,” or, “I would like my school to be in a newer building which is wired for technology.” If that’s what you really believe would be best for your school’s survival, then the next step is to plan how that vision will become reality. If you are the leader of the school, your key responsibility is vision. Proverbs 29:18 tells us, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” I’ve developed a 5-point framework that shows the attributes of leadership, and Vision is one of those elements. If you’d like to see it, send an email to email@example.com with the words “Leadership framework” in the subject line.
Another comment was that most strategic planners end the second phrase with the word, “Go” rather than “Be.” Although the word “go” implies action (which is usually a positive thing), the word “be” implies existence. As a leader of a school, it would make sense that you want your school to still exist 5 or 10 years down the road. One principal I used to work with shared the fact that when she was hired, he pastor told her, “Either grow the school, or close the school.” I would hope that there aren’t many leaders that would choose the latter option, or, at least, are aware of choosing to close the school. Some decisions which some leaders make, however, point the school in that direction, whether they’re aware of it or not, which is why “vision” is necessary. Schools should choose to “be” in five years rather than “go” somewhere…and using examples, to go “down the drain” isn’t something one wants to do.
So hold the vision, the place where you’d like to see your school, in mind. Write it down. Be concrete. Paint a picture with more than a thousand words – a vision narrative in the words of Dan Krause, or a vision script in the words of Michael Hyatt. Personally, I prefer the term “VisionText” to fulfill the words of Habakkuk 2:2 – “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.” An inspired vision will inspire others to make it a reality! And tablets? Indeed – and how appropriate for today’s technology, since that’s where most parents are finding out about the school you lead!
It also differentiates the second statement from the third (How will you get there?). When someone says, “Where to you want to go?” the path, the journey, the route, is implied to be a part of that statement since it is action-oriented. Utilizing this phrase could cause contradictory statements to be generated between the vision and the plan to get there. Using the word “be” for the second statement establishes the aforementioned endpoint. It should be as vividly described as the starting point. The more vividly the vision is articulated, the easier it will be to map the journey.
As for why I said “you” rather than “the school” is two-fold. First, we know that we must love ourselves first before we can love another. Similarly, before we can effectively lead a strategic planning process for the school we lead, it may be a good exercise to also think about such a process personally. Where do you – personally – want to “be” in five years? Is it still as the leader of this school? Or are your aspirations higher? Maybe you want to be the principal at your school for three years and then begin to seek a superintendency. If that’s the case, then developing a six-year strategic plan means that you should have two plans for the school – one that is three-years in the making, and another that is six-years long. Why?
Because if you’re working toward your personal plan and leave in three years, the new leader may not follow a strategic plan for the school from the previous leader – especially if the results generated did not meet the benchmarks that were established for success. Such a change throws the community of the school into chaos for a while, which takes some time to settle (usually until a new plan is established, embraced and enacted). Therefore, before you can decide the three strategic components for the school, you must decide the three strategic components as they apply to your life as the leader within this school community. If you re-read the fourth paragraph of this article now, you’ll see the connection to the text, “You are in this position for a reason that is far beyond human rationalization and comprehension.”
Second, the leader, over time, becomes synonymous with the school to all constituencies involved – students, parents, community leaders, business leaders, alumni, parishioners and donors. Good leaders prepare for the continued success of the organizations which they lead. So, perhaps a personal strategic planning session is necessary first, examining your personal opportunities, weaknesses, threats and strengths. It would be a good first step to preparing a strategic plan for your school and its curricular, ministry and advancement efforts. Sometimes, a personal strategic plan is even more difficult than preparing a plan for your school because it involves introspection as well as prayer.
Before you dismiss this as something that sounds nice, but addresses nothing about enrollment decreases, the increasing financial hardships of parents, and all the things that all the other schools have which makes parents enroll their children in an educational environment other than your school, consider this: You are the leader of a faith-based school. Your skills and talents have been reviewed and approved by the board, the pastor, and other individuals that were sought for counsel. That’s only two elements of approval. You must also believe that this is where God wants you to be at this point in history. You are fulfilling a key role in His plan, ministering to the parents of the school, since they are the primary educators of their children. What is taught in your school needs to be reinforced at home. If you’re looking for a “strength” in your personal OWTS analysis, that can be an eye-opening, not to mention humbling, one.
© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2006-2021