Discover more from Talking Out of School
Strategy Should Serve You, Not the Planning Process
Let's think differently... and a big announcement!
Stony Creek Strategy news!
I am delighted to announce the debut of our beautiful and easy to use Stony Creek Strategy website!
Thanks for reading Talking Out of School! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Thank you to Blazar Design Studio for the gorgeous design and thank you to Michele Levy, President of Caravan Brand Partners for the brand messaging guidance and cheerleading. Good partners make all the difference.
I am particularly excited to announce new members of the SCS team, three people who are as excited as I am to collaboratively create practical solutions for tough school problems - Lauren Castagnola, Gina Malin and Ann Spagnola.
Lauren Castagnola is already known to Talking Out of School readers as an eloquent evangelist for elevated communications in independent schools. There is no one more insightful, inventive, harder working and just plain enjoyable to collaborate with than Lauren and her extensive experience in both higher ed as well as in schools gives her a huge range of skills and insights.
Sometimes you wonder if luck or fate exists and sometimes you know it does. I met Gina Malin because she has a home around the corner from me in Stony Creek. We had coffee a year ago when she had recently retired from her role as Executive Director of the Parents League of New York and we could barely stop talking about all the challenges and opportunities facing schools today. Through Gina, I met Ann Spagnola, another veteran educator and passionate independent school advocate, and similarly, we immediately connected. And then the three of us just kept talking. I am delighted that Gina and Ann are part of the Stony Creek Strategy team, bringing their deep experience, insight and wisdom about schools, enrollment management and the evolving expectations of parents and families. They bring clarity, compassion and fresh ideas to manage the reality on the ground in our schools.
And of course, we continue to count Jane Moulding of Smarter Wisdom as well as Michele Levy, President of Caravan Brand Partners as strategic partners. I feel proud to be part of this powerful group of women!
I was just invited on my first podcast and I am so excited. I’m a total podcast nerd so it’s a dream come true. If you can’t find me, I’ll be polishing up my pithy anecdotes. Jason Bateman, call me and I’ll see if I can fit you guys on my calendar. More details to come!
Communications Director Cohort interest form and request for more information here.
Check out the website! We welcome you reaching out to simply connect - as we say on the contact page, sometimes just a twenty minute conversation can make all the difference.
Whenever I would stop by and have dinner with my parents as an adult, as I left, my dad would say: Be careful! It’s a jungle out there. Connection helps.
The Idea of a Cumbersome Process Get You Down?
Let’s Take Control of Strategy!
I have drafted pages and pages on strategic planning over the past six months. I’ve been involved with it quite a few times and generally I like that sort of thing, but often something seemed… off. It seemed a little out of scale, maybe? Sometimes a little too aspirational in the “is this realistic and how are we really doing to make this work” way (that was in the old, old days). Sure, the blue sky exercises are fun. And I always believe a school should be trying to be world class, it’s best and highest version of itself. But I have many Points of View on strategic planning. I even did research into the history of “long range planning.”
I have it all on my Google Drive and I will likely pull up pieces now and then that will appear here. But after drafting a much longer post this week, I put most it back in the drive because at the end of the day, it’s rather simple and it all points to why I feel so passionate about building Stony Creek Strategy. That’s just the truth and it seemed appropriate for a website launch day post.
Warning - at the beginning, this post sounds like an old Ronco ad,, but it is all links to recent stories that seem to be a thousand bells tolling ominously about the future of schools.
And then I explore why “the strategic plan,” as we’ve known it, is largely an ineffective to combat these challenges, and also why it was maybe always kind of a funny fit for our organizations. And what a more nimble and effective approach can be.
And a BIG asterisk here - there are schools where a full on, intensive, expensive strategic planning process is necessary, helpful, and can make a transformative change. There are the schools that are genuinely at a crossroads and need a back-to-the-studs approach to decide a way forward. And on the other end, there are strong, solid schools who can undertake the great cost in both money and time of what I think of as that traditional, five year plan approach - and then still have the bandwidth and resources to implement it. I read a strat plan recently that fit that bill and it made perfect sense for that specific school.
But most schools aren’t in either of those categories - and they urgently need to apply a strategic mindset as to how to navigate both their current reality and the rapids ahead.
Because doesn’t it feel as if you can’t escape signs of independent school challenges? Declining faith in the value of college attendance? The impact of AI? A teacher shortage perhaps becoming an existential crisis? “A new era” where school closings, mergers and reinventions are commonplace? The culture wars. School safety.
And then there’s the regular stuff - the unfavorable demographic trends, the ailing tuition model, the shapeshifting blessing and curse of everyday technology, winding around our lives like a beautiful invasive vine.
And with all these threats, just turn it up to 11 for boarding schools.
Part of the problem in confronting these threats is that we are individual schools, standing alone, small against large forces looming.
But the advantage independent schools have is that we are individual schools, standing alone, able to craft a nimble and unique path into the future, leveraging unique strengths and mitigating weaknesses.
Your school’s specific strategy can move the needle. You need clarity on your internal strengths and weaknesses, some perspective in creating your path, and collective buy-in as to the destination.
And along with these myriad threats, there are myriad reasons why the same-old, same-old strategic plan process and outcome has, in many ways, jumped the shark.
Most of the time, what schools need are course adjustments and internal alignment because what we do in schools is pretty proscribed by the bigger educational system. A strategic planning process is not going to result in eliminating, say, math. That’s why the tech world lessons for schools are so limited - there’s a pretty small range of options of what to possibly “disrupt.”
There is also an inherent promise in the scale and trappings of a full on five year strategic planning process that often leads to disappointment and the cliche that the result “collects dust on a shelf.” Because in many ways, it’s a special event divorced from the day to day life of the school. We’re long past the point for most schools when a strategic plan was one step in a five to seven year period that led to a multi year capital campaign producing the physical transformation of a campus and an endowment. And then there’s the issue of how the traditional strategic planning process is designed to be inclusive and reflect every voice - again, creating expectations - but if resources don’t align, leadership is limited as to how to enact aspirational goals. And then cynicism can set in.
The reality is there is no one-size-fits-all best practice around strategic planning right now and probably will never be again. You can still involve the community. You can still provide opportunities to engage trustees in thinking big about the future. But it might look different depending on the challenges your school is facing, how quickly you need solutions in some areas and where you have a more comfortable runway.
Strategic planning can take many forms. It can be a re-evaluation of a strategic plan that never really took flight because of COVID. It can mean data collection, qualitative and quantitative. It can mean specific audits - enrollment management, communications, academics. It can mean zeroing in on the one building or renovation project that could be a significant value add. On and on. And there are many different ways you can engage your community in this work.
(And I would add that when you are talking to a strategy consultant, be specific about what you need from them and how they can customize what they provide to meet your needs. Many schools need an approach to strategy design and implementation that is practical and “do-able” in terms of both cost and person-power.)
A series of smart, practical, fundable strategic adjustments will make the difference between the schools that thrive and those that stumble. They aren’t as glamorous as a new performing arts center, but they can add up to transformative change. Day to day, you need to buy time as you adjust to change and bide your time until you see what changes in your larger environment stick, or at least stick for a significant amount of time. You don’t want to be the guy that put all his chips down on Betamax. (Youngsters, ask your elders to explain that reference!)
It’s the biggest of cliches right now, but only because it is so true - the change around us is coming fast, it’s often confusing, and it’s causing us to stretch muscles we didn’t even know we had.
And that’s the whole impetus for founding Stony Creek Strategy - customized, focused strategic solutions to help you approach difficult problems practically, efficiently, considering your specific school’s culture, and in a spirit of partnership. That’s the simple and sincere why - why Gina, Ann, Lauren, our strategic partners at SmarterWisdom and Caravan Brand Partners - have come together. We have all been part of independent schools. We love and believe in independent schools. We want to use our decades of experience and our wide array of perspectives and expertise to support you, the people working hard to create joy and meaning for kids and families.
We see a lot of stuck-ness out there - not so much people with their heads in the sand, but the demands on schools today are non-stop and keep your hands full. People are tired and the challenges are genuinely hard. And this can make it difficult to see both your school’s strengths and weaknesses clearly.
And we also believe that with some fresh eyes, a collaborative approach and some outside perspective, hard problems can be broken down, made manageable and - maybe even solvable. We have specific programs we’ve developed that we think get at the heart of the matter - enrollment management, hiring and evaluation, communications and leadership development. And we’ve developed a flexible institutional strategy program on creating a strategic agenda, where a small team will work with you to map out a plan for what’s next, right now, that can serve you immediately and create a roadmap into the future.
And through all of it, we bring a thoughtful, “be a human” communications lens to our work.
Stony Creek Strategy and Talking Out of School don’t pretend to have THE answer because there is no one answer. But we aren’t afraid to ask hard questions. And then we are eager to do the hard work, with you, of creating solutions.
And remember, when you talk to a consultant - advocate for what your school needs. You are investing in your future, not their process.
I am so grateful for all the people who have been supportive over the past year, including all of you Talking Out of School readers! We’ll be back next week with a post about the specific challenges to boarding schools.
Have a great weekend!
And I can’t help myself… one more time! www.stonycreekstrategy.com
I look forward to connecting.
Thanks for reading Talking Out of School! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.