School Administrators: Leading Like CEOs

School administrators leading like CEOs

Because our work here at School Webmasters bridges the world of education and the world of business, it is easy for us to see similarities and differences. Here’s what we’ve learned.

We’ve noticed that sometimes school administrators don’t see themselves as business executives even though their roles and responsibilities are nearly identical. 

As today’s educational administrator, whether in a public or a private school, you have to focus on running the business as well as answer for how you are running it—just like any corporate CEO. The primary difference is that when a business fails, it shutters its doors, while a failing school will often remain open for years, being propped up by state or federal agencies and the school’s leadership becomes a revolving door of change.

In the ‘olden days’ there were public schools (and a few private schools), and nearly all students went to the neighborhood public school. So, having to market your successes and retain or grow your ‘customer’ base wasn’t an issue. Those days are behind us. 

Parents now have a lot of choices. Their children can attend online schools, be home schooled, or attend brick-and-mortar schools that are public, private, or charter. In the days of school choice, some states even allow parents to take the associated tax dollars with them when they change schools. So, our school administrators have to expand their expertise and think like CEOs if they want their schools to become the school of choice. 

Let’s compare the business model with the educational model to see how they have merged. Two primary requirements of a successful business are to: 

  • attract customers
  • satisfy those customers 

If you don’t do these two things well, it really doesn’t matter how well you do the rest of it because you won’t be around to do it. The same criteria now applies to schools. If our business (or our school) doesn’t attract customers (students, or more accurately the parents of those students) and then satisfy them (that we are doing a good job of educating their children) then, if allowed, they will take their children elsewhere. To make matters worse, it doesn’t even matter if we ARE doing a great job of educating their children if they don’t perceive that to be the case. School or business, the requirements for executives or administrators boil down to the same basic requirements, like it or not. The best school administrators focus on the following areas.

Attracting customers

The first customers for a school are the parents. They decide how their children will be educated and by whom. So your first hurdle is winning over the parent. Start by considering what promises you communicate to parents through your various messages. Whether it is implied or stated, you are making a promise to do something for them through your messaging. Does your school have a formalized message? If not, that becomes step one. If you have, then you need to walk through your entire “customer experience” as if you are a customer to see if you are consistently reinforcing your key messages at every touch point. Everything that pertains to your school either delivers on your message or it fails to do so. That includes everyone representing your school, from the superintendent to the crossing guard. Marketing your school is a part of that strategy, and everyone needs to be on board with that purpose.

Seeing through your customer’s eyes

Start with the school website, as this is often the first stop when a parent is checking out a school or district. What will they see, hear, feel? Does the website reflect the caring, professional attitude of the staff that you so carefully selected? Is information handy, convenient, and up-to-date to show that you respect parents’ time and want to make dealing with your school a positive and efficient experience? Does it highlight your programs, activities, and successes? 

Next, walk with them through every contact they are likely to make throughout the year. Is your office staff friendly and inviting or obviously inconvenienced by interruptions? Would parents feel welcome when they show up at the school or like they just stepped into hostile territory? Do they feel like the school is their advocate or an opponent to their role as parent? What is “Meet the Teacher Night” like (or do you have one)? Is it well attended and if not, then why not? How do you communicate and involve parents when it comes to grades, attendance, or events? Are they kept in the loop when a teacher notices slippage in grades or attitudes? 

Using a business strategy for school improvement

Ask yourself what steps along the way will dilute or possibly destroy the desired experience you want to create for your customers. Look at every touch point you have with a parent. Consider putting each of these into a flowchart to see if there are any inconsistencies with your messaging at each point. If they are there, fix them. You can give teachers and staff permission to help you fix inconsistencies that degrade your message—have them be on the lookout for them. It might be food service personnel who see that the layout of the cafeteria could be changed a bit to make it easier for parents to make a payment or to have lunch with their child. It could be a bus driver or a custodian or a playground supervisor who can see ways to fortify your intended message. It could be as obvious as clean hallways and manicured grounds to show that you take pride in your school. 

As principal or superintendent, and your school’s CEO, consider making this the topic of a staff meeting. Ask your staff to walk with you through the typical parent experience—pointing out the inconsistencies between your intended message and the actual experience. Encourage them to suggest ways to fix any inconsistencies. If they recognize the importance you put on this issue, it will become a focus for them as well.

If we integrate common business methods into our school management, it might look like: 

  • Mission/Values. This is a priority in business planning. As a school, what is your desired message? Caring staff? All students succeed? Everyone can learn? Student safety? Put your primary message into words, and make sure everyone knows what it is. Your message MUST be about what you can do for your customers (in this case, their children) and not about you. They only care about you if it helps you address their needs. (They don’t care about your excelling teachers or even lower class size unless they believe that it means it will help their child succeed.)
  • Branding. How is your message reflected on our website, your social media, your phone messaging, and media articles? (Are you highlighting examples and evidence of your message’s success? Is your message consistent and frequent through myriad formats? Do you use storytelling as the primary vehicle for your message delivery? Have you established a relationship with the local media and regularly provide them with enticing and informative articles?)
  • Customer Service. How is your intended message demonstrated by your office staff? (What would outstanding customer service look like in action and does your staff know that? Are you rewarding the behaviors you are trying to establish?) How is school customer service exemplified by your teaching staff? (How is your message incorporated into lesson plans and curriculum to be reinforced to students? Ask your teachers for examples, and recognize those with great ideas.)
  • Marketing. How is it reflected in your buildings and grounds? (Signage, awards, events, pride in your school, all demonstrate what you value, and this should be reflected in everything that touches your community and your customers/parents.) Are your staff walking, talking public relations advocates for your messaging? (They can be if you encourage them to share their stories as part of your marketing strategy—via the website, social media, and other forms of communication.) 

There are some excellent resources available to you as your school’s top executive. Don’t be afraid to grab the best business books and apply the successful practices to becoming the best school around. After all, success is success, and many of the honorable principles are the same for business and education. Broaden your leadership knowledge base—steal from other fields and improve your own in the process. 

What’s a good leader to do?

  • Keep abreast of other industry best practices:
    • Subject matter experts should attend other industry seminars, tradeshows, and webinars, read articles and blogs, etc. (IT department to attend tech conferences, communications to attend marketing webinars, office staff to attend customer service training, etc.) Broaden their views (and yours).
    • Have key personnel attend training in public relations and customer service, and help them implement what they learn into the school environment.
    • Learn to understand your audience needs. Visit parents’ homes, conduct surveys, create focus groups, etc. Ask good questions. Listen intently. Then confirm, reflect, and respond, in that order.
    • Use best practices from other industries and become an innovator. Read books by experts in other fields with a focus on what you can apply to K–12 education. 
    • Find out what smart companies are doing on their websites and use what works. Don’t wait to be forced to change and upgrade. Lead the way. (Right now that means use responsive website design, be sure your website is ADA compliant, and make sure your website is always current and informative and tells your school stories well.)
    • Don’t be risk averse. Be strategic. Don’t be a lemming, be the leader. Don’t fight the tech, use it.
    • Follow the successful business leaders, and jump years ahead of other school leaders. Become a trailblazer. It takes a bit of courage to break out of the bureaucratic mentality and become a leader your staff will look up to and follow.
  • Develop strong personal leadership qualities:
    • Listen to your team (even when you don’t like what they have to say).
    • Communicate often and effectively. More complaints from school personnel are about the fact that they “don’t know what is going on” than nearly any other single issue.
    • Be an example. Be sure you are demonstrating the types of behaviors, leadership style, and tone that you hope your staff will emulate.
    • Find a mentor. Find people you look up to and can learn from (and they can be from outside the education sector for a fresh perspective).
    • Don’t make excuses. When you make a mistake, own it and work on avoiding making it again. Don’t blame someone or something else. Great leaders understand that if the team falls short, they are responsible. Poor leaders blame the team.
    • Have fun with your team. Remember, it is the journey that matters. Your attitude of happiness and humor will make those around you enjoy their own journey a bit more.
    • Recognize your emotions, and only then go for the rational. Remember, emotions always trump reason, so acknowledge its power, and then the rational has more power and accuracy.
    • Constantly learn. Read as much as you can. Take classes online. These new perspectives will help you become a better leader.
    • Give feedback. Let your team members know how they are doing (especially important when they are doing well). Make a habit of reaching out to at least one person per day with a word or a note, and be specific to provide concrete examples for your comments.
    • Treat everyone equally. Have you ever been out to dinner with someone who treated the waitstaff with disrespect? It sends you a strong message about their real character, right? Don’t be one of those people! Good leaders think of people as people. Treat vendors like you would a parent, and parents like you would a board member, and you send a consistent message about your character.
    • Great leaders empower their people. That means they care less about a process than they do about the results. Be flexible—accept change when the results warrant it. Status quo isn’t always a good thing (especially in the current age of evolving technology).

Making marketing a priority

One thing that school administrators should make a priority, which all experienced CEOs consider critical to their business success, is how to effectively market themselves. School marketing is equally critical. 

Effective school administrators, like leading CEOs, know what their customers need and want. They have a written school communication strategy that is transparent and engaging, and it addresses those customer needs utilizing school marketing strategies. They will use their school websites as their primary communications hub, integrated with social media, media relations, and storytelling. They have mobile friendly websites to make finding them easy and convenient from any device their customers use. 

It would be unheard of for a CEO to use the corporate website as an afterthought, managed by a secretary, customer support representative, or IT manager. School administrators need to follow their lead and give this valuable resource the attention it deserves. The best school websites are a school administrator’s primary strategic marketing and communications tool and their school public relations hub. Use it well.

School leaders deserve the same respect that highly paid corporate executives garner. But in order to get it, they need to recognize that they are accountable for the areas of branding, marketing, communications, and customer service. While these are areas that will make or break a business, they are often given low priority in schools. Administrators must control the message or someone else will. Take control and enjoy customers (like your parents, students, and staff) who are advocates instead of adversaries. 

Recommended Reading 

Apply the tips in these books to your educational administrative roles and enjoy the positive changes. What applies to the corporate world applies to your school leadership roles as well: 

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Peopleby Stephen Covey (still a favorite and must read)

The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Failby Clayton M. Christensen

Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Storyby Peter Guber 

Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting out of the Boxby Arbinger Institute 

First Things First, by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill 

Wooden on Leadership: How to Create a Winning Organizationby John Wooden

Tribesby Seth Godin

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’tby Jim Collins

How Successful Schools Market Themselves eBook

Bonnie Leedy, CEO, School Webmasters, LLC.