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Must-Know Takeaways From an Innovative Mind

By Jeffrey Shields posted 02-23-2021 11:36 AM

  

CEO Notebook |

Opening ourselves to new ideas and creating the conditions for creative confidence among our teams can go a long way in advancing the future of independent schools.

Performing best—and creating the future of work—are the businesses able to pivot toward changing markets, the employees broadening their contributions and the leaders creating the conditions for creative confidence.

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

At the start of each NBOA Annual Meeting, I look forward to seeing the ballroom doors open and approximately 1,500 friends and colleagues quickly find their seats before I take the stage to make a few remarks, followed by our opening keynote speaker. Well, as we all know, things are very different this year. And, in some ways, virtually the same. 

Such was the case yesterday. While there were no ballroom doors to open, or stage, we kicked off this year’s NBOA Annual Meeting, “an all-virtual experience,” with Duncan Wardle, former head of innovation and creativity for the Walt Disney Company. Like most years, I valued the opportunity to spend time with a fascinating thinker and speaker, one who is intentionally outside of the independent school community, to gain insights on how he sees the world with his demonstrably innovative mind. I’m excited to share some of the key takeaways that resonated with me and that I think have enormous potential for independent school leaders. 

As Wardle points out, with the disruption that we have already experienced with the pandemic, and the likely greater disruption coming our way — including more competition, limited full-pay families, technological changes to education delivery and altered student and family expectations — our own “river of thinking” may not be what our schools need most.

We must get out of our own “river of thinking”: Wardle refers to a river of thinking as, “your own expertise and your own experience,” which guides leaders, almost reflexively, when making quick and informed decisions. In fact, that is often what our schools value most about our business officers. They have long tenures, deep financial experience and are decisive. But, as Wardle points out, with the disruption that we have already experienced with the pandemic, and the likely greater disruption coming our way — including more competition, limited full-pay families, technological changes to education delivery and altered student and family expectations — our own “river of thinking” may not be what our schools need most. Said a different way, what got us here won’t get us there. We must think differently about the business, finance and operations of our school and education altogether to make the best decisions to support our missions and succeed in a very different post-pandemic environment. 

Break our own rules: One of the ways Wardle recommends embedding innovative thinking within our schools is to make a list of the “rules” of independent school finance. What are the rules we follow every day: Increase tuition annually to maintain salary increases for high-quality faculty? Don’t charge what it costs to deliver our education? Keep classes size under 12 students? There are others. And, then ask, “What if?” What if we didn’t increase our tuition annually? What if we did charge what it costs? What if we had more students in each classroom? Wardle’s guidance: the more absurd the “what ifs,” the better! That is how we move from iteration to real innovation.

Perhaps the greatest “what if” of all is, “What if we no longer were able to have faculty, staff and students in the same physical space for months?” That was an absurd notion just one year ago, but look how we responded — we innovated! Think about the other “what ifs” we can tackle if we are willing to break, or rewrite, our own rules. 

Wardle suggests that one of the best ways to step out of our river of thinking is to ask someone who does not see the world in the confines of our rules at all.

Finally, ask a “naïve expert”: Wardle suggests that one of the best ways to step out of our river of thinking is to ask someone who does not see the world in the confines of our rules at all. Wardle calls this individual a “naïve expert.” They are someone who has very different insight regarding our school communities than perhaps members of our leadership team or even our board of trustees. Could it be the receptionist in the school lobby? The director of security? Or a staff member in the cafeteria? The point is, having an individual who knows our mission and community, but has different perspectives, is valuable to have at the table when we are defying our own rules, going after the next big innovation at our school, and/or solving a complex financial challenge that we may be too close to. This diversity, according to Wardle, is innovation. These naïve experts help us redefine the problem so that we can innovate the most effective solution. Instead of asking how we generate a 3% increase in tuition revenue, ask, “What does our market want the most from our school that we can uniquely do better than anyone else?” 

During the talk, Wardle offered something that really struck a chord with me. He said, “No new stimulus in, no new ideas out.” This is why I’m so grateful that more than 500 schools have chosen to spend this week with us. And it’s why I’m so grateful to our entire membership who invest in NBOA to access the brain trust of colleagues, the resources to help your schools excel and the thought leadership that benefits independent school finance throughout the year. This is something I never take for granted. Like many of you, I’m experiencing the 2021 NBOA Annual Meeting from my home office with a pair of headphones and a computer screen, and I am so grateful for the infusion of new thinking Wardle and the entire speaker lineup will share over the next several days. 

After this past year, gratitude is important as is understanding that we can, and must, have an innovative state of mind to lead our schools into the future. 

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.
From Net Assets NOW, February 23, 2021. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.
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