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2018 NBOA Annual Meeting: Riskier to Stand Still: Josh Linkner

By Net Assets posted 12-18-2017 02:13 PM


Leadership |

Independent school CFOs must be catalysts for positive change. “Success isn’t a permanent condition; it’s a temporary state in the context of many external factors.” 

From the January/February 2018 Net Assets magazine

Josh Linkner, the opening keynote speaker of the 2018 NBOA Annual Meeting in Nashville, thinks it’s riskier for independent schools to stand still than to participate in what he calls “disruptive innovation.” Schools must innovate in order to deliver the best outcomes for their students and communities. By vetting creative ideas through small experiments, Linkner believes schools can minimize risk before implementing potentially transformative changes.
The tech entrepreneur, author and venture capitalist chatted with NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields about his upcoming opening keynote at the 2018 NBOA Annual Meeting, innovation, creativity, how school leaders are like jazz musicians — and the parallels between independent schools and the city of Detroit. Edited excerpts of their discussion follow.

Jeff Shields: Some people have criticized “disruptive innovation” as a theory of change founded on panic. Outside of a crisis like the economic crisis of 2009, what can we do to help our schools accelerate the pace of change?

Josh Linkner: Very often we think of things like disruption as a huge, scary, overwhelming thing. When you think of disrupting a school, you might say, “I’ve got to take care of my students” and “If it’s not broke don’t fix it” and “Why should I take an irresponsible risk?” To me, it’s more risky to stand still.

Disruption can be broken down into bite-sized pieces. As leaders, we should always be running lots of little experiments — fixed-time, fixed-money experiments. That’s the way to innovate in a non-risky format.

But disruption can be broken down into bite-sized pieces. As leaders, we should always be running lots of little experiments — fixed-time, fixed-money experiments. That’s the way to innovate in a non-risky format.

Innovation or disruption isn’t taking one cool idea and betting the entire organization on it; instead; it’s always running lots of little experiments. Try running something in one classroom, with one parent or one family, get a focus group together, ideas you can easily test on a rapid-fire basis. Discard the ideas that don’t work. The ones that do work, double the experiments rather than just running them out. That way, by the time you embrace something fully, it has been vetted through experiments, and the riskiness of this type of thinking has gone away.

Shields: What you’re describing are hacks, right? And you think independent schools should be running these small hacks all the time?

Linkner: Absolutely. The world isn’t static. There are always going to be new challenges and new opportunities. And it’s a fool’s bet to think we can just crack the code. Success isn’t a permanent condition; it’s a temporary state in the context of many external factors. If our schools are really focused on delivering the best outcomes for our students and our communities, then it’s irresponsible not to consider changing. It’s irresponsible not to look at innovation. We’re selling our students and our communities short if we do that.

Shields: In your book "Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity," you described the concept of disciplined dreaming as a way to create profitable new ideas, empower your employees to be creative and sustain your competitive advantage over the long term. How does that concept meld with the role of the CFO at an independent school?

Linkner: [When we] think about creativity or innovation, we picture sloppiness and messiness and irresponsibility. And we think of words like “discipline” and “rigor” as stodgy. But the two concepts can meld together. Think of a Venn diagram. At the intersection is what I like to call “disciplined dreaming.” I think it’s a good model for CFOs of [independent] institutions. Their goal is to keep the school in a financially sound state, to attract new paying students, to embrace the philanthropic community and alumni community, and to make thoughtful bets at the right time. All of those require applying rigor and process and discipline — but at the same time we should look at it with our artistic lens and say, “Are we best serving our longer-term mission of our students and our community?” To me, that’s a really good litmus test. Before making a decision, ask, “Does it pass discipline?” Check. “Does it pass dreaming?” Check. Make sure we’re looking at both sides of that coin. Make sure it serves as a North Star to guide us to thoughtful and productive decisions.

Shields: NBOA was recently made aware of a nonprofit independent school that was acquired by a for-profit entity with support of venture capital. As a venture capitalist yourself what would be attractive about acquiring a nonprofit school? Should our schools see this as an opportunity or a threat?

Linkner: I’m generally a fan of free-market economies, so a profit incentive doesn’t necessarily take away from doing great things. I’m not suggesting that people be greedy and only consider profit, but a profit mechanism is one way to attract capital that can be deployed for the benefit of students.

Say you’re a nonprofit struggling away, you have overcrowded classrooms, you lack modern technology, your gym’s falling apart and your lab rooms are broken. An infusion of capital — if it’s deployed in a responsible way — can be a really positive thing for students and communities. It’s also an opportunity for a CFO in a nonprofit independent school to run it with the rigor and discipline you would a for-profit organization. You try to extract and pull out ways to “reinvest” the profit into the system for a better, more meaningful outcome.

Shields: Let’s talk about your jazz guitarist background. How does playing jazz guitar blend into leading change or being entrepreneurial? It seems like the characteristics are similar.

In the past, the leadership role was probably more like the role of a classical symphony conductor. It was all about alignment and precision and accuracy. Today, our job as school leaders is to be like jazz musicians. To make decisions in the face of ambiguity. To improvise in real time.

Linkner: I think we actually live in a jazz world right now, in a way that applies directly to independent schools. In the past, the leadership role was probably more like the role of a classical symphony conductor. Standing in front of the room. No longer playing an instrument. Aimed at getting everyone in the room to play the notes on the page exactly as they’re written. It was all about alignment and precision and accuracy.

Today the world is too complex; our students are changing, our communities are changing. There’s no such thing as playing all the notes in front of you. No one has that set of operating manuals for success. Today, our job as school leaders is to be more like jazz musicians. To make decisions in the face of ambiguity. To try lots of little ideas, to be running lots of creative experiments to pass the baton of leadership from one to the next. To improvise in real time. If we do that, we better serve our bottom line and our students.

Shields: As a founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners, what lessons have you learned that could help our schools experience the kind of renaissance you’re working toward in Detroit?

Linkner: Detroit is a fascinating laboratory for when you lean into the future and crave innovation — and when you don’t. A hundred years ago, Detroit was the Silicon Valley of our country. When we were in that creative groove, our city prospered. But then we became entitled about our success and thought we were unstoppable. It shows what happens when we allow complacency to set in. The good news for Detroit is we’re finally rising from the ashes. We’re reconnecting to those entrepreneurial roots and the soul that was the beginning of Detroit, so our city is doing great again. We have a long way to go, but we’re definitely on the right track.

For schools there are a couple of messages.

  • One is if all you do is cling to previous success that’s obviously a deep trap; we should always be adapting and changing and innovating a future state rather than clinging to the old one.
  • Also, even when things get kind of tough, like they did for Detroit, it’s never too late to fight back. You never throw up your hands and say, “coulda, woulda, shoulda.” At some point you have to say, “We’re in a tough spot, let’s recognize it and use our creativity to move forward.”

Even for schools that are struggling, they can really be inspired by the greatness that’s occurring today in Detroit as they bounce back from significant adversity.

Shields: CFOs report to the heads of school. What’s the role of a number two with regard to being a catalyst for change within their organization?

Linkner: The whole role of the CFO has evolved. It’s not just about reporting on what’s happened; it’s about helping to provide insight to guide what will happen. It’s not just looking in the rearview mirror and spitting out numbers, it’s the insight between the lines and looking at the patterns and nuances and using the financial lens to help guide a positive future state for students.

If you have a strong CFO, the overall organization wins and ultimately students and communities do as well.

Shields: What do you think would give independent preK–12 schools an advantage five or 10 years from now?

Linkner: Adding non-traditional approaches to their education curriculum to make it stand out. If I’m making the calculus that I can pay 30 grand a year to send my kids to a school that will teach them the basics, but I’m in a school district that can do the same thing for free, there’s potentially not enough to lead me in the independent school direction.

On the other hand, if the independent school said, “We have a whole required curriculum class called ‘Making Mistakes,’ and we help people understand that making mistakes is not fatal. You can learn from them and learn to take responsible risks.” To me, that’s more valuable than learning long division by hand. If a school is progressive in what it offers to families, [the school will] have more success not only in financial prosperity but educationally as well.


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