Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Is It Better To Stay Too Long Or Leave To Soon?

René Magritte, Coming and Going by Duane Michals, 1965
Of course, most of us want to arrive at just the right time and leave at the most optimal moment.  Unfortunately, it is rare that such perfect timing occur.

School leaders face a similar issue.  Is it too late to initiate ideas others have been using?  How would it look to "arrive" at that particular educational "party" at this point?  Should you wait for the next "invitation?"

On the flip side, your school is already immersed in an initiative.  Are there signs that that "party" is slowing down?  Should you move on while things are still going fairly well or risk being the awkward "last person in the room?"

The party scenario highlights a real issue with many school leaders.  Mostly, it is about change.  When to talk about it, when to do it, is the timing right, did we make a mistake before, is this new idea the best one, ... the list goes on.

Here are a few suggestions:

Change for the sake of change is rarely a good idea.  There MUST be more substance to it or you will struggle to achieve buy-in.  This is the equivalent to making up some lame excuse to leave the party.  Nobody really believes you, but is polite enough to go along with it - up to a point.  Once you leave the room, the "party" continues as before.

Measure the need for change against the mission of your school and the expectations of those your school serves.  If you identify areas in which a change in approach would being about better service and more focused attention to mission, assume the change is going to happen and mobilize your team to begin that process.
If it is working for your school, keep doing it, but embrace those who are keeping an eye on future trends.  Sticking with what works is not the problem (see Is Your "Stuff" Broken).  The problem is ignoring or dismissing other potential enhancements because your operations appear to be working well.  Change may not be about an overhaul.  It may simply be finding ways to highlight the good work already being done.

Ultimately, these suggestions bring attention to the need for school leaders to have the authority and ability to make real decisions about the operation of the school.  In other words, if you go to a party as one person in a large group, you are less able to determine when you arrive and when you leave.  If it is just you (and your wife, date, friend, etc.), you have much more influence over those same decisions.

For my friends in public  (and in some cases parochial or other private school networks) school leadership, I often hear the frustration of having to "arrive and leave as a group" play out in various conversations.  Unable, in many ways, to make independent decisions based on the needs of their school, they are forced to "wait around the party" until the group decides it is time to go.

On the other hand, independent schools, that are mostly free to make such decisions, must weigh the potential impact on enrollment and retention against any significant operational change.  While anything may be possible, it certainly isn't always advisable.

Stay too long or leave too soon?

Neither choice may work in every situation.  When faced with such a decision, apply a mission guided and student achievement centered approach to your leadership.  That may be your best chance for a good outcome.
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