Many of you may have played this bizarre game with your friends. You know the one that goes by the title, “Marry, FOCUS, Kill”. When it comes to the decisions, improvement initiatives, or ideas that your team dreams up, you school leaders play this game every day. It’s a simple game that can have complex implications.

Marry the Mission; Date the Plan

To be successful, you must marry your school’s mission, but you must date the methods to get there. Similar to dating in your personal life, you check out different plans until you find the one that syncs with your mission, your student population, and your community. Great organizations continuously follow their mission and rarely stray from it. Effective leaders know that even a slight deviation from the mission can result in a flutter of ineffective activity that leads to a wave of confusion and stalled action.

Every leader must start with defining the mission. Peter Drucker, the father of executive leaders stated, “The mission is the heart of the organization; a starting point that is the pulse of why everyone there does what they do.” Whether an organization begins with one individual with a dream or a group of parents deciding to act on an idea for a school, the mission starts with an idea and is deeply rooted into all aspects of the learning organization.

Every decision should be made with a clear understanding by all parties that the decision will take the organization closer to achieving the mission. This goes for decisions around your budget, operations, specific programs, academic programming, and, of course, your hiring process.

Remember this: Marry the mission. Date the plan. Effective public charter schools understand and live their mission daily. From the governing board to the families, they are intentional with communicating the mission at every opportunity. The mission lives through succession planning, stable school leadership, effective teachers, and highly engaged parents.

FOCUS

Recently, I was asked by a charter school principal, “What does it take to move the school one full NC Report Card grade level?” I replied with one word, “Focus.” One of the best school leadership books I have ever read was Michael Schmoker’s Focus. In it, Schmoker said that one of the main reasons more school’s have not improved after decades of reform is their inability to prioritize, isolate, and focus on the most vital, game-changing actions that ensure significant improvement in teaching and learning. He goes on to say, “The most successful organizations have always known that time and energy are precious, limited resources, and if we squander them on too many initiatives or the wrong ones, we will fail.”

During my nine years as an charter school researcher, charter school consultant, and strategic thinking partner to many school leaders and board members, I have investigated and analyzed public charter schools at all stages and achievement levels. There is one thing I know for sure. The schools that are the most effective learning organizations are those in which the faculty understand these three aspects of their school:

  1. Who they are.
  2. Why they exist.
  3. What is most responsible for the success of their school.

These faculty members are also able to clearly articulate and communicate their education plans and overall programming. They have learned to prioritize their time and focus their resources on what is the most vital, making subtle tweaks in their plans. These intentional actions result in significant improvement in teaching and learning in every classroom at the school.

Conversely, the schools that are underperforming have muddy communication and typically have a hodgepodge of programs and theories within their education plan. They haven’t yet learned to prioritize what gives them the greatest return. Instead, they do one of two things:

  1. Hover in destination disease by being happy with being “better than” the surrounding schools.
  2. Repurpose funds annually to buy the shiny new program that will fix all, confusing their teachers and blaming others (parents, government, or kids) for their failures.

Simply put: They lack focus.

Schmoker proclaimed, “The key to effective leadership is identifying the smallest number of high-leverage, easy to understand actions that unleash stunningly powerful consequences.” WOW! That statement alone should have you rethinking 90% of your day! As I noted before, the schools that are underperforming typically embrace a large number of low-leverage, difficult to understand actions.

I have found in my research and observations that these “improvement actions” are what they have read, heard, or seen another school having success with. However, because they, the leaders and main communicators have not actually utilized these initiatives to drive change, the initiative is not implemented with fidelity, and it fails. This creates more frustration, more stagnant actions, and limited results. If you have attended any of my leadership talks you have probably heard me advocate for the Pareto Principle which states, 80% of your output is going to come from 20% of the input. It is your job as the leader to identify what that 20% is, focus your time, energy, resources, and focus there to gain that 80% return.

Kill

As a former principal and now an independent business owner, I have learned that the most precious resource we have in life is our time. Wasting it is a slow form of suicide. Unfortunately, there is a gap that exists between what I know and do; therefore, I am still wasting valuable time. Sometimes, this is due to bad habits; sometimes, it is due to doing work that does not move my business forward or support our mission; and sometimes, it is because I refuse to kill an idea or an initiative that just isn’t serving me. You must be relentless in protecting your time and choosing your initiatives. Be better than I am.

As a leader, you carry the responsibility for reviewing what your team does and looking for what necessary changes. John Maxwell taught me this standard in his book Developing the Leader Within You 2.0:

  • If you have done something for one year – look at it carefully.
  • If you have done it for two years – look at it with suspicion
  • If you have done anything for anything the same way for five years – stop looking at it and do something to change it.

Each quarter during your off site meeting with your leadership team, take the time to analyze every improvement initiative and ensure everyone on the team’s time and skill sets are being utilized to the fullest. Ask and answer questions such as:

  • “What initiatives are working and need more resources and attention?”
  • “What initiatives need the pause button?”
  • “What is the progress on the short and long term goals?”

Bring data and project visual dashboards on the wall. Your team should see every idea being brought up on the big screen as an idea that will need to fight for its life. Any idea that is taking away the teachers’ and teams’ focus and/or not demonstrating evidences towards achieving the organization’s mission must be executed. Not executed in the sense of carrying out or putting into effect. No, these ideas need to be executed in the guillotine sense of executed. If you choose to move forward with every idea presented, you and your team will slowly lose your way, and you will never meet your mission eye-to-eye.  

During your off-site meeting, have each team member go through their last nine week calendar and “to-do” lists. Have them answer these questions:

  • Where is the majority of their time being spent?
  • What is pulling them away from what they should be focusing on?
  • What systems need to be built or redesigned to fix this issue?

As a school leader, identify who in the organization deserves more opportunity and where you can build more time developing people. Then answer these questions:

  • Who needs more direction?
  • Who will be responsible for supporting their progress?
  • Finally, what challenges might the organization face over the next 90 days that you are not prepared for?
  • What’s most important right now and who is responsible for what?

Put these commitments in the meeting minutes (all team meetings should have minutes) so that everyone can see and approve them before walking out of the room that day.

A Goal Without a Plan is a Wish

I love best selling author and financial expert Dave Ramsey. If you listen to his radio show or podcast you have probably heard him say, “Kids do what they want; adults follow a plan.” Plan your work, and work your plan. Everything else is a distraction. Spend time over the next week setting your goals and writing them and your plan on paper with your team. Communicate the plan daily and identify the tangible evidences that you will report that will show progress. Without this plan on paper, you will never know what to focus your time, energy, and resources on. If you choose not to do this, that is fine. The odds are you will never fail if you never set a target. However, if you do choose to be a stronger leader and write out your goals, plans, and evidences, I guarantee you will have a more successful year!

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