Viewpoint School: Applying Corporate Experience to the Independent School World

Strategic Insights Blog | February 2, 2015

There are enormous pressures on educational institutions to establish a strong competitive position and to operate like well-run businesses. At the same time, as mission-driven institutions, colleges, universities and independent schools must be careful not to allow these pressures to cause them to compromise their values or distract them from developing their core competencies. In the end, it’s the responsibility of institutional leaders to ensure that the institution maintains the critical balance between mission and market position.

In this, the second installment of our leadership series, we explore this issue through a conversation with Charles Schetter, a board member of Viewpoint School, a K-12 independent school in Southern California. For the past year, Charles led a project task force that worked with Art & Science Group to guide Viewpoint through a process of research and planning leading to the development of a differentiated brand and competitive positioning strategy. His impressive experience and credentials — he is president of Hearthstone, a national residential real estate development company; former Senior Partner at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with non-profit health organizations across the country; and former nine year member of the Tuck Business School board — give him a particularly well-informed perspective.

In our interview, Charles discusses what independent schools can learn from business about strategic planning, especially in terms of setting appropriate goals and measuring progress towards these goals, but also how differences in mission and governance between mission-driven and for-profit organizations require independent school leaders to take an approach very different from that available to their for-profit counterparts.

 

A&S: In terms of strategy development, what can independent schools learn from the business world? How did this translate into the process Viewpoint followed to develop a differentiated positioning strategy?

Mr. Schetter: The corporate world is driven by economics, but there are fairly succinct steps companies take that can be valuable for non-profit organizations. First and foremost, institutions must examine and be critical about their aspirations. They also have to understand the importance and reach of stakeholders and effectively include those stakeholders in the process of change.

"The success of a strategy planning study comes from the foundation you lay: you have to convince the school community that it’s really important …. There has to be a deep visceral sense of felt need to get something done."

In the case of Viewpoint School, we had to determine our real aspirations, determine the levers needed to drive us towards those aspirations, and then measure our progress in reaching our goals of a clearly defined brand, expanded market share and national preeminence. We were fortunate because we already had sound financials, an effective admissions process, great faculty, real student achievement and broad outreach. But we needed to identify our weak areas and began to attack those with internal resources.

We worked for several years in advance and then reached out for the best resources to help us get to the next level. What I learned from working at McKinsey is that you get what you pay for. We retained Art & Science Group because it had the skill set needed for impact: their work was data-driven, involved the full array of stakeholders, strong pattern recognition, deep experience and sound judgment. And they helped us fill gaps in our own resources. The success of a strategy planning study comes from the foundation you lay: you have to struggle internally and convince the school community that it’s really important and that you don’t have the capability to do this on your own. It took two years for the Viewpoint community to lay the groundwork to be ready for A&S. And you can’t short circuit the process. There has to be a deep visceral sense of felt need to get something done, and that doesn’t happen overnight.

Like corporate leaders, school board members and staff leaders must realistically focus on and consider the school’s weaknesses that need to be addressed. Otherwise the exercise will be of minimal value. Listening and being open to change must come from a clear sense of where the weaknesses are and what is required to fix those weaknesses in order to have the best environment possible for students.

A&S was accurate in characterizing Viewpoint as a place with a powerfully felt culture and a school community with a passionate commitment to every single child. A&S provided a vocabulary for the School to talk about its distinctive competencies. The distinctiveness of our core competencies and commitment to each student’s success is authentic. If you don’t have a distinct culture, you have to think about this before you can begin to market yourself. Viewpoint had the benefit of many years building a distinctive culture and community and that provided a great launching point.

 

What do you view as the greatest strategic challenges independent schools like Viewpoint face now and in the future?

A challenge for independent schools is the growing availability of free or low-cost alternatives coupled with the dramatic increase in independent school and college tuition costs. Given these market realities, schools must demonstrate their value proposition. Changing technology, top academics, a diverse community, global knowledge and perspectives — these and other educational qualities are part of demonstrating a school’s value proposition. Independent schools have to demonstrate that students will have a far broader understanding of these and other challenges compared to students who attend other schools. The notion of creating and sustaining a demonstrable value position is critical to the long-term viability of independent schools.

For Viewpoint, the cornerstone of its distinct educational program is faculty seamlessly guiding students along a path that essentially is a funnel: at the top, faculty support students’ exploration of a wide variety interests; in the middle, teachers and staff help students focus and develop their interests and passions; and, at the bottom, students turn their interests into passions and expertise in which they excel. Over time, students find their voice — and their viewpoint, if you will — and that passion kicks in. At Viewpoint, this is the engine that prepares students who have high self-esteem and are happy. As a result, these students have a wide set of choices for the next stage of their lives.

"Like corporate leaders, school board members and staff leaders must realistically focus on and consider the school’s weaknesses that need to be addressed. Otherwise the exercise will be of minimal value."

The question schools need to ask: Is our program enabling students to take a journey that enables them to become a person who is happy, has passions and, in turn, has many choices open to them in life? It’s a thousand touches that make this possible.

 

How does strategy development for an independent school differ from the corporate world?

The key difference is the absolutely crucial role of stakeholders in the process. Since a school’s objective is the pursuit of a noble mission and is not solely economic, people make a choice with great passion. And schools ignore this at their peril. A command-and-control structure prevails in a corporate setting. But in the non-profit world, teachers, administrators, board members and parents are driven by a noble purpose — to give their time and professional skills to one of the most important places in their lives.

As part of implementing A&S’s recommendations, we recruited a branding expert from the corporate world to be on the board at Viewpoint, and he is drawing other similar people to work with him. He told me this is the most exciting thing he does because it has a profound impact on what matters most to him — his child. That motivation is key; we simply cannot afford what he otherwise would charge. Without a dedicated staff and board, you have to make an extra effort to be disciplined.

Extra vigilance around discipline is important, and schools must be careful not to bite off more than they can chew. Schools need to have realistic and manageable priorities to be successful.

The final step is implementation. If you’re really on top of that, you can see where you’re making or not making progress and determine what needs to be done to get back on track.

 

What have you enjoyed most about being on the board of an independent school? In that position, what has surprised you the most about the school?

The people are great, from the board members to the parents and the staff. I like them personally; they’re smart, committed people — I frequently have them over to my house.

"The notion of creating and sustaining a demonstrable value position is critical to the long-term viability of independent schools."

I’m not surprised, but delighted, by something that happened recently. I have twins in second grade. One of the twins, Pierce, was asked to introduce the Headmaster during a school assembly. Pierce was down in front and right before he was set to go on stage to introduce Headmaster Paul Rosenbaum, Paul noticed that Pierce had buttoned his sweater incorrectly. So he kneeled down in front of Pierce and re-buttoned his sweater. In that special gesture, Paul made sure Pierce would be at his best in front of everyone in the audience. By doing that, Paul gave Pierce this extra boost of self-confidence. It’s one example of Viewpoint’s authentic commitment to each child and how this finds expression in the lives of students every day.

 

What advice do you have for other schools about how to strengthen their competitive and enrollment position based on your own professional experience and involvement as a board member at Viewpoint?

As a school community, you have to know what you’re asking. What are the core issues you’re facing — and you can’t be vague about that. You have to know what you’re asking for, listen carefully and not be defensive when you’re getting good answers to your questions.

You also have to set up the exercise carefully and at the right time. If you have a financial crisis going on, you have a different problem to solve. If you’re too distracted, it might not be the right time.

Based on my own experience, here are the steps needed for independent schools to lay the foundation critical to have a real impact in the academic environment and in the marketplace:

  • Set challenging yet realistic aspirations based on authentic core competencies

  • Develop a dashboard — determine what the levers are that drive success and measure how you’re doing

  • Attack areas of weakness

  • Press as far as you can internally

  • Reach out for best resources

  • Listen, challenge, engage

  • Define concrete recommendations

  • Implement, implement, implement

It all comes back to making sure what you’re doing is focused on student achievement—creating real value and quality in students’ lives. And this relates to your core competencies. You want distinctive students who are happy, confident and have a wide array of choices to develop their passions. Independent schools, fortunately, are uniquely able to deliver on that promise.