In this three-part series, Bob Regan discusses the most effective traits in a transformational school leader.
In Part I of this blog series discussing the “fundraiser fallacy,” Bob suggested that fundraising, while an important element in the preferred leadership profile for Catholic schools, is insufficient in achieving transformational change and he laid the groundwork for a more holistic and visionary leader which he calls an Institution Builder or “I-B” leader. In Part II, Bob shared two real-life narratives from his search experience with Catholic schools and proposed several important conclusions that may be drawn from those scenarios. In this third and final post, Bob will provide a comprehensive introduction to the Institution Builder as the preferred leadership profile for Catholic schools seeking lasting, transformational change.
A Preferred Profile for Catholic Schools
As stated earlier in this series, I believe the right solution for Catholic schools seeking transformational change is what I have come to call the “I-B” leader or Institution Builder. Fundraising narrowly defined is necessary but not sufficient as a credible profile capable of driving change and sustaining high performance.
Although certainly rare and valued as such for their scarcity, I-B leaders are no more elusive or difficult to find than great fundraisers and can be sourced in multiple venues. But you need to remove any flies from your eyes and search broadly and asymmetrically. Wherever mission is core to an institution’s purposes, there you may find an I-B leader. This includes schools and colleges as well as mission-critical non-profits such as foundations, associations, and charities − and even certain corporate platforms. Every high-performing Catholic school I have ever known is led by an I-B leader. They are alike in many ways, but are also variations of a wholesome theme. It is not skill set or career experience that unites them but qualities of character and leadership. Your vetting needs to focus on validating those qualities.
As you search, remember Peter Drucker’s admonition that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Fit is everything.
Remember also the progenitor effects of “place”: precisely where one has acquired his or her management habits or learned acceptable norms of corporate behavior is just as important as the details of those experiences themselves. Place matters − as the child is truly father to the man. Beware the leader who is coming from a bad place and is already socialized (unknowingly) to the worst practices. Those practices are coming with him (or her).
In some ways, I-B leadership is a distinctly Catholic concept because these gifted visionaries are not just passionate about mission but subservient to mission. It is mission that gives meaning to their leadership. They see leadership of a Catholic school as an honor and a privilege and they use their anointed platforms for bold and worthy purposes. They also view institutions organically and value every facet, feature, function and person, from custodial to instructional, to governance and sponsorship. Joyful and fundamentally relational, I-B leaders walk the corridors of their institutions in vigilant exuberance, empowering others by acknowledging their good work and encouraging high achievement. The sheer act of noticing is enriching and emboldening to staffs, fusing an institutional alliance that is strong and loyal from the inside out and bottom up. Under I-B leadership, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, and through a kind of fusion effect create an immensely powerful sense of community in which every individual is valued as a member of a belief-centered family, Catholic and non-Catholic members alike.
One of the greatest relational assets available to Catholic schools has always been grateful families eager to be engaged. I-B leaders know this instinctively. Without burdening busy adults with unreasonable requests, I-B leaders adopt effective family engagement practices that make it easy for this vast reservoir of goodwill to be leveraged for dynamic purposes. Properly engaged and motivated, families become fluent advocates in their communities, viral and ardent. I-B leaders know that familial goodwill is multi-generational and dependable, and like the solar energy that surrounds us daily, suffusing our lives with untoward warmth and blessings, it is abundant, free, and infinitely renewable. There may be no greater source of institutional vitality than engaged families, and I-B leaders know this and capitalize on it.
I-B leaders also take their responsibilities seriously and internalize what it means to be the chief executive officer of a Catholic school. They focus relentlessly on three things: enrollments, Catholic identity, and the quality of the student experience. Without making excuses or assigning blame, they know that intractable market and demographic forces have unfairly placed many fine Catholic schools at risk, and they use their talents and leadership platform to raise the profile and value proposition of their school and to “create demand” for the unique gifts of a Catholic education. As accountable, generative leaders, they also make it their personal responsibility to secure whatever resources are necessary to support and sustain the mission of their institutions.
As for fundraising itself, I-B leaders are the first to acknowledge its critical importance. But they define fundraising holistically and consistent with the way they approach their work. They know that effective fundraising must include all sources of revenue — most of all, growing and sustaining enrollments. They also know that vision inspires purpose, and for that reason work tirelessly to elevate aspirations and achieve communal support for big ideas and transformative agendas. To the I-B leader, effective fundraising can be defined as follows:
Effective fundraising is the earned outcome of a vision well formed, and bold,
inclusive of community, and constructed on a bedrock of enduring mission.
All elements are essential to the definition. This is the transformative work of the Institution Builder. This is not to suggest that the work is easy or that simply saying it makes it so. The I-B leader still needs to formulate a complex plan for change and execute that plan with discipline and rigor. In this regard, institution building is best regarded as the strategic lens through which the change agenda is conceived. This is how Catholic schools will persist and thrive going forward.
In his disarmingly moving prose poem, “A Servant to Servants,” Robert Frost counsels, “The best way out is always through.” This seemingly simple observation is a succinct reminder of the lessons of failed leadership and governance. There are no easy solutions, no short cuts or quick fixes. The human journey is a pull-through, existential scrum, rewarding rigorous process and honest reflection. As suggested above, boards would be well advised to begin the Head of School search process with a difficult conversation around the current condition of the school, how it compares with its peer institutions, and what kind of leadership will be required to address systemic challenges and take the school to the next level. It is hard work, for sure, but the results will be cathartic and self-renewing. Once hired, the new Head of School will also be well advised to do the equally hard work of vision setting and institution building before presuming to go big with one’s asks.
If done well and thoughtfully, and with graceful regard for the foundational importance of mission, the results will be transformational, lasting, and, perhaps best of all, “earned.”
I hope you found this three-part series helpful and will share your thoughts. Let’s continue to learn from each other how best to serve our Catholic schools.
Bob Regan is the leader of the CS&A Search Group’s Catholic Schools Practice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.