05/20/2019 by Bob Vitalo |

When Waiting for Buy-In Can Be a Roadblock

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As school leaders, we should come to terms with the fact that for centuries we have operated our institutions following a September through June calendar, and we support ourselves with a tuition-driven model. Now, we’re rethinking what’s worked in the past to determine what will make our schools sustainable in the future. Addressing challenges of time, space, and resources is critical work, and making those tough decisions is often challenging and stressful.

In doing so, we ask ourselves the kinds of questions that can easily stop us in our tracks. When we finally make a decision, how do we know the consequences? How will we be judged? What will trustees think? What kind of backlash might there be from parents and staff? We ask ourselves, can I withstand the pushback and the criticism yet still move forward because I know it needs to be done?

In reflecting on my 34 years as head of three different independent schools, I have always been interested in how school leaders make the tough decisions—the ones needed to solve a problem and put the school in a better place. Heads never know what will come across the threshold, but they need to always be prepared to tackle a thorny issue or an unforeseen crisis. When confronting these dilemmas, heads will develop a repertoire of skills and use different tactics; sometimes that means bucking trends or shaking up existing policies and practices.

Effective leadership is often seen as a process that involves meetings, small group and one-on-ones, shaped by the notion that individuals need to feel included and heard. But my experience has been that it can be the pursuit of buy-in—a sincere solicitation of different perspectives and the subsequent weighing of their validity and usefulness—that makes schools move slowly, default to the status quo, and ultimately keeps them from making progress on critical issues. We know that schools can be conservative places and do not want to make any change that could negatively impact their students. But has the practice of requiring buy-in hindered progress toward making programs more relevant, and in some cases, slowed the pursuit of equity?

Forging Ahead

I’ve been involved in many strategic planning processes over the years in my roles as head of school, as a trustee in a state association, and as a board member of several nonprofits. When the head, as the leader of the institution, begins the work of implementing individual goals that may impact parts of the school, the focus often turns to the necessity of getting buy-in from different constituents. But, in my experience, sometimes you just can’t wait.

More than a decade ago, The Berkeley Carroll School (NY) made the major and controversial decision to drop the Advanced Placement (AP) program so that we could create and offer our own slate of advanced courses (read more about this in Trend Lines: Revisiting the Advanced Placement Debate). In surveying the landscape of selective independent high schools, it was apparent that many leading schools had already made the decision to discontinue the program. It was clear to me as I evaluated our offerings and compared our program with those of competitors, as well as through anecdotal evidence from parents and teachers over the years, our overall program needed a boost of rigor. We wanted to attract the strongest students, and adding more cookie-cutter type courses didn’t seem sufficient. Feedback from applicants indicated that we needed to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace. We needed to open our thinking to new ways of scheduling and staffing. These new approaches might be enough of a hook to capture the interest of new students and motivate staff to refresh our offerings.

I believed it was in the best interest of our students to move ahead to drop AP without having secured all-around buy-in from our community. When families submit enrollment contracts, we do not have a footnote that says, “We promise we’ll be a better school some years down the road.” When we sign up a student, we are in fact saying that we can provide an excellent and relevant education; I felt that responsibility to give each student the best experience as soon as possible.

To move my decision forward, I met with departments, chairs, and individual teachers to discuss my decision and rationale. Not surprising, there was great reluctance on the part of some faculty members to make this change; several veteran teachers held AP tests in high regard, and we’d been offering them for years. Students had always had the option to take an AP course. How would we explain our decision to colleges, which historically rely on them as a discerning factor when assessing applicants—and how would they respond? How would we explain it to students? To parents?

Along with senior members of the administrative team, I presented the decision to drop the AP program at a meeting of the board of trustees. There were many questions, some quite challenging, such as “Will we be putting our students at a disadvantage?” and “Would selective colleges view the change positively?” Our board understood its role; it did not control program, but it appreciated being informed.

We then scheduled a series of meetings to inform students and parents. I had anticipated concerns and potential consequences before recommending the decision, which is why the change was successful. Was it possible the move could have backfired? Yes, but while the landscape was going to change, there was no doubt that the attention and the focus on creating more rigorous coursework would lead the school to a stronger place. The end point was not determined, but the motivation was of the highest standard.

As we moved forward with the plan to gradually phase out AP over a one-year period, all students were given a year to plan their course selections and had one last chance to enroll in an AP course. Members of our college office, an on-campus space where more than 100 college representatives visit and recruit students each year, reported that colleges weren’t fazed by the change; they were interested in what types of courses we were planning and appreciated our desire to have our students engage in more demanding and rewarding work. When our students interview at colleges, they say the original advanced classes have made them stand out. After initial jitters of moving ahead without support, we are a much stronger school, and it is a point of pride that we do not adhere to the AP schedule.

Leading the Way

Moving resolutely does not mean acting unilaterally. In “The 6 Fundamental Skills Every Leader Should Practice,” an October 2018 Harvard Business Review article, Ron Ashkenas and Brook Manville outline the fundamental skills that every leader should practice, which first and foremost involves shaping a vision that is exciting and challenging for the team (or division, unit, or organization). Along with the shaping of a vision, they say, leaders need to recruit, develop, and reward a team of great people to carry out the strategy.

When working with individuals or groups in the school community, it is often the promise of the vision that provides the support for executing a plan. No one may feel entirely sure of the outcome, but there needs to be an overwhelming sense that the school will benefit from moving in a new direction. Leaders can create a vision by consistently talking and writing about how the school responds to change and how it needs to meet disruptive influences in the world as it seeks to affirm its mission. As with all initiatives, communication has to be constant, consistent, and addressed to all constituencies. Too often, however, the notion of buy-in implies that there is a certainty about the outcome; this feeling of comfort somehow implies that it is the correct course. Experience shows that in pushing ahead with an initiative, the core support may come from as few as two teachers and as many as 20, but it will not be unanimous—and will not be pain-free.

It is not only with decisions around programs or schedules when buy-in can be an impediment. It has also been the case in the hiring process where I have seen the pursuit of buy-in lead groups and departments to lose sight of important priorities such as improving diversity. In an attempt to get individuals or groups comfortable with a hire, the default becomes hiring the candidate that in most ways resembles the existing staff. This can be the outcome that has the most agreement and is the most familiar, but it does not promote diversity. In order to change our schools, diversity needs to be a compelling goal; it is crucial that as the leader, a head moves the school to a level of greater inclusivity. These decisions take courage and self-confidence, and these traits grow stronger when the head is grounded in the mission of the school and the belief that all students will benefit.

For the Greater Good

When analyzing our yield in admission at Berkeley Carroll, we learned that our location in Brooklyn was one of the main reasons applicants didn’t come to our school; other schools in New York City are much closer to public transportation. To pursue a wider and stronger pool of students, I proposed the idea of expanding free bus service (other schools were doing it). The tactic resonated with the directors in all divisions, but some teachers worried about supervision and the potential impact on the end-of-day schedule.

There wasn’t consensus that this was the right solution, but what if we could address the teachers’ concerns? Another consideration that needed to be addressed: What if we offered the service and no one took us up on it? (Since we were using an outside contractor, the worst outcome would have been the loss of one year’s fees, which we would have been able to absorb in our operating budget.) For this initiative to be successful from the start, it was critical that the school’s finance director was on board, and that we had planned and thought through staffing issues. We hired an additional staff person.

I decided to proceed, anticipating these concerns and consequences, while weighing what this could mean for admission and the financial strength of the school. At first, there were bumps, like building a working relationship with the contracted bus company and learning the traffic patterns of the Brooklyn streets. There were times I had bouts of anxiety and felt alone. Ultimately, it was the right decision; we now have 15 routes and more than 400 students riding our buses. That might never have happened had I waited for buy-in. Sometimes, as a leader, your responsibility is to forge ahead without full support when you know the pursuit of something as important as equity is at stake.

Trust also is important; leaders must trust their own instincts. I knew we had to do a better job of outreach and making our school more accessible to attain our admission and diversity goals. A leader also must gain the trust of the school community, including administrators, and faculty and staff members. Leaders don’t always have to make the right decision, but they must be clear that they always act in the best interest of the school. It does not take much time for the validity of these decisions to be demonstrated to parents and students; they experience the results and a trusting environment is created.

Decision Time

If you have identified a path, weighed the pros and cons, and are convinced that there is the need to proceed, how do you get to a resolution? In “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter Most,” author Steven Johnson writes:

For choices with a small number of decision-makers, the best approach is often an old-fashioned one: Give your mind the free time to mull it over. In a sense, the preparation for the choice should involve state-of-the-art strategies: premortems, scenario plans, expert roles, stakeholder charrettes. But once those exercises have widened your perspective and helped you escape your initial gut reactions, the next step is to let it all sink in and let the default network do its magic. Go for long walks, linger in the shower a little longer than usual, let your mind wander.

Getting buy-in from the community is an important aspect of leading, but it can sometimes get in the way of progress. As the keeper of the mission and long-term vision of the school, heads should feel safe to allow their minds to wander at times, making decisions that may not be popular in the short-term but lead to success and expanded equity in the future. I am constantly asking myself the question: What course of action will benefit our students the most? Sometimes, the answer isn’t the one with the most support—and that’s what it means to be a leader.

TAKE 5

Heads of school need to make some tough decisions, and there’s no clear-cut path to when they should seek buy-in. Generally, policy and program changes can involve the board and impact staff. When confronting the new and unknown, heads might feel the need to go it alone. While they don’t always need permission, clarity of intent is required. Here are some questions they should ask themselves before moving forward.

1. How can I be more explicit about the plan with the school community?
2. What constituency will be affected? While consensus is not sought, who in the community needs to be informed?
3. Have I made myself available to those who have questions?
4. How should I proceed in a way so there aren’t surprises?
5. How do I best assess the impact of my decision?


This article originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Independent School magazine.

Bob Vitalo

Bob Vitalo served as head of school at the Berkeley Carroll School (NY) from 2006 to 2019. He is a senior consultant with CS&A focusing on retained head of school searches, senior administrative searches, and strategic planning with boards and heads.

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