Featured originally in the October 2018 issue of The Bursar's Review, Socius Senior Coach Jane Pendry reflects on how to secure the future of your school by getting the best out of your External Relations staff.
Imagine there’s been a change of government. Fee income and pupil numbers are falling and you can’t recruit a number of key staff. You wake up in a cold sweat. These are your nightmares. As a bursar, you are facing major challenges.
However, external relations staff working in marketing, reputational management, alumni and community engagement and development can help you to secure the long-term future of your school and help you sleep at night.
Managing external relations functions
Historically, marketing, communications and development functions have been grouped together with general support functions. Output has been determined by the head at best, or follows decades old precedent at worst. However, all these functions are professional areas that can contribute much more dynamically to your school’s bottom line.
Today, with so many external factors challenging schools, bursars and heads that see the external relations functions as strategic drivers rather than ‘service’ departments, which are better placed to secure the long-term future of their school. Changing these outward-facing functions to become strategic rather than tactical, requires a change in style of management and different expectations that must come from the top.
Marketing, admissions, alumni engagement and development functions often operate independently and may be one reason why governors become alarmed at spiraling costs related to individual departments with no discernible increase in impact.
Many schools now realise that they cannot afford for these functions to be run in ‘silos’. So by using the right language, meeting formats and management tools, these areas of the school can plan and work more effectively together to ensure their output directly supports the school’s business objectives and keep staff numbers under control.
It is neither cost effective nor efficient for the various elements of an external relations function to work separately from one another.
How external relations functions work better together
Together, team members can work towards measurable goals that increase pupil numbers and income from other sources (in the latter instance, it may be helpful to include the head of estates in planning). By working from defined, smart objectives focused on the school’s business goals, your external relations team will increase efficiency, reduce unproductive output and make cost savings, e.g. planning a ‘one community’ publication that reaches all stakeholders instead of several publications to many stakeholders saves time, money and helps to achieve key objectives.
It might seem that it would take a huge cultural shift to get all the functions that come under the external relations umbrella to work together. But there are options for making this area of the school more efficient. For example, consultants with specialist knowledge and experience could help you by digging out problems, analysing what could be better and making recommendations in a detailed report.
"Many schools use consultants and change the way they operate with very good results. However, the investment is pointless if a detailed analysis, produced by an excellent consultant, lies at the bottom of a drawer."
Many schools use consultants and change the way they operate with very good results. However, the investment is pointless if a detailed analysis, produced by an excellent consultant, lies at the bottom of a drawer. Usually, the initial assessment will have been accurate and any criticism justified; advice will have been sound and there will have been a desire to implement the changes, but perhaps there just wasn’t sufficient budget, time or internal will to do so. That brilliant report becomes nothing but another dent in the bursar’s budget with nothing to show for it.
Coaching is another consideration. There are fewer coaches for external relations in the independent schools sector than there are consultants. However, a coaching approach is ideal for schools who have small budgets and limited time.
It has been accepted for a long time that ‘culture trumps strategy every time’ and nowhere is this more true than in independent schools. To a large degree, the product is the culture. So any analysis has to place culture change and strategy alongside each another. Coaching that focuses on solutions instead of problems, makes the assumption that the team already has many of the answers and the capability to make many changes themselves if they are asked the right questions.
There are many different coaching approaches. The ‘solution focused’ approach aims to bring team members together to elicit best hopes for their departments, and to collaboratively create a ‘preferred future’, which focuses on achieving the school’s core business goals. Sharing the strategic elements of the school’s plan with your external relations team is essential to make this process effective.
Solution-focused coaching aims to make incremental improvements towards a final goal. It is particularly helpful in creating healthy, productive cultures and common language to enable productive decision-making. Carefully constructed questions prevent team members going down the rabbit hole of problems. Instead, the team collectively contributes to a healthier, more productive definition of the future. The solutions reference the problem that lies beneath, but instead of defining that problem in detail, the team develops only solutions, leaving them feeling empowered and unburdened by the past.
In essence, with input from relevant senior management and sometimes a relevant governor, the team creates a preferred future. This creative process draws a picture of what an efficient, goal-oriented external relations function might look like. This preferred future determines the answers to questions such as: ‘How can the team shift their output to help increase pupil numbers’? And ‘how will the school reach the right demographic’?
The ‘miracle’ question
To a bursar, the idea of a ‘miracle’ question might sound very woolly, but it works. The question is: ‘If you went home on a Friday and over the weekend a ‘miracle’ happened what would you notice at work on the next Monday morning”?
What follows, with further skilled questioning, is a detailed description. Your team is encouraged by the question to create a new dynamic reality and a new set of possibilities about how they can work together. Any historical issues are often washed away through this process and you have a new, motivated team raring to go on Monday morning.
How the Solution-Focused Coaching process is measurable
Carefully constructed questions look at measuring and evaluating, creating efficiencies, saving funds, looking for sources of income, integrating processes to find efficiencies and freeing up time for more productive work.
In solution focused coaching, participants list three to five tasks they will undertake at the end of the process. The resulting spreadsheet becomes the lead managers’ tool for measuring and driving progress.
Whether you choose coaching or consulting, or have your own management process to achieve the same aim, your goal is to get your team to think and work in a solutions
focused way and to keep their ‘eye on the prize’ − the number of pupils in the school and income from other sources (development, venue hire, summer school, etc).
Your external relations team can be the best weapon in your arsenal. You just need to make sure they are fit for the challenges ahead.