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From the boardroom to the classroom: 8 lessons for effective school leadership

5 min read


Today’s school leaders face a new education landscape, one fraught with challenges and new expectations. Smart leaders are realizing the benefits of applying business principles to school practice, as they navigate this tricky new terrain. Executive coach and former educator Naphtali Hoff shares eight leadership skills 21st century school leaders can borrow from their corporate brethren.

It’s been four years since common core burst onto the scene — and tossed the U.S. educational system on its ear. The standards ushered in an era of reform, marked by increased accountability, new forms of instruction and a change in roles for students and teachers.

And new demands for school leaders. Today’s schools now have to teach all students to high standards. School leaders must now adjust their operations and adopt new practices in order to support emerging pedagogies and ensure deeper learning, according to Naphtali Hoff, president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Hoff spent more than 15 years in education, as a teacher and school administrator.

“School leaders are responsible to champion and oversee this transition within their buildings,” he says. They “must be proficient in educational best practices and adept in finding ways to ensure that their teachers also continue to grow and better meet student needs.” They are no longer simply managers. The days of principals focusing mainly on the functional aspects of their jobs — staffing, scheduling, discipline and the like — are effectively over.

So how do school leaders achieve this? Hoff recommends they borrow a few pages from the business playbook. “School leaders can learn much from their corporate counterparts in terms of how they go about their business.”

Hoff shares these eight points, edited for clarity and length:

  1. Articulate clear expectations. Effective leaders don’t leave success to chance. Know what needs to get done and communicate expectations to employees. Outline what success looks like and offer examples to ensure that staff members channel their energies effectively towards the right ends.
  2. Hold others accountable. Smart leaders demand accountability. Track projects to ensure they’re staying on schedule and budget. Quickly troubleshoot issues then steer everyone back on track. For long term projects, ask for regular evidence of progress to avoid missed deadlines and unpleasant surprises.
  3. Lead from behind. The best business leaders engage in servant leadership. Position staff for success by supporting their growth and achievement. Take little to no credit. Instead, focus the spotlight on others and bask in their success.
  4. Keep learning. Today’s business leaders know that they must continue to learn new skills if they are to remain one step ahead. School leaders must keep learning. New demands and educational paradigms mean that yesterday’s training is not enough to stay current on new research and educational tools.
  5. Understand Generation Y. Millennials represent a very different kind of worker than the Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers that preceded them. Business leaders are grappling with this new reality, trying to figure out how best to work with this shifting labor pool. Millennials have different skill sets, values and professional expectations. They will walk – or not start – if they do not like the work environment or value its mission. If principals are to recruit and retain younger teachers, they must understand the needs and wants of these Gen-Y teachers so they can get the most out of them.
  6. Embrace — or at least develop a working knowledge of — all aspects of school function. Successful business leaders may not have intimate knowledge of every aspect of their company, but they understand that basic fluency of all its components — production, R&D, IT support, etc — is necessary for them to provide focused leadership. So often, school leaders fall into the mindset of being instructional leaders only, to the exclusion of the other aspects of school function. School leaders must be institutional leaders as well as instructional leaders (though instructional leadership is still their primary task) in order to help their schools succeed in a competitive era with growing constituent expectations.
  7. Be results oriented. The educational landscape is more about results than ever before. This is similar to the corporate world, in which the bottom line serves as the ultimate arbiter of success. While schools are not businesses and should never become profit-centric institutions, there does need to be more willingness to hold personnel — including leaders — more accountable for results.
  8. Invest in success. Business leaders must invest in their success and the success of their teams. This needs to become a central component of our schools. School boards must be willing to invest in their leaders, to provide leadership training and coaching to help them successfully achieve their many tasks. This should be targeted, goal-oriented professional development, not simply the “one size fits none” perfunctory training that has become commonplace in schools today.

Hoff admits that this new way of thinking bucks the culture of traditional education and can be difficult for veteran educators to embrace. “Schools operate with a unique culture and mission that can be far different than what is found in the business place,” he says. “This makes sense, as the goal is not to make profits but to produce informed citizens. A school culture is a protective culture, one that emphasizes longevity — as in tenure — and can oftentimes be resistant to change.”

To help foster change, Hoff suggests school leaders take advantage of the readiness of their “All-Stars and new teachers, who enter the field with fewer inhibitions that their more seasoned colleagues.” Celebrate their successes through memos, congratulate them at faculty meetings or reward them with new authority and other related perks.

Kanoe Namahoe is SmartBrief’s custom content editor.