Weigh In: How To Sell Your Vision
You have big ideas for your district. How do you get the board and the public to sign on?
No visionary is an island: you need teachers, parents and the community to buttress your brilliant ideas for them to even have a chance at succeeding.
But even with the best of intentions, it is not easy to enact change even after you earn the trust and confidence of your team. So how do you craft a strategy that will put your ideas into action?
We asked five administrators to share how each pitched a vision for a better district—and scored. Continue reading for your colleagues’ wisdom on how to talk, how to listen and why selling your vision is not like closing a deal.
Dr. Chip Kimball
• District: Superintendent, Lake Washington School District, Washington
• Strategy: “First, you have to have a clear vision. Achieve the balance between listening to and valuing your constituencies. These are different things. What’s best for your constituencies is not always best for the district. In many cases the answer you will have to give will be ‘no’… that’s a tricky business.
“A primary function of the superintendent is to spend time developing relationships with the board; a powerful district relies on both superior board relationships and board governance.
“So I look for ‘board linkages.’ This means programs created to connect with the public to enable feedback between the community and the board. Groups are brought in-house to voice issues and objectives and to speak about progress they’d like to make, and continuous community surveys are conducted by phone. Greater communication definitely drives a better product.”
• District: Superintendent, Briarcliff Schools, New Jersey
• Strategy: “‘Selling your vision’ implies that there is a formula that can be created to ‘make a sale,’ or ‘close a deal.’ In fact, selling a vision requires an investment in time and accessibility: communication ranging from e-mail to face-to-face encounters at all types of venues—the athletic field, the auditorium, the back-to-school night. Every interaction is a deposit in the bank account that reaps dividends when you are counting on constituents to support a referendum, a new program, or a budget.
“But there are other, more formal approaches to building support. One avenue our district has used successfully is the ad hoc committee structure. The board creates the committee and develops a charge. The committee represents parents, community members, and staff, and sometimes even students, to study an issue and return with recommendations for the board to consider. We have used this for major capital projects and referenda as well as programs, such as researching kindergarten models.
“In fact, this year we have an ad hoc committee studying ways to reduce unnecessary stress for students and staff in the light of research on this issue, particularly in Alexandra Robbins’s book The Overachievers.
“A similar committee developed the district’s long-term strategic plan over several years. That group began by creating a survey to assess the climate of the community and its perspective on the school district. We looked at curriculum, operations, buildings and grounds, leadership and school climate. The response was excellent because we followed up regularly until we obtained a substantive return. A report was written by a sub-committee that made sure to include every concern expressed in the response, so that people felt that they were heard. Then the plan was crafted to include these ideas in goals and strategies.”
• District: Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland
• Strategy: “Lately, I’ve been telling my leadership team that in the rapid information age we’re living in, it’s not enough just to communicate, we’ve got to ‘over-communicate.’ The very people we are trying to reach, including parents and elected officials, are busy, to say the least. Plenty of things compete for their attention, particularly at a time when so many folks are worried about how the current economic crisis is impacting both their paychecks and their long-term future.
“As a school system, we need to reach our various constituents early and often, providing them with the information they need to earn their trust and give them confidence in their investment. Successfully getting our message across depends on our ability to access a wide variety of avenues for communication—through traditional mass media, such as the local newspapers; through multimedia and interactive presentations, online and ‘on-demand’; through our staff; and, when necessary, in multiple-language delivery vehicles. It’s a 24/7 endeavor!”
• District: Superintendent, Hartford Public Schools, Connecticut
• Strategy: “I think the key to ‘selling our vision’ is mirroring what we say we intend to do in every aspect of our lives. That is what I am doing in my effort to sell the district to the community and stakeholders so they are able to embrace the direction we are taking with their students.
“As a district, we retooled our mission and vision during summer teacher in-service. That process brought the faculty together in that elementary and secondary teachers worked together to form the foundation and essence of the document that will guide our district for the 2008/2009 school year.”
• District: Chief Operating Officer, Duval Schools, Florida
• Strategy: “We try to link properly to the right constituencies. Community members draw conclusions from the data in front of them; in group settings we saw great buy-in. Data can be validating!
“We want business leaders to feel like stakeholders because education is the underpinning for economic development. It’s also important to have cohesion between staff members, so that they feel they are speaking to the vision of the superintendent rather than speaking for him. It’s best to be creating a sense of urgency, rather than inertia.”