How To Run Your School Like a Startup

When researching for my thesis a while back, I analyzed more than 230 school leaders to reveal the main behaviors that explain how certain teams deliver higher  enrollment growth than others. I found that four key methods explain an astonishing 72% of the higher enrollment performance among leaders in the group.

Today, I run what some may characterize a 'startup' in the world of education. We have grown significantly over the past three years and are now helping over 250 schools, colleges and preschools nationwide to grow their enrollment. We remain, however, committed to 'agile' management principles. Over the summer, I wanted to analyze in a more profound way how a startup management style may overlap or even benefit school administration.


1. Embracing uncertainty

Startups may be distinctly different from schools, but they also have similarities. Many schools today are going through unusual levels of uncertainty, as a result of technology and increased competition. Our experience has shown us that the fastest growing schools we've worked with have leaders that are continuously improving their leadership development, curriculum and teamwork. They are always figuring out ways to experiment and reinvent their positions.

2. Keep a concise set of priorities

In our experience, startups and school leaders obsess about their work — they commit fully. More often than not they are hyper-focused on their work. When they slip, however, the consequences are tremendous. A short time ago I interviewed an entrepreneur who has founded online language platform. He was deeply focused on his main audience segment. Some venture capitalists convinced him to expand his product to a couple more geographies. He invested resources into this new venture, only to run into problems with his core audience. He explained to me his realization that he overextended his efforts too soon and decided to refocus. Given that startups (just like schools) have very tight resources, resource allocation is a huge concern. We all have the temptation to expand; to move to new segments, new offerings, new services. But focusing on a narrow segment is key.

Similarly, successful schools niche down and focus only on their ideal prospective families. They accept that they cannot afford to be everything to all families. This requires sustained self-control.

3. Passion is a prerequisite - necessary, but not sufficient.

At first, I thought that succesful school leaders simply “follow their passion.” In this context, passion predetermines what you do in life.  Having a mission and being passionate about your job are essential. When one inspires oneself, it becomes easier to inspire others. In today’s workplace, whether in schools or startups, you have to get your colleagues energized about your programs— the traditional “command and control” management style won't cut it anymore. However, it turns out that passion is necessary, but not sufficient. After thoroughly thinking this through I've come to believe that top performers go about it differently: they match passion with their mission. Passion is about doing what you love, while mission is about doing what contributes to your fellow neighbors. Passion is about what the world can give you whereas, your mission is all about what you can give the world. In both a school and a startup setting, leaders who infuse their job with both mission and passion perform much better than leaders who have just one or the other.

If you’re a school leader, a founder, or working in a startup, don’t just follow your passion. Try to formulate how you can take your unique strengths and find ways to contribute to the world.

Ask the following: What’s your personal mission statement? What value do you create for others—staff, parents, teachers, co-workers, students? Is this value also meaningful to you personally? What societal benefits does your work bring?  

4. Learning in Loops

One of the great virtues of the startup mindset is the focus on learning empirically - constantly testing and measuring results, evaluating and pivoting if necessary. I've found in my research that the best school leaders apply a similar process of “learning in loops.” They try out a new way of working (say leading a staff meeting), then they try to learn from the experience (say getting feedback on the meeting's effectiveness), then modify their behaviors, and repeat.

It has also been striking to discover how few school leaders do this while working. Many become competent at a particular skill, and then they stop improving; they stop stretching themselves. Startups and schools that continuously "learn in loops" have a huge advantage over others who are not learning at the same rate.

Agile management is certainly a great method for lean startups, but it can have a powerful impact on PK-12 schools, too. By setting small attainable goals, making rapid changes, reviewing progress, and receiving feedback on a weekly basis, you can begin reshaping your school in a way that eliminates obstacles and creates progress.