by Rob Cooksey
To set the stage, I share a few personal motivations for this topic. My research, writing, and presenting are prompted by care and concern for the future of Lutheran Christian education. I learn from others and cherish the opportunity to distill best practices and utilize them in ways that work where I serve in ministry. I’m a firm believer in modeling after success.
In October 2016, I set out to talk with principals and school leaders, board members, and district education executives from across the LCMS. I wanted to learn about perceived best practices in schools and across districts, based on experience and observation. Gracious participants numbered about 125. Respondents are from across the United States. The schools are large and small, young and old. They have one common characteristic that I identified as “thriving,” a subjective determination on my part largely based on a visionary and positive attitude for the future.
There was no prescribed format for responding. I asked participants to share their best practices or the best practices they saw others utilizing that they believed to be mission critical as we respond to today and look into the future. Some shared resources. Others shared ideas or even synopses of their work. I compiled everything submitted, synthesized information, and looked for common themes. As a final step, I took the themes and connected them to ideas shared by global leaders, big thinkers and inventors. By doing this, the recipient can easily dig deeper when they are interested.
Leadership obsession. Lutheran leaders in thriving schools and with a thriving outlook for the future worry less about what the world will throw at them and more about knowing and expressing the reason for their existence. Simon Sinek describes institutions that get beyond “what” we do and “how” we do it and obsess over the “why” question. The obsession for why we do what we do is a blueprint of the values through which we make lasting decisions. Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Why-obsessed leadership drives ministry beyond the “what” and “how.” It gets into the heart of it, the “why” and there it is focused. Our ability to tell our story in terms of “why” will attract those who believe what we believe.
Disruptive Innovation. Continuous improvement is an important part of thriving organizations. School leaders and boards shared in many instances that it takes more than continuous improvement to stay relevant, remain competitive, and be your best. Leadership willingness to disrupt the status quo is critically important. While working with a school that was making big changes, I shared that the electric lightbulb did not come from continuous improvement of the candle. Edison work tirelessly to further this breakthrough. Disruptive is used as a positive and not a negative here. Leadership guided disruptive innovations make the product and service offered more accessible and more relevant, thereby making them available to a larger population. Disruptive Innovation often represents stopping a long time practice in order to make a significant shift, sometimes with little time to prepare the community and almost always for the sake of sustainability. Leadership must be secure. Disruptive innovation was coined by Clayton Christensen who is credited with the concept. He introduced it in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma.
School is Preparation for Life. Forward-facing leaders acknowledge that they cannot predict future careers and that information knowledge is readily available. As a result, these leaders see the critical role of the school as equipping students with life skills and sharing the value of lifelong learning. A board member that I spoke with shared the following: “We are facing a rise in self-employment and freelancing, which provide value through convenience and low barriers to entry, enabling people to transform their free time into paid work.” These are leaders who recognize that while it may not be life like we remember it, it is life as the children we teach will almost certainly know it.
A century ago, philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey was a proponent of learning by doing over learning by passively receiving. He believed that students should be active, inquisitive, and engaged in exploration. He established the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. Dewey believed that school itself was life. The difference between Dewey and education today is the global nature of information and the rapid pace of change in workforce need.
Uniquely Better. It’s been said that, “Being the best is great. It means you’re number one. But being unique is greater, because you’re the only one.” (Anonymous) I attribute the concept of uniquely better to Pastor Andy Stanley. I heard from many Lutheran leaders about unique and niche programming that they were using in ministry. These unique features or components were driven by recognition of specific community elements. There are few stories of schools that actually set out to create a unique and better practice. Most have leadership that is alert and recognizes opportunity and need. Andy Stanley suggests, “Be a student, not a critic,” and “Live each day with your eyes wide open.” Listen a lot. Be anxious to learn. The fact that someone else is utilizing a practice doesn’t mean it can’t be unique for you. Stanley reminds people that Sony may have invented portable music but Apple made it unique. Uniquely better schools have leadership that is listening, learning, recognizing and responding.
Customer Service Fanatics. More than any other practice, I heard from leaders that thriving schools meet opportunity at the door, accept opportunity where it’s at, and guide it as far as they can along their Godly path. Dan Cathy, Chairman, President and CEO of Chick-fil-A, shares an equation for superb customer service. “Glorify God by being a faithful steward of those things to which you are entrusted. Have a positive influence on every person who comes into contact with the school. Have a little grace and offer a little space when we interact with our community. Every life has a story and in that story they are experiencing a problem, getting over a problem, or about to have a problem.”
Belden Training utilizes a six pillar approach to customer service.
Attitude: Caring. Solution driven. Empathetic. Positive. Friendly. Cheerful. Energetic. On-stage.
Interest: Customer-focused. Listening. Personalize relationships. Actions convey importance. Most service failures come from the perception that you don't care.
Action: Take ownership. Solve problems. Be creative. Follow through. Follow up. Immediate action ensures satisfaction. Customers consider "taking ownership" as the primary factor in a "WOW" experience.
Verbal Language: Language skills play a key role in delivering Outstanding Customer Service. Use positive words and phrases. Communicate appropriately. Manage expectations.
Body Language: Face. Smile. Eyes. Posture. Movement. Attire. Even when we aren't speaking, our body is.
Tone of Voice: Persuasion. Influence. Empathy. Energy. It's not what you say, but how you say it. The attributes of voice are speed, pitch, loudness, intonation and timbre.
There are things that I have not included that are of importance. More than best practices, they might be foundational principles. These include things like Lutheran identity, faith formation, financial sustainability, and academic excellence as stand-alone topics. These are invaluable and each due their own time in future projects.
I am thankful for co-workers who willingly shared their thoughts for this work, as well as the global leaders and big thinkers to whom I have connected these best practice ideas. There is every reason to believe in a strong future for our Lutheran-Christian schools. While the face of education will continue to change, the opportunity is for us to hold close to our foundations while staying relevant to the world we serve. To God be the glory!