Every Head of School is a project manager.

Or maybe it’s every Head of School is part project manager. Whatever way you slice it, there is much to be learned from the project management field. Don’t multi-task without these core focus points.
Gary Arnold
Head of School, LRCA

I was surprised (and inwardly vindicated) by a recent emphasis in Harvard Business Review (HBR) on project management. I’ve long sensed the similarities of project management to leadership. Unfortunately for many leaders, project management is somebody else’s job. For many, real leaders manage project managers. It’s time for successful leaders to understand: real leaders lead real projects.

HBR Editor-in-chief Adi Ignatius writes, “Your projects are your future.” Assuming you agree, who among us would choose to delegate or out-source our future? Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez notes in the lead article, “When executives ignore project management, products launch late, strategic initiatives don’t deliver, and company transformations fail, putting the organization’s future seriously at risk.”

Ignatius adds, “There are times when juggling projects can be a drag – with more meetings, more ambiguity, and more risk of failure. But organizations that underinvest in projects face a limited future, so finding ways to help your people execute them better is an imperative.”

That said, I revisit a blog of mine on essential project management qualities that are imperatives for heads of school. Multi-task without these footings and the whole enterprise will eventually erode. Here’s what I shared a few seasons ago…

If heads of schools were merely project managers, they would be called project managers. School heads have a unique and broad-based calling, and because of the complexity of the vocation, it is difficult to adequately articulate a fair description of the position. Attempts are usually either too lean or too cumbersome with the inevitable result of frustration on the part of the head, the board or both parties.

At the same time, since there are many aspects of the head’s role that resemble the job of an effective project manager, I encourage you to consider the key characteristics of a good project manager and take inventory. How do you measure up? In what area do you sense a need to grow? How do these skills advance the work of a school head?

I borrow these focus points from The Idiot’s Guide to Project Management. Nothing lofty here. Pure, time-tested pragmatism. The following six descriptors get results – often the results we are looking for as we view our schools as “spinning plates” or one big project in the making:

  • “Enthusiasm” – The essential fire in the belly drives the machine.
  • “The ability to manage change effectively” – For example, as Peter Senge advises, “Don’t push growth, reduce the factors limiting growth.”
  • “A tolerant attitude towards ambiguity” – In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world (VUCA in military parlance), we must learn to lead in the grey, as Steven Sample, former President of USC, notes in his excellent work, The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership.
  • “Team-building and negotiating skills” – Our work is people-centered and relationship intensive. We advance the work together negotiating our futures as we go. A healthy board is the marquee example of this requirement. Similarly, the dynamic between head of school and board chair as well as head of school and the leadership team is crucial for school health.
  • “A customer-first orientation” – Without tuition-paying clients, there is no school. Private school is a business and Jesus is OK with that.
  • “Adherence to business priorities” – “Business priorities” can be read in two ways by a project-minded school head. Both are necessary – fiscal strength and educational integrity. We always aim to increase the net worth and solvency of the school while, at the same time, provide a truly priceless, outstanding education for our clients.

As heads of school owning these professional qualities, our schools will become more fruitful and our work more seamless and satisfying. It’s time to grab our hard hats and get our boots dirty.

Gary B. Arnold

Partner, NextEd