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Twelve Ways To Use Entrepreneurial Thinking To Help Our Schools

by Michael Feuer, author of “The Benevolent Dictator

In past economic downturns, it was the private sector that bore the brunt of company closings or huge layoffs. Today’s downturn has a twist. Not only is the private sector suffering, but huge budget deficits mean the government sector is feeling the pain as well. And that means America’s educators — a group of professionals — are facing deeper budget cuts and more extensive layoffs than they’ve seen in years.

Yes, budget battles in state and local governments have led to extreme, never-before-seen cuts in education budgets — thousands of teacher layoffs and the slashing of music, athletic, gifted, and other programs. What’s worse, these cuts come at a time when the U.S. is struggling to keep up with its international counterparts in math and science, and students across the country are failing to receive the opportunities they deserve.

These developments are tough to swallow for many of the nation’s educators. It’s time for the nation’s education leaders to start operating like scrappy entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs create success by being agile and by making effective but quick decisions based on what they have in front of them. Today it is mandatory that school administrators employ skills heretofore unneeded to keep their school districts moving forward despite harmful budget cuts. This will require that they use the creative thinking of an entrepreneur.

How does one “think like an entrepreneur”?

As an entrepreneur, success hangs on your ability to execute quickly and effectively with the resources at hand. Sometimes that means making tough decisions by thinking like a business owner. Sometimes it means taking calculated risks and making hard decisions without always achieving the complete consensus of all involved. Just because a school’s budget has been cut, it doesn’t mean educators can drop their standards. Instead it’s time to become more entrepreneurial and to seek solutions by following a non-traditional path. It means coming at these problems from a new perspective.

Read on for tips on how the nation’s educators can use entrepreneurial thinking to lead our schools out of these difficult times:

Lead like a benevolent dictator.

Don’t worry; it’s not as scary as it sounds. The “benevolent” part means doing the right thing for the right reasons, for all stakeholders — in education, this means your teachers and other school employees, your students, their parents, etc. The “dictator” part simply means that you have to recognize when it’s time for debate and conversation to end and a decision to be made. You have to say, “We’re taking this fork in the road, for better or worse, and it’s on my head.” This dual leadership style keeps things constantly moving forward, despite the bumps in the road.

Academics by nature value input. We learn more when we are able to openly discuss issues, ideas, and problems. It’s only natural for administrators to use that mindset in the way they lead. But I believe the administrators who are best able to help their districts weather today’s unrelenting economic storm will be the ones who recognize that eventually the buck stops with them. To be a strong leader, there must always be a point when the leader, including a school administrator or principal, must make a decision and move on.

With both OfficeMax and my company Max-Wellness, a recently launched new, only-one-of-its-kind health and wellness retail chain concept, being the benevolent dictator provided me with the critical leadership necessary to take an idea and transform it into reality as fast as possible. I knew that I couldn’t build a consensus every time a decision needed to be made. The same is true in education. Someone has to be willing to make the important decisions when it counts. If more administrators emerge as benevolent dictators, their school districts will have the quality leadership necessary to take whatever is given to them and transform it into success—improved test scores, well-rounded students, resourceful schools.

Learn to do more with less.

Entrepreneurs are pros at squeezing a whole lot out of not very much and then going back to do it again. They’re resourceful because they have to constantly look for capital. In education, Feuer notes, schools might not be able to raise money in the same way an entrepreneur can, but they can find very creative ways to make every dollar go further.

Today’s administrators are facing a two-fold problem. They have less money for educational programs and many have fewer teachers. But as many of the nation’s administrators already know, the good news is that every little bit saved helps, and tapping into teachers’, students’, and parents’ entrepreneurial thinking can spur new methods of getting the job done with less.

Just as private enterprise celebrates new ideas and innovation, schools must also foster creative problem solving and make a big deal about newly discovered successes. Schools can’t give stock options, but they can give praise and non-economic rewards to those who uncover a new idea that works.

Know when it’s time to pull the plug.

One of the biggest dilemmas for any entrepreneur, CEO, or business owner is to know when enough is enough. There are peaks and valleys in virtually every company and industry. In business, the trick for an owner is to understand these vacillations and know when it’s time to sell — to the highest bidder, of course. In education, this means knowing when to cut programs that aren’t working or that aren’t worth their cost. It’s also about understanding when rebranding a school program can add a new spark to a program that reached the end of its useful life just as consumer product companies do every day.

Look for low-hanging fruit; the idea does not have to be earth-shaking, just functional and able to attract interest that leads to desire and action. Great leaders also have to recognize when it’s time to move on from something that isn’t working. You absolutely can’t stand by while money or valuable resources are wasted. Now is the time to focus on the basics and get rid of anything that could be seen as excess. Go through your programs with a fine-toothed comb. Make sure every one of them is proving its value. If a program isn’t, then pull the plug, no matter how sacred the cow. Right now you have to have quick wins that save money. It’s up to you to recognize these moments and pull the trigger when necessary.

If you don’t ask, you won’t get.

Whether you’re asking a teacher to go the extra mile, asking parents to make donations, or pitching a new initiative to the school board, you have to be willing to put yourself out there. Though most entrepreneurs don’t like asking others for help, they must learn to live with the process, because it’s a stark reality of growing a company. The same will be true of school administrators in today’s economy.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help from new sources. Doing this is an essential part of being an entrepreneur. Most importantly, administrators must learn to frame the ‘ask’ in a compelling presentation that tells the story. Always explain what’s in it for the person being asked.

Learn what “no” really means.

Teams must be taught that the “no” they receive the first nine times is merely a disguised “maybe” — because the other person is looking for a reason why not to proceed, or doesn’t understand what is being asked. It’s only after the tenth time — when the other person hangs up or walks out of the room and slams the door — that “no” really means “no.”

Administrators should explain to others and know for themselves that hearing ‘no’ simply means that you haven’t effectively or passionately explained what you need — or adequately expressed how your plan will translate into success. Administrators hear many ‘noes’ from teachers who are overworked and may not want to take on more work. They’ll hear it from time- and cash-strapped parents and unmotivated students. But always remember, ‘no’ doesn’t have to always mean ‘no.’ To get to ‘yes,’ entrepreneurs have learned that sometimes it’s just a matter of restating the request and playing to the other side by determining what their hot buttons are.

Don’t drink your own bathwater.

Entrepreneurs who have repeated success don’t rest on their laurels; neither should administrators. Today is a new day in education. Things are forever changed. What worked last year, or even last month, won’t work now. In this new world order for education, creative thinking is a must.

Always look at a new idea through your constituents’ eyes.

In our world of almost instant computer-driven communications, blogs, chat rooms, Tweets, Facebook pages, and apps galore, news travels fast. The teachers, students, and parents will use these tools to provide their instant feedback about decisions being made for their schools. Administrators have to use these same tools to communicate with all constituents, and most importantly, always get the message out so they hear it from you first in a voice that gets your message out your way.

When you lead like a benevolent dictator, listening is imperative. Remember, many parents are going through tough times right now too. If they think you aren’t listening to their concerns over budget cuts or that you are allowing money to be spent unwisely, they’re going to tell you, make you listen, and expect you to respond thoughtfully by providing your perspective.

Also, clearly communicate the value of and the reasons behind what you’re doing. A cost-saving initiative might make perfect sense to you because you are close to the problem, but parents or other constituents might not be able to see the benefits. Benevolent dictators don’t pass down decisions and leave it at that. They take care to explain the ‘why’ behind the decisions. Do this and you’ll get more buy-in and can be exponentially more successful. The more you can look at things from the constituents’ perspective, and the more information you can give them, the better.

The journey better be as rewarding as the destination.

Many a great entrepreneur has been derailed by burnout. It’s a malady that can be caused by many factors, but which ultimately boils down to this — too much focus on the final outcome and an inability to enjoy the day-to-day elements of the job. In short, to achieve sustained success and to stay motivated, administrators have to enjoy the journey as much as they enjoy reaching the destination.

Getting the job done is where the action is and also the satisfaction. This is just as true in entrepreneurship as it is in education. Both require a great amount of passion in order to be successful.

Understand the business of “we.”

When it comes to leadership, pronouns make more of a difference than most understand. In fact, the proper use of pronouns can make a good leader great, and can mean the difference in someone being the type of leader people want to follow or the type they only put up with. When an administrator speaks of his or her school’s or district’s objectives in terms of “we” instead of “me,” it shows that everyone is in it together, and that the organizations sink or swim based on everyone’s efforts. It also gives credit where credit is due — to the team.

My rule at OfficeMax was that if something bad happened, ‘I’ did it—as far as the outside world was concerned. After all, I was the CEO and chairman, so it was only right for me to shoulder the blame in public. But when something good occurred and we achieved or exceeded goals, I would always say ‘we’ did it. Following this rule helps to build a fully committed team. Skillful use of ‘we’ and ‘ours’ instead of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ helps avoid internal bickering and encourages your team to come together.

Identify your under-the-radar superstar.

Now’s the time to look for fresh ideas on how to solve problems, and that might mean looking to your team’s bench for untapped talent. Open the floor to those on your team who might bring new ideas forward, who aren’t stuck in the past and are able to adapt to this new normal in education.

Because of the nature of seniority in education, newer teachers or other educators might get overlooked, points out Feuer. Their ideas might get less respect than those coming from a teacher with tenure. In business, on the other hand, the best companies are those that tap their newest employees for their ideas on what can be done better. Educators need to think more like businesspeople in this regard. They need to remember that, more often than not, paradigm shifts are sparked by people who aren’t experts in the field.

Now is the time to build a team of leaders, thinkers, doers, and followers who will work well together,” explains Feuer. “Staff meetings must be conducted in a way that makes people feel comfortable providing their input. Teachers and staff are the ones closest to the thorny issues, so they’re the best people to help solve them. Watch how each person thinks and performs under these adverse circumstances and see who comes out on top. The results might be surprising!

When you have a problem, ask the people in the trenches first.

Being a leader means facilitating decisions — it doesn’t mean the head person always must be the driving force behind every single decision or idea. The best way to turn negatives into positives is to first understand the problems and then discover alternatives to prevent them in the future — and that means establishing a give and take with the people in the trenches.

Challenge teachers by constantly asking them if there’s a ‘better way’. A ‘better way’ might mean creating a school supplies donation program asking parents and local businesses to donate supplies or money for supplies in needy districts, or asking volunteers such as local musicians or athletes to donate their time to make up for eliminated music or physical education programs. Positively challenging teachers and staff rather than ignoring them drives motivation and spurs innovation.

Know how to put lightning back in the bottle again and again.

It is absolutely possible to be a repeat entrepreneurial success. Most successful second-act players have honed their instincts and skills and created a series of methodical steps that they follow. They understand how to get from A to Z while minimizing pain and wasted motions and maximizing available capital. And they’re able to do it over and over again.

“With a strong team, administrators can still create repeated success in education despite cut budgets. The economic crisis in education is not a short-term problem. In fact, things will likely get worse before they get better. One good idea is not going to be enough to pull you through these tough times. Success will be built on a series of solid ideas and consistent execution.

While this is a time of great challenges, remember that overcoming great challenges means creating great results. Now is an opportunity to find a way to do things not just differently but better.

(Editor’s note: Read our review of “The Benevolent Dictator” here.)


Michael Feuer cofounded OfficeMax in 1988 starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of investors. As CEO, he grew it to more than 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales topping $5 billion. He is also CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and cofounder and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain that launched in 2010. After opening initial laboratory test stores in Florida and Ohio, a national roll-out is now underway.



This is an article contributed to Young Upstarts and published or republished here with permission. All rights of this work belong to the authors named in the article above.

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