Later today Superintendent Nick Polyak (Leyden School District 212, Illinois) will join Geoff Luther, the owner of A-l Tool Corporation, and Frank Holthouse, Leyden’s Careers and Community Outreach Director, in recording a podcast for this blog describing the partnership Leyden has developed with A-1. Their podcast, which we’ll post next week, will be the third in our series that was kicked off on June 15 with the article “Leading the K-12 Enterprise” (http://boardsavvysuperintendent.com/leading-k-12-enterprise/). You might recall that this inaugural article suggests that five characteristics of business enterprises will help districts thrive in a highly competitive educational environment. At the top of the list is adopting a customer focus. I thought it might be helpful in setting the stage for Nick, Geoff, and Frank’s podcast and for subsequent posts in this series share to share some thoughts about the customer concept.
Strictly speaking, a customer is a person or organization that pays for a service or product. This transaction is what fuels the for-profit business sector. School districts produce “products” – the students who are altered in various ways by the educational process – but it’s hard to pin down exactly who the paying customers for these “products” are. The closest our districts can come to the traditional customer is the parents with students in the schools, but they pay for the product indirectly, along with other taxpayers, many of whom don’t have kids in the schools. The list of what we might call “indirect customers” also includes a wide array of stakeholders who might benefit in various ways from your district’s products, but do not pay for them – for example, city and county governments, chambers of commerce, economic development corporations, real estate companies, etc.
The challenge for K-12 enterprises around the country is to build and maintain strong, mutually beneficial relationships with these indirect customers, whose support is critical to the success of our public schools. The parents of our students obviously loom largest, especially in this new era of expanding choice. Pleasing these indirect top-tier customers is essentially a matter of delivering a high-quality educational experience, which requires a hefty investment in professional development and evolving technology. But building solid relationships with more distant second-tier indirect customers is also extremely important to our districts’ success. In next week’s podcast, Nick, Geoff, and Frank will talk about one very important way: developing productive partnerships with local businesses.
Two other ways that have proved useful in building productive relationships with indirect customers of the K-12 enterprise is to make clear the benefits they receive from the work going on in our classrooms and to foster their feelings of ownership of this work. For example, many districts routinely (not just when a tax levy is on the ballot) provide local governments, chambers of commerce, realtor associations, and economic development corporations with research-based information on the close connection between public school performance and a community’s property values, job creation, and population growth. Getting the message across requires implementing an aggressive, continuous communication strategy, including booking school board members to speak in various community forums.
It’s worth keeping in mind that indirect customers who feel like they have an ownership stake in the K-12 enterprise will tend to be far more reliable partners and supporters of public education. Ownership is the direct result of meaningful, high-impact engagement in your district’s affairs. For example, many districts invite community leaders to participate in their strategic planning process, engaging them in brainstorming values and vision statements, assessing environmental conditions and trends, and identifying district challenges. And many districts also recruit business executives and community leaders to serve on high-level technical advisory panels. Engagement, as long as it is well managed and obviously productive, is a great eraser of distance and a reliable producer of owners.