August 31, 2020Subject: Strategic Advice for the BoD—How to navigate a crisis
As a partner for several years at one of the top strategy consulting firms in the world, I was fortunate to gain extensive experience in advising the board of directors of several amazing Fortune 100 institutions. On many of these occasions, it was due to a publicity crisis, and its with that experience that I’m writing a brief note of advice for you.
While I have an opinion on the matter of the school administration vs the union, that is not relevant and I will not express it. I merely want to give you some unbiased strategic advice because our children have attended BFS for the past five years and as such, we are invested in your institution and would prefer to ensure that investment remains sound. Here are four key lessons I have picked up that seem relevant to the current situation.
1. Perception is reality: Right now, the administration is being painted as a trump loving and deceitful organization by several well-read media outlets, which is about as condemning a fate as possible in a borough where Hillary Clinton chose to hold her election night party. It really doesn’t even matter what the truth is, or that BFS has 150 years of prestige, because that reputation has been torn down in a few minutes and replaced as a toney, high priced home for rich kids managed by a BoD that is trying to take advantage of recently enacted legislation from the single most vilified government regime in American history. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s against a group of Quaker teachers. By a person who isn’t Quaker, but is claiming Quaker values are the reason for the need for the lawsuit. Think of your typical customer and decide which news source they were more likely to read about the “facts” of the case—the BFS website (controlled by the administration) or an independent glossy magazine with 1.8 million weekly readers.
2. Flight to Quality: during any event of extreme volatility or market stress, the players with the most talent and most resources quickly abandon the sinking ship and get themselves to higher ground. Applied to BFS, the most talented teachers are undoubtedly thinking about their future career prospects and considering a different path ahead where they can get better pay with at least a neutral management team. Even in the best case where they were completely satisfied prior to this situation, they are now willing to take calls from recruiters. And I would bet any amount of money that your competitors like BC, Packer or Poly are making those calls to your staff Right now, knowing your best talent is vulnerable. Apply this same logic to your customers as well. Those with the means are wondering if their recent donations to the annual fund are being reallocated to pay for a law suit instead of COVID preparations, and If they will ever donate again. And those same customers will now be making inquiries into BC, Packer, Poly, etc to gauge their options for 2021. And since enrollment is generally down at most independent schools in NYC, those with the means have more choices than usual and will likely trade up/trade out unless you sort out the problem ASAP.
3. When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging: this rather simple truth seems to be exactly where we are now that story is in New York Magazine, The Gothamist, and several others. Whether you win this battle or not, you have already lost the war by virtue of the fact that BFS’ dirty laundry is now on display for all of NYC’s 10 million inhabitants. Not one of those stories makes BFS appear to be anything short of a dumpster fire. We have now quickly risen to the top of of the gossip column as THE school you would not want to be associated with. If your child were entering school next year and you were doing the tours and research, would you really consider BFS after reading this press or would you simply strike it from the list and move on. Your attempts to throw more letters and FAQs at the situation are not helping. Especially when the facts are murky and there is always a counterpoint/counterpunch possible in a “he said she said“ type argument. It’s time to settle this quietly and get out of the limelight, fast.
4. Know the shot before you open your mouth: the preemptive strike to abandon negotiations and file suit was obviously going to cause a reaction. But it seems like you underestimated just how powerful it could be. You pushed the teachers into a corner and they came back with a huge, public counterpunch in NY Mag. You have thrown your best punch, but they can still uncork a death blow. As a parent, I really truly hope they don’t strike. But if they do, what can you possibly do about it. We are in the middle of a pandemic, it’s not as if you can quickly assemble a team of substitute, so-called ‘scab’ workers to fill in. The teachers will hold all the leverage. And your customers will be infuriated, wondering why you picked a battle that has no impact on them, but leaves them paying a very substantial price for a service that isn’t being delivered. How many days of strike will it take for calls from frustrated parents seeking tuition refunds for breach of contract since you took your eyes off the (COVID) ball and got caught up in the early stages of an expensive and protracted legal battle. And at that point, it will definitely be on the cover of The NY Times, and the school will be set back 10-20 years.
I wrote this in the hope that it makes you think a bit about the best path forward. Your next move it critical. I really hope you can figure out a path to survival. And fast—we are less than two weeks away from the single most challenging school year in the past 50 years and you and your teachers are distracted.
A concerned parent of Lower and Middle School students