Develop a Farm System

Consider amateur drafts: when a professional team selects a young superstar, expectations may be high, but reality usually prevails. Management and fans know that it might take more than one year to win it all. A team needs time to develop and adjust to new dynamics created by the addition of a significant player, and the right role players may not be apparent until that superstar hits the field and starts to struggle.

It might sound blasphemous to consider throwing away a school year season in the name of rebuilding, but rarely is this the case if Moneyball-like tactics are applied properly. One way to do this is to hire lots of part-time, temporary student help—college students, recent graduates, nice people, friendly faces, and in some dire cases warm bodies. Chances are that new director will be so busy learning the culture of the school and dealing with management issues that he or she won’t have the time or political capital to make deep institutional fixes. Meanwhile, no doubt end users will need support, particularly in areas that need those deep fixes. If support has adequate staffing even if the systems being supported are waiting to be fixed, a director may be able to buy himself or herself one whole school year to assess the landscape and start redesigning both infrastructure and technology strategy. The alternative would be for a director to make a major hire before even starting on July 1.

This situation presents itself all the time: a new head of school is announced and then tasked with finding a middle school director while still boxing up belongings at his or her previous school. Certainly if a technology director knows someone already who could fill a key role, then this is a good alternative. But if not, it may be wise to avoid a situation where a director is unable to set the tone of the technology department first before other superstars arrive. In other words, let the coach design the playbook before the players hit the field. This strategy is particularly appropriate for a technology director new to this role, or where the technology director has the responsibility for education innovation.

Another positive byproduct of such an approach is that a technology department will begin to cultivate a farm system. Perhaps no other department in a school can benefit as much from a steady flow of people coming in and moving out. Not that all positions should have regular turnover, but if a single part-time support position has occasional movement, that is healthy for a department and a school in general. New faces bring new ideas and understanding of new technologies. Moreover, sometimes a technology intern with good public speaking or design skills can migrate into another department as an advancement associate or admissions assistant. Yet another benefit of temporary help is that a director can learn through iteration what will work best. What kind of support does the faculty respond to best: group workshops, personal meetings, written handouts, assembled videos? On the IT side, it might take a director three to six months just to get a handle on all the systems, not to mention the expectations, constraints, and complaints from members of other departments. All this information can be invaluable when hiring function managers, and much of it may not be available to a new director on day 1.

I remember my AP English Teacher once told me, “If you’re faced with the task of writing a 50-minute in-class essay, spend 35 minutes taking notes and at most 15 minutes actually writing the essay. The same is true with staffing. When faced with open positions, school leaders should “take as many notes” first before making a hire. On the program side, it’s obviously hard to do this with a math or history position, but that is mainly because those positions are public facing with parents and students. Given that the technology department has a behind the scenes element to it, don’t jump into that essay right away, and you just might discover a Moneyball-like hire that could bring you the ROI equivalent to that of a much more expensive free agent.