This week’s reflection comes partially from watching Southwest gate A19 turnaround in Chicago, partially from having dinner with Phil McNichols the former head coach of the U.S. Men’s Ski Team, and partially it comes from A Harvard Business Review article by Michael Porter called What is Strategy? Collectively it made me think about who we are, what we do, and what’s in our wheelhouse?
The dinner. The three day visit by Phil McNichols was set up by a current parent and after the first day of working with coaches and athletes, Phil sat down to dinner with Proctor’s USSA/FIS program director David Salathe, Director of Development Keith Barrett, and the parent responsible for bringing us all together. We talked about skiing, Proctor’s history as “the school on skis,” and what might be possible in the future. Phil had spent the day getting to know the school and our snow sports facility. He knows the ski world nationally and internationally, and one of the first questions he asked was: ”How come I haven’t heard of this program and this school before? I should know about this.” He told us we were under leveraged and under marketed. “Great programs create great athletes,” and he believes our ski area and Nordic facilities and connections with Ragged Mountain could take us as far as any mountain or any program in the world. How far did we want to push it?
It’s a great question. It’s a question that nudges up to Michael Porter’s article about strategy. “The essence of strategy is in the activities – choosing to perform activities differently or to perform different activities than rivals. Otherwise, a strategy is nothing more than a marketing slogan that will not withstand competition.” Our ski area is set up to maximize training and coaching opportunities on a world-class surface. We are doing the same thing that other schools are doing, only differently. Which gets me to my experience watching Southwest turn a plane around at gate A19 in Chicago. They move customers on and off planes faster than other airlines. They ask passengers to help by folding the seatbelt buckles as they deplaned. (Heard that yesterday in Manchester) No pre-selected seats, no frills service on the plane (love those peanuts), and a price point for budget sensitive travelers allows them to have more planes in the air and serve more customers. They perform the same activities as other airlines, just differently, and it doesn’t hurt that they have humor and great cabin staff. Southwest has a strategy (and were also discussed in Porter’s article). They know what is in their wheelhouse.
Schools are not so dissimilar, each trying to provide the same service – an education. In that way we are collectively united, yet individually each has (or should have) a strategy. Proctor, for example, has made deliberate choices over its history: the school is, and will always be, devoted to supporting a significant subset of its population who have diagnosed learning differences; experiential education, both on and off campus, will enrich the learning environment and seat knowledge in an emotional and physical context; and an environmental mission will play a role in curriculum offerings and direct our approach to projects and the choices we make on campus. We are a school like many other schools, but we are a school with our own unique strategy that presents an individualized, almost customized learning experience. We have a lens we look through.
So how far do we want to push it?
Strategy is also about making choices, about knowing what isn’t in your wheelhouse as well as what is. Should we build a natatorium? Offer electives in Chaucer? How far can we bend towards summer programming? Should we hire more staff for the Health Center? Proctor has openness to its architecture that allows greater flexibility than many institutions enjoy, but that openness can also spring the trap door of trying to be all things to all people. We can’t go down that path. Choices must be made within the framework of who we are, and not everything is in our wheelhouse. But when something is, our responsibility is to think about ways that we can do what we are doing even better, whether its our commitment to snow sports or teaching biology.
A former U.S. Ski Team coach, an airline, and The Harvard Business Review have got me thinking about Proctor pushing forward, pushing out, and also holding back.
Mike Henriques P'11, P'15
Proctor Academy Head of School