Leading Through Financial Crisis: Lessons Learned

Summer 2020

By John Stegeman

seeing-through2.jpgHalfway through my first year as an upper school head, my school experienced a financial crisis that shook our community to the core. For several tense months during the 2014–2015 school year, the institution’s future hung in the balance. At first, we did not know if the school would survive to open the following year, and later we were unsure which students, families, and employees could or would remain a part of the community. In the cold and dark of that long winter, as I was only beginning to find my way as a school leader, I quickly realized that the kind of leadership needed in that moment of institutional crisis was very different than how I was planning—and had trained—to lead.
I had built my candidacy for the position upon a vision of ambitious and forward-looking evolution of the academic program, but in that moment of crisis, the school needed leadership to steady a foundering ship. Teachers, parents, and students needed security and reassurance most of all.
During the crisis and several years after, I learned a lot about crisis leadership. I think it is critical to understand the necessity of being authentic and true. A school in crisis needs leaders to stand tall, talk straight, and really care about and for every individual in the community. I tried to adapt my approach to meet a fundamental set of needs. Along the way, I realized four key components of leadership during a crisis: two center on the needs of the community, and two speak to the needs of leaders themselves.

Serving as a Pastoral Leader

In the years preceding our financial crisis, the school was challenged by leadership turnover and declining enrollment. A loss of roughly 100 students precipitated an institutional reorganization and downsizing in 2013, which was intended to put the school on sounder financial footing. For a community that had experienced mostly growth and stability over the 20-year period from 1990–2010, the reorganization was painful. Enrollment continued to decline, and when the crisis unfolded in 2015, morale was at an all-time low.
In order to return the school to financial sustainability, a popular but costly scholarship program was canceled, a second round of faculty and administrative layoffs commenced, and a major fundraising campaign would need to raise $2 million. We anticipated the loss of another 175 students, bringing pre-K–12 enrollment to just 255. For many in the community, especially long-time faculty members who knew the school in a more emergent era, those changes felt apocalyptic.
My primary challenge as a leader of the upper school faculty was to keep people looking and moving forward. For the moment, curricular projects were shelved, and I focused on ways to maintain relational trust. From Lee Bolman and Terrence E. Deal’s seminal Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, I knew that organizational leadership could be approached through various “frames.” In the context of our crisis, I thought of this transition as moving from a frame of academic leadership to a more pastoral one.
In reality, school leadership in all contexts requires direction and management of instructional practices along with simultaneous development of relational trust. But in moments of crisis, the capacities of all parties shift, requiring different levels of emphasis on both fronts. For me, the shift to pastoral leadership meant prioritizing listening, sharing news and ideas as they developed, and demonstrating my commitment to each individual’s well-being at the same time that I was thinking and making decisions about institutional needs. I found that in our time of crisis, individual and institutional best interests often seemed to be at odds. The concept of pastoral leadership challenged me to find ways to reconcile them.
Although the word “pastoral” may bring to mind agrarian or religious connotations, I use the term to mean “caring about and providing for the needs of others.” It meant there were times when I had to be firm and strong to protect against pitfalls, while at other times people needed me to be patient, gentle, and empathetic. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs provided a helpful framework for thinking about what students, parents, and teachers needed from me as a school leader and from the school as a whole.
Our financial crisis meant that for many members of the community, the institution had become unable to sustain feelings of security, belonging, and esteem as it once had. Admittedly, there were times when the school and I were unable to meet those needs in material ways, which is simply a reality in many crisis situations. But in terms of thinking about my own leadership strategy and tactics, this pastoral frame was a critical complement to the many pragmatic choices that had to be made, and it helped me and my administrative colleagues anticipate and understand how those decisions would be received.

Understanding the Psychology of Change

Following the crisis, enrollment stabilized at around 315 students, and with that, our financial circumstances became more predictable. Soon, we began to take a second look at areas of programmatic change that could further the school’s stability and help us rebound. As a division head, those changes meant a return to greater emphasis on academic leadership and curricular development. But for many in our community, the psychological impact of the crisis lingered and inhibited our ability to move forward with a clean slate. In leading the faculty, I needed to understand what the crisis had meant to them and how the complicated feelings it brought to the fore continued to color a whole host of seemingly unrelated conversations. In particular, as Robert Evans demonstrates in The Human Side of School Change, significant change can prompt feelings of fear, loss, insecurity, and mourning—the same feelings we associate with death. Just like the stages of grief, those feelings surfaced and resurfaced in sometimes unpredictable patterns and sequences.
During and immediately after the crisis, we labored strenuously to maintain the rich and robust academic program that had developed alongside enrollment growth in the previous era. For example, preserving instruction in four world languages, a full complement of performing arts offerings, and accelerated course options in mathematics and science, not to mention supervision of extracurricular activities, meant that most teachers’ workloads were stretched by increased preparation and after-school commitments. At the same time, market analysis suggested the school would not be able to substantially grow enrollment again without more clearly differentiating ourselves from competitor schools with lower tuition in a relatively small demographic area. By and large, teachers were willing to take on the additional burden of working harder and longer to preserve the program as it was but hesitated to embrace changes that had the potential to streamline teaching loads or differentiate the school more significantly in the marketplace. Resistance to change played out in two dimensions: one psychological and the other material.
Much of the change that the school experienced, both during the period of enrollment decline and during the crisis, had been in reaction to negative circumstances and resulted in outcomes that could either be perceived or construed as negative. In the year or two that followed, any proposed changes tapped into those negative feelings of loss and insecurity. In addition, those previous changes resulted in a downsizing of the faculty, and teachers reasonably questioned whether future changes would mean that their jobs or those of close colleagues and friends would be eliminated or reconfigured. For a time, it felt as though we were stuck, paralyzed by negative emotion and a legacy of trauma. Happily, that post-crisis paralysis passed, and as school leaders, we took action steps and shifted our mindsets to help the school emerge stronger and more nimble. While the role of school leaders during and after a crisis is important, this experience helped me realize the limits to my own agency. Understanding the emotional dynamics that the crisis produced helped me see what options were available and which were not.

Keeping One’s Nerve

While I could not always control how others perceived or made meaning from our circumstances, it was within my power to decide what events meant to me and what I would do in response to them. For both my personal well-being and professional effectiveness, I learned that it was critical to maintain a sense of optimism about the future and healthy detachment from the strong emotions circulating in the present. Borrowing a concept from Edwin Friedman in the posthumously published A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, I refer to this as “keeping my nerve.” In all kinds of leadership, Friedman explains, effective leaders are “self-differentiated,” which basically means that they have a strong sense of who they are and what values they carry. Identity and values then serve as ballast for leaders in the midst of the storms of crisis, or even everyday demands that are often in tension with other competing ones.
While it is important for school leaders to have a strong sense of self, that should not be confused with selfishness or arrogance. Rather, maintaining my own individuality helped me stay focused on the needs of others and relate empathetically, even if I could not or would not meet their requests or demands. The process of self-differentiation inculcated a profound humility about my role and its limits in a crisis; it showed me how my own self-concept had been formed in relation to others. At the time, I had the good fortune of having several wise and experienced mentors in my professional network. Two lessons stand out and helped me preserve optimism and detachment while sharing hope with others. On a personal level, a close friend pointed out that I had been through many challenging experiences in my life, including the tragic death of a loved one and personal financial insecurity, which put the school’s situation in perspective. More directly related to institutional outcomes, a seasoned school leader reminded me that my school had previously survived challenging times throughout its 150-year history, and cycles of prosperity and hardship were common for all kinds of organizations, including families, businesses, and nation-states. Certainly, our school would survive this difficult time and find prosperity again, and so would each member of the community.

Commitment to Self-Care

The final lesson I gleaned about crisis leadership arose out of student-centered work. In response to the school’s crisis, the national conversation about anxiety, depression, and stress management in school settings, as well as the ongoing need to help students transition to increased academic pressure and expectations in our upper school program, I developed a new course for ninth graders called The Freshman Seminar. The course included executive functioning techniques, like long-term planning for major assignments and assessments, as well as daily routines and habits of mind that lead to sustainable, healthy lifestyles for chronically overscheduled students. Teaching the course, I had the opportunity to connect with every ninth grader in my division and talk with them about proper sleep routines, healthy diets, and physical fitness. This work reminded me daily how important it was for me to hone my executive functioning skills, keep sustainable working hours, and stay healthy with diet, rest, and exercise.
In addition, The Freshman Seminar gave me the opportunity to teach students the concept of emotional intelligence and strategies for enhancing it. I introduced the RULER approach to social and emotional learning from Marc Brackett, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. RULER is used to “recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate” emotions. I realized that I needed a great deal of emotional intelligence to lead during a crisis, and I learned how central emotion was to understanding what people were going through. Health, well-being, and emotional intelligence were conspicuously absent from my own education and professional training, but I learned from our students how centrally important they are to leadership in any context, and especially during times of crisis.
These four takeaways coalesce around the importance of humility, authenticity, and leaning into hard conversations in times of crisis. At many points, leaders may feel the events of a crisis applying pressure to withdraw, turn inward, and conceal or diminish the facts and challenges before them. While school leaders navigating a crisis must carefully consider what information can or should be shared with constituents, I believe effective leadership requires finding ways to remain open, transparent, and honest. Focusing on the needs of others, as well as one’s own, and communicating frequently and transparently can help a school community successfully navigate a crisis and return to prosperity.


COVID-19: Rapid Response

As this issue was in production, the COVID-19 situation was intensifying. One of the first independent schools to close its doors and shift to online learning was Eastside Preparatory School (WA), where the author of this article, John Stegeman, is head of upper school. Because Kirkland, Washington, was on the leading edge of the outbreak—the first deaths occurred just 5 miles north of the Eastside Prep campus—the school was in the precarious position of having to make that difficult transition before other schools. Members of Eastside Prep’s senior leadership team knew that their response to the crisis would need to evolve—that the community’s needs would shift as the crisis unfolded. Read more about how the school handled different aspects of the crisis in “Leading Amid COVID-19: Reflecting on the Early Weeks of School Closure,” an Independent Ideas blog post by Head of School Terry Macaluso; Jonathan Briggs, director of strategy, technology, and innovation; Matt Delaney, director of academic design and integration; Sam Uzwack, head of middle school; and Paul Hagen, director of student well-being.


Readings & Resources

Read more about school finance with these NAIS resources.

Check out the Winter 2020 issue of Independent School magazine, which is focused on financial sustainability. It includes articles such as: Many of the issue’s articles are available online. To access the Winter 2020 issue’s full contents, you can purchase a copy by going to the NAIS Bookstore at nais.org.

In addition to other NAIS resources such as the NAIS Toolkit on Mergers, Acquisitions, and Other Affiliations. Also, explore web articles such as:
John Stegeman

John Stegeman is currently head of upper school at Eastside Preparatory School in Seattle, Washington.