DIY: Management Chops

I visited schools and edtech startups in the Bay Area Friday. As my partner and I reflected on what we liked about the two companies we visited, he said, “That young CEOs has real mangement chops.” I knew immediately what he meant about the combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities.
I also thought about my visit to Summit Public Schools in the morning and smiled about my meeting with Diane Tavenner. Like other women leading school networks – Louise Waters,Eva Moskowitz,Dacia Toll – Tavenner has management chops. As noted a year ago, Summit, a small Bay Area secondary school network, has the smartest teacher development and compensation system I’ve seen. Last year they started blending middle grade math with Khan Academy. Over the summer, she took her leadership team to Carpe Diem in Yuma and it inspired them to completely change the format of their two new schools.
Today, students at Summit West and Summit Tahoma will return to a different school – one that combines a learning lab for personalized online work with teacher led workshops. They have embraced the Common Core, standards-based grading, and blended learning simultaneously. And, to some extent they are developing detailed deployment plans as they go.
The remarkable thing about this rapid innovation cycle is that Summit was already a top-performing network – this is an example of the best striving to get better. That’s what I mean by management chops, Diane is working it. She’s pushing hard, willing to abandon good for great, and able to go deep on the core strategic issues that her organization is taking on.
An investor told Fred Wilson, “A CEO does only three things: sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders; recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company; and makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.”
That’s a good steady state list, but as Fred also notes, during the startup phase, “Management is all about small team dynamics; everyone on board, working together, and getting stuff done.”
My school and startup visits made me think about the attributes of startup leaders that I am willing to bet on. Startup management chops includes:

  • Urgency: An understanding of the strategic window they are trying to hit and an appreciation that the clock is ticking.
  • Skills: Enough breadth to make an individual contribution, hire good people, manage a project, and run a good meeting.
  • Focus: Clear priorities about what to do and what not to do.
  • Delivery: The integrity to do what what you say you will do.

Two weeks ago Forbes listed female startup founders with solid technical chops. The school network leaders mentioned above have solid edu chops. (And, it is great to see more female CEOs in both education and technology.) But more important than discipline knowledge, these women have a bias for action, a disposition for strategic abandonment, and an expectation of results.
This blog first appeared on EdWeek.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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