Education Market Leadership Series: Part 1 of 6

How Does Your Company Adapt With the Education Market in Rapid Flux?

Leadership Series Introduction

by Joe Caruso

As you know, today’s education market is a sea of change. It may seem as if you are being tossed about in the perfect storm, with little room for short-term predictability. The pressure-cooked atmosphere of high-stakes testing is changing how teachers teach, and the adoption of a national standard is changing what they teach. We see the accountability blame game constantly shifting targets, from teachers to unions to administrators to parents. We see federal and state education budgets fluctuating with the economic challenges our country is facing. We continue to see consolidation among education companies. And don’t overlook rapidly changing technologies that are dramatically impacting the way we deliver our products and services.

This unpredictability is putting intense pressure on school districts’ budgets, causing them to rethink the way they buy. That means leaders of education companies need to rethink the way they market and sell to schools. Regardless of how well things are going now within your company, the education market is fickle, and the margin for error has narrowed. Strong leaders who understand the nature of today’s education business need to reassess and plan accordingly.

Caruso Leadership has teamed up with SellingtoSchools.com to put the leaders of education market companies on the right track for adapting to unprecedented dynamics in the education markets. The series titled How Does Your Company Adapt When Markets Are in Rapid Flux? will include six articles and companion talk shows on SellingToSchools Radio. Each will offer valuable, practical approaches to succeeding in a rapidly changing K-12 market, including:

  • What leaders of your company can, and cannot, control
  • What leadership teams can influence, looking in particular at processes
  • How your company approaches and conducts the sales process
  • How your company culture—its central structure, assumptions, and beliefs—drives your organization

How to Thrive in a Changing K-12 Marketplace: First, Focus on the Fundamentals

First Article of a Six-Part Series

When markets are in flux, it’s important for you and other leaders in your company to reassess what you know—about your company and its products, and your customers and their needs.  This decision and thought process needs to be driven by you and the entire leadership team. When I start to work with education clients, I like to give them a simple exercise that I will share with you right here, right now: You have to take the important first step to identify the factors your company can’t control (usually more than companies like to admit), can control (usually less than companies like to admit), and can merely influence (the most important of all to know and know well).

Reveal K-12 Sales Opportunities in the Unseen and Unacknowledged

Although simple, this process is critical because it will help reveal two very important and potentially dangerous areas that I call blind spots and denial issues. Blind spots occur when some thought, idea, or perception doesn’t allow us to see potential opportunities or threats. Denial issues occur when we have a distorted view or perception of our company in the context of our markets. For example, here’s a fun fact that I’ve learned after working for nearly a decade with more education companies than I can count: Employees of education-market companies love their products more than their customers and potential customers do.

This statement may sound harsh, but I have found it to be true among leadership teams, management teams, and staff among my education clients. While passion for your product and your work is commendable, and we see this especially among former teachers or administrators who have switched to the private sector, it becomes dangerous to the business when it blinds you or your company to certain realities. It’s difficult—if not impossible—to adapt to a changing market when you have blind spots and denial issues. Having a distorted view of your importance to the market, or the belief that your customers can’t do without your product, may be born of pride and love for the work, but it can also become a fatal flaw.

Let Go of What You Can't Control: Do What You Do Best

Taking the critical step of acknowledging the things you cannot control not only uncovers blind spots and denial issues, it does something even more empowering: It allows you and your leadership team to focus your time and energy on the things that you can influence. This frees up endless amounts of time and energy for more productive work that focuses on the right things. 

In this way, accepting what we can’t control is freeing. For example, if a company stops trying to be an Apple or a Google and admits that it is a much smaller and less significant player, it can bring a more realistic and honest brand, product, and approach to its market. This may sound like a silly example to you, but you’d be surprised by the number of small to mid-size education companies with delusions of grandeur that go far beyond positive thinking, and actually hurt the company and prevent it from growing.

Don’t Surrender to the Realities of the School Market: Accept, Adjust, and Advance

Some organizational leaders and other people don’t like the word “acceptance” because they think it implies tolerating a problem rather than solving it. The distinction is that resignation leaves us powerless in a situation. Acceptance of a current reality, however, doesn’t mean we have to be resigned to that reality in the future. Accepting current realities helps us fully acknowledge what we are up against. This acknowledgement and acceptance allows us to see things more objectively and less dramatically, which makes us smarter in the moment. Resignation can create victim-like thoughts and feelings; acceptance frees the mind and emotions of negative thoughts and feelings. In this way, acceptance allows us to think more clearly because we can see more clearly.

Accepting what we can’t change, or control, is the second step to empowerment. First, we identify what we can’t control; then we accept the reality for what it is. Only then can we begin to find our power in the problem. That power can lead to thoughts and ideas of how we can influence what we can’t control. For example, once an education publisher accepts that the market needs something beyond a print format, or needs to support multiple formats until the shifting market settles into a new accepted reality, it can begin to plan accordingly. Another example, which may be far more difficult for some to hear, is that once a content provider realizes and accepts the fact that content is becoming commoditized, it can begin to strategize more effectively. (Boy, am I going to get some angry emails on that one!)

So with your market in flux, it’s important that you and your other organizational leaders acknowledge the things you can’t control in order to uncover your own blind spots and denial issues. This frees your organization to more effectively examine your processes (marketing, sales, service, product features, or delivery) in light of the changing market. As simple as it sounds, this little exercise frees up hearts and minds so you can think more clearly about how you can influence what you can’t control.  

Find Influence in a Changing Education Market With This Simple Exercise

Here are four steps to get going with this process using a simple group exercise. It's best performed on a whiteboard, in front of a mirror, or with a good facilitator:

  1. List market factors that are beyond your control. An easy place to start is by gaining consensus and listing your current pain points, problems, and issues—what’s causing them? If the market is in transition (from old to new, for example), can you control where the market will go? If budgets are shrinking and cuts are necessary, can you control whether you’ll be cut from the budget?

  2. Determine what you are you missing. What are your blind spots? Call out any assumptions you make about the business—are those truly in your control? Let’s say you are the market leader because you have more customers than your competitors—are they the most satisfied customers in the market? Uncovering blind spots can trigger a completely different strategy than just looking at the obvious problems identified in #1 above.

  3. Circle the factors that you think you can, or thought you could, control. Can you really control whether your customer stays with you or goes to your competitor? …which company partners or merges with another? …whether there is a cut from a school budget? Accept that you cannot control these factors.

  4. Focus on what's left. What is left is what you can focus on to influence your place in the changing market. Reexamining internal processes, understanding your internal perceptions, and figuring out what is and what is not working within your organization is the best place to start. For example, you cannot control school budget cuts, but you can influence your ability to remain a line item in the budget. This could mean going up the chain (from school to district, from district to state) or tailoring the way your deals are constructed to incentivize loyalty.

Your company's leadership team can conduct this exercise internally or hire consultants to help provide an objective lens for this. But until your leadership team clearly acknowledges what it cannot control (I refer to this as strategic surrender), any subsequent strategizing, tweaking, or adjustments you decide upon will be less effective than they could be.

For the next article in this series, I'll be sharing some advice and details about the optimization process, for what’s called “The Quintessential Process,” as a way for your company to examine the things you can influence for optimal results.

About the Author

Joe Caruso is owner/founder of Caruso Leadership, a management consulting firm that advises education companies, as well as CEOs, Admirals, and Leadership Teams from every industry on optimizing outcomes by applying the principles of The Quintessential Process. An author and frequent education industry keynote speaker, Joe’s best-selling book "The Power of Losing Control" has been featured on PBS and an audio series from Nightingale-Conant. Learn more about Joe and his work at www.carusoleadership.com/education.