Creating a Culture of Leadership Development, One School at a Time
As an executive at a charter school network in the Washington, DC area, Jimmy Henderson experienced first-hand the raw frustration of an education system that struggles to hire and retain great leaders and administrators. "Mustering the resources to hire great talent from outside was already incredibly difficult," he said, "but even when the organization was able to hire individuals with outstanding expertise, they often didn't stay very long."
For Henderson, key mentors ensured that he would not experience the revolving door approach to talent development. "The organizations that retain people have a culture of development, and that's rare," he said. "Our board invested an incredible amount of time and effort in me to help me become a better CFO and COO. And ultimately, trying to recreate those conditions at scale is what gets me out of bed each day."
As managing partner of EdFuel, Henderson works to ensure that leaders of charter networks and districts get the type of support that propelled him to success in his career. EdFuel's purpose and passion is to provide leadership and talent development tailored to the education sector. Founded in 2013 by Kathleen deLaski, who is also president of the deLaski Family Foundation and now serves as EdFuel's board chair, the organization works with school system operators, innovators, and investors around the country to collect, streamline, and disseminate best practices while also providing a growing suite of its own tools, programs, and diagnostics.
In 2015, EdFuel and Bridgespan published Hidden in Plain Sight, a report that highlighted the "musical chairs" dynamic across education organizations, with 70 percent of middle managers surveyed expecting to leave their posts within three years. Subsequently, EdFuel started getting calls from charter management organization (CMO) leaders. "They all had the same request," Henderson said. "They were saying, 'This is great research, but are you going to help us make it happen?'" That prodding led to a nine-month Bridgespan-EdFuel partnership in 2016, designing and delivering a national leadership-development cohort for high-performing CMOs.;
The project, Building Tomorrow's Leaders in Education, brought together senior-level, cross-functional teams from KIPP DC, Uncommon Schools, IDEA Public Schools, and Green Dot Public Schools to develop sustainable approaches to home office talent-development and retention.
Guided by EdFuel, the participants engaged in an initial talent review process. They discussed the importance of the local and regional connections that can come from developing leaders in-house—particularly leaders of color who model the kinds of futures to which they want their students to aspire. And they dug into best practices on talent development, homing in on the methods they felt would benefit their own organizations the most and test them out in real-time. As Henderson noted, "until you try out a practice in your own organization, it's theoretical—academic. There's no substitute for being able to pilot practices as you learn, with the opportunity to connect with peers who can offer advice from their own firsthand experience in real time."
Reflecting on the experience, Nithya Rajan, vice president of strategic planning for Green Dot Public Schools, said that EdFuel and Bridgespan "brought new perspectives to an area in which we've struggled, and they pushed us to take concrete steps in growing, developing and retaining the home office leaders that frequently get overlooked, despite the critical role they play in the charter sector's long-term success."
Stephanie Kapsis, managing director of talent at KIPP DC, concurred, noting that she came away with a renewed sense of confidence in KIPP DC's ability to grow sustainably. KIPP DC, in fact, is now looking to pay it forward, having co-authored a grant with EdFuel to develop a similar program for other DC-area charter schools. KIPP was the smallest participant in the Building Tomorrow's Leaders cohort; this time, it will be the largest—the experienced one.
The project has had a lasting effect on EdFuel as well, Henderson said. "There are a few moments in the history of any organization that its leaders can point to and say, 'This changed our trajectory.' Working with Bridgespan has been, for EdFuel, one those times. Bridgespan approached us as a partner, not as a client. That was significant for us. The experience sharpened me as a leader, and sharpened the entire EdFuel team. It has helped us serve our clients on a new level. We do something different with every client because of what we learned from Bridgespan, and how we worked with the Bridgespan team.";