The experience of successful business leaders can provide valuable lessons for those who run nonprofits, sports teams, and yes, public and private schools.

The demands placed on school principals are very similar to those faced by leaders in the business world, says Marc Metakis, vice president and chief operating officer of McKinsey Academy at McKinsey & Co.

In citing parallels to the corporate world, Metakis notes school leaders:

  • Are responsible for supervising and leading the professional development of their teams (teachers and staff)
  • Manage complicated budgets and physical assets (school facilities)
  • Need to meet the needs of their “customers” (parents and students) with limited resources
  • Seek funding for new initiatives (draft proposals for district funding and grants)
  • Manage communications with multiple constituencies (school board, parents, teachers, and students)
  • Serve as counselors and adviser to their colleagues (teachers)
  • Play a very public role in the community (events)

To successfully manage these additional responsibilities, principals need the same caliber and style of leadership training as business leaders. For example, one critical and fundamental proficiency they need to know is how to effectively structure communications and messages for their different stakeholders.

Tailoring the message based on the audience helps to make sure that message resonates with the audience. Along with this, school leaders require the ability to evaluate the needs and interests of various audiences in order to deliver impactful and effective communications. School leaders are responsible for leading and managing large teams of people that include faculty, staff, students, and others. To support their team’s professional development and a positive work environment, leaders must routinely give feedback and provide coaching and guidance. Through it all, leaders must make sure to manage their emotions and stay focused on the issue during challenging conversations. 

These skill sets are essential to effective leadership. In fact, based on a McKinsey survey of 81 companies and 189,000 employees, four behaviors drive 89 percent of the difference between organizations with high leadership effectiveness and those with low leadership effectiveness:

  • Leaders support and motivate people and teams, building a positive environment.
  • Leaders operate with strong results orientation (prioritize, organize for results).
  • Leaders seek different perspectives (employees and customers).
  • Leaders effectively solve difficult problems.

For leaders who struggle with employee interaction, one exercise—which is incorporated into the McKinsey Academy’s program—involves direct observation of an employee’s behavior and provides real-life, practical feedback.

“Having difficult conversations is a problem that principals face every day as they interact with their staff, with their district leaders, with parents, and with students. Like all leaders, principals need a toolkit for managing the interpersonal challenges and communication challenges they face every day,” Metakis notes.

In an NASSP survey, secondary school principals noted specifically that engaging parents and the community was “challenging.” When it comes to engaging in challenging conversations, Metakis says effective leaders should do three things to help get the best outcome:

  • Manage your emotions. Remain focused on trying to get the most positive and constructive outcome. Don’t let the issue get personal.
  • Learn to sit in the other person’s chair. Figure out the set of thoughts, feelings, and reactions the other side might have. This will enable you to be nimble in the conversation.
  • Plan and practice. Prepare for challenging conversations by defining the scope and anticipating a variety of reactions. Use focused practice to be concise and direct. 

School principals who participate in the McKinsey Management Program for School Leaders are taught the same leadership skills that executives are taught. School leaders who take the courses hear stories and examples from renowned leaders that illustrate and amplify the learning. “For example,” Metakis says, “the governor of Delaware appears in our courses and shares his personal stories about capturing his audience’s attention and aligning various stakeholders around a common vision. We believe that the techniques that he shares apply equally to all leaders—CEOs of businesses and CEOs of schools.”

A national group of school leaders who are members of the inaugural cohort of students in the McKinsey Management Program for School Leaders are learning about and practicing these tools and techniques now. Participants are learning from and engaging with each other online to develop and sharpen specific management capabilities using real-life examples and ideas. They have become part of a national community of school leaders sharing information, ideas, and solutions.

All NASSP State Principals of the Year gain access to the initial course in the program, while the national winner receives the full three-course executive leadership development program. 

McKinsey Management Program for Schools Leaders

The skills and ideas taught by the McKinsey Management Program for School Leaders are universal to leadership. The specific areas of focus include:

  • Communicating for impact using structured communications
  • Managing team and group dynamics
  • Providing effective feedback and coaching
  • Mastering challenging conversations
  • Learning and using management techniques like performance boards and trackers, daily huddles, and communication techniques to manage day-to-day work

Michael Levin-Epstein is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.