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How OCN Navigated Leadership Challenges and Rebuilt Trust

Leadership Consulting Case Study
How OCN Navigated Leadership Challenges and Rebuilt Trust

The tension was palpable at Our Charter Network (OCN)*. Observing a leadership meeting at the network showed so many of the issues brewing under the surface. The central office leaders were facing a financial cliff and a tenuous charter renewal. They were trying to hold the organization through multiple principal transitions, facility shifts, and a pandemic to boot. It was a miracle that they hadn’t buckled under the pressure.

But the school principals attending this meeting had worries, too. Luckily, the group was small enough for all the leaders to still sit around the table. But the distance felt enormous after the CFO had come to them proposing budget cuts. Each principal already felt like an island. With fires ranging from student safety to staff gossip and division, they were anxious for a shift. But the years of drama and let downs from the central office meant that they were demanding a different conversation.

If OCN leaders couldn’t find a way to figure out the path forward together, it was possible that there wouldn’t be an organization going forward.

What Support Looked Like for OCN

While it was tempting to dive right into the budget and strategic questions for OCN, we knew that the old patterns would play out in the same conversation.

So we brought the findings from our 1:1 diagnostic conversations to the table, and invited everyone to see a shared picture of the challenging reality at OCN. Everyone got to see that the culture problems were dire – and keeping them from solving equally important strategic questions. But the power really came as each leader had a chance to share their own experiences. They told each other about how hard they were trying and the hurts that had come along the way.

The meeting began the first collective exhale of this group, and they started really listening with a new lens of empathy. We knew that this was a positive win, but that we would need to create other steps of trust to rewind old patterns and create a place of trust.

So we came back together in a number of other sessions. Leaders shared their reflections on their own (challenging) ways of working, and together they crafted a new vision for how they wanted to lead going forward. With new commitments, norms, and a set of new conversations to hold together, the team was on its way.

OCN would need supports and guidance along the way. We helped them cascade their new commitments to the broader team members and to acknowledge the impact that their lack of unity had. We set up coaching for key leaders to support them through their phased decisions. And we created ongoing chapters of support to translate the culture wins to schools.

Outcomes for OCN

The road to OCN’s stable future wasn’t an easy one, but we saw some powerful glimmers of hope.

Coaching brought out new strengths in their central office leaders, and they became a powerful force in narrating the paths forward. The leaders bore the stresses with greater optimism, and bit by bit, they sorted out the challenging situations that loomed over them.

The dialogue in the expanded leadership group felt like a completely different space. Where leaders had been distrustful and positional, we now saw leaders sharing and problem solving on real issues. They worked out solutions to the budgeting issues that were tight for everyone, but doable for leaders. (And principals were able to ask for the transparency into their own budgets they hadn’t historically had that would make it possible for them to manage in the future.)

More than anything, we saw a powerful dedication to unity as leaders started the new school year. Everyone had a start of school plan, and we loved to partner with each of them. We could see that they truly had adopted new leadership principles as they taught some of the same concepts to their school leadership teams. It was clear that the path to a fresh start in the schools came from creating a shared language and commitment to a new culture.

OCN’s culture goals became as real as their academic goals. And their collaboration to repair their future meant that they could weather the new challenges and ongoing rebuilding with care and confidence that they could make it through – together.

* The name of Our Charter Network has been changed, and we have omitted salient details of this story in order to protect the anonymity of this organization.

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