A lesson in brand loyalty

19th May 2000 at 01:00
Business has much to learn from teaching, says Alan Cole

I have been a dedicated NT for years. That's non-teacher, as Gemma Warren called them in her March 31 column in this magazine. She has started a relationship with one, and recently I started living with a teacher.

Not any old teacher. A headteacher. And an SH at that, one of those superheads who is parachuted into the business equivalent of a serious loss maker. And, these days, with the same kind of business brief: turn it around or face closure. To a "resting" ex-chief executive, this is an exciting project on which to advise from the safety of my home office. I come to it with lots of experience of ailing industries and failing factories. I even had a spell as a school governor, which, if nothing else, helps me keep pace with the stream of acronyms that pour from SH's mouth.

Turning the school around shouldn't be difficult. There are no strategic issues to worry about; the objects of the business are clear. No need to puzzle out whether the school is in the right part of the market. No problems with positioning the brand. No requirement to think about what to do inside the factory gates. And, best of all, not too many worries about finding new customers.

Despite these differences, the worlds of business and education are moving closer together. Numbers and measurement, for example, have long been the language of business - business has been a "per" environment since it started. Whether it's sales per square foot, profit per employee or miles per gallon, business has always divided one thing into another to produce a benchmark of achievement. But there is no doubt that measurement works. Post a daily chart on any noticeboard showing the daily usage of paper clips and, hey presto, clip conservation is underway. So I am at ease with the graphs and spreadsheets that spill nightly from the satchel.

I am also au fait with regular assessment. No Ofsted worries for me as the results of my efforts have been pored over every month, published every six and audited every 12.They have been dissected by investors, discussed in the Financial Times and misrepresented by share tipsters.

Linking pay to performance is, for me, the oldest of hats too. It has motivated skippers of tea clippers and managers of football clubs. How can there be a debate about paying better teachers more than their duff colleagues?

So far, so easy. But there is one thing that has shocked me deeply as I emerge from the boardroom: the poverty of the raw material that goes through the gates of an inner-city school - partly financial but mainly spiritual.

Of course, money is an issue. But what's more important, in any business or educational institution, is hope. The lack of it in many of the pupils and their parents is startling. The idea that a decent education can help their kids move on in the world hasn't even got to the starting line.

Where have I been for the past 30 years that I have failed to notice this huge underclass? The answer is, of course, at work. The very place where these problem families are not to be found.

On this aspect of SH's task, I am stumped. My initial reaction - close the factory, pay the redundancy costs and move on - isn't quite appropriate, and Fresh Start doesn't seem to work anyhow. It won't solve the mess, just move it around.

I watch in wonder as Pareto's principle works in school as it does in the business world. Twenty per cent of the pupils consume 80 per cent of the time, emotional energy and virtual parenting skills of the teaching staff. And that's the main difference between these two worlds.

Business isn't very patient with its under-performers. It can't afford to be. SH and her team, however, regard them as a challenge to be included, not a problem to be excluded. And maybe some of that spirit wouldn't go amiss in industry.

Lots of praise, buckets of encouragement and plenty of overt pleasure showered on a task done well. SH as everybody's good mummy? Certainly. Chief executive as the ultimate good daddy? Maybe. Just maybe.

Alan Cole lives in London

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