Learning About Leadership

In the Spring of 2020 COVID-19 changed the learning landscape from on campus to online. As part of a leadership class, an Upper School student conducted Zoom interviews with campus leaders, past and present, who have worked to shape the content and character of their school over time. The purpose these interviews was to capture specific lessons in leadership that could be shared with classmates during virtual learning discussions.

The following transcript reflects the interview between an [Upper School student (ST)] and Jeff Blanchard (JB). Because this conversation was part of a student’s classroom assignment, its reproduction here has been anonymized.

ST: Good morning Mr Blanchard. I’m [Upper School Student]. Thank you for taking time to speak with me about your work with [our School] and leadership.

JB: Good morning [to you]. Good to be with you. I appreciate your consideration and I’m delighted to help.

So, Zoom is new to me. Have you been using it for online learning?

ST: Yes, only recently. We had a few hiccups in the beginning, but I think everyone is pretty comfortable with it now.

JB: Well, that’s good to hear.

[A]s trusted advisors . . . there’s an expectation for what we bring to the table—leadership, process, education, inspiration, and a bias for action.

ST: So, you received the agenda I emailed to you?

JB: I did.

ST: Like I said, I have a few background questions about your role with [our School] and then about leadership. It should only take about 10 minutes.

JB: Wonderful, sounds great.

ST: I understand you have worked with [our School] for many years?

JB: Yes. 15 years.

ST: Your role has been campus planning?

JB: Campus planning and consulting which, for us, has strong roots in strategic planning, campus planning, and targeted development efforts.

And, we support number of Board committees at various points in the campus development process, the Executive Committee, Advancement Committee, Building and Grounds for instance.

ST: How did you get started with [our School]?

JB: The majority of our work comes from referral. We continue to work with [two other schools in your community] and many years ago they offered support for our engagement with [your school].

ST: I didn’t realize you worked with [two other schools in our community]?

JB: You know, call me old-school, but as a professional practice, we really don’t talk about our clients and the work we do with them.

ST: Why is that?

JB: I’ve always thought our clients should be the ones shaping the content and timing of their community’s messages, and also, it allows us as consultants to maintain our objectivity and independence.

ST: Wow, there’s a lesson I can pass on. You work nationally and internationally?

JB: Yeah. We’ve been very lucky. Our clients cast a wide net for their professionals and we’re very fortunate to swim in that pond.

ST: Tell me about your role, and how leadership fits into that role?

JB: That’s an interesting question.

You know, we work with institutions like yours on one of their toughest challenges, planning for the future, and how to approach that future in a thoughtful and organized way.

So, as trusted advisors in that context, there’s an expectation for what we bring to the table—leadership, process, education, inspiration, and a bias for action.

By leadership I mean things like process leadership, thought leadership, and empowering the institution through educating, inspiring and mentoring others.

ST: Is there one leadership quality that you rely on most?

JB: From my perspective, and for our work and role, it’s trust.

Our engagements are with communities that value collaboration and consensus. So, trust becomes the essential ingredient in leading processes and finding solutions to tough problems.

ST: What are the ingredients to building trust?

JB: Well, for our work, which relies heavily on successfully engaging other key voices around big and important questions, I would say there are three ingredients—authenticity, judgement, and empathy.

ST: Can you help me understand those more?

JB: Authenticity is a key ingredient because people have to believe they’re interacting with the real you and that you have their best interests at heart.

Judgement, because people need to have faith in your judgment and competence. So, the structure, the logic of your approach and its outcomes—how you think about the issues and initiatives, help others think about them, should inspire confidence. More simply said, do people believe in the rigor of your ideas, and have full faith in your ability to deliver on them.

And then finally, empathy, which I think is the most important, because people need to feel that you truly care about them and their situation. So, an empathy for the issues at hand and for the people that come together to make good things happen.

ST: I see: authenticity, judgement and empathy — great.

[Our Head of School] said you have a calming effect in your interactions. Does that come from trust?

JB: [Your Head of School] is very generous.

Yes, the trust that comes from a long, productive relationship, and candidly, being prepared for every encounter, doing our homework, and not taking anything for granted.

ST: Another lesson to share there too.

This conversation has been very helpful to me and the presentation I’m working on. I appreciate your time.

JB: I appreciate your time [Student]. I’ve certainly learned a few things from this conversation, not least of which is how to use ZOOM.

May I ask what your takeaways were?

ST: Sure. Let’s see, I liked the quiet professionalism around your work with clients, that makes sense to me.

It also makes sense to me that leaders in your role need to be authentic, structured, and empathetic, because you work so much with others.

And, I liked always being prepared. We heard that a lot from our teacher when shaping this interview exercise.

JB: Very good summary, your teacher would be pleased. And, you were very well prepared.

[Student], I wish you well with your work my friend. Reach out if you need anything.

ST: Thank you.