Building Tomorrow’s Educational Leaders

by Jimmy Henderson and Betsy Doyle

Last summer, EdFuel and The Bridgespan Group published “Hidden in Plain Sight,” a report that made the case for charter management organizations (CMOs) and districts to up their game when it comes to developing and supporting educational leaders. The report highlighted the “musical chairs” dynamic across education organizations, with 70 percent of middle managers surveyed expecting to leave their post within three years. With predictions like this, it’s not surprising that sector leaders continue to name succession planning and building the bench as top organizational priorities.¹

Today, most school systems are underinvesting in talent development for their home office staff. On one hand, this makes sense. The majority of professional development dollars need to flow to teachers and school leaders, and busy teams seldom make a consistent effort to invest in home grown talent. But with the ever-increasing pace of change in the sector, organizations are becoming more complex and the demands on leadership more intense. Turnover has real costs, both in time and dollars. CMOs and districts must find ways to invest more systematically in home office talent development, ensuring the sector has the leaders it needs to deliver breakthrough student results.

But how to do this? Changing the script requires reorienting priorities around talent development and making a sustained commitment to developing future leaders. In our research, we found a subset of homegrown talent who felt positive about building a career at their organizations. They reported that they are 5.5 times more likely to receive development and coaching than their peers. And this was particularly true for leaders of color, an important finding at a moment when many CMOs and districts are focused on increasing diversity at all levels. 

After publishing this data last summer, Marco Petruzzi at Green Dot called us. “This is good research,” he noted, “but are you going to help us make it happen?” With this in mind, EdFuel and Bridgespan have designed a learning cohort called Building Tomorrow’s Leaders in Education. We initiated this next phase of work because, all too often, good research sits on the shelf – rarely is there a chance to field test promising practices.

So we spent the past few months developing an approach to home office leadership development, building off years of leadership work by Bridgespan and EdFuel, and sought the advice of a handful of trusted partners—such as Deborah McGriff from NewSchools Venture Fund, Becca Bracy Knight from The Broad Center, and Alex Hernandez from The Charter School Growth Fund.

For our initial cohort, we recruited four charter management organizations: Green Dot Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, KIPP DC, and Uncommon Schools. We were deliberate in reaching out to a high performing group already committed to talent development, as we wanted to engage people eager to share their experiences and promising practices. And we selected growing organizations facing similar opportunities and challenges, in hopes of together developing and testing new solutions.

We’ve anchored our work together on three guiding questions:

  1. How do we identify and assess rising leaders in our organization?
  2. How do we develop and retain rising leaders to achieve our goals?
  3. How will we know if our actions are working and getting better over time?

Between February and July 2016, we will work with participants individually and as a cohort to tackle these questions—creating opportunities for teams to design and test specific strategies and also to learn in real-time from their peers. We’re also embedding a commitment to increasing the diversity of senior leadership teams across the work, recognizing that developing and retaining many more leaders of color will require dedicated focus. Our goal is that each organization finishes the cohort equipped with both the resolve and momentum needed to better develop and retain their current and rising talent.   

In parallel with the cohort, we aim to make insights and resources available to the field in real-time. We plan to do this by posting reflections and tools throughout the cohort experience, weaving together perspectives on effective talent development practices, real-world examples from our CMO partners, and concrete resources that others can try.

The first tool we’ll share is the System Leadership Diagnostic Assessment—a tool that surfaces current strengths and growth areas for home office talent development. Our diagnostic tool gives a rich view of leadership development along six core dimensions:

  • Engaging Senior Leaders
  • Understanding Future Needs
  • Valuing and Increasing Leadership Diversity
  • Developing Future Leaders
  • Building the Value Proposition
  • Monitoring and Improving Leadership Development

In January 2016, our cohort took the survey. What did we learn from aggregate results from over 200 managers, directors, and C-level leaders across the four charter network home offices? First, these organizations have made investing in talent and leadership development a priority. There are a set of common practices – like annual performance reviews and on-the-job learning – that are getting good traction. Our survey results also reflected a need for more and better mentoring and coaching, and for clearer career paths.

These survey results have already catalyzed important conversations among senior leaders and across our cohort. For IDEA Public Schools, “data from the diagnostic survey confirmed gaps we were aware of and painted a clearer picture of where we need to focus our time and resources in growing and developing our home office staff,” explains Jamey Roberts, Chief Human Assets Officer. “Even more helpful,” notes Jamey, “are the internal discussions the results sparked with our leaders to clarify what is most important to them and ensure they are part of the group to test out this work.”

The cohort is now aligned on shared goals, recognizing this as opportunity to design and explore new approaches to talent review and development that are simple, consistent, and transparent and promote a sense of shared ownership for growth among both managers and their reports.

Where do you think your organization will land on these core dimensions? If you’re curious to find out, check out the diagnostic survey questions. This spring, we also plan to make the online survey and reporting tool available to a small number of organizations free of charge. If you’re interested in learning more about this opportunity to launch the survey with your team, shoot us an email at:

And watch this space for updates from our cohort and for additional tools and resources designed to jumpstart leadership development at CMO and district home offices.

Jimmy Henderson is the CEO of EdFuel in Washington, DC and Betsy Doyle is a Partner with The Bridgespan Group in San Francisco.

¹ Kirk Kramer and Preeta Nayak, Nonprofit Leadership Development: What’s Your Plan A for Growing Future Leaders,, 2013, p. 14.