Twelve Ways to Use Entrepreneurial Thinking to Help Our Schools – Part 1

These days, education professionals find themselves struggling to navigate a brave new world of growing challenges and shrinking budgets. One business-world solution can help schools better deal with new challenges from their economic woes: try thinking more like an entrepreneur.

In past economic downturns, it was the private sector that bore the brunt of company closings or huge layoffs. Today’s downturn has a twist. Not only is the private sector suffering, but huge budget deficits mean the government sector is feeling the pain as well. And that means America’s educators—a group of professionals—are facing deeper budget cuts and more extensive layoffs than they’ve seen in years.

Yes, budget battles in state and local governments have led to extreme, never-before-seen cuts in education budgets—thousands of teacher layoffs and the slashing of music, athletic, gifted, and other programs. What’s worse, these cuts come at a time when struggling to keep up with its international counterparts in math and science, and students across the country are failing to receive the opportunities they deserve.

These developments are tough to swallow for many of the nation’s educators. And based on my years of growing successful businesses, I believe it’s time for the nation’s education leaders to start operating like scrappy entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs create success by being agile and by making effective but quick decisions based on what they have in front of them. Today it is mandatory that school administrators employ skills heretofore unneeded to keep their school districts moving forward despite harmful budget cuts. This will require that they use the creative thinking of an entrepreneur.

How does one “think like an entrepreneur”?

As an entrepreneur, success hangs on your ability to execute quickly and effectively with the resources at hand. Sometimes that means making tough decisions by thinking like a business owner. Sometimes it means taking calculated risks and making hard decisions without always achieving the complete consensus of all involved. Just because a school’s budget has been cut, it doesn’t mean educators can drop their standards. Instead it’s time to become more entrepreneurial and to seek solutions by following a non-traditional path. It means coming at these problems from a new perspective.

Here are a few tips on how nation’s educators can use entrepreneurial thinking to lead our schools out of these difficult times:


(1) Lead Like A Benevolent Dictator

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Don’t worry; it’s not as scary as it sounds. The “benevolent” part means doing the right thing for the right reasons, for all stakeholders—in education, this means your teachers and other school employees, your students, their parents, etc. The “dictator” part simply means that you have to recognize when it’s time for debate and conversation to end and a decision to be made. You have to say, “We’re taking this fork in the road, for better or worse, and it’s on my head.” This dual leadership style keeps things constantly moving forward, despite the bumps in the road.


Academics by nature value input. We learn more when we are able to openly discuss issues, ideas, and problems. It’s only natural for administrators to use that mindset in the way they lead. But I believe the administrators who are best able to help their districts weather today’s unrelenting economic storm will be the ones who recognize that eventually the buck stops with them. To be a strong leader, there must always be a point when the leader, including a school administrator or principal, must make a decision and move on.


With both OfficeMax and my company Max-Wellness, a recently launched new, only-one-of-its-kind health and wellness retail chain concept, being the benevolent dictator provided me with the critical leadership necessary to take an idea and transform it into reality as fast as possible. I knew that I couldn’t build a consensus every time a decision needed to be made. The same is true in education. Someone has to be willing to make the important decisions when it counts. If more administrators emerge as benevolent dictators, their school districts will have the quality leadership necessary to take whatever is given to them and transform it into success—improved test scores, well-rounded students, resourceful schools.


(2) Learn To Do More With Less

Entrepreneurs are pros at squeezing a whole lot out of not very much and then going back to do it again. They’re resourceful because they have to constantly look for capital. In education, schools might not be able to raise money in the same way an entrepreneur can, but they can find very creative ways to make every dollar go further.


Today’s administrators are facing a two-fold problem. They have less money for educational programs and many have fewer teachers. But as many of the nation’s administrators already know, the good news is that every little bit saved helps, and tapping into teachers’, students’, and parents’ entrepreneurial thinking can spur new methods of getting the job done with less.

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Just as private enterprise celebrates new ideas and innovation, schools must also foster creative problem solving and make a big deal about newly discovered successes. Schools can’t give stock options, but they can give praise and non-economic rewards to those who uncover a new idea that works.


(3) Know When It’s Time To Pull The Plug

One of the biggest dilemmas for any entrepreneur, CEO, or business owner is to know when enough is enough. There are peaks and valleys in virtually every company and industry. In business, the trick for an owner is to understand these vacillations and know when it’s time to sell—to the highest bidder, of course. In education, this means knowing when to cut programs that aren’t working or that aren’t worth their cost. It’s also about understanding when rebranding a school program can add a new spark to a program that reached the end of its useful life just as consumer product companies do every day.


Look for low-hanging fruit; the idea does not have to be earth-shaking, just functional and able to attract interest that leads to desire and action. Great leaders also have to recognize when it’s time to move on from something that isn’t working. You absolutely can’t stand by while money or valuable resources are wasted. Now is the time to focus on the basics and get rid of anything that could be seen as excess. Go through your programs with a fine-toothed comb. Make sure every one of them is proving its value. If a program isn’t, then pull the plug, no matter how sacred the cow. Right now you have to have quick wins that save money. It’s up to you to recognize these moments and pull the trigger when necessary.


(4) If You Don’t Ask, You Won’t Get

Whether you’re asking a teacher to go the extra mile, asking parents to make donations, or pitching a new initiative to the school board, you have to be willing to put yourself out there. Though most entrepreneurs don’t like asking others for help, they must learn to live with the process, because it’s a stark reality of growing a company. The same will be true of school administrators in today’s economy.

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Don’t be afraid to ask for help from new sources. Doing this is an essential part of being an entrepreneur. Most importantly, administrators must learn to frame the “ask” in a compelling presentation that tells the story. Always explain what’s in it for the person being asked.


(5) Learn what “no” really means. 

Teams must be taught that the “no” they receive the first nine times is merely a disguised “maybe”—because the other person is looking for a reason why not to proceed, or doesn’t understand what is being asked. It’s only after the tenth time—when the other person hangs up or walks out of the room and slams the door—that “no” really means “no.”


Administrators should explain to others and know for themselves that hearing “no” simply means that you haven’t effectively or passionately explained what you need—or adequately expressed how your plan will translate into success. Administrators hear many “noes” from teachers who are overworked and may not want to take on more work. They’ll hear it from time- and cash-strapped parents and unmotivated students. But always remember, “no” doesn’t have to always mean “no.” To get to “yes,” entrepreneurs have learned that sometimes it’s just a matter of restating the request and playing to the other side by determining what their hot buttons are.


(6) Don’t drink your own bathwater.

Entrepreneurs who have repeated success don’t rest on their laurels; neither should administrators. Today is a new day in education. Things are forever changed. What worked last year, or even last month, won’t work now. In this new world order for education, creative thinking is a must.

Image: David Castillo Dominici /

This is the first of a two-part guest post courtesy of Michael Feuer.  He is author of The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business, and Outwit the Competition (Wiley, 2011, ISBN: 978-1-118-00391-6, $24.95, He cofounded OfficeMax in 1988 starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, a partner, and a small group of investors, and he is also the CEO of Max-Ventures, a venture capital and retail consulting firm, and CEO of Max-Wellness, a comprehensive health and wellness retail chain. 


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