Leader in a strategic planning session

How do leading organizations stay ahead of the curve? Join Dr. Janet Pilcher, author of Hardwiring Excellence in Education, as she delves into the intricacies of strategic planning with Dr. Casey Blochowiak, a Coach Senior Director at Studer Education. As a companion to last week’s high-level overview of strategic planning, this week’s episode dives into crucial aspects like how to form a strong steering committee and the pivotal role of executive leadership throughout the planning process. Listen now to also hear a roleplay between Janet and Casey demonstrating how coaches collaborate with partners to set a clear strategic vision for organizational excellence.

This episode addresses questions such as:

  • What is the role of coaches in the strategic planning process?
  • How do you select members for the strategic planning team, and what role do they play?
  • How does strategic planning help organizations navigate industry trends and future challenges?

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Episode Transcript


[Intro music plays in the background.] 

Janet Pilcher: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning in this week as we focus on what it takes as leaders to achieve important organizational outcomes. As we engage in this work, we focus on those outcomes and measures that are most important for organizations to achieve their strategic vision. That’s what today’s podcast is all about.

In our last episode, we reviewed the significance of the strategic planning process, highlighting its role as a guiding framework for implementing continuous improvement. This week, we’re going to dive into that even more as we invite back a very special guest. Joining us today is Dr. Casey Blochowiak, a Coach Senior Director at Studer Education.

With 15 years of educational experience as a teacher, literacy specialist, and leader in school administration, Casey coaches leaders to achieve organizational excellence through strategic alignment and execution. Across her career, she led a 4,000-student district to a fully virtual learning model during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She also worked tirelessly researching and applying improvement science methodologies to reverse a two-year trend in reading proficiency rates. Casey holds degrees from Marquette University, Concordia University Wisconsin, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a respected speaker, she has also presented at industry events such as the Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching and Learning Summit.

Casey is passionate about creating people-first environments in K-12 education, and we’re going to hear a little bit more about how she brings that to the strategic planning process today. We’re lucky to have had Casey on our show several times before, and we’ll include a link to a couple of her past episodes in our show notes.


Janet Pilcher: It’s with great pleasure that I welcome Casey back to our show. Casey, it’s so good to have you on our show today to talk about strategic planning. So thank you for being with us.

Casey Blochowiak: Oh, thank you, Janet. It’s always such an honor to be able to talk about our work and share some of the things that are happening with our partners around the country. So thank you.

Janet Pilcher: Absolutely. So we’re talking about strategic plan, and we have done many of these plans with our partners. And for the most part, it has a common approach, but some variation based on the partner needs. But we’re going to talk a little bit today, Casey, about your experience.

Last week, I just did a rundown of “here’s generally what we do when we work with organizations on strategic planning.” But I wanted to take a deeper dive with you to talk about what does that look like from your perspective when you’re working with our partners.

So let’s just start with that. If you would just give us a high level overview of the process you typically use with a partner, the impact areas, pillars, goal statements, etc. What’s that typical process?

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, Janet, I oftentimes share with partners when we start engaging in this work: I will learn so much about your community and what you value so quickly. It’s like this crash course for us as partners and coaches alongside you and what really matters to those that you serve and that you serve alongside.

So really, it starts- that process begins with a conversation with the superintendent and potentially other executive leaders, sometimes leaders on the board or governing body, really talking about what do they envision for their future? What do they see as those most important needs that are presenting themselves to the organization that they lead and that they serve?

And from there, we work alongside our partners to really intentionally bring together what we would call a steering committee or sometimes a core planning team that really become the champions and the course correctors in this process as we move through and deeply learn from the community, what they value and directions to move towards. And then all the way through that feedback that we engage with the community around really comes out of what we might call discovery sessions. And so that would be connecting with students, parents and caregivers, staff members, board, community, business leaders, really listening deeply to their feedback around their vision for the future of the organization.

And that feedback along with other organizational data helps us craft the strategic plan pillars or priority areas and those goal statements. And really, we’re working with partners around three to five areas. Typically, we see priority areas around students, staff, community, and then oftentimes see those really unique areas emerge. So sometimes there’s facilities, sometimes there’s communication and as you indicated, that’s that real personalization piece that depends on the community.

And then I’ll lastly say, all along in that process, we support and come alongside the executive leader as they provide frequent updates to their board or governing body over the course of the strategic planning process.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s such a great overview. And that process is pretty standard across the way that we do our work. One of the questions I get asked when we start that process is the steering team, the strategic planning team is really important. And so one of the big questions becomes, “how do we choose the people on the strategic planning team, and what is their role?” So I’m curious when you get asked that question, how do you answer that, Casey?

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, Janet, that is always one of the very first ones we tackle when we start engaging in this partnership. And so one of the ways that I like to frame that thinking is that steering committee or that planning team are going to be your champions and your course correctors, right? So they’re very often diverse groups of trusted members in the community that are going to come together probably four to five times throughout the strategic planning process.

And one partner that comes to mind that just did this really well was Dr. Brian Sica from the Banks School District in Oregon. He really stands out to me in the way that he constructed that steering committee. And so it included and typically includes district level leadership, school leaders, student representation, parents or caregivers, teachers and other staff members in the organization, and community leaders.

And what I’ll share with Brian, it was really impressive in the Banks School District, the mayor of Banks, Oregon actually served on their strategic planning steering committee. So it’s really this group that plays a really important role because as trusted members of the community, they’re not only getting deep into what are we learning, but they get to be those extenders and champions that can tell folks about the process in their community as well.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, I think that’s really critical. They have a job, right? You know, I mean, they have a job to do, but they’re also, I love what you just said, because they’re also the voice of the process. They’re very involved in that process. So they’re kind of the advocates of the process. And you know I know one of the things that I usually focus on when we’re developing that team is I usually say, “you want to pick people who have a good knowledge of the organization, of the school district, people who have a vested interest, that really have that high level of energy of wanting our district to get better, right?” And it’s pulling those people together. And when you pull people like that together and a lot of people with high energy, you really begin to see what a team is capable of doing.

Casey Blochowiak: Absolutely. And I just think about oftentimes those are also your connectors in the community, right?

Janet Pilcher: Mmmhmm.

Casey Blochowiak: And I think about the conversations those folks have in the grocery store line or at the sidelines of a game that their child is playing in as part of the school district, other organizations that they’re connected with, right? Those conversations of, “what have you been up to recently?” And the folks on the steering committee get to share the great work and learning in those informal ways too. So yeah, really important part of the process.

Janet Pilcher: That’s right. So let’s talk a little bit more about the actions that that team takes. So their input team. So they’re gathering input and analyzing the information. So what does that look like in action?

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, great question, right? And so the role that we play as partnering alongside districts is really to do some of the heavy lift for the organization in terms of analyzing the data that’s coming in. And, you know, we could get really technical in a research perspective, but this is really a mixed methods research. So we’re looking at qualitative data or what we’re hearing from folks. And we’re also looking at quantitative data, what achievement data, attendance data, staff survey data might we be seeing from the organization and really present that to the steering committee in this sort of a research funnel, right?

We’re bringing themes that we’re seeing emerge. And we bring that back to the steering committee and say, “you’re the experts in your community. Here’s what we’re seeing. Here’s all the background research. Let’s do some course correction. Is this really the way your community would talk about it? Have we missed a critical voice that should have been at the table that we need to go back and connect with?”

And then we just keep having these conversations to get clearer and tighter on what we’re seeing emerge from the research over the course of about three or four meetings of proceeding in that way.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.  And so it’s and it’s fun. You know, I think people have a lot of fun with it. And, you know, what is- it’s, and it is a process and that team is working through that process. And as coaches, we have a really big part in helping that team move through that process. So Casey, as you’re thinking about working alongside that team, you know, what’s your role? What does that look like for what you do?

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, yeah. Great question, Janet. A lot of times in those meetings with the steering committee, I find myself asking a lot of questions and sometimes getting the committee to slow down and to think about “where are we hearing or seeing that information emerge?” Right? “What’s the language that we’re wanting to use to provide that real sense of clarity for our organization? What would it look like if we got really clear about that idea that you’re discussing right now? Where are we seeing that emerge as a priority?”

Oftentimes in those meetings, we are up moving around. We’ve got sticky notes. We have chart paper. We’re doing consensograms. “What ideas resonating most with us? How are we working in terms of consensus?” And yeah, it’s it’s a lot of deep thinking, but also a lot of fun and energy in those spaces as well.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, it is a lot of fun. And they learn, as you said, you learn a lot. We learn a lot very quickly when we’re engaging in that process. And so do they, right? They learn a lot more because they’re taking that time out to really be introspective and look at inside their organization in a way they haven’t before.

So then let’s talk about then how do you get to a plan? We have all this information. So how do you get to that final product of a plan?

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, yeah, great question, Janet. So really about, I would say, the second or third meeting with the steering committee, we’re starting to see those three to five pillars emerge, right? Of what matters most for a community as they think about envisioning their best possible future. And so we start to put the themes into these pillars.

Again, oftentimes we see a student pillar as the most important folks that we serve in our organization. We start to see some information percolating about what the future would look like for our staff. And then we oftentimes see the pillars start to percolate around our community, our parents, our caregivers, connecting with businesses and other organizations. And then start to build out typically one or two other pillars as unique opportunities emerge in partner organizations. And we’re really crafting then from all of that information that we’ve been gathering, some very clear goal statements.

“What would it look like to achieve improvement for students or staff or community in those areas as defined by what we’re hearing?” And so it’s a lot of deep work around very clear and specific language.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And it’s fun to see that final product as well. And one of the things that, you know, we tend to say is this is not a huge thick document, right? I mean, this is a pretty concise one to two-ish page document that we can continuously refer back to. Yeah, yeah.

Casey Blochowiak: Absolutely, Janet, right. And it’s that idea of the big research funnel of “we’ve got all of this information.” And we start over each time that we meet to get clearer and tighter and clearer and tighter and clearer and tighter. And we keep coming back to “where did we end our last meeting, right? You’ve had some time to think and resonate with that. What’s clear? What’s not clear? What else have we learned? How would we incorporate that?”

It’s this really exciting, iterative process that you get engaged in with a bunch of folks that care deeply about the success of the school district or organization.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, thanks for that, Casey. Thanks for the, thanks for the description of the process and, you know, just the way you go about it and- and how do you really engage the people that you work with each and every day?

You know, I started last week talking about the elephant and the rider. And you sometimes when you think about the elephant and the rider, we think about strategic planning being a lot about the rider. But really what we’re talking about is the elephant part is also important because it’s the engagement of the conversations in that iterative process that makes the elephant come to life.

Casey Blochowiak: Right? Yeah. Oh, so well said, Janet, as always. Yeah, really well said. I love that description.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, that’s what Bill, when people ask how do you “how do you get buy in?” We get- this is the way you get buy in. People are engaged in that process. But one of the things that we said at the beginning is there is a role for the executive team, the superintendent and the executive team, to establish that strategic vision, to establish the, you know, the fence, so to speak, where we have freedom within the fence. But there is a strategic vision that, from a leadership perspective, that those executive leaders are establishing.

So as we as we continue, what I want to do is kind of take us back to the first part of the process and just role play with you a little bit as if I’m the coach and you’re the superintendent. And I’m going to ask you the questions that we would normally ask a superintendent, like we’re having a one on one, just so that people can see because this is sometimes the question we get asked is, “what does that look like? How do we start there?”

So I’m going to role play with you and ask you those questions that we might ask and let people see hear the type of responses that we might get.

Casey Blochowiak: Sounds like fun.

Janet Pilcher: Okay, so I’m going to start. I’ll be, I’ll move into role play and here we go.

So Casey, it’s great to be with you today. We’re getting ready to start the strategic planning process and I wanted to start today with just a one-on-one conversation with you as superintendent to get a sense of your vision, what’s important to you, what’s going through your mind as we begin to set that strategic direction.

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, yeah, Janet, we are so excited to be engaging in this process. And, you know, when I start to think about what’s most in my head, the heads of the members of our school board, our executive leaders, and we’re really trying to get clearer about improving the experience of our, the folks in our organization, right?

What does that look like to improve the student experience, the staff experience, the experience that our community has with the school district? Because my goodness, we know that folks have so much choice now. Students and families have more choice. Our staff has more choice over where they can take their skills and talents.

And we want to be that place of choice for students and families and staff to pick first. We want to be mindful of that as we go into our next strategic planning process.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and those are really trends that are occurring in the industry, right? Casey, I mean, you’re, it’s different than the way it used to be. So, you know, are those the industry trends that are really driving your thinking?

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, Janet, that’s, that’s a good question, right? I always know when we come together for our one-on-ones, you’re going to push me, and I appreciate that always about you.

Yeah, I’m thinking about a lot of things in terms of those industry trends, right? How do we continue to attract talented folks into our teacher and operational staff and leader pipeline? I’m thinking about how do we really provide students with choice, but really thinking about how do we listen deeply to what choices matter most for them as they envision their future and how do we prepare them to be able to take whatever step that might be as they, they leave us and really start that journey as adults outside of our school system.

I think about things like how will we incorporate AI into, into our world and what will that look like for learning and leading and teaching.Sso much to think about, but I think for me it really comes back to this idea of, of how do we listen deeply and continually respond because it’s really all about service.

Janet Pilcher: So good. So as we’re thinking about that, so good in terms of just the variations of thinking and so as we continue to have conversations and build the frame of reference, you know, we could be all over the place with the questions that we ask, but we can really refine the types of questions we ask around the way that we frame it in the conversation that we’re having.

So, you know, let’s just continue a little bit with that trend piece. If you’re looking five or 10 years out, and I know it’s so hard to do that sometimes, but if we’re kind of looking at that futuristic view, how do you see your organization becoming aligned? You know, what does it look like in five or 10 years?

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, yeah. I think in, in five or 10 years we have really identified intentional and consistent ways to engage deeply with our students to listen to what they’re, they’re asking for, what they need, and we have intentional ways to respond to really provide classroom and learning and outside of the classroom environments that are hitting the mark for them and allowing them to be successful. Right? We’re really using them as a driving force for us to create those pathways, not adults sitting and saying you have choice A or B, right? I think it’s really about listening and responding.

And I would say even the same thing for our staff. How can we really create these systems where we’re listening to where their passions are, where we’re trying to get in terms of those student outcomes and saying let’s bring those together, right? I know we’re going to have to create really strong pipelines for future educators, for future leaders, and our most talented folks are going to help us figure out how to get there. So for me, just this, this idea of deep listening to guide our future thinking is really critical to how we move forward with this plan.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And as I’m listening to you, you know, what you, what we’re really beginning to define and we will refine this, but you know, it’s that commitment statement, right? That North Star where we’re trying to go, how do we really make sure that we define that strategic vision in a way that sets the stage for the future, for the conversation of the strategic planning process? Because that’s really critical, what you’re saying. That’s really going to be your identity, you know, five to 10 years out. That’s going to be your identity.

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, Janet. And I think for me, it’s really that whatever direction we take as we move forward in this process, that idea of deep engagement, deep listening, deep commitment to service has, has got to show up in that process as we go forward and start to chat with folks about what do they see and what are they interested in from, from our leadership perspective, that’s, that’s got to be a direction we move in because it matters that much.

Janet Pilcher: Important. So thinking of that and the conversation that we’re having right now, you know, where do, where are you now and where do you need to go? We’ve got a place to go. What is that like and feel like to you?

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, Janet, we, you know, we’ve got so many great members of our team that are skilled and they show up every day and, and they’re making great decisions based on the information that they have available to them, but we’re all kind of moving in a lot of different directions. And we’ve taken on a lot and we’re getting pulled in a lot of different ways. And we, we just really need to come together on what matters for us as, as a community, as an organization, as members of this team.

And I’m going to tell you, Janet, we overcomplicated our last strategic plan. It was so much work. Folks were really committed, but it was a 15 page long document that looks beautiful, but folks aren’t really using that as their North Star. I loved that language that you used. And I really think about where we’re at now is we need to set some of those guardrails, right? That the voice of those that we serve is so critical to us. That’s going to help us figure out how do we respond to what students need? How do we as leaders involve staff and their experience more deeply and respond to that? I think that direction is folks are really craving it and our community deserves that. And, and I need your help to do that.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. And we will define that. We’ll make sure that we clearly define that strategic vision with you and your executive team. It’s, and I think as we’re talking, you know, I think we can see it’s not really saying, “this is what I’m telling you to do.” This is just really a place where we need to go because our trends are telling us we need to get there in order to be the best that we can, that people will buy in and go with you. And they, they’ll get excited about that.

I think, Casey, sometimes in those big plans, things are so broad that people don’t even know what they’re doing or to get excited about. But if we can help them understand where we’re going and they’re having conversations to that, they usually get really excited about those conversations.

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah. Yeah. For me and for our leadership team, for our board, it’s so important that those closest to the work are part of helping us figure out how to achieve what’s going to be most important to us, right? They’re- they see every day how they can contribute to helping us listen and respond more deeply to students. How can they help us create this an empowered workplace where you can solve problems to help us get to these places that are really responsive? And I’m just, I’m so excited to just start moving us collectively in that direction because I see folks so ready for that.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. So helpful to me to have this conversation with you. It helped me help you and your team and provide the right guidance. So as we close today, you know, let’s just close with why is this important? Why is it, why is it important to do what we’re doing and to travel this path to the future?

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, Janet, I love that you’re pushing me to get clear on my keywords at key times. Very subtle coaching on your part.

Yeah. That, that why is going to help us align our efforts. We have the right people on our team. And as the, the executive leader of the organization, that’s one of the most important things I can do in my leadership is to provide that clarity and then to help folks be their very best to help us accomplish that, that area.

And so like I said before, right now, I don’t think anyone could tell you what our North Star is, right? We need a North Star because folks are working too darn hard. And we’re not seeing that impact that everyone in our community really desires for our students and our families.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. So that’s, so the good conversation today. And, you know, just with the, the notes that I’ve taken, the way of process and listen to you, will we refine this. We’ll continue to work with it. We’ll have these same conversations initially with your executive team and really begin to talk more about it to where we’re not, we’re just, it just becomes second nature in terms of what we define and how we build that strategic vision before we go into the process.

But I just wanted to kick off that conversation with you today, just so that I have a feel of, you know, what I, again, what I need to do to be helpful to you. And I really look forward to working with you and your team and your district and your community to get to a place where you can have a plan that helps you excel and execute to where you want to go. So thank you so much, Casey.

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, thank you.

Janet Pilcher: All right. So I think you all can see, to our listeners, this was just a, it’s a great conversation. Thank you. That was just a natural conversation, Casey. And it was, it was fun to do.

But this is really the type of, this is the start. Don’t you think, Casey, as you’re working, I mean, it’s just the start is to go in it a cold is so difficult to do to me. So this is just really that just asking those questions to get the juices flowing in the mind’s thinking and the feelings, you know, coming out of this is really where we want to go and really building out our vision.

Casey Blochowiak: Yeah, absolutely. Right. It’s, it’s, and you did such a nice job, as always Janet, of just, it’s really about questions, right? Like throughout this process, as in much of our coaching, it’s so much about, you know, just asking questions, learning more, helping folks get clearer about “what would that look like? What do you value? What’s your why?” And I think hopefully hearing that first conversation can help folks envision what it would, would be like to go through this process with us.

Janet Pilcher: Yes. And I always think about this, this is one of, it’s fun. It’s fun for people. We start, we start our teams off in a great direction to be engaged and to have a stake in what we, how we build our future together. So Casey, thank you so much for the time today. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview with you and having fun with the role play as well. So thank you for being with us today.

Casey Blochowiak: Oh, thank you, Janet. Always such an honor to share our work and the work with the partners that we do around the country.


[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: Thank you for listening to mine and Casey’s conversation. I hope that by hearing her outline the strategic planning process with her partners and listening to our role play that you walk away with an even better understanding of what strategic planning looks like in action.

Please tune in next week as we invite one of Casey’s partners, Dr. Brian Sica from the Banks School District in Oregon, to hear more about how he facilitated the strategic planning process with a heavy focus on community voice.

And lastly, we would love to have you join us for our upcoming event, Destination High Performance, which will be held in Estacada, Oregon, April 17th and 18th. In Estacada, we’ll take a deeper look at improvement journeys from educational leaders across the country, and you’ll hear stories of continuous improvement in action from the district to the classroom. To learn more, head to studereducation.com/events.

Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week.

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If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

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PDSA in the classroom at Estacada School District