Retirement offers many benefits. For someone who spent more than a half century in the public arena, decision making has now become a parlor game of sorts.
Each day I scroll through a dozen or more media sources in search of a story or two about something that relates to lessons learned during my lifetime in leadership roles. In today’s crazy world, it’s not often that a day passes without evidence that somebody somewhere failed to heed one or more of the lessons I learned the hard way.
One of my favorites at the moment is the recent announcement by the College Board of a new tool that will permit college admissions officers to see student SAT scores in the context of socioeconomic backgrounds. On the surface, it appears to be a sound and sensible move by the makers of the SAT.
In reality, however, the College Board fumbled the rollout and created a self-inflicted public relations fiasco. For starters, they surrendered control of the announcement message to a media outlet, in this case the powerful and influential Wall Street Journal.
Rather than issue a carefully crafted news release and schedule a public briefing with college admissions officials (or some other group in an environment the College Board controlled), the initial release was totally left to the powers that be at the Wall Street Journal.
For reasons I simply don’t understand, the testing company chose to label its new initiative as the “Environmental Context Dashboard”. Anyone familiar with communications strategies would immediately recognize that choice of bureaucratic “mumbo jumbo” as non-sensical to the public. With no lead from the College Board, the Wall Street Journal chose on its own to headline the breaking story as follows: “SAT to Give Students ‘Adversity Score’ to Capture Social and Economic Background”.
The bottom line is that the College Board let the media define the message, and thus far the phrase ‘adversity score” has stuck. I’ve scanned scores of media stories over the past two weeks since the announcement, and every one of them has defined the new tool as an adversity score. And as noted in a recent column by prominent Republican journalist George Will, published in Sunday’s Washington Post, College Board CEO David Coleman has been struggling to get the message right. So far, he has not been able to overcome the flawed rollout message.
In this moment of crisis for the College Board, I’m reminded of my years in Washington, DC, as executive director of the Nation’s Report Card. My staff and I spent literally hundreds of hours planning and executing the public release of report cards. Given the national spotlight on all that we did, we recognized that there was no room for error. Controlling the message and preventing others from defining what we were releasing were top priorities.
College Board officials clearly failed to heed one of the lessons spelled out in my recently published book. My reference is to Peyton Manning’s skill in reading opposing defenses at the line of scrimmage and his success at calling one or more audibles before the ball was snapped. Here’s a brief excerpt from the referenced chapter:
“Essentially, Manning had a skill that many successful leaders possess: the ability to look ahead, to anticipate what the opposition is likely to do in response to an offensive strategy, and to adjust accordingly. With simply a scan down the field, he was able instantly to visualize potential outcomes that unsuccessful quarterbacks fail to see. As a result, Manning minimized mistakes and maximized opportunities to make a play work.
Over the years, I have worked for, with, and over literally scores of decision makers at all levels. Those who were successful typically had, to some degree, the “Peyton Manning” touch. On the other hand, failure generally awaited those who “came to the line of scrimmage” of decision-making with no sense of the need to “look down the field” and assess the likely outcomes and consequences of a pending decision.
Make no mistake: For almost any decision, large or small, there will be repercussions, intended or not. A leader has a clear choice each time a decision is made: Assess the upside and downside opportunities and risks and be prepared with secondary options or be blindsided and/or trapped by the consequences of a decision.”
By losing control of the message, the College Board is now trapped by a negative definition of its new initiative that may jeopardize successful implementation. That’s too bad because the testing company’s intentions appear to have been commendable. Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, applauded the College Board’s new measure but said it is risky. “David Coleman’s done a good deed, and he’s going to pay for it,” Carnevale told the Washington Post.
The bottom line lesson is simply define yourself or be defined by others.