Friday, February 09, 2007

Forging Leaders for the 21st Century

It's easy to get behind in keeping up with The Economist, which I've recently begun subscribing to. Not only are the articles well-written and interesting, but they provide an outsider's take on American politics and business (the magazine is British), as well as far more coverage to the doings of "foreign countries" than you'll find in most American news/business magazines.

But it's also hard for me to get by reading all the interesting little black and white quarter page ads that appear in them.  (Over on Pink Slip, I recently blogged on an ad for an Assistant Private Secretary to the Queen, Buckingham Palace. (In Her Majesty's Service.)

One ad further back in the magazine caught my eye as well. It was a simple little ad from a Massachusetts prep school congratulating and extending "warmest wishes to Cushing 1999 alumnus Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck on his ascent tothe throne of Bhutan." The school is Cushing Academy, and the tag line they used  is "Forging Leaders for the 21st Century."

I thought I'd take a stroll over to their web site which, curiously has an "org" designation, not an "edu," to see how well their web site synchs up with the promise of the tag line.

First, I must disclose that I am not a total stranger to Cushing Academy. I live in a small condo building (6 units) in downtown Boston, and the unit above ours is absentee-owned and rented out. A few years back, this condo was rented out to a German family whose son was a senior at Cushing. They used it as a pied a terre for their trips to Boston to visit their children, all three of whom were at college/prep school in New England. The pied a terre was also used as the unsupervised weekend getaway for the son from Cushing and his friends.

The high point of this family's tenure in our building occured on a rare occasion when I was home alone. I was awoken at 2 or 3 in the morning by noises off: the sound of someone clamboring over the wrought iron spikes that top our back gate. Bravely, sleepily looking out, I spied a tall young man whom I did not recognize and who appeared to be trying to break into the building. Swiftly dialing 9-11, I reported the B&E and a cruiser was sent swiftly to my rescue.

Not so swiftly, however, that it didn't dawn on me what was going on, and confront the Cushing student who had just let his weekend guest - who had been partying elsewhere and gotten himself locked out - into the building.

They denied that the guest had been outside at all, claiming that they'd been home all evening doing laundry.

The police left laughing, my heart stopped racing, all was well. I don't remember who contacted the parents - me, my husband, or the building manager (who also manages the rental). Ratting out doesn't seem my style, nor that of Jim. My guess is that one of us shot an e-mail to the building manager complaining about the "incident" and he dimed the kid to his folks. We got a nice apology note from Mutti and Vati, and an in-person apology from the kid.

So, what I know about Cushing Academy's mission to forge leaders for the 21st century is that their real mission is probably the more humble "boarding school for kids" some of whom are royalty, and some of whom are just plain rich kids.

Well, other than Jigme's ascension to the Bhutan throne, forging leaders doesn't appear to have been a big part of the Cushing value proposition.

On the Home Page, we learn that Cushing believes in challenging courses and small classes. We learn that the school exists for students, their academic growth and their personal development - which is a relief, given that it is after all, a school.

We also learn from their mission statement that they:

...are dedicated to educating the mind, shaping the character, and nurturing the creativity of young men and women. In a community that is academically and culturally diverse, we challenge each individual, support excellence in every aspect of the learning process, and promote active participation in all areas of life and learning. We offer a demanding college preparatory curriculum, teach skills that build confidence, and instill values that endure.

That's all good, too, but their really doesn't seem to be much about forging leaders.

Of course, who among us hasn't done a bit of opportunistic marketing? Win some obscure award as "Application of the Year" from the National Society of Brickyards, and all of a sudden you're all over brickyards as a vertical. Learn that one of your customers actually thinks they have proof of and ROI from using your product, and your customers "typically experience ROI within three months of deployment." When I worked at Genuity, one of our lead technology architects was named "Sexiest Geek Alive" and we had some fun with that. Although it never altered our mission or appeared in our messaging, given what happened to Genuity, maybe it should have.

At Cushing, they only seem to use it in the tagline and in the press release touting King Jigme's elevation.

In any case, my advice to Cushing with respect to "forging leaders" is use it or lose it. If leadership is truly an important attribute you're committed to fostering in your grads, by all means, have at it. If not, I'd stop using an ad hoc tagline as if it were your motto.

And the same advice goes for business advertisers, as well. If some concept is so important that you'd put it in a tag line or prominently feature it in a press release, please have something on your web site to back it up.

The good news is the Jigme may be the real thing.  Cushing's press announcement, citing a Boston Globe article, notes  that Jigme "is committed to his father’s plan to surrender much of the monarchy’s power in 2008." And the king himself is quoted as saying,

Our responsibilities will always be, first and foremost, the peace and tranquility of the nation, the sovereignty and security of our country, fulfilling the vision of Gross National Happiness and strengthening the new system of democracy.

Peace. Tranquility. Security. Democracy. And a fulfilled vision of Gross National Happiness.

The Cushing mascot is the penguin, and I'm guessing that their new Emperor Penguin will do the Academy proud.

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