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7 Questions with N. Blair Fisher

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Jonno White

7 Questions with N. Blair Fisher

Name: N. Blair Fisher

Current title: Head of School

Current organisation: St. Paul's Episcopal School

I have worked in independent education for 26 years, spanning three independent schools. I began my career as a teacher, coach, and advisor, and from there spent seven years as a Dean of Students, five years as a division head, and now nine years as a head of school.

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader in the education sector?

Being a head of school has many inherent challenges; success in the role requires one to be an educational leader, a business leader, a spiritual leader, and a community leader simultaneously. One wears a multitude of hats each and every day! It also entails balancing the often competing needs, desires, and perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders and constituencies.

2. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I try to retain as much structure as possible to my day, with a goal of gaining as much proactivity as possible and minimizing reactive situations. It is not always easy, as I am subject to situations where the decisions or actions of others come to my desk. I get up early each morning and exercise - it helps keep me healthy and energetic. I also work to keep a rhythm of scheduled meetings to ensure that I am on top of things at my school. Each day has certain repeating activities, but I also work to keep blocks of time open to think strategically and move the school forward in a rational and deliberate fashion. Evenings are often taken up with various school events. I do try to limit those to three per week ideally, so that I also have time to perform my own domestic responsibilities, enjoy some hobbies, and especially spend time with my lovely wife. She is also an independent school administrator, so she "gets" the nature of my role and the time and energy demands it entails.

3. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?

In our business, our customers - the students - must remain at the forefront of every decision we make and action we take. They are dependent upon the adults in their lives to do right by them. Because of that, hiring is the most important thing that I do; good educators make such a difference in the lives of students, and good administrators help create opportunities and minimize the occurrence of negative situations. I learned a long time ago that if I have to manage a person too much in their role, it's probably not a good fit for them. I work hard to hire well and then to provide direction, support, and coordination. If I do these things well, the organization thrives.

4. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

It's a cliche, but truly "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey. Its lessons are applicable each and every day, from being proactive to seeking to understand others, thinking win-win, putting first things first... They are universals with deep applicability in both one's personal and professional life. I am constantly reminding myself of its lessons as I engage with life!

5. How do you find and keep great leaders in the education sector?

First, they must be 100% committed to student success, and to understand how their role contributes to that outcome. They must have a passion for their work - it cannot be just a job to them. In finding great leaders, I look for the above, but also look for people who want to grow and contribute more. I seek those who are intrinsically motivated, hard-working, good team members, organized, and resilient. I always seek to grow people and provide opportunities for them. I also believe in continual feedback, in hearing their thoughts, and in challenging them to improve their practice. I also believe in giving them opportunities to try new ideas - "I default to yes" - and to help guide them through the likely outcomes and how they can shape them. I also believe in providing lots of encouragement - good people don't need to be scolded if they have made a mistake, as they are already hard on themselves. I am very positive and supportive, use humor a lot, and try whenever possible to employ a light management touch.

6. What's most important as a leader in the education sector for developing a culture of wellbeing in your staff and students?

This is very complex, and there are actually many aspects.
I'll list a few: For faculty and staff members, being completely student-centered is absolutely vital. Then they deserve respect, support, a voice, and the knowledge that they are appreciated and not taken for granted. The leadership at St. Paul's works hard to reward them fairly in terms of compensation and benefits, but also to provide a warm, family environment. Re students, they need to know that they are known and loved for who they are. They need to know that we are 100% on their side and that we are always acting in their best interest. They need to know that they are safe to grow and stretch and that mistakes aren't fatal. We need to help instill in them confidence, resilience, and a growth mindset. Finally, we need to recognize their unique strengths, weaknesses, and talents, and provide them with a personal opportunity to grow and shine!

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader in the education sector so far?

One of my most meaningful stories as an education leader came as I was preparing to end my last headship. I had been working with one of my division heads, a smart and promising administrator, and encouraged him to apply. When he was selected, I spent the next several months mentoring him on every aspect of the headship, what he should expect, what the many attributes and areas of the position entailed, and how to best navigate being a new head. He has been very successful in the role, and credited me and my tutelage in setting him up for success. I am proud that more than half a dozen of my teachers or administrators have gone on to become senior leaders of their schools - it's been a way for me to "pay forward" the mentoring I received at different stages of my career.