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7 Questions with Daniel Cowan
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7 Questions with Daniel Cowan
Name: Daniel Cowan
Current title: Upper School Principal 6-8
Current organisation: Frankfurt International School
I have worked at international schools for 18 years in Kuwait, Syria, Japan, Egypt, Germany, and Next Year in Brazil. My wife is a teacher and my children are products of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, and international schools. I am currently working on a Doctorate in Education with a focus on innovation and personalized learning.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
Matching the expectations of a diverse set of constituents to the mission of the school is always a challenge. People are drawn to put their children in an international school for a wide range of reasons, some for global mobility, others to broaden the horizons and opportunities for their children and others have no choice as they cannot access the local education system. International schools are constantly mitigating between striving for excellence and inclusion, international mindedness (making the world a better place), and global mindedness (developing skills, knowledge, and connections to be successful in a globalized economy). International schools are many things to many people, so we do our best to have a clear mission and stated values to guide our direction.
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
The biggest challenge is to overcome the experience paradox: you need leadership experience to get a promotion and you need a promotion to get leadership experience. My path started by creating my own opportunities. I found a gap in policy in the international school I was teaching in and made a proposal for how I would lead a schoolwide policy review. This was the experience (alongside many committees) that I drew upon for my first formal leadership role.
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I try to get up around 5:30 and exercise. If I don't do this, then I don't have the same energy and it is hit and miss as to whether I'll get to it during the day. I like to get to my desk at least an hour before the day starts to plan, prioritize and set up the day. I do try (and don't often succeed) to build in time to get around to see students and teachers informally. At the end of the day, either stay until the work is done, or plan an evening work session and go home earlier to go for a bike ride, or do something fun. I do like to do something relaxing in the evening like play guitar, read or meditate. I find that spending 15 minutes before bed, looking at the next day helps me relax more when I go to bed. Lately, I have been using a sleep meditation app to fall asleep more quickly. I try to be asleep by 10:00.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
It's all about relationships. You can read all the leadership books you like, but if you don't have good relationships, nothing works.
5. 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?
I have found 'The Tao of Nature', by Chuang Tzu to be full of intuitive knowledge. The notion of effortless effort, being the goal has helped me realize how things work best when we are able to recognize that we can't control everything. You see this in successful athletes and musicians, the ability to slow things down, relax and perform. Trying to set these conditions for ourselves and those around us is good leadership. Recognizing conditions that work against this mindset (accountability, measurability, competition) and finding ways to ensure that teachers feel free to develop their art and science of teaching.
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
International Schools have many opportunities to develop leadership. Roles like Head of Department, Year Heads, Assistant Principals etc. We try to give existing faculty these opportunities since they are familiar with the culture of the school. You can see a healthy school leadership culture, when you have several leaders waiting in the wings. You can help them through informal mentorship, effective professional development courses, and by tasting them with projects. However, this can result in these future leaders needing to leave the organization to get their first opportunity. This was certainly my experience. In an established international school, the turnover of leadership is quite low, so while an internal promotion is great when it works out, sometimes you have to 'go to grow'.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
For me, the most rewarding part of the job comes several years after your students leave, and then they write or visit and share stories of how their experiences in your class or school were transformative or inspirational. International schools also have vibrant service learning programs, and having an impact on communities in need is also very rewarding and gives a sense of purpose to many who work and study in an international school. It is hard to say goodbye to our transient community, as we often do, but having a globe filled with friends is pretty cool too.