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Leadership Lessons Learned Abroad

Matthew Mann, a Canadian school leader serving in Indonesia, shares insights gleaned from leadership in southeast Asia.

The orangutans appeared out of nowhere, having sniffed our nasi goreng through the jungle before invading our family’s streamside picnic. They quickly hoovered up our lunch while we jumped out of the way, finding the whole thing quite hilarious and exciting.

At that time, and countless times since, we knew beyond any doubt that we weren’t in Canada anymore!

Seven years ago, the Lord rocked our family’s boat. We had been very happily settled in placid, predictable, and lovely Prince Edward Island—many people’s definition of paradise. To our surprise, a call was clear: “Get up and go . . . a school in Indonesia needs your help!”

Since that time, our family has fallen very much in love with Indonesia—an amazingly diverse and dynamic country, different in every respect from PEI. Living here has proven to be a forge in which our beliefs, values, and perspectives have been reshaped. For us and for our children, the world is now more familiar, other cultures are more beautiful, the kingdom is more diverse, and strangers are less strange. We have loved seeing our children become humble, adaptable, grateful, resilient, and confident.

The same holds true for my life as a leader. I am deeply changed, and I will never lead the same way again. The lessons I’ve learned could fill a book, but one in particular stands out.

Christian school leaders here work with a conviction that time is passing quickly and our moment of opportunity is now: growth is therefore an imperative. Every empty seat in our schools is a lost opportunity to have an impact on a child who needs Christ and who could one day transform this nation.

Here are four ways school leaders in Indonesia are chasing growth:

1. We Chase Growth Using Our Agendas and Plans

Here, our agendas are driven by a fixation on filling empty seats. We debate the how often. As these seats get filled, we quickly switch to a focus on increasing capacity and scaling to reach new areas. To do so, we make multi-year-plans, but these coexist with agile course corrections in pursuit of both short-term and long-term growth.

2. We Chase Growth by Promoting Certain Values

We work with a sense of urgency and impatience. In our current exercise of identifying our schools’ core values, we are using words like agile, aspire, nimble, and press on. Ambitious, creative, and eager people fit in well here. Because growth arises from parent and student satisfaction, we make sure that we treat people as well as we possibly can. Prizing excellent customer service is critical for schools because it leads to growth.

3. We Chase Growth Using Aspirational Metrics

Instead of operating with some fuzzy hope that we might gradually grow little by little, we set a target of at least 7 percent annual enrolment growth in each of our schools. Then we dive deep into the many ways of answering the question, “How will we generate this growth?”

Schools are very often conventional, repetitive, slow to change, and satisfied with doing things the way they were always done. It is uncommon even to have targets. Here, however, our scorecard tracks eighteen performance areas, all of which share a fundamental connection to growth, with a logic like this: “If these things get better, we will grow.”

4. We Chase Growth Through Our Budgets

We craft our budgets to foster growth. We need to know what investments we can make that will convince our families to stay and to tell their friends about us. We seek to ensure that our investments bring about a return and that our employees and school families are delighted by what we purchase, renovate, and improve.

Here are a few simple diagnostic questions: 

  1. Can we show in our budget how we are going to achieve growth next year? (The pursuit of growth must be funded.)
  2. How much of our meeting agendas revolve around what will drive growth? (The pursuit of growth takes time.)
  3. Have we truly listened to our current and prospective families, so that we know what will motivate them? (The pursuit of growth must be grounded in needs.) 

We remember that our work is to push as high as possible the number of children blessed by Christ-centered education. May the same be true in the land of the eagle and the land of the beaver as in the land of the orangutan.

Matt is the executive director of Sekolah Pelita Harapan (SPH), a group of five international Christian schools in Jakarta, Indonesia. SPH is a Christian Schools International member school. He worked as a teacher and principal in eastern Canada for the first half of his career. In 2016, he and his wife Natalie left a wonderful school situation in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, after nine years there, in order to support SPH. Along with their six children, a few dozen suitcases, and five violins, they left home to embrace the adventures that the Lord had in store. What Matt loves most about serving in Indonesia is the privilege of pursuing an authentic, Christ-centered mission in a dynamic organization. Feel free to reach out to Matt by or LinkedIn.

Christian school leaders here work with a conviction that time is passing quickly and our moment of opportunity is now.