I was working full-time in administration and as an instructor at the JDJSDS in the mid-90s whilst I undertook an MBA at the University of Western Australia. Jan de Jong informed me that he would have to close the doors of the school as it had been losing money for a number of years. Apart from my natural reluctance to concede defeat, I was also not about to lose my beloved school without a fight.
Sun Tzu in The Art of War advocates knowing your enemy before you engage them, so, I got to know my enemy by researching whatever data I could get my hands on. What I found was that every key performance indicator that I could access had declined consistently since the late 1970s early 1980s. All my graphs headed south.
Rather than employing the traditional strategy of marketing in order to acquire new students, I decided to employ the leaky bucket strategy to retain students, which paradoxical also had the benefit of acquiring new students.
The leaky bucket strategy uses a leaky bucket as a metaphor for an organisation. You keep pouring water in but it keeps on leaking out through the holes. In order to fill the bucket, you either have to pour in more water (acquire more students) or plug the holes (retain students). I chose the latter, which in this case also provided the former, and it was cost effective.
A year ago, a news article was printed how Wallace, the coach of the Bulldogs, got ex-players to come into the club and talk to the current players about the history of the club. Last week, the Swans celebrated their 10th year anniversary of winning the premiership. The then coach, Roos, talked about how he got ex-players to come into the club and talk to the current players about the history of the club. In both instances, they found that the players were invigorated by that history and felt a part of something bigger than just the team on the day. They felt commitment and loyalty.
De Jong had been travelling to Europe for an annual teaching tour since 1980. There was a positive correlation between these annual teaching tours and the decline in all of the school's KPIs, and so I concluded that because he'd refocused his interest on to those tours that it had trickled down to his instructors and then on to the students.
I got De Jong to refocus his attention back on to the school. To engage with the instructors not only about his European tours but also about their classes, their students. I got him to visit branches - there were students at the branches that didn't even know that the Jan de Jong in the Jan de Jong Self Defence School was a person alive today and teaching. The instructors re-engaged, which in turn engaged the students.
I wrote a newsletter each, month, quarter? The newsletter told stories. Told stories of how revered and respected De Jong was world-wide. How this reflected on the instructors and students. Told stories of days gone by in the school. Personalities who were involved in the school.
I got photos and memorabilia put up on the walls of what became the member's lounge. These photos and memorabilia told stories. Told stories of a history; of something that was not solely a today experience.
I arranged for an annual day at Christmas where all the members from all the branches would get together. They would see they were part of something bigger than just a few people in a community hall once a week. I got the instructors to put on demonstrations of jujutsu, aikido, and pencak silat. The students never got to see their instructors 'do their stuff,' and in doing so it inspired them. It gave them something to talk about, which in turn would attract new students.
I remember the internationally acclaimed Sensei Joe Thambu attended one of those Christmas days.
This was a cost effective exercise, as the leaky bucket strategy is compared to the acquisition strategy. The De Jong's regularly paid a very large sum of money for a Yellow Pages advert and questioned the value of that 'investment.' I conducted a survey and found that it contributed ... the acquisition of one student. One! I'd calculated a 'life time' value to students which was around $600 which the $x thousands of dollar investment yielded. Not a good return on an investment.
I suggested that if they wanted to spend thousands of dollars on marketing, that they should do so by marketing internally. Spend the money on culturally enhancing activities. Like most small business owners, they were reluctant to pursue such an unorthodox strategy.
What was the result of my strategy? The school is open to this day.
Just as the Bulldogs and Swans coaches found at their AFL clubs.
This story has another element to it that I've come to appreciate as I search for an executive position today. There is a focus on leadership, leadership abilities and demonstrated leadership in organisational life today. A cult of leadership as I call it.
Was I a leader? Did I effect change by being a leader?
I effected change without acknowledgement nor recognition. De Jong was and is acknowledged as being a leader, however, he needed someone to push him in the right direction and without him knowing it or even 'buying into' the strategy. Does that make me a leader? Did I lead from behind? ... How will the gatekeepers to employment, the executive recruitment agents and HR people view this example of leadership, if it is an example of leadership?
Hopefully sharing this experience might help you save and/or grow your school, whether you are the principal or not.