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Grateful for the challenge

February 18, 2021

With each new school I work with, someone asks me how I fell into conducting surveys for independent schools. My answer is the challenge of adversity.

In the mid-80s, as Associate Publisher, I was part of the strategic planning team for a national business magazine. As is so often the case, the exercise was under the control of the most powerful person in the room. This person didn’t have a clue what he was doing, and had no sense at all of the marketplace. I took it upon myself to initiate and steer a comprehensive survey of our readers, and engaged an outside firm to administer the survey, collect the data, and deliver results back to me. Well, those results came back in the form of more than 1,000 pages of tabular data. No explanations, no interpretive analysis, nothing but tables upon tables of data. This was very expensive and could blow up in my face without serious corrective action. Luckily, I was a newly minted MBA… defined as: rarely right, but never in doubt. Naively, I welcomed the challenge.

Adversity so often presents me with learning opportunities. It took me six months to figure out what all this data meant, but I did. Adversity forced me to learn how to tear the data apart and piece it back together in plain English that both made sense and added value to the conversation. The bonus was that, from that point on, I held the cards necessary to success in strategic planning. I’m grateful for the challenge.

I realized at the time that the consultants providing all this data had done little meaningful work. Computers just generate data. It still takes thinking people to understand and interpret the data.

For our next survey, I decided to bring the data tabulation and cross-tabulation work in-house. I was already doing 95% of the work, so I figured we might as well become fully self-reliant and save money at the same time.

Excel spreadsheets had not been invented. Windows didn’t exist, and personal computers were nowhere to be seen in my workplace.

Unfortunately for my ambitions, our IT department didn’t place my project at or near the top of their priority list. Programming kept getting bumped weeks and months down the line with no promise of completion. I was not amused. They were using a database program I’d never heard of called dBase, and it would take at least another three months to write the code. Three months later, they reported that it would be yet another three months.

dBase was a foreign language. Literally thousands of lines of code. On one particular Friday afternoon, the IT boys answered my regular annoying challenge by flashing a heavy stack of paper in my face as if to say that this was very complicated stuff and I needed to be patient.

Not one to back down, and not willing to wait another three months, I picked up the stack of paper (and Volume 1 of their dBase manual), declaring that I’d return with both after the weekend. I was hoping to better understand the complexity of the task they described. The programmer and his boss just smiled as I left their office. I’m sure they were laughing heartily after I left the scene, certain of my impending failure.

Adversity, and learning opportunity, again. I was definitely not grateful for the challenge.

Making this weekend project even more interesting was my total lack of computer programming experience. I was an English major with a calculator. What I learned over that weekend was pattern recognition. The task at hand was a much-repeated counting function. Essentially, it was a collection of ‘if this, then count that’ statements. “Do while” “Do case” “Endcase” “Loop” “Enddo”. Another language, for sure, but it seemed to me no more than the proper sequencing of a finite set of instructions.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to learn dBase. I had to learn one-tenth of one per cent of dBase… if that. By Monday morning, I had wrapped my head around the path from A to B, how to use dBase to get from A to B, and had entirely re-written the code. The IT guys were still laughing on Monday morning… that is, until it worked.

I was thoroughly pissed off, to put it mildly. I was responsible for operations, distribution, and marketing, and now, it seemed, also for computer programming.

Here’s the thing. We went from conducting one survey in four years to conducting 3-4 surveys every year. The challenge of adversity taught me to be self-reliant, and gave us the ticket, not just to better know our market, but to actually build solid content from reader feedback. Very quickly, I became grateful for the challenge.

By the mid-90s, I was pretty good at developing, conducting, and analysing surveys. I made enough mistakes to qualify as an ‘expert’. By the mid-90s, I also had a daughter in Grade 2 at our local independent school, where I sat on the Board of Trustees. There was a bit of chaos at that time in the parent body, with a lot of noise coming from a very small group of parents. At the Board table, someone turned to me, saying, “Kevin, you do surveys all the time. Why don’t you donate a parent survey? Let’s give voice to the silent majority.”

I did the survey and it was very useful in isolating and neutralizing what I describe as the ‘lone but loud voice’. Apparently, word got out, and a few months later, I was invited to speak on the topic of constituent surveys to a conference of independent schools. I accepted the invitation, just for fun. Forty minutes later, to my surprise, I had my first assignment.

That was in 1995. The rest is history. Since 1998, all I do is constituent surveys for independent schools. I am grateful for the challenge.

As our path out of the current pandemic appears to be coming into focus, I’ve begun to assess the past year as one more adversity-laced learning experience. I’m not yet grateful for the challenges presented by COVID-19, but the jury is still out. What have I learned? What does it mean, both for the world at large and for me and my small part in it? What will our lives look like in another year? What will return to ‘normal’? What will remain changed forever? What will be worse? Will anything be better? Will we be stronger as a result? Worthy questions, all.

With respect,

Kevin Graham

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