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From Fog to Focus: The Role of Singular Strategy for International Schools

Ewan McIntosh, MA (Hons), PGCE, FRSA. Managing Director, NoTosh.

Our team has completed hundreds of strategy projects with schools. Most are successful - we’ve had only six bad days at the office in all that time. But after 14 years on the job, one repeat offender appears every time a project starts to go awry: a lack of focus from the senior leaders.

In the world of international schools, few Directors have 14 years in the same position to test out their success rate to the same degree. The average stays in the job for three years (Hawley 1994). The chances of failure are high.

Up to half of them will be deemed to have failed within the first two years on the job (Dewer at al, 2017). We might argue about what people view as ‘failure’. But, in the cut and thrust of a busy school, perception is reality.

So what makes some people more likely to make it through the first two years of leading?

A large part of it has to do with their ability to focus on a target. They then have to inspire everyone, or nearly everyone, to see the same target as them and do the work to hit it.

Moving from fog to focus is arguably the singular most important success criterion for some of the most successful people, organisations and schools.

John Kotter, arguably the greatest change agent of his time, places a premium on having a singular ‘sense of urgency’ around which to build a guiding team (Kotter 2016). And nearly half of his process is dedicated to communicating, making things stick and not letting up.

Mellody Hobson, Chairperson of Starbucks, believes the first two steps before one can move any team to action are to i) understand the problem and ii) hold oneself radically accountable (Hobson, 2023). That means acknowledging that the leader must own the problem that is there to be solved, before thinking of having a plan. Strategy is not wilful thinking or dreaming. It’s focussing on what one can control.

Sir Michael Barber is a former advisor on education to Tony Blair’s British Government and is responsible for major improvements in achievement in education systems around the world. He believes leaders have to start with Bold Ambition, and Myopic Focus and then reinforce their communication with Consistent Clarity. Consistent clarity means it has to be communicated frequently, which means it can’t take a presentation, email string or a lengthy report to communicate the key ideas. (Barber, 2023).

Many schools focus on doing one thing well, and they’re world-famous for it. Gordonstoun’s Expeditionary Learning, Eton’s oracy, Avenues’ interdisciplinary learning, Raffles’ Institution’s traditions… there are scores of them.

But most schools feel the need to have multiple pillars, top-down initiatives that involve a sort of alignment where everyone does everything.

But that’s not what alignment is. Alignment is everyone doing different things towards the same singular goal (Gottshalg & Zollo 2003).

On closer inspection, many of the jobs to be done in those strategic pillars shouldn’t be in a bold strategy at all. They should be well-rehearsed, automatic routines. The schools that struggle to see the logic of having a singular focus have a problem because they’re not doing all those core things routinely.

Focus does not mean a school is going to stop doing a lot of things overnight. But when traditional school leadership and strategic plans put almost equal emphasis on everything at the same time it becomes overwhelming (ISC Research 2021).

Make the main thing the main thing

So getting the organisation’s work organised, and making sure the right people are working on the right areas, is key. We therefore ask: “Is every part of the organisation’s work on the right level?”

We might think of a school’s strategy as a skyscraper. So many international school leaders and Boards are fixated on the top of the tower, the shiny bit that everyone sees. When we do ‘strategic planning’ work they want to talk about those upper floors without addressing the slight cracks and crumbles at ground level.

Level 1, or close to it, is often where there’s work to be done before long-term bold ambition can come into play.

organisation chart

Level 1 Work is for all the things that are business as usual should feel like a routine for most people.

The work should be automatic, well-rehearsed. Level 1 work is often about building capacity in adults and students. It includes things like Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work that should’ve been routine long before now. It’s honing the school’s approach to formative assessment skills, learning about the latest teaching methods that will give an incremental edge. Even really big projects like redesigning the campus belong in this category.

Level 2 Work is the stretch goal, that singular and new focus everyone should bear in mind. Level 2 is having a bold ambition that everyone is pulling towards. It's the singular focus that's at the front of their minds.

Leaders do not have to tell people what to do to realise that goal - middle leaders and their teams need space to work out how their current work can be nudged towards it.

And Level 3 Work is essential, all the time: prospecting. But not everyone does it. Level 3 is work undertaken by that small, quiet group in the corner, the ones who have a feverish interest in what's emerging, thinking about how it could be useful, writing off what's useless and planning how to seize the opportunities that could be great for everyone.

The R&D group. The working party.

Their work has to be quiet so as not to distract the crowd from their focus on Level 2.

But the work in Level 3 is what informs the next bold ambition once everyone has arrived at Level 2.

And crucially, the work on Level 3 doesn’t need to succeed. As Vaclev Havel put it: ”Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

Finding focus is not about lowering ambition.

Leaders might instead ask why routine work is not yet routine, and work out the long-term resolution to the hurdles in the way. This work is vital so that the team can get back to focus on that singular fresh bold ambition ahead.

To answer the question of what that stand-out Level 2 work should be, leaders’ best bet might be simply to step out and ask their communities. For that is the number one skill of the best leaders with whom we work. Yes, they have focus. But the focus hasn’t been plucked out of their own imaginations. The focus has been derived by mining the perspectives of the community around them.


Barber, M. (2023). Accomplishment: How to Achieve Ambitious and Challenging Things.

Clear, J. (2024) 3-2-1: On hats, haircuts, and tattoos. Accessed February 1, 2024:

Dewar, C., de la Boutetière, H., Keller, S. (2017) It really isn’t about 100 days. Accessed February 6, 2024: McKinsey.

Forbes Coaches Council (2017) Most Common Ways You're Neglecting Your Middle Manager (And What To Do About It). Accessed April 2, 2024:

Gottshalg, O. & Zollo, M. (2003) Interest Alignment Rents and Competitive Advantage, INSEAD-Wharton Alliance Center for Global Research. Accessed March 13, 2024:

Hawley, D. (1994) “How Long do International School Heads Survive?”, The International Schools Journal. Vol. 14, Iss. 1 (November 1, 1994): 8.

Hieatt, D. (2014). Do Purpose - Why brands with a purpose do better and matter more. Do Book Co.

Hobson, M. (2023). “Mellody Hobson Teaches Strategic Decision Making.”

ISC Research (2021). Wellbeing in international schools. Accessed April 3 2024:

Kotter, John P., and Holger Rathgeber (2006). Our Iceberg Is Melting. St. Martin's Press.

Lafley, A. G., & Martin, R. L. (2013). Playing to win. Harvard Business Review Press.

About the author

Ewan McIntosh's life path involved narrow misses with investment banks and the British Army, before he discovered his love of learning and teaching could be a dream job. After teaching modern languages at high school, he worked as National Advisor on the Future of Learning for the Scottish Government and as Commissioner at Channel 4 Television. His team at NoTosh now work in over 70 countries on curriculum design, leadership development and the creation of the learning experiences that allow young people - and their teachers - think and do things differently. Ewan is a Fellow of the RSA and a Member of The Royal Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh.