5 Questions for a CEO: Brett Jacobsen, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

by Jeff Hilimire on March 21, 2014


This is the seventh installment of my “5 Questions for a CEO” series. The first was with Raymond King, CEO of Zoo Atlanta; the second was with Devon Wijesinghe, CEO of Insightpool; the third with Mark Feinberg, CEO of Uruut; the fourth with Simms Jenkins, BrightWave Marketing; the fifth was with Rob Kischuk, CEO of PerfectPost; and the sixth was Kyle Porter, CEO of SalesLoft. 

I had the great fortune of getting to know Dr. Brett Jacobsen during our Leadership Atlanta class experience in 2012/13. He’s one of the most thoughtful and purposeful leaders I’ve met and the way he approaches running Mount Vernon Presbyterian School made him a perfect candidate for this interview. He also does a really great job with this blog, Design Movement.

Describe Mount Vernon Presbyterian School and why you’re passionate about it (and why you’re there).

We are a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact. As a preschool through grade 12 community, students and staff members act and iterate through a set of common norms: start with questions not answers, fail up, share the well, assume the best, and have fun.

In the midst of a transformational period, the School launched the Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI) comprised of The Center for Design Thinking, The Center for Global Competitiveness, and The Center for Citizen Leadership. Focused on addressing local and global challenges, MVIFI cultivates public-private partnerships to foster creative collaboration at the intersections of the marketplace, education sector, nonprofit and civic communities. A national leader in design thinking, the MVIFI team lead //fuse – an annual summit sharing Mount Vernon’s process in design thinking as a way to increase the critical mass of public and private schools immersed in human-centered problem solving.

My love for students drives me to build a flat, flexible, focused school like Mount Vernon. As a professional, I get one shot to directly impact a generation of students. It takes a team effort to prepare and to position students for their future. At the end of the day, I hope we will unleash on the world very confident, compassionate, and influential leaders.

Where do you think the biggest opportunity is for innovation/technology to impact education going forward?

For us, innovation is about thinking differently, creating something new, taking risks, being relevant, understanding the drivers of change in our world, a bias towards action, contributing to meaningful work locally and globally, and people-centered problem-solving.

Actually allowing students to participate as “innovators” in the real world is the biggest opportunity. However, this requires them to be the driver not the passenger in the design of their learning experience. This is disruptive to the current paradigm, less prescriptive, and ultimately redefines how we do school.

Similar to influencers noted in Harvard Business Review’s article, The Innovator’s DNA, all students–kindergartener, 6th grader, or senior–should have design opportunities to associate, question, observe, experiment, and network. In this context, Mount Vernon students in 1st grade reimagined “How might we redesign a MARTA bus stop” or 2nd graders building a prototype out of used candy wrappers to create a durable, sustainable raincoat for their counterparts in Zambia or high school students addressing issues in Atlanta (poverty, genetically modified organisms, or limited, land water use) or even collaborating with Museum of Design Atlanta to create a popup exhibit.

Innovation in education can only occur when we allow students to pursue their passion and interests to discover, empathize, experiment, and produce. Then, the next Steve Jobs will not want to drop out of school.

You have a very complex job, how do you prioritize your day? Do you use any tools or specific methodologies for time management?

Zooming out, this year I have been reflecting on how much time/energy I devote to process and how much I devote to strategy. Sometimes we become too process-oriented, moving from one event to the next without strategically thinking about the future (never creating for today). Calibrating process/strategy impacts priority although I am not sure I always feel balanced.

Zooming in, from Action Method to OmniFocus, I have jumped around a bit. Currently, I am utilizing several platforms to keep me organized (always open to change to find right fit)–Mailbox app to review email, organize daily to dos; Google Drive to share docs with leadership team; Evernote to curate Twitter articles, archive 1:1 meetings with direct reports, incubate ideas; and old school Moleskin notebook to brainstorm, take notes, doodle.

Describe your morning routine.

During the week, I wake up around 5:30 each morning to work out. Whether participating in a “boot camp” at school or working with a trainer, exercising has served me well over the last two years. In addition, I reconnect with my assistant first thing each morning to review the day, set priorities, and answer questions. After that, I attempt to walk through one of our divisions or be present at one of my favorite morning routines–meet and greet parents, students, and teachers in carpool. On the weekends, I wake up around the same time and I find the first 2-3 hours of the day to be the most productive as I analyze the week ahead, read articles, listen to podcasts, and review Twitter feed.

In your opinion, what’s the one leadership principle that is non-negotiable for your leadership team?

To serve…serve the cause (mission/vision), serve the team (empathize, shape, empower, clarify, create), serve the learning (accelerate progress, amplify growth, be reflective of decisions/actions).

Bonus: What are the last three books you read on leadership/business and what’s your favorite of all time?

Last three books I read making an impact include The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni, Decisive by Chip & Dan Heath, and Scaling Up Excellence by Bob Sutton & Huggy Rao. When organizations become more complex (2 to 6 to 600), clarity, systemic approach to decision-making, and scale are critical to speeding up, slowing down, start doing, and stop doing. My favorite of all time has to be Good to Great by Jim Collins because I think about his concepts–disciplined people, disciplined thought, disciplined action–every day. Time and time again, it has proven to be true that it is all about the who.

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