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An Uncommon Summer: Project Management at an Education Non-Profit

By: Dan Hall 12 Sep 2019

Prior to Harvard Business School, I spent eight years on active duty military service as an Aviation officer and helicopter pilot in the United States Army. My career took me to three countries, six states, and countless hours of flying high in the sky and low to the ground, over water and below the treeline. I led organizations ranging in size from 17 soldiers to 120, in missions both operational and maintenance support. Yet one consistent theme throughout all of it was my sense of having a mission-driven life, of giving my time and energy to something greater than myself. So when I left the Army to attend HBS, I knew I wanted to try and capture that same sense of purpose.

Enter fall internship recruiting. While my classmates were all knee-deep in case interview prep for top tier consulting firms or running through financial models for the big banks, I was trying to figure out where I fit in. Optimizing operations through a consulting project seemed right up my alley, but I didn’t want to spend my energy helping corporations exceed their bottom lines or work through M&As. How could I marry my desire for creating tangible impact in a social sense while also meeting my need to show future recruiters I was more than just an attack pilot with a bleeding heart?

Things started coming together at Reaching Out MBA (ROMBA), a networking and professional development conference for LGBTQ+ MBAs held in the fall. There I met with a representative from Education Pioneers, an organization that places MBAs into the education sector at public or charter school systems, departments of education, ed-tech companies, or other education-related non-profits. While I was a pretty non-traditional candidate for them given my military background, they were intrigued by my experience in project and change management, especially while leading teams. After months of conversations and interviews, I was matched with the Human Resources team at Uncommon Schools in New York City.

Uncommon Schools is one of the nation’s largest charter school systems with 54 schools in six cities serving underprivileged communities. The vast majority of their student bodies are filled with children of color from low-income backgrounds. Given such a high need for quality education, particularly in the urban areas Uncommon served, their growth over the past decade was explosive, and the HR team, constantly understaffed, was struggling to get ahead of the growth. Long term, high impact projects affecting the entire network were often left on the back burner for short term “fires” requiring immediate attention. Additionally, the team stored, used, and collaborated on information in eight digital systems and their knowledge management practice was, in their words, “a nightmare.” The team’s leadership acknowledged these problems but didn’t have the capacity to work through how to fix them, let alone attempting to fix the actual problems. Uncommon’s HR Team had reached out to Education Pioneers to find an MBA to consult for their team and attempt to address these problems.

I decided to tackle the problem using a combination of the design thinking approach we learned in our first-year course Field Global Immersion and the data-driven decision making I had practiced in the military. Using dozens of interviews inside and outside of the team, I synthesized the major issues they faced and collected their own ideas on how to fix them. I ran two surveys to collect usage rates and team familiarity of different systems and concepts, and analyzed a year’s worth of Zendesk customer service ticket data to determine the ebb and flow of the needs of their customers: the teachers and administrators teaching our youth.

Towards the end of the summer, I presented my proposed solutions to the team. They were receptive to my ideas and we worked collaboratively to begin implementation before the end of my summer at Uncommon. Together, we implemented the use of Asana, a project management application, and began the work of paring down their knowledge management systems from eight to three, successfully eliminating one full system before my departure.

I learned several things during my time at Uncommon Schools. First, veterans can bring our project management skill set into the workplace and make a huge difference to teams struggling with capacity and time management. We’re skilled at running multiple work streams simultaneously and meeting personal due dates and quality standards. More importantly, we have the skills to coach teams to meet their deadlines and standards as well. Second, I learned that I love helping teams that are making real change in the social sector. When I visited our schools and met the teachers my HR colleagues were working for, the importance of my work really hit home. By helping the HR Team better manage change and customer service, I was helping the 12th grade math teacher I met get his paycheck on time and benefits for his family, so he could focus on teaching his students calculus and not worry about his compensation. Finally, I learned that I want to explore ways to scale the impact I might have in the social sector; one ten week project wasn’t enough to scratch my itch - I want to go work for a firm helping clients like Uncommon Schools.

All of these discoveries are leading me to explore a career in social impact consulting, where I can continue to help non-profits scale their impact. I’m grateful to Education Pioneers for their matching placement, and recommend anyone interested in the education space or social impact to apply for their MBA Summer Fellowship and to HBS Social Enterprise Initiative’s Summer Fellowship program.

Dan Hall (MBA 2020) was a 2019 Social Enterprise Summer Fellow.