Four Lessons I’ve Learned as a Strategy Consultant that Every Education Leader Should Know


Music is a powerful tool to engage young people both in and outside of school. In Memphis, Tennessee, where music is both a legacy and a critical element of the city’s future, it has the potential to strengthen young people’s connections to their communities and positively impact their lives.

This summer, I have had the privilege of working with the Memphis Music Initiative (MMI) as an EP Fellow and leading strategic consultation for nonprofits to ensure that the city’s youth have access to high quality music programming and instruction.

MMI is a community-initiated and implemented strategy that augments youth-focused investments within Memphis’s music space. The goal of the initiative is to ensure that youth have access to music education in school, to build formative relationships with local musicians, and to develop places to spur innovation where youth can learn, play, and hear music outside of school.

As a strategy consultant for two music nonprofits in MMI’s portfolio, I helped my clients set sound community engagement strategies to ensure that their work impacts our city’s young people.

Serving as a nonprofit strategy consultant yielded four leadership lessons that are critical for all education leaders:

1. Embrace learning: Being new to the arts administration space, I had to learn and master many new things quickly—the language of business, building relationships with stakeholders, ways of conducting business, and how the industry operates. That learning was critical for me to gain credibility, build trust with my clients, and offer meaningful recommendations. Being curious, learning, unlearning, and relearning is essential to the successful completion of any project or to enact long-term systematic change in education.

2. Learn to listen: Learning to really listen often yields the best recommendations. At MMI, to understand my client’s needs, asking the right questions and listening to the answers helped me to gain a deep understanding of others’ experiential experiences. Utilizing an open-ended question format, and starting questions specifically with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” or “how,” often lead me to gain more insight and become more aware of new information. Furthermore, listening helped me serve as a successful advisor and facilitator to help my clients produce the best possible grant proposal to MMI. For all of us in education, it’s critical to listen to the students, families, teachers, and communities we serve.

3. Welcome ambiguity and flexibility: During my experience with MMI, I had to shift quickly on new projects (daily priorities changed because of new developments) and adjust to internal changes (e.g. tracking down key stakeholders for their thoughts and perspectives before their summer vacation). Both expected and unexpected challenges happen anywhere you work, so being flexible and navigating ambiguity effectively allowed me to respond appropriately to demands in the moment. We must welcome unforeseen circumstances and view them not as roadblocks, but as opportunities for taking an alternative path to reach your end goal without losing sight of the strategy to get there.

4. Know that you can’t do it alone: In education especially, gaining input from all community stakeholders is important for organizational success. It’s especially critical that nonprofits always seek out community input when planning programs for the community. Knowledge and perspective from community members are crucial for turning programmatic visions for sustainability into reality. Seeking input truly creates community buy-in and the desire to participate in creating innovative solutions to challenges.

As education leaders, learning these four lessons is critical for us to move the important work we do forward and truly drive equity in our nation’s educational system. 


Olu Ibrahim is a 2015 Education Pioneers Fellow, working with the Memphis Music Initiative where she advises clients to create and implement sustainable community engagement strategies. She chose to become a Fellow to learn how innovation and entrepreneurship can positively impact education, and previously served as a nonprofit program manager, an education policy analyst, and a middle school teacher.


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