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Redesigning Our Tutoring and Test Prep Model in the Age of COVID-19

How Huntington Learning Center Reinvented our 43-year-old Organization in Less Than Two Weeks

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I received a phone call in early March of 2020 that changed our 43-year-old company forever. At that moment, we learned that our Seattle-based franchisees were facing a new virus that was spreading throughout the state, and they were looking for guidance as to how to respond. 

Based on the facts, we knew that this wasn’t going to be an isolated incident – this virus was a serious threat that had the potential to significantly impact every one of our 300 locations across the country. The team and I immediately started to navigate solutions.

The issue was that until this moment, we were a brick and mortar-based tutoring and test prep provider. I had a choice – do I say that this is an act of God and continue on; or, do I lean in and figure out how to bring our in-person tutoring company online basically overnight? For those who know how I lead, know that I took this challenge head-on and went about solving this immediate problem. At this point potential, government-mandated closures were conceptual, but we took it as a threat to the company and figured out solutions to ensure that no matter what our mission to give every student the best education possible would continue.

I’ve always believed in bringing in a variety of perspectives together when trying to solve a difficult problem, so the first thing I did was assemble a leadership task force to discuss the issues at hand, our options, and begin to chart a course of action. The keys were (and still are) collaboration and communication. In the beginning, we met as a team multiple times a day to ensure we were on track and had contingency plans. Very quickly we solved our most fundamental problem – we brought our entire company online basically overnight. We created a virtual, face-to-face tutoring and test prep offering called HuntingtonHelps LIVE. 

Our company has always believed in individualized, in-person learning with a blended approach – pencil and paper, and e-curricula pieces. And while we were contemplating the potential of how to provide our methodology online, it was in theory; that is, until March. I never imagined transforming the company so fast, but we didn’t have a choice. Now, I share with our entire Huntington community and colleagues outside of the company that we are in fact a 43-year-old start-up.

Everything was happening in real-time and decisions needed to be made quickly. There was a lot of fear and unknowns. Therefore, with the team and with our entire system, I continued to share that we had to base our decisions on fact, not fiction. We needed to make sure that everyone in our Huntington community was aware of plans – short term, midterm, and long term. I began system-wide calls at least once a week, I started sending out daily emails (at first seven days a week, then I went to five days), we started having meetings with our Franchise Advisory Council and Advertising Fund Board at least once a week. I met with my teams at least once a day and when programs were rolling out (and we continue to roll out new ones to help more students), we would set up check-ins throughout the day. 

We are a proven, results-based company that helps students and families across the country. In this period of uncertainty, we wanted to bring more resources to our customers, so we enhanced our free webinar series. At the height, in the spring, we had webinars twice a week. We presented on topics that were relevant to families and partnered with additional education and mental health experts. We needed families to know that we were there for them, that we could provide academic support and help during this time either at our centers, online or through free resources. 

We made the impossible possible because we worked as a team and made sure that we were all on the same page. We had aggressive, some would say impossible, timelines, and goals, but we prevailed and got it done in less than two weeks. 

Here’s what I learned throughout the disruption and reinvention of our legacy company:

  • FOCUS: When presented with a problem, clearly identify the immediate need that will act as your solution. Once the need is defined, build a dedicated team that is cross-trained to work fluidly across departments.
  • GOALS: Work on a timeline defined by goals and specific deadlines. When moving the company online I worked on hour-to-hour deadlines. Team members were expected to execute Task A from 9 am -noon, or by 3 pm Task B is due, etc. 
  • COMMUNICATE: Huntington is an integrated network of franchise businesses that operate across the country. The virus was impacting regions at different points in time. I started daily update emails, held systemwide video calls at least once a week as well as weekly video calls with our Franchise Advisory Council and Advertising Fund Board, held daily check-ins with key members of the team every night at 5 pm, started weekly huddles with the entire corporate staff and Friday “happy huddles’ at 5 pm to celebrate the week, maintained communication with my advisors and had my attorneys on speed dial (at the beginning I was on the phone with some of my counsel at all hours.) I also met with my parents (Huntington co-founders) once a day to make sure we were on the same page.
  • LISTEN: Keep your finger on the pulse of the community. The domino effect of this pandemic is happening in real-time, and in order to be as proactive as possible and make sure we provide the resources and support our franchisees need, it’s vital that we know how individual cities and states are traversing things like the stay at home orders.

The outlined solution enables us to continue to fulfill our mission at our centers and online. We’re not stopping, we’re continuing to add new programs and webinar offerings to help communities. We continue to innovate in ways that will help give every student the best education possible, regardless of what comes our way.

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