Here at Cary Academy, we are in the change business.

I know what you are thinking: What organization isn’t in the “change business” nowadays? It has become de rigeur for leaders to say that their primary role is managing organizational transition. We’re bombarded with experts telling us to disrupt or be disrupted. As popular business writer Alan Deutschman has threatened: “Change or Die.”

At some point, when we all start saying the same thing though, it starts to feel less like innovation and more like imitation.

So, let me try to be more clear by what I mean when I say that we are in the “change business.” Perhaps an example or two will help.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to listen to a former Cary Academy student discussing his experiences at CA. This young man has gone on to get his PhD. in history and is now working in his dream job as a professor. When asked to elaborate on his career path, he drew a clear and direct thread from his current position back to a single genesis at Cary Academy — when his English teacher took notice of his interest in history and invited him to an off-campus reading and book signing by a local historian. Our young scholar was very clear about how that experience drew out his interest in history and helped him see where such a passion might ultimately lead. His teacher’s attention and acknowledgement, he articulated very clearly, gave him the confidence he needed to pursue this budding vision for his future.

While this young man’s story played itself out over years, there are plenty of others that span days, weeks, or months. I recently returned from a four-day backpacking trip with a group of students where we faced all sorts of hurdles, including below-freezing temperatures, pouring rain, challenging climbs, and steep, dark descents into camp with nothing but our headlamps to guide us. Upon returning to the school, the mother of one of our female hikers met us in the parking lot. Knowing that the weather had been brutal, she anxiously asked her daughter how the trip went. The young woman shivered, let out a “great,” and — looking over at me and then back again at her mother — smiled. Things were still too new for words, but the twinkle in her eyes betrayed a pride and self-confidence that had grown immeasurably over the previous four days.

Anybody who has worked around schools long enough has similar stories. Sometimes we see the impact of our work instantaneously and other times the payback is measured in years. We wish we could have better control of the outcomes: When we say this, assign that, or organize that other thing — that each of these efforts will have a direct and observable correlation to a desired outcome. This is just not the case. Because we organize school in a linear fashion, from grade to grade and year over year, doesn’t mean learning and development happens on our timeline. In addition, the truly transformative “lessons learned” may happen well outside our carefully thought out class syllabi.

But if you talk with enough parents, students, and alumni and you’ll surely understand that great things happen here at CA, in ways we can measure and in ways we will never really understand or appreciate. The Cary Academy diploma represents much more than the simple accumulation of credits on a transcript. The value of the experience is felt from much more than the mathematical calculation of homework grades and test scores.

So I do think we are in the change business.

We are in the life-changing business.