Change won’t be easy at MPS

In 2003, Susan Marshall, president of Oconomowoc-based Executive Advisor LLC, was hired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to assist with his takeover of that city’s school system. She was part of a team of facilitators at the New York Leadership Academy who were brought in to teach transformational leadership to more than 600 principals in the school system.

At the time, the student graduation rate in New York was less than 50 percent. There were 1.1 million students speaking hundreds of languages, and the schools lacked leadership, she said.

Marshall was on the front line of the reform action. Despite being viewed as a disconnected Midwesterner by the resistance, she believed in Bloomberg’s mission. Today, student test scores in the New York school system are up, and overall, the project that she was a part of has been successful, Marshall said.

Now a similar ordeal is taking place in Milwaukee, where Mayor Tom Barrett has proposed a controversial mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools.

“Other cities have tried mayoral control over the school systems. Some have been good, and others have been not so good,” Marshall said. “It requires committed leadership without wavering.”

Marshall is in the development stages of implementing her own leadership academy. The Backbone Institute is designed to build more confident people who are willing to embrace risk in order to create a better future. According to Marshall, the Backbone Institute will focus on people in business, education and the community.

BizTimes Milwaukee Reporter Alysha Schertz recently interviewed Marshall about workforce development, the role education plays in regional workforce development and the lessons Milwaukee can learn from the New York experience. The following are excerpts from that interview.

How important is the MPS role in developing the region’s next generation of workers?

“The role of MPS in educating kids today is crucial to the development of a capable and reliable workforce. Public education has a primary responsibility to teach children the fundamental aspects of our society, namely how to read, think, communicate and participate in a constructive way. They need to know how things work, from the alphabet to interpersonal dynamics, in order to find a place in the greater workforce. Where public education fails, alternatives emerge. Thus begin the ‘haves and have-nots’ arguments and all sort of distractions. Taxpayers balk at providing funds for education outside the public domain. When the local workforce is not well-educated, businesses are stymied. They begin to look for alternative workforce options, which in turn erode the communities responsible for providing the necessary education. You can see the cyclical nature of the problem. Public school education is a foundation upon which the future of a local workforce is built.”

You were hired by New York Mayor Bloomberg when he began his mayoral takeover of the schools there. What was going on in New York at the time and how did you play a role in Bloomberg’s solution?

“The New York system had 1,200 schools and 1.1 million kids. He established the Leadership Academy. I was one of four sets of facilitators brought in to teach transformational leadership. Our responsibility was to recruit and change 600 new principals in three years. The graduation rate in the system was less than 50 percent. New immigrants were coming all the time, (they) had hundreds and hundreds of different languages and there was tremendous pressure at the school level with very little leadership. Bloomberg bet that by building strong leaders at the school level he could change the way the schools operated and he could build confidence and enable risk-taking. We had 35 to 60 principals through five sessions. We taught a lot of business tools and process mapping that they had never been exposed to. They resisted pretty strongly, because we were business people and they were educators. We didn’t speak the same language. But the over-arching issue was transformational change and providing better education for kids.”

Where did the resistance to Bloomberg’s takeover come from?

“Almost all aspects of the community. Parents were saying, ‘We want a say in how our kids are being educated.’ Unions were saying ‘How dare you. This is not what the contracts were about.’ Community groups were frightened by the fact that Bloomberg took charge of this whole thing. They didn’t know what he was going to do, and so there was no trust. Everybody acknowledged that the old system was broken. That wasn’t hard. But what should the new system look like, be like? Nobody really knew that, so it was a fear of the unknown, and so anybody who had an interest in the schools, whether it was kids, teachers or parents, all put up the walls initially. We teach how to overcome three types of resistance. Technical – are the systems going to resist our efforts to change? Political – who has the power and where are they going to try to shut us down? And cultural – how have things always been done and how do we work with that to change?”


How is this resistance similar to what Milwaukee is experiencing now?

“I think you have all of those things in place. One of the real disruptive changes in New York was that they completely revamped the computer system at the same time we built the Leadership Academy. There was disruptive change everywhere. No one had a concrete place to stand that they knew from the past. On one hand, it was good because the resistance couldn’t be well-organized, and on the other hand, there was just this tremendous anxiety. I don’t see that being a whole lot different than here in Milwaukee.”


Explain some of the feelings you had when you were in the middle of the transition in New York?

“From a very personal standpoint, I was terrified most of the time I was there. I was viewed as kind of the ‘white person from the Midwest, and what the heck do you know about New York and our lives here?’ We were all afraid on some level about something. But we knew what the mission was, we knew that we were going in the direction of a better place. We couldn’t personalize things, and we had to forgive people sometimes for bad behaviors. We had to recognize that in the context of a lot of change and a lot of anxiety, bad behavior should be expected. I sometimes wondered what I was doing there, but the leadership aspect of it was so important to me. I knew that these people had the capacity that they had not been asked for in the past. We found that they just absolutely blossomed when the Academy gave them permission and support in doing things that they knew they really needed to do. I don’t think that’s any different in business, in schools and in communities.”

In your opinion, what can Milwaukee learn from the New York experience?

“First of all, that it requires united leadership. There was lots of conversation about how that was going to work, but there was no wavering. If Mayor Barrett wants to do this, he needs a unified, determined, courageous leadership team to help him. His notion that he is going to bring in a very strong administrator is a little worrisome to me, because it’s not one person who is going to be empowered to do this. It is a group of committed, dedicated, ‘no kidding we are going to make this happen’ group of individuals that is essential to this. If I have any concern at all, it is that I don’t see that yet. Now, it may be in place, but I don’t see that yet.”

In your opinion would mayoral control over MPS be a better thing for all parties concerned?

“Yes, if the mayor has an unwavering commitment to meaningful change, unity of leadership, and a willingness to be held accountable for creating partnerships and delivering positive outcomes for Milwaukee’s children. There can be no exit doors!”


How important is accountability in the workplace as well as in the education system?

“If we don’t measure things, we don’t have a way of seeing results – good or bad. We don’t have a way of looking at any change and asking ourselves, ‘Did it get it closer to where we wanted to go or is it taking us back where we started?’ If we don’t have some sort of measurement or accountability, there is no way you can have an answer to that question. So that’s when all of the effort seems sort of futile, like we are spinning our wheels, like we have these great intentions but we don’t know if we are getting closer or not. People don’t like the word accountability. Depending on how it is conveyed, introduced and managed, it can feel very respectful or very disrespectful. People respond better to respect, when you feel respected, you are more willing to collaborate.”

You are starting your own leadership academy. Tell me a little about the Backbone Institute.

“I am just beginning to put it together. The over-arching goal is to work with the three elements of a backbone, which are competence, confidence and risk-taking. What do we need to get good at to build our confidence to be able to make intelligent purposeful risks? The five skills we are going to talk about and teach are critical thinking, decisiveness, clarity of communication, integrity of word and act, and consistency. When we focus on those soft skills and teach and continue to ask people to think things through and be able to tell us what is on their mind, we build that confidence. Like the school systems and like business, I can’t do it alone. It’s all about helping people understand their capacity. Give them the confidence to make the contributions and take the kinds of risks they want to take. That is very idealistic in terms of a vision, really hard to do in a world of resistance and fear. But, you know, you start somewhere.”

Are leaders born or are they made?

“Yes. People are born with certain tendencies to look at a bigger world, to want to do things, to be something that’s terrific, and in my mind, that’s sort of a fundamental starting point. Leadership is about bringing together other people, agreeing on a vision and moving towards that vision. And it’s really service-orientated, which is really the flip of what we’d look at in the world today. We’d say leadership is about the big bucks, the corner office, the big car and all this stuff that you get as a leader. From my perspective, it’s about what can you then lead? What change can you adopt for the better? My definition of leadership is very simple – leadership is about drawing and channeling energy. The human capacity and the human resource that we have with people is energy. How do you draw this energy out and then where do you channel it?”

In this recession, companies are doing more with less. What is your advice to companies who need to get more out of their employees from a workforce development standpoint?

“I think fundamentally it goes back to, what do the businesses need more of? We tend to do things we have always done, trimming here and cutting there but generally speaking, because the business has been viable until now, the things we have been doing have been the right things. Rather than saying, ‘Whoa! Where are we going with this?’ we need to evaluate and look at how the world changed around us, and figure out how we need to respond to that. That kind of work at the senior management level needs to happen and then it needs to be communicated to the rest of the organization. At the same time there needs to be an understanding of what the capacity of the workforce is, who is here and what do they bring to the table. I don’t think we do enough of that inventory at a personal level. The challenge, of course, then is asking the question, what is it that we’ve been doing that we can stop doing without hurting ourselves in order to gain time and put those resources into other areas that we need to develop? My concern is that those conversations typically are not happening with any regularity or true rigor.”

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Susan Marshall is an author, speaker, and Founder of Backbone Institute, LLC, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future one person or team at a time. Her work over nearly 30 years with leaders in public and private sector industry, non-profit agencies, and public education is dedicated to building strong leaders who in turn create successful organizations, transform school systems, and develop leaders at all levels.

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