My Life as CEO

A veteran superintendent describes his transition into the upper ranks of the private sector by VERNON JOHNSON

Two years ago, while in my first year as superintendent of the Richardson, Texas, Independent School District, I had the opportunity to join a startup education initiative, known as Voyager Expanded Learning, as the chief executive officer. The offer was attractive because it afforded me the chance to continue working in the field I love while having an impact on a large number of school-age children nationally.


Though the job’s prospects appealed to me, I had to consider numerous family and professional factors. After all, I had spent my entire 26-year professional career in public education and never had thought seriously about doing anything else. I needed to evaluate carefully the new position as it related to my family’s security and happiness, preparation for retirement, employment risk, professional satisfaction, personal interest and life goals. In the end, I reasoned I simply could not pass up an opportunity that would contribute so much to me personally, professionally and socially.

A Philosophical Fit
In the course of reaching my decision, I realized the vision of Voyager had unique potential to help public schools achieve their goal of providing a successful, high-quality learning experience for every child. Voyager’s mission was aligned with the same ideals that had motivated me to enter education, and the company had a practical plan and the resources to make it happen.

Perhaps one of the most important considerations of my decision was that joining Voyager would require no changes in my personal philosophy. Those doing the hiring wanted to accomplish the same things I did as a superintendent: vastly expand children’s knowledge base, increase their achievement, heighten children’s interest in school and motivate them to learn.

Joining a private-sector initiative has provided a new challenge. I am doing something historically meaningful by forming a new generation of partnerships with public schools to help them improve academic performance while furthering the intellectual, social and emotional development of children. Significant public-private partnerships of this nature will be necessary for schools to achieve the quantum improvements demanded of them. Given the complex issues schools face, all of our nation’s resources will be needed to accomplish better results.

Needless to say, my life has changed a great deal since I moved from the public to the private sector. I have identified several differences and similarities between my role as a superintendent and that of a CEO.

Striking Similarities
Foremost among the similarities, I continue working to help children achieve greater success in their educational experiences. As such, I’ve discovered:

  • Both the superintendent and CEO play an important role in shaping the strategic direction of their organizations and in organizing the resources to support their respective mission.

  • Both the CEO and superintendent focus on results, albeit, as a CEO I have heightened my sensitivity to the customer. I feel a greater sense of accountability, realizing that if I fail to meet the expectations of my customer, the entire initiative could be jeopardized.

  • Both jobs require long hours and great intensity. As CEO, travel has become a major part of my life. I logged over 100,000 miles during the first 10 months of the year.

  • Sharp Differences
    As superintendent, the work came to me, and my job seemed to unfold in front of me. As a private-sector CEO, I have to make things happen and create my job. I must take the initiative and take advantage of opportunities in a much more proactive way. As such, in my new position:

  • I find no tolerance for the status quo, and I am rewarded only for making progress. I feel pressure to consistently improve results rather than maintain a system. At the same time, I very much enjoy the freedom and support to constantly try new ideas and solutions along with a tolerance for learning through mistakes. In business I find a much higher level of immediacy and an expectation for action.

  • I am able to move the organization rapidly to address changing circumstances and the needs of the customers. By comparison, things move painfully slow in a school environment. In business if we find that something works or shows an improvement, we try to implement it overnight.

  • I have much more control over my time and how I choose to focus my energy. As superintendent, I often was diverted from the main goal by a stream of issues that had little to do with our mission.

  • I can spend significantly more time and resources on research and training than I did as superintendent. This results in far better programs and higher organizational competency than time or resources permitted in the public sector. I’ve found that research, planning and training are fundamental principles for building a strong business.

    In addition, I am thankful for the significantly less political maneuvering that’s involved in my current job. No special-interest groups tug me one way or the other, which, as a superintendent, often impeded my focus on the welfare of all children. I am greatly relieved now that decisions can be based purely on rational considerations and the judgment of what is best for children.

    Perhaps the greatest relief is that I no longer live in a fish bowl. This contributes significantly to my productivity and the quality of my decision making. It is wonderful to have my privacy back.

  • An Energizing Experience
    Making the transition from public education to private enterprise has had its challenges, but overall the change has been refreshing and stimulating.

    When it came down to it, it was not the offer of a corporate position or the paycheck that enticed me. It was being able to fulfill a mission that would make a difference for children across America. I enjoy working with a team of people who also are mission driven. And, besides, I like what we do. I enjoy being an educator helping other educators. I am turned on by the prospect of helping others achieve their goals.

    This is the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had in my life. Every day I get to work with people in schools who want to do the very best for kids and who are looking for some support, some advice and some understanding of their needs.

    Yes, I have discovered, there is a life after the superintendency.

    Vernon Johnson is chief executive officer of Voyager Expanding Learning, 2200 Ross Ave., Suite 3800, Dallas, Texas 75201. E-mail: vjohnson@iamvoyager.com. He served as superintendent in Richardson, Texas, and Rochester, Minn.