Feature                                                   Pages 34-39


Navigating the Sea of Criticism

A veteran of 30 years in the superintendency on five principles for surviving and thriving in the leadership role



Terry Grier is superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, winner of the 2013 Broad Prize for Urban Education.

As superintendent for the past 30 years, I have developed a sympathetic ear and a few well-learned pieces of advice from leading nine districts that range in size from 7,000 to 210,000 students. Working with wonderfully talented people, I have had some incredibly great days and some I would rather forget.

In the superintendency, the old adage that your friends come and go, but your enemies have a way of accumulating is very true. And so it happened recently that a friend who found himself in a tough spot e-mailed me with some questions: “How do you deal with critics who question your commitment to serving all children? And how do you deal with those who question your character or attack you personally?”

Naturally, these questions brought to mind a flood of instances over my career when I felt unfairly criticized or attacked. Some of those attacks distracted, stalled or stopped important reform initiatives that I adamantly knew were the right thing to do for children. With the benefit of hindsight, though, I now can see the controversies were rarely personal. And while some of these attacks were spearheaded by people or organizations placing their own special interest ahead of children’s, for the most part, the critics I’ve faced were equally adamant that they, too, had the students’ well-being at heart.

Therein lies the complex obstacle course that superintendents face — lots of impassioned stakeholders with impassioned opinions.

Personal Attacks
Admittedly, at times it is difficult not to take these conflicts personally, especially when you are in the midst of one. They can affect your spouse, children, parents and friends. They also can affect your health if you don’t learn early on to have thick skin and an open mind.

Therefore, when controversies arise — and they will inevitably arise — as superintendents, we have to step back and ask ourselves where the communications process perhaps went awry. We also need to be humble and introspective, learning from each crisis and then moving on a little smarter and better prepared to manage future conflicts. In my experience serving as a superintendent in nine school communities over the past three decades, I’ve found the breakdown typically occurs when we fail to follow any of five key principles.

No. 1: Truth, respect and a dose of humility.
No matter your education, years of experience or position, you still have much to learn — particularly from your critics. Listen carefully to as many points of view as possible and treat everyone, especially your loudest critics, with genuine respect. Never question motives. Never criticize a school board member to anyone, including your most trusted staff or other board members.

Adhering to the Golden Rule does not mean letting challenges go unanswered. Work with your staff to present the facts. Never let incorrect information go unchecked or unchallenged. Address misinformation directly, without mentioning the names of your critics.

When I was growing up, my grandfather told me, if you tell the truth, you’ll never have to remember what you said. He was right. But it also doesn’t hurt to have a witness. When meeting with a critic, bring along someone who is widely respected, courageous and willing to publicly recount what was said. I have made the mistake of trying to appear brave and independent by attending meetings with adversaries alone, only to later have what I said during the meeting misreported. Even with a witness present, enter every meeting expecting what you say to be recorded. Remember, most cell phones have built-in recording devices.

While most individuals or groups will not record your comments without your knowledge or permission, some will. Be cognizant of this possibility. Just reminding yourself that your comments could be secretly recorded can help keep your comments professional and succinct, even when being baited to say something negative.

Also, don’t be afraid to apologize when you are wrong — you are going to be wrong at times. Be willing to modify your position when presented with better information or ideas. If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it and promise to follow up with an intelligent answer. Most importantly, never attempt to cover up a mistake.

No. 2: Communicate, communicate and then communicate some more.
Communication must be frequent, and it must be two-way. Form advisory committees and use focus groups (including your frequent critics) to share data and discuss your thoughts and plans around how to make schools better places for children and how to improve academic performance. Solicit feedback and ideas from others. Work with the board of education to establish a long-range plan (covering one to two years), and share your plans to turn the goals into reality with advisory groups, staff, parents, community and the news media.

During a recent annual state-of-the-district speech, I referenced the need to improve our high school facilities. Afterward, the press asked whether I was advocating for a tax increase. I responded that our high schools were, on average, more than 50 years old and that something had to be done. The seed had been planted, and we simply needed to water and fertilize it. It was not easy.

Hours before the board of education was to vote on whether to call the largest bond vote in Texas history, some were unconvinced of the need. I met with them, and we reached agreements to address their concerns. Opponents of the bond election spoke out before the vote. They were countered by principals, parents and community leaders in support of the bond. It was not happenstance the supporters showed up and spoke.

Eight school board members voted yes and one no. Three months later, Houston voters passed our $1.89 billion plan with nearly 70 percent voter approval.

One other thing: There will always be detractors, no matter how well you communicate. Just accept it.

No. 3: It’s the principal of the thing.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the superintendent is the face of the school district. That role is clearly held by campus principals, who are on the front lines with parents and the community. For superintendents to win the support of the community, they must first win the loyalty of the principals. Nothing can undercut a superintendent’s efforts more swiftly and decisively than principals who feel disconnected from the central-office decision-making machine. Not only is their advice invaluable, but principals will staunchly defend strategies they helped formulate.

Once or twice a year, I meet with our principals at one of our large high schools. Attendance at the meeting is voluntary. I’m the only non-principal in attendance. No notes are taken, and I mostly listen to concerns and advice. Once trust has been developed, the principals are free with their opinions and willingly engage in the push and pull of debating programmatic or regulation decisions.

I send principals notes on their birthdays, congratulate them publicly and make sure they are receiving the support they need. Our principals help me identify potential opposition to change and offer suggestions on how to mitigate opposition. They also alert me to potential problems before they arise.

In one school district, we lost a number of our principals to local charter school networks that offered significantly higher salaries. Several disgruntled school board members complained that we were losing our brightest and best because my central-office team was creating a culture of fear and intimidation. When I shared that insight with several of the more experienced principals, three of them asked to address the school board in closed session to discuss a personnel issue. They asked me not to be present, and I agreed. In short, they told the board our best principals still worked in the district, and they fully supported the direction and focus of the organization and felt lucky to have me and our central team leading the district. Case closed. Within three months, all five of the principals who left wanted to return to the district. We welcomed four of them back. The fifth had been on a professional growth plan when he left.

No. 4: Be pro-active.
When you know a hard-hitting story is being planned by a media outlet, and you often will get a heads-up, make sure to immediately alert board members. Provide them with background information and pertinent facts, and admit if a mistake has been made and what you plan to do about it. Board members should never be surprised by a critical story. They will be questioned by their constituencies and should not have to respond with “Well, that’s news to me.”

While fewer and fewer people read newspapers today, most of the truly influential people in a community still do. In spite of what some may believe, editorial pages do have some sway. And newspapers are not the only ones with editorial or opinion boards. Television, radio, chambers of commerce, and countless other national, state and local organizations influence the views of their followers.

When dealing with an issue that has potential to create controversy, it is wise to be pro-active and meet with these groups. Getting ahead of the opposition is key to staying ahead.

No matter what anyone tells you, there is no such thing as an off-the-record conversation with a reporter. Assume anything you say will go public and never assume a reporter is your pal.

No. 5: Softly blow that horn.
Former President John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” In other words, it is hard to fight success. Superintendents should work hard to create and celebrate small victories. Don’t forget social media tools that are now available to allow others to share in the celebrations or to hear the good news.

Track data on a weekly, monthly, semester and yearly basis. If student attendance is up after the first quarter, bring it to the community’s attention and recognize the schools that have made the most improvement. If the district has established minority contracting goals in its construction or vendor program and the district has met or exceeded those goals, let the minority communities and minority elected officials at the local, state and federal levels know about it. If the school district has significantly increased the amount of scholarship dollars offered to graduating seniors, widely communicate the good news and publicly recognize schools with the greatest progress.

Critics have a more difficult time gaining traction when the organization you lead is reaching or exceeding its goals. In one district where I worked, our communications department developed a series of videos highlighting program success at the school and district levels. They appeared on our district television show, our web page and YouTube, and were shown during staff and school board meetings.

Dealing with a determined group of critics or an individual critic is never easy. After three decades on the job, I continue to learn, and so do the critics.

Sideline Supporters
A little wiser today than I was when I first became a superintendent in 1983, I’ve also come to recognize that a loyal supporter willing to go to battle for you is more valuable than 100 quiet supporters on the sidelines. This is especially true when the supporter has community clout. Several years back, this really hit home with me. I was confronted with community activists who opposed my plans for the district where I recently had been appointed, simply because I wasn’t from there. They had no concrete reasons for opposing my planned reforms. The reforms were clearly needed and were informed by input from the community.

That being said, these reforms hit a major roadblock — one, quite frankly, I thought I might not be able to get around. Then I met with one of the community activists, winning her respect by staking my career to the success of my proposals because I believe in accountability. At a large community meeting at a neighborhood church, she stepped up and really went to battle for me and the kids of her district. Were her remarks polished and full of academic terms? Absolutely not. Were her remarks impassioned and hitting the exact tone needed with this community? Absolutely yes. That’s precisely why her remarks averted a major public protest. Without this supporter at this particular moment in my career, my ability to make a difference for the children in this district would have been severely hampered.

An Open Mind
I try to live by these five principles, and I hope they serve others well. I don’t have all the answers, but my three decades on the job have taught me you have to roll with the punches and be willing to keep your mind open to creative and unexpected solutions.

Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” We all have to pick our battles, but sometimes the toughest part is deciding to stand up in the first place and fight for something one believes in. Once you’ve made that choice, you’re already halfway there. Establishing students as your North Star will serve you well.

Terry Grier is superintendent of the Houston Independent School District in Houston, Texas. E-mail: tgrier@houstonisd.org. Twitter: @tgrierhisd


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