On My Mind / Essays On Success

Figuring it out

"Smart people can figure it out."

With that pithy statement of his management philosophy, my boss invited me to take on a job for which I had no particular training or experience.

I was a lawyer working in one of Georgetown's legal clinics; my boss, the dean, asked me to step into the Development Office to run a capital campaign for the school.  He had confidence in my ability to make the learning curve short and swift; I was determined to prove him right.  So, I learned to raise money, quite successfully.

I recalled my dean's advice when the news broke about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's stunning choice of Cathleen P. Black to be the next chancellor of the New York City Public Schools. Her career as a publishing executive is legendary, with the names of some of the most renowned newspapers and magazines on her resume --- Hearst Magazines (Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and many others), USA Today, New York Magazine, Ms.  Her name appears frequently on "most powerful" lists of business leaders.  (Full disclosure:  Cathie is a Trinity alumna, Class of '66, and I served with her for a time on Trinity's Board of Trustees in the 1980s.)

Black's critics say that she should not be the schools chancellor because she does not have formal training or experience in public education.  Does success require credentials --- technical education, prior work or life experience in the industry?

In fact, many top leaders owe their jobs to the "smart people can figure it out" philosophy.  Consider the fact that every four years, we choose a national executive who, unless up for re-election, has little experience in circumstances he (or she, someday) will face as president of the United States. 

Some of this nation's most renowned Supreme Court justices -- John Marshall, William Rhenquist, Earl Warren, William O. Douglas -- had no prior judicial experience before their appointments to the highest court, as is also the case with the Court's newest member, Elena Kagan. 

On the private side, increasing numbers of corporations are choosing executives from outside of their industries in the quest for change agents -- the CEO of General Motors was previously an executive in the communications industry; the leader of Starwood Hotels tasted leadership at the Coors Brewing Company, as just a few of many examples.

Outsiders are more likely to challenge the conventional wisdom of the organizational culture. Reaching beyond established lines of succession makes it more likely that once-excluded candidates can reach the top -- when the doors open to the previous "old boys' clubs," it's possible that women and candidates of color can march into the corner offices.

Successful organizational leadership demands knowledge and skills commonly associated with a strong liberal arts education: critical thinking ability, which is really the discipline of logic; strong communication skills, both orally and in writing, along with the ability to articulate a clear and compelling vision for the organization; skill in organizing and motivating groups of people to work in teams to achieve common goals; a clear understanding of numbers and research methods; and the ability to keep on learning new things long after formal education is over.

Smart people who can "figure it out" also know what they don't know, and understand the difference between what they need to learn and who they need to hire.  Brilliant leaders become so because they know how to pick and retain top talent. Cathie Black will not be teaching classes in New York, but rather, she will be responsible for hiring great teachers.  The ability to hire well is a signature skill of a successful leader.

Much of Black's opposition is political, seizing on her lack of education credentials as a surrogate for disappointment in the lack of public participation in her selection.  The credentials argument, in and of itself, is paper thin when weighed against her considerable professional experience in leadership and management of complex organizations.  No less an authority than Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that masters degrees are relatively meaningless for effective education.

Cathie Black's ultimate success as the New York Public Schools chancellor will not hinge on paper credentials, but rather, on her ability to win the confidence of her constituents by delivering effective results quickly.  She will need to draw upon all of her prior executive experience to be successful in this most challenging of roles. 

But Cathie Black is very smart.  She can figure it out.


Patricia McGuire

 |  December 2, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  |  Category:  Personal essays Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Hmm. Earlier I posted a comment calling into question Cathie Black's competency in general since she was demoted at Hearst just before Bloomberg appointed her. The post was removed. Why? Was calling her a demoted Bloomberg East Side cocktail party crony that offensive? The truth is offensive?

Posted by: fran12567 | December 6, 2010 3:36 PM
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Forget her lack of credentials. I question her managerial competency: She was demoted from her Hearst job just before Bloomberg appointed her. DEMOTED!!!! If she's so great, why was she DEMOTED? Why should we be forced to accept an uncredentialed failure who was DEMOTED because Bloomberg wanted to help out one of his East Side cocktail party cronies who just lost her job?

Posted by: fran12567 | December 6, 2010 12:51 PM
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Does that mean that the financial sector is going to hire public school teachers or superintendents to straighten out the mess that it has made of our economy?

Oh, sorry, I forgot. It's only business people who have the smarts to walk into any situation on earth, totally uninformed and inexperienced, and cure all the problems.

Please excuse my sarcasm, but looking at the hash that business people have made of our national economy (and by extension, the world economy), I can't fathom why they still have the arrogance to think that they can still waltz in and do it all. Nor can I fathom why publications like the Washington Post still give them a forum.

Posted by: lxp19 | December 2, 2010 11:25 PM
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Really smart people will stay out of the education business, and this should be especially so for business people. Business people are oriented towards "profits" or "results" and neither of these is likely to be obtained in any large urban school district, where the imputs are always going to far exceed the outputs, and where political savvy and a degree in industrial relations and union experience are more pertinent, education being but a subsidiary matter, if relevant at all, in the running of a school system today.

Smart teachers are all working in consulting where the real money is, and where no students are wasting their time. Those who spent time in college taking education courses instead of getting an education can claim they received some special and exclusive insight into the secrets of imparting learning on their reluctant and recalcitrant students, but nothing in their performance suggests there is any truth to their cherished beliefs.

There are many bright teachers who labor assiduously to inspire and advance their students but there are way too many who fail to meet the minimum requirement, namely, being smarting than their 9 year old students.

Posted by: droberts57 | December 2, 2010 9:46 PM
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Outsiders are more likely to challenge the conventional wisdom of the organizational culture."
Care to run for Governor of California? Our current Governor Schwarzenegger was elected when we recalled the elected guy for incompetency. Schwarzenegger's mantra was not to just think outside the box but to "blow up the boxes". IMO he had good intentions and good ideas, but the established political set-up was too much for him to overcome. "Smoke and Mirrors" best describes our annual budgets.

More recently we had Meg Whitman - she spent more than $140 MILLION to convince the voters that her business background would set the state on the right track. Ultimately her lack of a voting record, less than substantive agenda (tax cuts, anyone?), heartless treatment of her illegal underpaid housekeeper, and constant barrage of "talking points" were deciding factors in her defeat.

I can't speak for Georgetown - but California tried this experiment, and did not care to repeat it.

Posted by: shadowmagician | December 2, 2010 6:07 PM
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The chancellor's job is to hire teachers? My in-laws are NYC public school teachers, and in all the years hearing about their misadventures, I never realized the chancellor was in charge of teacher hires.

How's that for lifelong learning?

Posted by: jb1151 | December 2, 2010 5:01 PM
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Here is a very scary thought! The business world works from a model where a demand must be present or created in order to profit. Furthermore, success is measured in profit and a whole mess of factors reside in the business world that do not exist in the educational world. For example, one can make a profit by using cheap labor or poor raw materials and still be worshipped as a success. Another way to show profit is to cook the books and lie about the facts and again everyone will line up pat you on the back.

Unfortunately, the educational world is not the business world which is the first major flaw in what passes for educational reform today. Education is an industry the cannot control the raw material and relies on cheap labor to overcome more than a few social issues that have no business being attached to academic work. I believe Black’s first major wake-up will be that education does not work from a model of profit. One cannot measure “success” in the same way which is one of the greater problems in dealing with educational issues.

Sadly, it is the alleged smart people who do not understand education that have created the demand for educational reform in the first place. It is absolutely sickening how many people have dumped onto the educational system without having much knowledge about it. And the scary thing about it all is that business people do smell a profit in education but not on the student-teacher level. They really don’t care about the students or teachers, they care about the profit.

Posted by: jdman2 | December 2, 2010 4:12 PM
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So, Cathie Black is desirable in this important position because:
"Outsiders are more likely to challenge the conventional wisdom of the organizational culture."

Well, perhaps big corporations could use a few teachers to lead their enterprises; they might learn some of the following:

- that stocks and bonds in ethics,
humanity and humility should trump
profiteering over one's fellow person.
- that nurturing the next generation of
human beings does not mean enslaving
them to big business corporation
- that one of the measurements of a
great society is how well we take care
of those who cannot defend or take
care of themselves
- that without true caring, knowledge
and experience, we will just be
providing more fodder for the prison
- and that calculations need to include
the value of each individual human

"No less an authority than Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that masters degrees are relatively meaningless for effective education."
And how would Arne Duncan know this? He never studied for a masters degree.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 2, 2010 2:49 PM
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How much are you willing to pay for change? No "business" is required to stay in business with increasing demands, but no latitude to change the organizational structure. Attempt to get parents to buy into longer days, more days, elimination of chronlogical grades [k,1,2 etc), a dysfunctional grading system etc. The archaic organizational structure of schools is stretched as far as it will go with any results. Real change will call for real differences. Michelle Rhee started to scratch the surface and got fired. Everyone who went to school is perceived as an expert in schooling. Unfortunately, your experience is 12 or more years old. Run a business with thinking that goes back 12-20 years. Start by taking all computers out of business and get back to basics!

Posted by: Justlistening | December 2, 2010 1:43 PM
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Michelle Rhee tried using "conventional wisdom". She what happened to her. No matter how smart you are, if you're dealing with incompetence people, all the conventional wisdom in the world won't help you succeed...

Posted by: demtse | December 2, 2010 12:31 PM
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Kids aren't widgets, stupid.

Posted by: kuvasz | December 2, 2010 11:05 AM
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No, because education is not a business and we have destroyed our public education system by treating it as one. Kids are widgets that are produced, sold, and bought. Yet. If we keep hiring CEOs to run the schools they will figure out how to enrich themselves at the expense of kids and their education.

I think I'll go have some breakfast now, maybe with some OJ and a cup of coffee. It should be yummy.

Posted by: fortllatikcuf | December 2, 2010 10:58 AM
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" know about teachers. My wife of 55 years taught 44 years in elementary and middle schools. I taught something under 30 years after retiring as a master sergeant from the United States Army. Our daughter has taught all grades from K through 8. She has been a principal of an award winning school and presently working with very talented teachers, to grow the school into an International Baccalaureate school. Her husband is a chiropractor who went back to college to become a math and science teacher in a middle school. Our granddaughter moved from California to Washington D.C. to earn her masters and to work under the leadership of an inspirational teacher of teachers. Our grandson is in his first year of college and has not made up his mind…yet. We are a family of teachers."

And Ms. McGuire is the president of a university, eyewitness to the products of your endeavors. You are rightly proud of your profession, but don't dismiss the opinion of a highly successful leader in higher education. Ignoring her doesn't diminish you as a teacher, but it certainly makes you a poor student.

Posted by: NNevada | December 2, 2010 10:06 AM
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"Outsiders are more likely to challenge the conventional wisdom of the organizational culture."

"Pat McGuire, who argues that outsiders are more likely to challenge conventional wisdom and get things done."

Ouch. Please don't tell Establishment Republicans and Democrats any of this. They might just want to elect Sarah Palin !!

Posted by: pvilso24 | December 2, 2010 10:03 AM
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Insanity. Continuing to do a failed task, over and over, the same way.

Schools are failing everyone says. But teachers want to do the same thing over and over by the same people.

School districts should put someone from business in charge for a change. Maybe real change will happen.

Posted by: cpameetingbook | December 2, 2010 9:47 AM
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The basic concepts of education that might have served in the past are not valid today. The whole concept of placing children in first, second, etc, grade, for example, is outdated and harmful. Testing out and moving on is the way to go.

The same goes for taking charge of a large school system. Ms. Black is not going to learn as she goes. She already knows what it takes to be successful. She knows when someone is producing or just blowing hot air. She also knows what it takes to be successful.

All she has to do is hire the right people to carry our her vision. And, of course, produce.

Posted by: searay28 | December 2, 2010 9:16 AM
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I am so tired of "business" majors and "business" ideas being held up as an ideal for everything from rutabaga to politics. Is that the only thought we have in our heads, profit? Is the only idea or ideal a matter of promotion as opposed to ability, scientific known how, maturation or skill? Business majors, business sense brought us to the brink of disaster via Wall Street, so how does that square with sense, common or otherwise? We use to have civics, community social responsibility, mutual aid and assistance, support for the welfare of ourselves and others, now all we get is “not on my dime” selfishness, collaboration with the economic enemy-mine, and other hallow retorts. If making money for yourself while neglecting your fellow compatriots was such a good idea, how was it the French Revolution was such a success in deposing the insular idiots of their time?

Posted by: jemcclellan | December 2, 2010 8:12 AM
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So, because ONE person MIGHT be good enough then that means Education is safe in the hands of MBA holders?

Even I'm smart enough (and I have a PhD in Education) to figure out that that logic is not logic at all.

That type of thinking has helped get us where we are; "hey, anybody can teach. It's as easy as flipping a burger".

Well, that is just ignorance about and insulting to a very complex and extremely vital profession. The only people who think education is easy are people who think they know everything, too lazy to actually do any true education or trying to justify their own false beliefs.

Where's the proof of what Ms. (not Dr.?) McGuire purports? How have other non-Educators done? Ask Rhee. Ask the previous Secretary of Education who only had a B.S. in political science and who's only argument for competency was she was the mother of two. How well has her NCLB gone? Ask an Educator.

Put Education in the hands of EDUCATORS who will make decisions based on sound pedagogy and proven research not some arbitrary bottom-line ideology.

Posted by: topwriter | December 2, 2010 8:05 AM
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Cathie Black may be smart and she may be able to figure some things out, but wouldn't it have been a smarter thing to have a search for this important position? Why not hear candidates' ideas? I would have much preferred Colin Powell, or someone with such experience than a media executive. NY State has stringent criteria for teacher and administrator certification. So, I'm not clear on why a waiver was granted in this case, other than to please Bloomberg. After all, Cathie Black has never prepared for this position, or indicated an interest in it. Bloomberg simply arranged a private meeting and offered her the opportunity. The reality is, that she could not even qualify for the lowliest positions in the school system. Just as she would not qualify to be a registered nurse, doctor, airline pilot, or cosmetologist. Will she next be heading the health department? Or an airline?

Posted by: readerny | December 2, 2010 7:54 AM
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I smell a rat that wishes to privatize everything, especially education. Education is not for business people out to make a buck. The profession of education is for those who are convinced that nurture is as important as nature; That all children can learn; that the teacher in the classroom is only part of the educational process; that as someone has said, "It takes a village to rear a child," especially the parent(s) of the child or adolescent; That there are forces in the nation that wish for public education to fail; that the teacher knows Blume’s taxonomy and how to implement it in the student’s growth; that it requires teamwork on the part of all concerned to educate the student; that learning is a life-long process. Moreover, it takes time for a university graduate to develop into a good or great teacher.
A teacher knows that the arbitrary imposition of the adversarial relationship between teachers and a board of trustees took away the teacher’s valuable time in the classroom to fight foolish verbal battles with board members, members that at one time car pooled to attend the same class at the nearest university. Administrators became the board’s hired guns, adding to unnecessary divisions, which creates a situation in which the administrator imposes some of its duties and responsibilities onto overworked and underpaid teachers.

I know about teachers. My wife of 55 years taught 44 years in elementary and middle schools. I taught something under 30 years after retiring as a master sergeant from the United States Army. Our daughter has taught all grades from K through 8. She has been a principal of an award winning school and presently working with very talented teachers, to grow the school into an International Baccalaureate school. Her husband is a chiropractor who went back to college to become a math and science teacher in a middle school. Our granddaughter moved from California to Washington D.C. to earn her masters and to work under the leadership of an inspirational teacher of teachers. Our grandson is in his first year of college and has not made up his mind…yet. We are a family of teachers.

Those who want to enter education at the top rung of the ladder in their twilight years have egos too big to wear the largest size of a Texan’s cowboy hat. Have a nice day, Yawl.

Posted by: gusu81 | December 2, 2010 7:22 AM
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I agree...IF you are smart enough. Many men try, many men die is the rallying call of the incompetently trained.

Posted by: joy5 | December 2, 2010 7:10 AM
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Oh please!

It seems that getting "smart people" to figure it out almost always runs on a one-way street. And that street almost always means the importation of "smart people" who have little or no pedagogical training, experience or well-developed insights into education administration, dictating policies and procedures to education professionals.

I wonder if Patricia McGuire (or others) would endorse a "smart" educator, one who had consistently good reviews as a teacher and who possessed a doctorate from a prestigious university, for the position as dean of Georgetown's law school? Maybe she'd support the appointment of such a person for a high-level Pentagon managerial position? Or perhaps she'd laud the hiring of a teacher to run a publishing house?

After all, a smart educator is not only a master of interdisciplinary content, but also has high-level managerial abilities, possesses well-developed people skills, has an unusual knack for making difficult concepts easier to understand (communication) and utilizes psychologically healthy and effective motivation techniques.

But my guess is McGuire and others would quickly abandon the "smart person" argument in favor of the "lack of experience and training" one. The one-way street.

People like Michelle Rhee, with an education "pedigree" she touted but which could never be documented, and Cathleen Black, who has no experience whatsoever with public education, should NOT be hired to lead public school systems. They tend to come to public education with a business model mindset already in place. Their so-called challenges to the "conventional wisdom" of the school culture usually rest on promoting policies that are already proven to be ineffective or counterproductive: more testing, more charter schools, performance pay for teachers.

Like Rhee in Washington and Joel Klein in New York City, they rely on smoke and mirrors and sleight-of-hand to create the illusion of "achievement," while leaving the school systems and the people in them worse off.

"Smart people" like that are detrimental to public education.

Posted by: mcrockett1 | December 2, 2010 6:47 AM
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THIS is the problem. Unqualified, incompetent (in the sense they know nothing about how education actually works) people running school systems.

Posted by: fishman2 | December 2, 2010 6:25 AM
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The problems in education are NOT in the schools themselves. Teachers are a very hardworking and dedicated bunch.

The problem is that American culture rewards shortcuts and laziness in its youth. We make excuses for everyone who can't or won't meet high standards. We don't expel kids who misbehave and ruin our schools. Teachers have no power over their own classrooms because fear of lawsuits prevents everyone from taking a firm stance on discipline.

The current effort to "reform" schools by blaming educators is misguided, and it is being drummed up by the very same people who trashed America's economy: businessmen (and women).

So what I'm saying is: this article is yet another example of cheerleading by ignorant WP reporters who have no idea what they are talking about. Go spend a month in a public school before waving a pom pom for this new "leader."

Posted by: yellowtavern2 | December 2, 2010 5:58 AM
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"No less an authority than Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that masters degrees are relatively meaningless for effective education."
And how would Arne Duncan know this? He never studied for a masters degree.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 2, 2010 2:51 AM
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"But Cathie Black is very smart. She can figure it out."

And just how long do we give a rank amateur in education to figure it out? I am so sick and tired of hearing the business types blow their own horn about how smart they are and how they have the answer for everything. Running a classroom is not like running a business. Kids are not commodities or products. Parents are not machines that stamp those products out, and teachers are not assemblers. For that matter, I've spent thirty years in an auto plant watching the management types " trying to figure it out" doing things on the fly the same way that this lady will do. You can't teach educators in a business class, nor does running a business have ANYTHING to do with administering a school, or an entire school system. For all of you business tycoons that think you have the moxie to take on education, yes, you can read graphs, make speeches, dress real nice. But how many of you have actually spent time in a classroom? You know, dealing with KIDS, not adults? When was the last time you dealt with parents who think you're a babysitter, or kids that never have breakfast and the only way they eat is through free lunches? When was the last time you cleaned up vomit, or caught every communicable illness imaginable yourself? Pick and retain top talent? Oh, yeah, we've heard that one before. Business types are so good at that. You can fudge the books in the private sector, hiring execs who run a company into the ground and then move on to another,always at the expense of the people who actually do the grunt work down on the floor. But in a school system? Where are you going to find the money? The schools are broke, they are in debt up to their eyeballs, and might I mention laying off teachers and dropping essential programs. Where are you going to get the money? Is Mike Bloomberg going to pay for it? This was just a shameful, elitist opinion piece, absolutely disgusting.

Yes, you'll figure it out. If YOU are smart enough.

Posted by: rtinindiana | December 2, 2010 2:09 AM
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