Unsolicited Leadership Advice for DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee

Posted 06.15.2009

Rhee_time Sunday’s Washington Post ran a front page feature article reviewing the first two years of Michelle Rhee’s tenure as the chancellor of Washington, D.C.’s public school system.  Thanks in part to extensive national coverage like the Time magazine cover to the right, Rhee has become the face of education reform in the United States.  As the article notes, what’s playing well nationally isn’t playing so well at home.  In fact, it begins by recounting the story of D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray asking Rhee when the Time cover came out, "Michelle, why would you agree to be photographed with a broom on the cover of Time magazine?" He had a couple of follow up questions for her including "What does it get you to constantly bash those you're trying to get to help you?" and "Why did you let the picture be taken in the first place?”

Those are some pretty good questions the Chairman asked. Rhee herself acknowledges that she has made some missteps in her first two years in the job and that the grade for the DC public school system thus far is an incomplete at best. Reporter Bill Turque does a nice job of summarizing Rhee’s lessons learned thus far as:

Lesson 1: Fame Can Backfire – Rhee’s national celebrity has alienated some of her key constituencies like DC teachers and parents.

Lesson 2: Money Doesn't Always Talk – A potential 61% increase in base pay for teachers won’t get you very far if they don’t trust you.

Lesson 3: Politics Matters – As Willy Loman’s wife, Linda, said in Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”  If you’re working in a political environment as Rhee is, you have to pay attention to the politicians.

Lesson 4: Beware Unintended Consequences – It’s called a school system for a reason.  As is the case with any system, when you change one variable (e.g. closing schools, reducing central staff, adjusting pay plans), the entire system changes, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Being a smart and talented person,  Rhee has adjusted her approach in some ways, perhaps most notably in paying more attention to the City Council and teachers’ unions. Still, in reading between the lines of Turque’s article, I think I see some indicators of potential future trouble for Rhee.  These add up to caveats for any leader charged with securing radically different results. Not that she’s asked, but here’s my advice for Rhee and leaders in comparable situations:

Don’t put all your eggs in the boss’s basket – Hiring Michelle Rhee was one of the first things Adrian Fenty did when he was elected mayor of DC in 2007.  Back then, Fenty was getting great press and had a lot of power.  Lately, though, he’s been showing some chinks in his armor thanks to spats with council members over relatively silly things like free tickets to baseball games.   Like a lot of leaders, Rhee relied on her boss’s authority and power to get things done.  The problem with this approach, of course, is if your boss’s power diminishes, yours does too.  It’s important to have other supporters besides your boss.

Build a network of allies  – Not doing this can leave you way out in front of the crowd with everyone figuratively shooting at you from behind.  When she took over, Rhee had to make it clear that she was an agent of change.  It’s rare, however, to bring true change without having stakeholders engaged.  The Post article points out that Rhee didn’t do much in her first two years to get the teachers’ unions on her side.  Perhaps it’s not too late.  She’s recently started conducting small group discussions with teachers and sent a letter of apology for pushing so many initiatives at once.  That sounds like a good start.

Respect those who don’t fit the vision – This is the old thing about disagreeing without being disagreeable.  The people who remain are watching and noting how you’re treating the ones who leave.

The meta message is the one that matters – The cover of Time is not the place to make subtle points. When asked in the Post if she had regrets about the cover, Rhee said no.  “Her message, she said, was not about sweeping out teachers. ‘The point of that was about cleaning house and sweeping change,’ she said, referring to such moves as firing central office staff employees and upgrading operations so that teachers were paid on time and had textbooks delivered.”  It’s sort of amazing to me that Rhee is hanging on to this rationale for the cover photo when, for her local audience, a picture was clearly worth a thousand words.

Own, acknowledge and correct your mistakes – Rhee said in the interview that “her message hasn't changed, only that she's worked to communicate more directly so that her views aren't ‘warped and diluted’ by the media or central bureaucracy. ‘We weren't doing a good job of communicating,’ she said.”  This leaves me wondering who the “we” is.  As out front in her style as Rhee is, there is very little “we” in the communications strategy.  She appears to be the communicator in chief.  If it’s not working, she needs to acknowledge it and make the appropriate adjustments on her own.

Effectiveness is more important than being right -  This would be a good place to start in making the adjustment.  When faced with the choice between being effective and being “right,” Rhee seems to lean toward the latter.  Toward the end of the article she’s quoted as saying, "If I go down at the end of the day because I didn't play the political game right, that's okay with me.  At least when you're making decisions that you believe are in the best interests of kids, you may not win in the end, but at least you can operate with a good conscience."  Apart from the implicit us against them mindset in this statement, there’s a big element of self taking precedent over mission.  Which brings me to my last piece of advice for Chancellor Rhee and any other leader leading disruptive change –

Remember, it’s not about you.