The transition to the superintendency is unique in so many ways. Not only are you working with search firms for a position that could be on the other side of the state, it is a move that involves the whole family – even if the job happens to ultimately be in the town next door. Everything in your life changes as you become “all in” in this new community. So to find that perfect fit for your family can be challenging. I researched EVERYTHING about the districts I was considering, and the tipping point for Gunter ISD came through reading their Tiger Times, a monthly newsletter that highlights what’s happening in the classroom, stories about student success and community activities. It was one of a dozen things I reviewed (board agendas/minutes, accountability reports, financial audits, bond overviews, etc.) leading up to making a decision on whether to apply. I remember bringing the March edition of the newsletter into the living room and sharing with my husband, “this could be the one – I could see our family here,” as we read about the Daddy Daughter Dance and many other events they had hosted the month before.
It wasn’t but a few nights later that I came back out and said, “we need to talk.” As my research became more detailed I began to see some red flags of financial distress within the district. I had gathered all of my data and shared them with a fellow CFO and he had called that night to confirm my fears. I always encourage others when they are considering new job opportunities that the interviewing process is a time to contemplate marriage. You can’t just focus on getting the job; you need to focus on having the job and whether it is a fit for your strengths and skill set. This was one of those moments. I walked into the living room and shared with my husband the dire financial situation I was seeing. He listened intently and asked just one question of me: “Can you fix it?” I said yes, but that it was going to be really difficult. He replied, “then I’m all in.”
I loved meeting the board members in the first interview and towards the end of the second interview, one of the board members asked, “Jill – if the state continues to cut funding and financial conditions continue to deteriorate, will you be able to make the difficult decisions necessary?” I answered that it was not a matter of if, but a matter of when and asked them if I could walk them through why I thought that to be true and how I would walk the district through it. About 30 minutes later I was named lone finalist for the district.
As I walked that path that year, I learned some important lessons about leading through crisis. All of us face significant challenge in the work that we do; mine just happened to be financial. But the lessons I learned that year are ones that I will carry with me forever. And the greatest of which was how to inspire hope through challenging times.
The first key to leading through crisis is to anchor your decisions and story in facts and data. Our facts were clear and unfortunately it was a perfect storm of financial challenges: From declining enrollment to decreasing property values to historic reductions in state funding; from a tax rate that was maxed out to a fund balance that was too low to help mitigate any future losses. To add insult to injury, the neighboring K-8 district, for which we had been the receiving district for their high school students, opened up their own high school – a celebration for their school community and complete financial devastation for ours.
It is really important to have a complete understanding of what is happening and why it is happening – not only so that you can make it better, but so that you can communicate that to others. It is important to share the gravity of the situation but also important not to exaggerate the facts. It is important to try to withhold judgment and just make the situation better. Hindsight is a gift and not available to the person making decisions in the present – only they know the data they had before them, and in my situation the leadership prior made massive strides to overcome the deteriorating financial conditions. When facing crisis, it is important to be really clear about the facts of the situation, and then to anchor decisions and communication in those facts.
The second key to leading through challenging times is to be able to paint a picture of the context of the situation. My dad started his career as a janitor, moving his way up to a factory assembly line worker and continued his work to the very top, finishing his career as CEO of several companies – all without ever going to college. Part of his extraordinary success was that he was masterful in this art of painting a picture: taking extremely complex information and simplifying it in a way that anyone could understand, remember, and tell a neighbor or friend. That was my task with our financial difficulties – to take the overwhelmingly complex world of school finance and explain the facts in such a way that it was easily understandable. I did this through very simple but significant graphics, simple but informative words and simple but a substantive message. My goal in my meetings with the board, our leadership team, our staff, and our community was that they would be able to walk away and be able to tell their friend or neighbor exactly why we were in the situation we were in. It was critical that they understood what had happened, why it had happened and what would happen if we didn’t take steps to rectify the situation.
The next key I believe is the difference between managing a crisis vs. leading through crisis, which is to lay out a path. As leaders it is irresponsible for us to share devastating news without also including a path for how to move forward; for how to be successful through it. The path doesn’t have to be worked out completely – in fact, the path can be the steps you’re going to take to attempt to solve the problem itself. But whenever possible, anytime bad news is given, it should be accompanied by the next steps that you’re going to take to try to overcome it and grounded in belief that it can be done and done well.
Our path included generating as much revenue as possible, increasing attendance and enrollment, and cutting non-personnel costs as much as possible. Our goal was to build back the financial integrity of the district while at the same time protecting the instructional integrity of the classroom.
One delicate part of communication is determining what to share when. Kevin Hub, a superintendent from Kentucky noted that, “A crucial element of transparency is figuring out just how open to be – just how much to hang on the line for all to see – for while there can be too little transparency, there also can be too much. When transparency is employed without a keen understanding of the potential effects of revealed information, it can be unfair and irresponsible both to the organization and to its individual members.“ It would have been easier and faster for me to say everything at once to all parties at once. But it was more effective to make sure my Board understood every facet of our challenges and to then share layers of information in conjunction with steps for how we were going to work through each piece as we went.
The truth was, that given that 85% of the budget is in personnel, when facing a financial crisis as significant as ours, ultimately there is no way to avoid impacting personnel. We tried to do so with as much dignity and grace as possible, offering financial incentives for early notice of resignation to give our staff as much ownership in what was to come. The morning that we started accepting those early notices of resignation was one of the most emotional days I’ve had as superintendent – incredible teachers and staff members giving up their own jobs so that their colleagues, friends, their family, did not have to. Their sacrificial gift accounted for 80% of what was needed to reduce our budget, and I believe that happened in large part because of the love they had for their work family which was fostered by great leaders before me – and because the financial challenges had been so clearly laid out before them.
I shared earlier the difference between managing and leading through crisis. I believe that the difference between leading through crisis and inspiring hope through those moments is to lead with heart. As an aspiring superintendent, I had dreamed about my first convocation. One of the greatest privileges of serving a superintendent is being able to set the tone for the organization. But in addition to sharing my excitement for being in Gunter and my passion for serving students, staff and a school community, I also was tasked with sharing the sobering news about the financial challenges we were facing. I did so using the steps above – painting a clear picture of where we were and how we got there; laying out a path of how we could and would overcome it; and how I would communicate every step of the way; and that even though I was new to them, I cared so deeply for the district and that I was “all in” with them. I had a teacher come up to me after that very first session and share that she hoped she never got cancer, but that if she did, she hoped that I was the person who told her the news. Because she had never heard more devastating news and been more encouraged at the same time.
That is our job as leaders, to inspire hope through challenging times. To let people know that we will be able to not just to survive but can and will thrive through those moments.
I hated the decisions that we were facing in our community, but I had also fallen in love with that community. Anyone could have come in and fixed the problem; it wasn’t a question of what to do. I don’t know though that just anyone could have come in and led through it in the way that I did, because it was done with heart. I’ve shared often that the 12 most important inches in leadership is the distance between the head and the heart. It’s not just about what to do (head knowledge), it’s how we do it and why we do it (heart leadership).
As the leader, you are where you are for a reason, and you have the privilege and calling to make the best decisions that will help your organization thrive through crisis.
The journey was difficult, and it wasn’t perfect. There are moments that I replay over and over again wishing I had done differently. But in the year that we made those decisions and the years after where we had to learn to live with the impact of those decisions (decreased staffing, reduced funding, increased student counts, etc.), our staff rose up and our staff and students truly thrived! Our district is now squarely on the road to financial health; we have added back a dozen positions, rebuilt our fund balance and are very thankful to have been able to give compensation increases for the last several years running.
Anne Lamott shared that, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” Hope might not be a strategy for improvement, but hope is absolutely necessary to lead in the midst of crisis. It fosters belief that the organization can thrive through challenge and reminds people why they do what they do and how valuable they are in doing that.
Facing a crisis is not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. And they will look different for all of us. But if you approach the situation anchored with the facts of the reality you’re facing, are able to paint a picture of where you are at and where you need to be, while laying out a path of how you can and will get there, and lead through it all with love, you can truly inspire hope through those challenging times!