Saturday, December 04, 2010

Can a Publisher Run Schools? The Experts Debate

November 24, 2010

Michael R. Bloomberg, in his successful bid to become mayor, sold himself as an expert manager, a businessman who had made a fortune in private industry. He has now named Cathleen P. Black, a magazine executive, to be the next chancellor of New York City’s public schools. Why?

“Cathie Black is a superstar manager who has succeeded spectacularly in the private sector,” Mayor Bloomberg said this month. “She is brilliant, she is innovative, she is driven — and there is virtually nobody who knows more about the needs of the 21st-century work force for which we need to prepare our kids.”

Ms. Black also has virtually no professional experience in education — not at the head of a classroom, not in charge of a school district, certainly not responsible for 1.1 million children.

Is it, then, a sure thing that an expert manager in one field can succeed in another? The New York Times asked four prominent experts in business management what they made of the mayor’s choice, and his confidence in her transferable skills. As a group, they were not put off by the idea. They held up several examples of corporate chieftains who hopscotched successfully from industry to industry, people like Louis V. Gerstner Jr., who went from RJR Nabisco, a maker of food and cigarettes, to I.B.M, a maker of computer equipment.

But the management gurus stopped short of echoing Mr. Bloomberg’s view that Ms. Black was indeed the perfect choice.

Warren G. Bennis, a distinguished professor of business at the University of Southern California who has written about management for half a century.

Professor Bennis said he had concerns about the process by which Mr. Bloomberg made his pick, given how few people at the upper echelons of the school system appear to have been consulted before the public announcement. But he thought Ms. Black could still succeed.

“It was an unusual way of handling a major appointment,” said Professor Bennis, who has served as provost of the State University of New York in Buffalo and as president of the University of Cincinnati. “It does not mean she won’t be successful. But my point is, it’s not the way it usually is done and it will create some handicaps for her. The groups that she will be working most closely with have not been consulted about the appointment, and that, in my experience, is not an effective way to make a top appointment.”

Still, he was careful to say: “Based on what I know of her background and experience, chances are she has the stuff. She’ll get to know the territory. I think she has the emotional intelligence, and she’s had the habit of success in her career. That’s very important. But the process is highly unusual and is a handicap to anyone who takes the position under those conditions.”

Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, founder of the Chief Executive Leadership Institute at Yale University’s School of Management.

Professor Sonnenfeld said he appreciated the debate over Ms. Black’s prior credentials, but said it was not fair.

“I don’t know if it’s a gender issue,” he said. “That she’s not an educator is obvious. Skills and temperament, that should be the debate, not the résumé issues.”

From what he has seen of Ms. Black over the years, he said, she has done well managing across difficult constituencies and in times of scarce resources.

“She’s also had to deal with strong and difficult personalities. She’s the one who said quite proudly before other newspapers woke up to this, ‘We’re going to have women on the front page, not just in the style section, and we’re going to have African-Americans on our front, not ghettoized in the sports pages.’ It’s that same kind of inspirational entrepreneurial thinking that can make a difference here.

“The truth is, I’ve often been skeptical about general managers being interchangeable regardless of the industry, but it’s possible to overcome that. But it’s not beyond her skill set. She listens well and intelligently and does find common ground, but she will have to assiduously build the case for why she has something to add here and a different way to get the job done.”

Michael Useem, director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Gifted managers from outside an industry,” Professor Useem said, “can indeed come in and perform extremely well if they bring an underlying skill set that the enterprise needs at the moment.”

As for Ms. Black, he said, her “history at Hearst was extraordinary in terms of making difficult decisions, building the enterprise up and keeping costs down.”

“She was put in charge of various magazines that by my recollection, under her leadership did indeed prosper,” he added. “Keep in mind, these were well within her comfort zone. So it was a natural fit. School superintendent is a big stretch, of course.”

He ticked off several wrinkles that might pose fresh challenges for her: “For starters, the number of stakeholders is much greater in public education than in the private sector: regulators, the city, the union, teachers, parents. So you’ve got to be a very fast study in who the major stakeholders are and what they want.

“She is walking into an extremely difficult crucible — maybe fishbowl is a better way to put it — where these forces that are putting demands on you and resistance against what you’d like to achieve are probably as big as she’s ever experienced in her career. In the private sector, investors want total shareholder return and employees want higher pay and pensions and customers want the cheapest products, and her track record in adjudicating between these extremely conflicting pressures is very good.”

Todd Jick, professor of management at Columbia Business School, who has written a book, “Managing Change.”

“The question always comes up,” Professor Jick said. “Are leaders who come from inside more likely to succeed and more effective at making change than people brought in from outside? That’s the question and there is usually a split opinion. Insiders better understand the culture. Outsiders are dispassionate, objective and less indebted to people.”

In general, he said, outsiders who have some familiarity with the industry they are entering fare better, but that is not a prerequisite.

“By choosing an outsider, the likelihood is there’s some expectation for new thinking and new approaches.”

Examining a two-page job description of the chancellor’s role that the school system has made available, Professor Jick said he was struck by the use of verbs like “ensure,” “control” and “promulgate.”

The verbs do not evoke big change. “It sounds,” he said, “more like continuous improvement. But she will have to determine if that is sufficient.”

“She needs to make her agenda and assessment process transparent to the organization. This can’t be enshrouded in secrecy as she takes on the job. She can set out to do a listening tour that can be made transparent. She can talk about how no major decisions will be made in the first three months. She can set out the main areas she wants to learn about and examine. She can set out her own ambitions and aspirations for the school system. She can take some of the mystery out of her being unknown to most people in the school system.”

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