In my first year as commissioner of education I spent a full day in every one of the state’s 139 school districts, starting with a breakfast and ending with an evening town hall meeting. In that time frame, I met at two-hour intervals with representative groups of students, teachers, administrators, school board members, parents, and community leaders. The format was much the same as my old “dutch treat” luncheons: a short opening statement and then an open forum for questions and answers.
Later on, as chancellor of the Board of Regents, I did essentially the same thing. A full day was spent on each of the forty-six campuses.
One of the great surprises I found was the number of people I met who told me that no commissioner of education or chancellor of the Board of Regents had ever set foot in their communities or on their campuses. For me, it was the right thing to do, and it provided a firm foundation for my leadership to be effective.
Among the critical functions of leadership are to identify the issues, set the agenda, lead the debate, seek a consensus, and then (and only then) act decisively. In that process, timing is everything. The leader simply must pick a time when the constituency is ready to listen.
We all have heard the story about the tree falling in a forest when no one is present to hear the sound. One of the great mistakes leaders make is trying to communicate when no one is ready to listen. An effective leader knows how to read the constituency’s mood, how to structure a message that builds upon that changing mood, and how to use the podium to deliver the message and make good things happen.
As I look back over my careers in three different professions, the achievements of which I am most proud were made possible by picking the right time and shaping the right message. For example, the sweeping reforms in k-12 education in Tennessee during my service as commissioner of education were made possible by a governor who seized the moment of opportunity created by a court challenge of the state’s funding formula and used the circumstance to change practically every dimension of k-12 education in our state.
We put in place one of the nation’s toughest accountability systems. We restructured the high school curriculum, eliminating the general track that far too many students were opting to take in order to avoid the tougher core courses. We eliminated the election of superintendents, opting instead for direct appointment of chief executives by local school boards. We pumped millions of new dollars into the school systems and equalized funding between wealthy and poor school systems.
The magnitude of the change in our sweeping reform legislation stunned many observers, particularly those in other states who had been trying to achieve similar results for several years. I distinctly remember a presentation I made at a meeting of the Southern Regional Education Board shortly after our legislation passed. The legislators and educators from some fourteen southern states peppered me with questions about our success, many of them noting in their questions that they had tried and failed with similar initiatives.
It soon became apparent to me that the critical difference between our success and the other states’ failures was two-fold in nature: (1) We picked the right time with the right message, and (2) we chose to put all the change initiatives into a single piece of legislation. The latter decision insured that no single constituency liked everything in the legislation, but at the same time, everyone could clearly see that the legislation included benefits that could not be ignored. Had we tried to pass separate legislation on each of the initiatives, we probably would have been defeated on most of them. Moreover, had we tried at almost any other time in our state’s recent history, we likely would not have been as successful.
Timing is almost everything; shaping the message is the rest of the story.
-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved. Top photo courtesy of pexels.com