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In her book, chancellor appointee says she's no data "whiz"

City officials’ argument to convince State Education Commissioner David Steiner that publishing executive Cathie Black is qualified to be schools chancellor is based on the idea that her managerial skills will be necessary during the coming years’ intense financial pressures.

But in her memoir-cum-business advice guide, “Basic Black,” the chancellor appointee describes her skills as far more attuned to sales and marketing than financial analysis. While she likes the operational side of business, she writes, “too much data and too many spreadsheets make my eyes glaze over.”

In a section of the book called “Power = knowing your strengths and weaknesses,” Black explains that knowing that she prefers broader strategy to rows of numbers has helped her decide which tasks to delegate:

Over the years I’ve taken care to work on that weakness — taking financial management courses, asking for help when I need it, and not being afraid to let the numbers folks do the thing they’re best at. It wouldn’t make sense for me to pretend to be a whiz where I’m not.

Black’s analysis of her own managerial strengths and weaknesses is one of many insights that her 2007 book gives into how she might approach her new job at Tweed Courthouse.

It also gives clues to why Black said yes to the job of schools chancellor. In a section on how to decide which job offers to take and which to pass over, she describes two separate instances where she was offered jobs outside of magazine publishing but turned them down. In one case, she declined an offer to become president of a well-known cosmetics company. She refused because, as she writes, they needed “someone who lives and breathes cosmetics,” and Black did not think she was that person.

Similarly, when she was offered a top position at a Silicon Valley start-up, she turned it down because she didn’t feel familiar enough with the field:

It would have been an exciting and potentially lucrative new field for me, but as I walked around the company’s offices, looking at the rows and rows of people silently tapping away at their computers, I just kept thinking, “I’m such a fish out of water here. What in the world do I bring to this party?”

But Black says there are times when it makes sense to take a job that’s far afield from your interests and expertise —  when the new job may be a strategic stepping-stone to something else.

“Don’t be afraid to take steps in your career that are strictly for strategic purposes,” she writes. “Yes, you want to follow your dreams, but sometimes the path to your dreams involves a carefully thought-out detour.”

The book also gives clues about how Black may run the Department of Education’s central administration. Black has said that she intends to lean heavily on the team of deputy chancellors that Klein has put together — though one of those deputies quit almost immediately after Bloomberg’s announcement and it’s unclear whether others plan to stay.

She writes in the book that, unlike many executives arriving at a new company, she prefers keeping the old team in place rather than making drastic changes right away. When she was hired at Hearst, she writes, she began making changes so slowly that she attracted criticism from outside observers.

“We needed an infusion of new energy, and part of the reason I was hired was to provide it,” she writes. “Yet I didn’t storm in with bazookas blazing. The last thing I wanted to do was come in and shake things up just for the sake of shaking, which would have led to upheaval and mistrust on the part of Hearst management.”

In the book, Black describes how she approaches laying off staff, which she may be forced to do next year in the face of steep budget reductions. She explains how she made the decision to shutter a struggling magazine, experience that some have suggested might come in handy when the city tries to close as many as 60 schools this year.

Black also writes about her commitment to diversity in the workplace. The Department of Education and the Bloomberg administration have been criticized for their largely white, male ranks. Black writes that she has received criticism for hiring too many female executives; at Hearst, she dispensed with that idea by acknowledging it directly at an executive meeting, then asking all of the women in the room to stand. The women made up about one-third of the meeting’s attendees.

She writes that she prefers to hire employees of “different backgrounds, ages, temperaments, and experience” not just for ethical reasons but also because it makes good business sense.

“It’s best to mix it up, as hiring people like yourself simply brings you more of the same perspective and skills, rather than the diversity of skills that more often leads to success,” she writes.

Throughout the book, Black describes an approach to managing that is mostly personable but also direct and sometimes almost brusque. And she says she has a thick skin for hearing when people think she is wrong.

“You can take it or leave it, but don’t fear criticism,” she writes.

Week In Review

Week In Review: A new board takes on ‘awesome responsibility’ as Detroit school lawsuits advance

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
The new Detroit school board took the oath and took on the 'awesome responsibility' of Detroit's children

It’s been a busy week for local education news with a settlement in one Detroit schools lawsuit, a combative new filing in another, a push by a lawmaker to overhaul school closings, a new ranking of state high schools, and the swearing in of the first empowered school board in Detroit has 2009.

“And with that, you are imbued with the awesome responsibility of the children of the city of Detroit.”

—    Judge Cynthia Diane Stephens, after administering the oath to the seven new members of the new Detroit school board

Read on for details on these stories plus the latest on the sparring over Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos. Here’s the headlines:

 

The board

The first meeting of the new Detroit school board had a celebratory air to it, with little of the raucous heckling that was common during school meetings in the emergency manager era. The board, which put in “significant time and effort” preparing to take office, is focused on building trust with Detroiters. But the meeting was not without controversy.

One of the board’s first acts was to settle a lawsuit that was filed by teachers last year over the conditions of school buildings. The settlement calls for the creation of a five-person board that will oversee school repairs.

The lawyers behind another Detroit schools lawsuit, meanwhile, filed a motion in federal court blasting Gov. Rick Snyder for evading responsibility for the condition of Detroit schools. That suit alleges that deplorable conditions in Detroit schools have compromised childrens’ constitutional right to literacy — a notion Snyder has rejected.

 

In Lansing

On DeVos

In other news

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.