Updated: Jan 13
“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes”. - Henry J. Kaiser, American Ship Builder.
In 2011, I left a job at the North Carolina Virtual School to take a role with an education start-up. Three months prior to leaving, I had been working with the CEO of the start-up, and he had been paying me to give him advice on virtual and blended learning. He had always paid me on time, the work I was helping him develop was exciting, and I was growing tired of the bureaucracy of the state education department. He offered a tremendous opportunity to be a founding Chief Innovation Officer in one of his companies, and I had met several members of the founding team as well. The vibe between us was electric, and those team members remain friends and colleagues of mine to this very day. The contrast between their solutions-up mindset and problem-solving orientation was startling when compared to my current situation in North Carolina with an assortment of managers, bureaucrats, and professional politicians.
I had three bosses in North Carolina at that time—the Governor, the State Board Chair, and the State Superintendent. I met with each of them quarterly, monthly, and weekly. And they were not always aligned on what they thought our program should do for the students and educators in North Carolina. In recent months, the state had gone to a controversial funding formula for NCVPS, and many of the district superintendents found our program an easy target for their overall funding woes. Despite multiple attempts that year to manage up and out with other model programs, data, and solutions, our program was a political football. Also, I was growing tired of the constant shifting sands among decision-makers at the state government level and throughout the North Carolina School Districts.
In the final month of my tenure, the State Board Chairman asked me to step into a room with five Superintendents without any context as to why the meeting was taking place. I listened to each of them go around the table and explain to me I needed to “tone it down” in my advocacy for the program. They also reminded me I had never been a school superintendent and that I did not understand how tough their jobs were. I listened to their concerns, and I asked them if this was how they conducted parent, educator, or staff meetings in their district.
I shared that I’d be happy to speak with them one on one and that our virtual school was not a luxury for kids; rather, it was an absolute necessity for equity in order for school districts that couldn’t offer physics or world languages. I said I’d go into more detail when we could talk one on one and thanked them for their time and feedback. How did I find my way after this conversation? I pulled out what has been a wayfinder set of questions for me my entire career when assembling pieces of solutions to solve any problems.
Coming next, learn how I found my way to and through a moment like this one where you are managing politics at all levels and also trying to understand your role to lead amidst it all. And next week you'll learn more about how to apply those lessons and how you find your way as a leader in our VUCA world.
We can all be a part of what is next for humanity. Let's learn together on the road ahead.
BONUS: Listen to Bryan talk about his time at NCVPS during the 10 year anniversary.