Leonard C. Burrello
Executive Director
The Center for Appreciative

Organizing in Education

John Mann
Executive Associate 
The Center for Appreciative 

Organizing in Education

​We found this interview to be of interest because of the connections between the principles that we have studied in turnaround work in schools and Meg Whitman’s principles of turnaround in big business. Ms. Whitman had, when she joined Hewlett-Packard, already made her reputation as the president of eBay, a company which expanded and became vastly more profitable under her direction. She walked, however, onto the stage at HP in a time of turmoil, succeeding two unsuccessful CEOs.
Towards the end of the interview, she explains why she took the HP job: “ I took the job because I think companies like HP are the essence of what makes this country great and have had a very positive impact on the world.” You have heard often in this political season that we need to “make this country great again.” But who is defining greatness, and what era are we talking about?
With this starting point, have you ever heard a superintendent of schools or a schoolboard president make a similar statement? Well, Dayton and Indianapolis used to be great school districts in many people’s minds, and we are sure many administrators in those districts have said, “We need to make this district great again, to save it in order to do for this generation of students what we did for the previous generation of students. We need to return to a period of higher performance.”
Unless we determine a moral purpose, a transcendental and inspiring goal that means working for the greater good of society, we will not improve. And unless we communicate that goal relentlessly, we will not enlist our core constituents internally first and externally in time. Creating an inspiring place to learn and work that is values-centric and located within an environment of mutual trust and respect is empowering and demanding. When that occurs, internal accountability for results will follow.
What we liked about Ms. Whitman’s statement was that she could see into the deep values of this socially conscious private-for-profit company which has been historically very innovative with a focus on passionate customer care. These things have brought real value to customers and the communities where Ms. Whitman’s staff live and work. She notes, however, that the company had lost its urgency for change by the time she stepped up as CEO: “[It] had lost some of its commitment to run to the fire, jump on a problem, service it in 24 hours, resolve it in 48.” Like any large company spread across multiple communities and states, HP’s business is complicated.
Our business of education is also very complicated, reaching out to service all learners, families, and communities by being a teacher, social worker, drug counselor, and coach—all at the same time. Like in business, our customers’ problems do not get better with age; they can, in fact, worsen, as our data shows occurs when children are not learning to read by the fourth grade. The only way they get better is when you go fix the problem and ask yourself: Under what conditions does the child learn well? That is our task for each and very child¾to believe, first and foremost, that they can and will learn important stuff under the right conditions. Every child is unique and will demand different levels and types of supports to be successful in school and to be prepared for life after graduation.
Ms. Whitman’s turnaround started with this question: “What are the core values of this company? Let’s identify what it does really well and do more of that as the anchor for the turnaround.” Ultimately, she says, the core founding principles became the basis of the turnaround, “and the company responded” (98).
Once she named the work as turnaround work, told people how that work was going to be completed, and laid out milestones, Ms. Whitman says that “people knew they didn’t have to wait five years for something to happen. And we tried to be authentic as leaders, telling people:  Here’s the challenge, here’s what we are doing, and here’s how we’ll know whether we’ve been successful or not” (99). In essence, then, it’s all about communication.
School districts with multiple school communities wrapped around each individual elementary, middle, and high school demand communication. Teams of educators at each location need to communicate clearly and concisely to each other that they will achieve their objectives only with their fellows’ help. Success at achieving these objectives can be measured through academic, social, and non-academic value outcomes. Here, I remind you that Martin Seligman’s five dimensions of well-being should influence our selection of measurable outcomes that we can reasonably hold ourselves accountable for:

  • Positive dispositions toward learning and work in school
  • Engagement with the curriculum and school work that is meaningful and on-going
  • Relationships with teachers and peers
  • Meaningful and purposive learning goals for each student
  • Accomplishment of student and school goals for each student in all areas of the curriculum and the school experience

Meg Whitman also talks about the basic lessons she is taking away from the HP turnaround work. “First,” she says, “you have to deliver results. You have to do what you say you are going to do to build credibility within your organization.” This is also the case with our teachers and school-based leaders, as well as with our students, families, communities, and partners.
“Second,” she argues, “you need the right people in the right jobs at the right time with the right attitude.” You need to push a can-do attitude, a “glass half-full” kind of mentality. Here, we are reminded of James Collin’s three points: discipline, empirically-based decisions, and paranoia are all necessary at the start to ensure you get the results you want later on down the line.
And, Ms. Whitman argues, leaders need to adopt an “all for one, one for all” attitude.
She also makes yet another profound observation which is of great relevance to the world of education. Besides untangling the complexity of the work and communicating continuously about the details of the project and the desired results, “[w]hen you’re trying to do a turnaround and lead people, it’s not about the facts and figures.” Rather, she argues, “it’s about the stories you tell.” Educators need to tell a story that matters to teachers, students, and parents.
In larger systems, it is crucial to monitor everything tied to your plan and the outcomes desired. As Ms. Whitman so astutely observes, “You don’t get what you expect; you get what you inspect. At scale, you can’t just feel it; you have to have the metrics . . . so the minute something goes off track, we know” (100).