Expert advice Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2008

Gene Harris is an outspoken community leader, but she’s still interested in what other people have to say.

“It’s common sense that when you bring the experts together, you get better information,” says the superintendent of Columbus City Schools. “I never would be one to rely only on the information that I have. That limits the possibilities for your organization.”

As the leader of 7,400 employees, Harris believes that the most effective leaders take an inclusive approach, and she often relies on internal experts and external business leaders to share their opinions about the potential impact of a decision. But, sometimes, you have to ignore what others think and do what you think is right.

“When it is time to make the decision, I have no problem doing that, no problem pulling that lever, even if it flies in the face of what the majority might think,” she says. “I am going to do what I think is the right thing to do.”

Smart Business spoke with Harris about how she gathers information from valuable sources and puts that input to use in her organization, which has fiscal 2007-08 general fund revenue of $653 million.

Recruit volunteer experts. You’ve got to decide in the organization what kind of skills and strategies that you need. Some of it is science; you know you need a great HR person and someone who operates the organization well, but then you have to look outside of the organization, too.

For example, we needed to fill some operational positions and may not have had access to the talent pool we needed for that, so we were able to work with some business leaders in town. They were able to help us put together a team to bring those resources to the district.

You not only have to be able to trust those people, but as the leader, you have to know where you want to go. It’s not a matter of just saying, ‘Here, make this happen.’ There’s a destination that you want to reach, and you’re asking these folks to help you reach the destination that you’ve already defined.

Allow yourself to be vulnerable.Open yourself up to new ideas. If you don’t take on new ideas, you become stagnant. The world is continuing to change, and your organization has to be nimble enough to meet the changing needs of our society. Otherwise, you’ll be left behind.

We are partnering with a local university to provide an opportunity for our students to get their high school diploma and their two-year associate degree. Typically, school districts don’t seek outside expertise on certain issues but we’re willing to do that because we know that it is good for the organization.

Create a partnership plan. First, you have to have a clear enough vision that people are willing to volunteer to spend their time and their professional expertise in helping you to get the work done, and the second thing is you have to choose the right people. These are people that you know are committed to the same mission as you so they’re willing to work with you.

One of the first things that we do is look at our needs. What are they? Are we able to fulfill those needs on our own, and if we aren’t, what creative steps can we take to partner with other institutions or other organizations to meet that objective?

In these economic times, everybody is going to have to move away from their traditional ways of thinking about how to solve a problem. Otherwise, there’s the old saying, ‘If you continue doing what you’ve always done, you’ll continue to get what you’ve always got,’ and that’s not going to work.

You’ve got a new goal out there, something you need to accomplish. Look at all of the possibilities for accomplishing that, even new ones.

Reap the benefits. Being inclusive really benefits our organization a great deal because we get individuals who are willing to come to the table and bring resources.

The resources aren’t always financial. Often those resources are their expertise, and they’re willing to donate that to the school district. That means that we’re getting a huge benefit, and there’s really not a financial impact on the district.

Have a flexible vision. A successful business leader not only has the vision for a plan and sets some goals but actually sees it through to implementation.

You also have to be able to say when something isn’t working and be willing to change course. It doesn’t mean that you give up, or that it’s a failure. It means that you’ve either got additional information or something just didn’t work.

An effective leader would say, ‘We are going to be realistic, and we are going to pay attention to the data. We are going to be nimble enough to make adjustments, if that is necessary.’ Any effective leader is going to face some amount of opposition; the point is whether or not you are accomplishing your goal.

Your mission is still the same; how you get there may have to be adjusted. Make sure that everyone in your organization understands that things change because change is hard for people.

Respect the process. Process is as important as outcome. You can get great outcomes fast, and that’s fine, but if you don’t have a good process that is understood by all, a process that can be replicated and sustained in the organization, you put the organization at risk.

You need to make sure that you’ve got a good process in place so that the organization can run effectively for the next leader.

HOW TO REACH: Columbus City Schools, (614) 365-5000 or