• September 2010

In part 3 of 3 in our series: Michelle Rhee

At an event hosted in June by the DC-based publishing company Bisnow, Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools, talked about her life as a leader and her goals for the future of the school district over which she resides.

Rhee was interviewed by former journalist Stacey Jones (pictured below) — now a senior executive at the global management consulting and technology services company, Accenture. The final part of their conversation is posted below.

In the second part of our 3-part series, Michelle Rhee talked about her ability to bounce back from intense criticism.

She mentioned an article written by a Washington Post columnist who said: “I really like Michelle Rhee, I think she’s been making a lot of progress, but I wish she would be a little nicer.” Stacey Jones wondered what Rhee thought he meant by that comment.

Michelle Rhee: I believe he was saying that if I were a little nicer, I would be able to stay longer, and he wants me to stay longer. So if I would just get along with people a little more, then we would all be better off.

I called him and told him that he needed to figure out what the most important characteristics of the chancellor are. Nice and accommodating? Warm and fuzzy? Then I am not your girl.

But if he believed that what we’re doing are the right things and your only concern is how people are feeling about it, then he should really be advocating for people to get over their own personal feelings and look at what the endgame is.

People ask me all the time, How do you make it through? For me, especially when I go to meetings at schools and have people screaming and yelling at me …

Stacey Jones: What are you thinking when they’re screaming and yelling?

Michelle Rhee: There was a shot of me that someone took at one of these things when someone was yelling at me and I ended up looking very placid. They said “what are you thinking at that moment?”

Honestly for me a lot of the time what I’m thinking is that people want to avoid getting yelled at and in the past what that has resulted in is people making decisions that were about being more popular or not getting yelled at. That hasn’t served our children well. So you can yell at me until the cows come home.

I am not going to continue to allow the children of the city to get robbed of a quality education every single day because I want to make myself feel a little better. Adrian Fenty brought me to this city not to become popular and not to be well liked but to fix the schools. So if that means that people are going to throw some mud and talk about me and yell and scream a little bit, that’s okay.

Stacey Jones: I think we hit on something. As I was listening, I had a notion about conflict. There’s a stereotype that women, and some men, certainly, don’t like conflict. You seem to have a unique passion for embracing it when you know you’re right. How did you develop that? Was that something you’ve always had or something you’ve developed over time?

Michelle Rhee: Well, I grew up with a Korean mother, which if you don’t know about Korean mothers, they will tell you exactly what they think. My mother and all her friends, every time, “Oh, your hair looks terrible. You really should go change your clothes.” That sort of thing.

So I grew up having a very thick skin. When it comes to conflict and whether you embrace it or run from it, for me it’s all about keeping your eye on the endgame, the final product. Which for me, here, is the academic achievement of kids. I’m not going to avoid conflict and sacrifice what’s right for kids in the meantime.

So I think that it’s much easier to be okay with the conflict as long as you know and you can wake up in the morning saying y’know what? I may have made mistakes — and I’ve made a lot of mistakes in this job so far — but at every single juncture, I can also say that the decision we made we believed at the time was the best in terms of the kids. That’s really what takes me through the day.

Stacey Jones: What is one of the most beneficial programs that you have incorporated into the DC schools?

Michelle Rhee: We brought Accenture employees in to mentor and tutor our students, and the feedback that we got from the kids was absolutely amazing.

They said they finally had a positive adult in their life to help them navigate through the system. So more than teaching them about the physics equation, it was somebody who could help them figure out how to get their transcript in order, their applications in to college, and that sort of thing.

You can have a very significant impact on an individual child. We don’t have that many kids in the system; about 45,000. About 13,000 of them are in high school, and about half of them right now are off track to graduation. The goal with Accenture was to get them to graduate, and really that one action turned those kids’ lives around because they were able to get the high school diploma. So never underestimate the power that you have on an individual kid.

About Michelle Rhee

Since Time magazine put Michelle Rhee on its cover and labeled her the most revolutionary force in American education today, she has been a national symbol of the secondary school reform movement aimed at improving the quality of education. Appointed by DC Mayor Adrian Fenty in 2007, Michelle leads a school district serving 47,000 students in 123 schools. She began her commitment to education in a Baltimore classroom as a Teach for America instructor in 1992. She then founded The New Teacher Project (TNTP) in 1997, a leading organization in understanding and developing innovative solutions to the challenges of new teacher hiring.

About Stacey Jones

As Accenture’s senior director of corporate marketing, Stacey drives a wide range of global corporate marketing & communications initiatives, including corporate social responsibility, inclusion and diversity, leadership and sustainability. She began her career working as a journalist in Columbus, Ohio, and in Chicago and went on to work at Burson-Marsteller and Fleishman-Hillard, where she consulted with a range of Fortune 100 corporate clients. Before joining Accenture, she developed and managed Aetna’s regional public relations functions.

About Bisnow

Bisnow is a vast media empire, which publishes 12 e-newsletters focused on business niches in the Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC. But it also do lots of events, usually involving food and often drink.

The Bisnow shtick is to be colorful, entertaining, picture-heavy, yet informative and fluff-free. It also tries to make reading quick: short copy with boldface words. The amazing upshot? People actually read its newsletters.

So, think of it as a People magazine for the professional set. Or, perhaps, Perez without profanity. (You’re right, in our dreams.)

Bisnow was started in Washington, DC, five years ago and has grown so rapidly, it already has about 40 employees and 166,000 subscribers.

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