Innovator Article

Leading Organizational Change
Dynamic Duo Kevin Johnson and Michelle Rhee Disrupt Status Quo

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Faced with ever-shrinking budgets and powerful opposi- tion from the status quo, both Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA all-star, and his fiancée Michelle Rhee, the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst, have pushed against established special interests in attempting to restructure city government and reform public schools.

In their first appearance together at a public forum in Sacramento, the power couple shared their strategies and experiences confronting public sector inertia and leading organizational change in a conversation led by Dean Steven Library Galleria on February 24 for the Dean’s Distinguished Speakers event hosted by the Graduate School of Management and co-sponsored by the UC Davis School of Education.

Education reform brought Johnson and Rhee together, and they said their diverse backgrounds and personalities complement each other and make them both better leaders. They spoke candidly about their mistakes and successes executing their visions.

Since becoming mayor of his hometown in November 2008, Johnson has led several initiatives to boost the Sacramento region’s influence, visibility and economic development. At the core, he says, “to be a great city, you have to have great schools.”

Johnson said the weak-mayor structured city charter has frustrated his tenure, making it “illegal” for him to even give direction to a city employee, let alone appoint his own team. Efforts to amend the charter have failed. Johnson said he’s learned that the public sector operates under “different rules of the game.” Entrepreneurship and results often take a backseat.

“My personality is executive,” he said. “I want to make a decision and get something done, but you have to be legislative as well, especially in our government structure.” Consensus, cooperation and collaboration—three big “Cs”—are critical to Johnson as mayor, but are “all the things Michelle says she is not a big fan of.”

“My job now is how to get eight other council members to participate in a shared vision with key priorities, with performance-metrics that lead to results,” he said. “And we’re making progress, but it’s slower than what I expected.”

At the event, Johnson announced he would seek a second term as mayor, although Rhee said she first warned him that “no job was a worse fit for your personality.”

Unlike Johnson, Rhee had carte blanche to overhaul a failing system when she took the reins as chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools in 2007. She moved fast to change the culture and raise expectations for students, igniting a firestorm of community outrage when she announced plans to close 23 schools and proposed new, performance-based contracts for unionized teachers. “It had never been done on that scale before and the city went ballistic,” she recalled.

Under her leadership, the worst-performing school district in the country became the only major city system to see double-digit growth in both state reading and state math scores in seventh, eighth and 10th grades over three years.

“In the public schools, collaboration became the endgame,” Rhee explained. “All of the adults were happy with the system, even though it was completely failing kids.”

In retrospect, Rhee said she underestimated the power of the media and should have communicated better. When Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his primary election, Rhee decided to move on. The film Waiting for Superman championed their success, further propelling Rhee into the national spotlight.

She has since launched StudentsFirst to transform and change the balance of power in public education—and moved the nonprofit’s headquarters to Sacramento.

“For far too long in public education, we have been willing to turn a blind eye to what is happening to children in the classroom in the name of harmony amongst adults. And that has to stop,” Rhee said.

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