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Post Leadership
Posted at 04:06 PM ET, 04/07/2011

Cathie Black’s exit: Why business leadership isn’t necessarily portable

Public schools chancellors aren’t having an easy time keeping their jobs these days. After a tumultuous, controversy-laden three-year tenure, Michelle Rhee resigned from her post atop the Washington D.C. school district. And now, after a tumultuous, controversy-laden three-month tenure, Cathleen Black is doing the same thing, stepping down from her job running the New York City schools, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s urging.

The two women may have both had contentious runs, but one way in which they differed significantly is their backgrounds. Say what you will about Rhee, but she at least had experience in education. She taught for three years as part of Teach for America. For 10 years, she ran a non-profit organization that worked to recruit and train new teachers for needy school districts.

Cathie Black had none of that. The former Hearst Magazines chief executive went to private schools. She sent her children to them. She held no advanced degrees. She spent her entire career in business, including posts on company boards such as IBM and the Coca-Cola Company, which she resigned from after taking the schools post due to potential conflicts of interest, but still held company stock. Her educational experience apparently included serving on the advisory board of a charter school, for which she had yet to attend a meeting when she was nominated to the post.

Her brief tenure was filled with controversy.  She made a crack about how more birth control was needed when school overcrowding came up. A series of high-level deputies made their exits. She reportedly lost her composure with parents at a meeting. Her approval rating? A rock-bottom 17 percent.

Black is a perfect illustration of the erroneous belief that leadership is inherently portable.  In particular, many people seem to hold a blind faith in the MBA, or the idea that if business leaders could just step in and work their magic, all of the public sector’s woes would disappear. Put a little cost-cutting, bottom-line, Six Sigma process know-how into place, the thinking seems to go, and those inefficient government bureaucracies will be whipped into shape.

But just because a leader is successful in business—and indeed, Black has achieved much as a magazine executive—does not mean he or she will necessarily do well in the public sector. The politics are brutal. The egos are different. And the relationships take even more time to build. 

It’s always good to bring in an outside thinker to shake up an organization much in need of fixing. But innovative thinkers that lack basic experience with the different cultures in the public sector—much less the thorny problem at hand, in this case education reform—will be met with resistance and personnel turnover that will ruin any chances for change.

By  |  04:06 PM ET, 04/07/2011

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