Joanne Weiss is chief of staff to Secretary Arne Duncan at the U.S. Department of Education. She joined the department in 2009 as senior adviser to the secretary and director of the Race to the Top program, designed to encourage and reward states making system-wide, comprehensive education reforms. Previously, she was partner and chief operating officer at NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy firm working to transform public education. She spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.
What led you to pursue a career path in education?
I took a slightly crooked path into education. My original path was science. I was a biochemistry major. But after working as a researcher then almost heading to medical school, I decided that career wasn’t for me. What I really wanted to do was get into education.
I was lucky enough to get offered a job in education technology. I was very young, and the field of education technology was very young, so we grew up together. No one was any more expert than anyone else, so it was a fascinating time to get into the field. What hooked me was learning about the way kids do mathematics, learn to read, take symbols and turn them into words with meaning, and learn the concepts behind science. I loved learning how people learn.
How did that lead to becoming chief of staff at the Department of Education?
I helped start three education technology companies over the course of about 20 years. These organizations focused on everything from K through 12 to teacher support to developmental education for college students, so I had a wide range of experiences. I took these experiences to NewSchools Venture Fund, a venture philanthropy firm working to transform public education for low-income children by funding entrepreneurial organizations.
There, I invested in education startup organizations and helped them grow sustainably and with high impact. When Arne Duncan became Secretary of Education, he hired me to come and lead the Race to the Top program — though he and I had not worked together before, we had met through the work NewSchools was doing in Chicago.
What do you wish you had known before entering your role?
The chief of staff job can be 100 percent about firefighting if you don’t organize your team well. It took me a while to figure out how to staff the office so that we could both respond to fires and be proactive. You can never start being strategic if you are constantly fighting fires.
How do you organize your time?
At this point, I have three major streams of work. The first is personnel: recruiting, professional development and culture building. The second is strategic management. It’s partly serving a gate-keeping role, making sure that the right issues are coming to the secretary and executive team at the right moments so we can make timely and well-informed decisions. And it’s partly setting priorities within the larger strategic agenda, tracking and managing them, and making mid-course corrections if needed. The third work stream is policy — either high priority policies for the department, or special projects that are important to the secretary.
Who have been your leadership role models and what lessons have you learned from them?
My first boss, Dusty Heuston, taught me a lot about education research — how to be a consumer of research, how to learn about education, and how to stay current. Later, I had a boss, Jack Gottsman, who was one of the best strategic thinkers I’ve ever known. I learned a lot from him about how to strategize and prioritize, and how to keep my sights on the big picture while still staying focused on the details.
John Doerr, who is a founder of NewSchools Venture Fund and was on the board of one of my education technology companies, is a tremendous relationship builder. He taught me that leading through influence rather than through authority is really the work of building relationships. In the federal government, that lesson in particular has served me well.
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