Wiser. Calmer. More intentional.
That’s the best way to sum up how Nacogdoches ISD Superintendent Gabe Trujillo has changed since joining The Holdsworth Center’s Superintendent Leadership Program.
For leaders like Trujillo, who is in the third year of his first superintendency, the program has given him the opportunity to work with an experienced mentor, learn from his peers, and be challenged by experts who push his thinking.
In seven months, Trujillo has gone from a leader who did a lot of the talking, ideating and problem solving to one who listens more and steps back when it’s someone else’s turn to lean in.
“The biggest takeaway from my time in Holdsworth so far is one simple word: Silent. In order to truly listen, you must be silent,” Trujillo said.
Trujillo’s mentor, Holdsworth Superintendent-in-Residence Art Cavazos, has watched Trujillo’s evolution.
“In Gabe I see a leader who went from trying to do everything himself to one who understands that the role is bigger than one person,” Cavazos said. “He has put a lot of work into honoring and empowering people and is building deep trust in the community.”
A tough job
The job of a school superintendent has risen in complexity alongside the historic challenges facing public education, a trend that’s begun to push more leaders toward the exit.
Nationally, about 25 percent of superintendents stepped down in the past year compared to an average turnover rate of 14 to 16 percent, according to the American Association of School Administrators.
While creating the right conditions for principals and teachers to help students thrive, superintendents must also build strong relationships with board members, families and other community members.
The diverse skills needed to be an effective superintendent are comparable to a Fortune 500 CEO, but the job doesn’t come with the same opportunities to study the tenets of great leadership or work with an experienced coach.
“As educators, we are not taught leadership. We’re taught education,” said Paula Patterson, superintendent of Crosby ISD and a member of Trujillo’s cohort in the Superintendent Leadership Program. “What Holdsworth teaches us is how to lead an organization.”
Trusting the team
One of the most difficult transitions for top leaders – from CEOs to superintendents – is the difference in their focus and how they spend their time.
No longer are they rolling up their sleeves to spearhead projects and execute on someone else’s vision. They’re the one setting the vision and empowering others to lead the work so they can spend more time navigating the complex politics and relationships of the wider world.
It’s a big mindset shift, and a role that requires good coaching skills.
With Cavazos modeling good coaching during mentoring conversations, Trujillo began to work differently with staff. Instead of giving them answers, he started asking better questions, allowing people to arrive at their own answers. The practice has made a difference.
“I have seen the change in my senior leaders,” Trujillo said. “They are no longer asking, ‘What do you want us to do with this?’ They are coming to me with solutions.”
Maury Tarvin, Nacogdoches ISD’s executive director of safety, student management and campus operations, agreed. He’s known and worked with Trujillo since 1996.
“His trust in his leadership team is growing as we speak,” Tarvin said. “Trujillo shares his vision with us and we go make it happen. It has helped me to learn new things, to develop my own team and to come up with solutions to any problems we’re facing.”
Listening more, talking less
Trujillo came into Holdsworth with a reputation for being a talker.
These days he tries to talk less and listen more. One thing that’s helped is daily meditation, a strategy he picked up through Holdsworth. He and his wife meditate for 20 minutes every morning using the Headspace app before diving into the fray of daily life.
If he knows he’s heading into a difficult meeting, he takes a few minutes in his truck to do breathing exercises to help him release emotions so he shows up calm and confident.
Then he gives himself a little pep talk: “Hey Gabe, you’re going to go in and just listen. Don’t say a darn thing.”
Listening has helped Trujillo build trust within the community, said Les Linebarger, the district’s chief marketing and communications officer.
“He is very visible at community events and always makes himself available,” Linebarger said. “Word on the street is that Nacogdoches ISD has everything together right now. The fact that he’s out there listening to folks plays a big role in that.”
When ambulances and fire trucks needed fuel during COVID lockdowns, Trujillo gave them the gas school buses weren’t using. When families couldn’t connect to the internet for online learning, he partnered with local businesses, restaurants and churches to open their Wi-Fi networks to students. When the Pilgrim’s Pride plant couldn’t figure out how to get their workers vaccinated, Trujillo sent school buses to pick them up and bring them to the clinic.
The roots of those relationships have helped Trujillo remain a steady force in the community, even when the district faced tough decisions in which the community was divided on the right thing to do.
“It’s the leader’s job to bring people to the table. At the table, we all get to arrive and take that journey together. But first, we must be open to that dialogue and hear each other out,” Trujillo said.
A safe space to talk
Trujillo sees Holdsworth as an opportunity not only to get support in a tough role, but to be challenged in his thinking and move his leadership to another level.
“Everything put in front of me by Holdsworth, I am using it to become a better husband, father, employee and leader,” he said. “So many people have given a little piece of themselves to make me better.”
One of those people is his mentor, Cavazos.
“I know I can send him a text and get a response in five minutes. We will run through scenarios, or he’ll direct me to someone who has faced the same issue. But most of the time, he doesn’t give you the answer, he gives you the question: Why did you do that? How did you react?”
Those questions have helped Trujillo become more reflective about his actions and decisions.
He has also valued the learning and fellowship with his peers, a group of 12 superintendents from across Texas with diverse experiences.
“We’re all facing our own version of the same challenges,” Trujillo said. “Holdsworth is a safe space to have real talk and get advice from leaders in the same seat as you.”
Challenge produces growth
Expert faculty have also poured into Trujillo and his colleagues.
“Holdsworth has been very intentional in asking us what we’re interested in learning about ourselves and bringing in some amazing people to help us peel those layers back.”
People like Christina Harbridge, a communications expert featured in Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why.”
Once at a learning session, she posed a question to the group. When he started to answer her, she cut him off. “Don’t tell me, tell them,” she said, pointing at the superintendents in the room.
In the moment, Trujillo felt flustered. But later at a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new campus, a reporter asked a question and he heard Christina’s voice in his head. Don’t tell me, tell them.
He took three steps back and addressed the whole crowd. He could see people connecting with his words, their heads nodding as he spoke. It was like magic.
“As superintendents, we are constantly placed in situations where some people like you, some don’t like you, and others want to test you. You have to connect with the whole group.”
Without Christina’s push, he never would have thought so deeply about his skills as a communicator.
“I go to a lot of conferences that make you feel all kumbaya. At Holdsworth, some of the presenters have tested us to the point where we got uncomfortable. But it’s the challenge that produces growth.”