In April, Ashley Chohlis sat at J.C.’s Super Burger in Floresville with her husband and three teenaged kids waiting for a very important call.
She had just interviewed for a job as superintendent of Poth ISD, a small rural district of just under 1,000 students. Afterward, the board went into executive session to decide on a lone finalist.
It was the seventh time Chohlis had applied to become a superintendent in the past five years, including once before at Poth. Three times she had been invited for a second interview.
When her phone lit up, it was the answer she’d hoped for. They’d picked her to lead.
What was different this time around?
As executive director of student and community engagement for East Central ISD, Chohlis had spent the previous year going through The Holdsworth Center’s intensive District Leadership Program.
East Central ISD, a rural district of around 10,000 students located southeast of San Antonio, is in a multi-year partnership with Holdsworth to help the district build its own bench of strong leaders.
Through that experience, Chohlis became more reflective, thoughtful and strategic: She grew into the leader Poth ISD needed.
“I used to try and do all the things, all at once. What I learned at Holdsworth was to slow down and chunk the change,” Chohlis said. “Plans are multi-year things and you have to change systems one facet at a time. That’s helped me be much more realistic in my approach, and to lead change in a way that is sustainable.”
Stepping back from the day-to-day
According to East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano, slowing down wasn’t the only way he saw Chohlis grow over the past year.
For nearly three decades, Chohlis’ way of being a leader was to jump in and solve everyone’s problems. It’s the way she showed love and care for people.
But when a leader is elbow deep in the day-to-day, it becomes difficult to step back and see the bigger picture.
Throughout the year, Toscano watched Chohlis transform from a leader who hovered too close to the ground to one who started operating at a higher level.
“It was scary for her because she had to resist the instincts that had, quite frankly, gotten her to a very successful place in her career,” Toscano said.
Big picture thinking
One example is the way Chohlis led an effort to build the district’s bench of principals.
Facing the prospect of a depleted bench, the district needed to figure out how to get a handful of aspiring leaders ready for bigger roles in the space of six months. Their vision was to pilot a principal residency program that would give up-and-coming leaders the opportunity to practice for their next role while still doing their current job.
Instead of doing all the work herself, Chohlis inspired staff with big picture thinking and empowered them to work out the details. Not only was the program a success that the district will build upon this coming year, the experience helped Chohlis turn a corner in her leadership.
Ashland Pingue, now principal of East Central’s CAST Lead High School, was one of the aspiring leaders in the pilot and a mentee of Chohlis.
“We both have a tendency to see a goal, put the pedal to the metal and leave people behind in the rearview,” Pingue said. “Having her admit that to me and then watching the way she worked so collaboratively on the principal pilot has empowered me to do the same in my new role.”
‘It took a lot of courage’
Chohlis credits her coach, Phyllis Reagin, with helping her make changes.
“It took a lot of courage for Ashley to challenge what she believed to be true about her own leadership and to be vulnerable about how something was not working,” Reagin said.
As part of the District Leadership Program, superintendents and one other district leader receive one year of executive coaching.
With Reagin’s encouragement, Chohlis let go of the belief that she had to have all the answers to be good at her job. As a leader, her real job was to bring out the collective wisdom of a strong team. Not only did it pull her out of the weeds, it gave team members the opportunity to contribute and grow as well.
“Holdsworth gave me permission to stop wasting energy trying to get good at everything, because it’s not possible,” Chohlis said. “The better approach is to bring together people with different strengths and work collaboratively.”
A bold move
Chohlis graduated from East Central ISD and spent 26 years there as a teacher, principal and administrator. Her three children attend schools there.
She loves the people in East Central, and they love her. Retiring from the district would have been the easy and comfortable choice.
But she had compelling reasons for making a bold move.
“There is a need in the state for superintendents, especially women,” Chohlis said. “If I stay here, am I fulfilling that mission? Am I setting that example for the women I lead and other women leaders who aspire to the superintendency?”
A community builder
One of the reasons she feels confident about the new role in Poth ISD is that it’s a perfect match for her strengths. They need a community builder, someone who can rally and inspire everyone to work for a common vision.
Chohlis can’t wait to take all the things she learned at Holdsworth to her new district. But the biggest lesson she’ll pack in her suitcase is this:
“As leaders, we must confront hard truths about ourselves head on. We hold our teams back when we shy away from our own discomfort,” Chohlis said. “Whether you do it alone or with a coach, as a leader you have to face up to your fear, lack of confidence and insecurities. You as a leader deserve it; the people you lead deserve it; the kids in your district deserve it.”