The Leadership Journey: Holdsworth Center Offers Learning, Growth Opportunities for Districts

As seen in Lone Star Magazine.

“You don’t know what you don’t know.”

Lamar CISD Superintendent Thomas Randle, a public education leader with decades of experience and a shelf full of accolades, expressed this thought after one of his first sessions with The Holdsworth Center’s District Leadership Program.

Randle’s succinct summary of his Holdsworth experience—that the program was stretching his vision of what is possible—reveals that something truly special is happening here. Charles Butt’s vision is coming to life.

The nonprofit Holdsworth Center, founded in 2017 by H-E-B Chair/CEO Butt, was created with the goal of partnering with public school districts in Texas to cultivate a pipeline of effective leaders, ensuring that students in every classroom and campus thrive under inspired and dynamic leadership.

In summer 2017, The Holdsworth Center launched its initial work with seven districts from across the state: Arlington ISD, Grand Prairie ISD, Klein ISD, Lamar CISD, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, Round Rock ISD, and Southwest ISD. Holdsworth commits to partner with each district for a period of five years and works with superintendents and teams of administrators and campus principals.

The selection process for program districts included a written application and site visit from Holdsworth Center staff and advisers. The evaluators were looking for districts that demonstrated a commitment to human capital and talent development and alignment of vision among the superintendent, key leadership team members, and the board of trustees.

Holdsworth ClassMs. Holdsworth is third from the right in the top row.

Holdsworth’s Roots

A staunch advocate for public education, Butt founded The Holdsworth Center to create sustainable improvement in Texas schools. The Center is named after Butt’s mother, educator and philanthropist Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth Butt.

The H-E-B CEO has pledged to invest more than $100 million in The Center, which is governed by a 17-member board chaired by Ruth Simmons, who served as president of Smith College from 1995 to 2001 and as president of Brown University from 2001 to 2012.

“The Holdsworth Center has been busy building an outstanding team of scholars and thought leaders who are passionate about education and are ready to help Texas public school districts become a model for the nation,” said Simmons.

Currently, Holdsworth Center programs are held in hotels and conference centers near program districts around the state. The Center’s campus, scheduled to open in summer 2020 in Austin, will feature ample classroom and lecture space, an administration building, and 180 sleeping rooms for participants.

The idea that effective leadership must be taught over the course of a career is central to the creation of the Holdsworth Center and its programs. Equally important is the belief that leadership is a journey and not a destination—and that high-quality, inspired leadership on every school campus will help attract and retain the best and brightest talent into public school classrooms.

Holdsworth also values the importance of creating a broader dialogue around access to a high-quality public education for all youth. In June 2018, the center convened Texas business leaders, educators, and world-renowned experts in Dallas to discuss issues of income inequality and the inextricable link between a high-quality education system and economic growth.

Dr. Hull ElevatEdDr. Susan Simpson Hull of Grand Prairie ISD speaks on the Superintendent Panel at ElevatEd: Education & the Economy.

The Dallas gathering, called “ElevatEd: Education & the Economy,” featured such topic experts as Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on Education Policy at the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; Ann Wicks, director of Education Reform at the Bush Institute; Robert S. Kaplan, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas; Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath; and many others.

“One of my top takeaways of the program so far is that leadership begins with me in the sense that I have to manage myself and how I view the world in order to be an effective leader for my organization,” said Mandy Estes, chief of Teaching and Learning for Round Rock ISD.

In spring 2019, Holdsworth will welcome six more school districts as partners, with an open application process beginning in August 2018.

District Leadership Program

The two-year District Leadership Program (DLP), launched in June 2017, includes six delegates from each of the seven districts: superintendent, “district champion” (usually the chief learning officer who drives work in the district), and four central office team members.

The DLP meets monthly; sessions usually last three to five days. The curriculum, designed by a team of thought leaders from across the country, is organized around four key themes:

  • Personal Leadership
  • Effective Teaming
  • Change Management
  • Aligned Systems and Structures

In addition to the monthly program sessions, the superintendent and district champion each have an executive coach with whom they work twice a month. Through the DLP experience, district teams have the opportunity to visit and learn from high-performing organizations, including education systems in Singapore and Toronto and entities such as H-E-B and the US Army.

After learning how educators in Singapore approach talent management, Round Rock ISD Superintendent Steve Flores said, “Seeing how teachers in Singapore are viewed as ‘nation builders’ and an investment in the economy—not as an expenditure—further heightens our need in Texas to champion our cause for the 5.4 million children and 600,000-plus adults who staff our campuses.”

Through experiences such as these, participants gain an understanding of the conditions that must be in place to implement a strategic approach to talent management. Those conditions include:

  • A clearly articulated and competency-based definition of leadership excellence consistently applied across roles
  • Cultural norms and practices, such as frequent feedback loops, that promote continuous individual improvement
  • Robust, developmentally oriented evaluation systems that are supported by personalized growth opportunities

“The Holdsworth Center has provided the best leadership experience I’ve had over the past 37 years in education,” said Grand Prairie ISD Superintendent Susan Simpson Hull.

Dr. Flores SIngaporeRound Rock ISD Superintendent Dr. Steve Flores during an educational visit to Singapore.

District Support

Holdsworth’s District Support Team works closely with partner districts to apply learning from the DLP, with a focus on building and strengthening robust systems to identify, develop, select, and support school leaders throughout the district.

Each partner district has a Holdsworth team composed of three people (one team leader and two consultants), who spend at least two days per week on the ground in the district. This team provides support as the district assesses its current approach to leadership development, identifies key strengths and weaknesses, and designs and executes a plan to create a more strategic system.

Initially, the support team supplements the district’s capabilities as it transitions from a reactive to a more proactive approach. For this work to truly succeed, however, the support team must build the district’s internal capacity to sustain the work independently over time. So the team must serve a dual purpose: first supplementing and then building district capacity to design and manage a comprehensive talent management strategy.

Campus Leadership Program

The first cohort of the Center’s Campus Leadership Program (CLP) launched in summer 2018. Each partner district selected campus leadership teams, including the principal, one or more assistant principals, and one or more teacher leaders, to participate in the first cohort.

The CLP curriculum will mirror the emphasis of the DLP: personal leadership, effective teaming, change management, and aligned systems and structures. Each campus will focus its work on a specific problem—something they want to change, address, or improve—that relates to student achievement.

CLP by the numbers:

  • Two years in duration; participants will convene nine to 10 times per year for three to five days per session
  • Each cohort will include approximately 30 campuses
  • The size of CLP teams will depend on school type and size, but the average team size will be five (including the principal), resulting in a total cohort of 150 participants

CLP sessions will focus on the principal’s role in developing future leaders through the following:

  • Identifying and fostering teacher leadership
  • Designing essential growth and development opportunities at the campus level
  • Fostering a continuous improvement mindset and a culture of collaboration, innovation, and problem-solving at the campus and classroom levels

Dr. Thomas Randle, superintendent of Lamar CISD, in discussion at a Holdsworth session.

Each district will send successive cohorts of principals to Holdsworth, with the goal of serving the majority of principals over the course of the five-year partnership.

For individual leaders, the appeal of the Holdsworth experience includes:

  • Exposure to world-class leaders and organizations within and beyond the education sector
  • An opportunity to step back from the daily demands of leadership in order to re-energize and expand each leader’s vision of what is possible
  • The support of a cohort of like-minded peers who can encourage each other as they pursue excellence together
  • A lifetime membership in a community of education leaders across the state, including resources and support throughout each leader’s career

Distinctive Theory of Change

For districts—including superintendents and school boards—partnering with Holdsworth provides several benefits:

  • A critical mass of leaders throughout the system with shared experiences and a common vision of excellence for personal leadership, talent development, organizational culture, and student success
  • Enhanced district-level capacity to manage leadership talent and lead change
  • A strategic approach to leadership development embedded throughout the organization that will build a bench of future leaders and retain more of the best talent

Taken as a whole, this approach embodies a theory of change that is distinctive from most other programs offered to sitting educational leaders across the country because it strives to:

  • Focus on building the capacity and alignment of the system rather than on finding and training promising individuals
  • Rely on long-term partnerships with school districts, acknowledging that, though securing stable leadership in school districts can be difficult, meaningful and sustainable change takes time
  • Start at the top of the organization because systemwide work requires superintendent and district buy-in and leadership
  • Explicitly and consistently value leadership teams because impactful, sustainable change is rarely achieved by one person
  • Build coherence among a critical mass of leaders within the district by providinga common experience and shared language around leadership excellence

Strengthening public school districts and leaders so they can successfully lead and sustain change is not a quick fix. Holdsworth strives to partner with Texas public school districts over the long term to build systems and structures that will stand the test of time.

Kate Rogers is president of The Holdsworth Center.