From skyscrapers to school administrators: My journey from business consulting to building capacity in Texas public school districts

Manuel Olguin, District Support Consultant, The Holdsworth Center

I used to work in finance and business consulting. I lived in New York and Hong Kong and met with the leaders of global banks and private equity firms.

These days, when I put on my pressed shirt and my sport coat each morning, I think about why I am walking into a school administration building instead of heading up to the 69th floor of the ICC building in Kowloon. As soon as I see the faces of students, the answer is pretty clear.

This is how I serve.

As a district support consultant for The Holdsworth Center, I work hand-in-hand with leaders at Southwest ISD to strengthen leadership at all levels for the benefit of students.

Located on the rural South Side of San Antonio, the district serves 14,000 students, 82 percent of them economically disadvantaged. This is a world I understand.

I grew up on the West Side of San Antonio in a mostly Hispanic, low-income neighborhood. My parents saved every penny (even the ones they didn’t have) to send me and my siblings to Catholic school. They didn’t just tell us that education was the way out, they showed us. Both my parents went back to school as adults to earn their college degrees, my mom to become an elementary school teacher and my dad to become a high school technology teacher. Growing up, I vividly remember sitting at the kitchen table with my mom while we both hit the books preparing for class.

My parents told me I could achieve anything I wanted, and I believed it. As I forged my career path, I hardly took my Latino background into consideration, except for the times I sat in meetings and noted the lack of faces like mine. It didn’t hit home until I was flying business class with a $10,000 plane ticket from Hong Kong to New York, ensconced in a sleeping pod watching one of George Lopez’s on-demand HBO specials above the Pacific Ocean. This is crazy, I thought. How is this my life?

It started to bother me that I didn’t see more faces like mine among the jet set. I loved my job, but something was missing.

I found my calling when I joined Holdsworth.

Being paired with Southwest ISD was a blessing. In this district, I see so many reflections of myself and my upbringing. No one here feels “disadvantaged.” They feel proud and mighty. They tackle big challenges and drive innovative changes with courage and confidence.

Like the leaders at Southwest ISD, I believe the district’s students are capable of achieving any dream they hold inside their head. They just need the right educational environment to open their eyes and prepare them for those opportunities.

So how can a guy like me with no background in education help a school district?

Bringing best practices

Photo of Southwest ISD Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jo Ann Fey

Southwest ISD Assistant Superintendent, Dr. Jo Ann Fey.

Chiefly, I wear two hats in my work with Southwest ISD: strategist and project manager.

My work in consulting and finance makes me well-suited to this task, and after two years of working with the team at Southwest ISD, I think it’s safe to say we’ve learned a lot from one another.

I work most closely with the Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jo Ann Fey. The relationship we have built is based upon candor, respect and momentum. Dr. Fey’s capacity to drive the work forward in Southwest ISD is remarkable.

Because I am in the district at least two days a week, Dr. Fey will often pop in for ad-hoc strategic conversations related to the work of Holdsworth or beyond. Sometimes she will walk me through a new idea, I’ll poke as many holes in it as I can, and she will revise and iterate. Hopefully our chats are helpful to Dr. Fey, and for me they’ve provided insight into the complexities of operating a school district in the state of Texas.

I am also part of a larger team at Holdsworth whose collective mission is to research best practices in leadership and talent development, share that knowledge with one another and bring it to our districts.

Many of the initiatives Southwest ISD is working on arose organically around a problem they were trying to solve. Through my Holdsworth lens, I was able to frame the concept and bring in exemplars to inform the discussion.

For instance, distributed leadership. The district wants to dial back some of the pressure upon principals, who have as many as 30 direct reports, from teachers to assistant principals to cafeteria workers. There are simply not enough hours in the day to deeply evaluate and coach each person.

As they discussed solutions, I was able to bring forward research the Holdsworth team had done around distributed leadership – empowering a wider group of leaders to take on greater management responsibilities. In March, we took three members of the Southwest team, including Dr. Fey, on a learning expedition to Denver Public Schools to see distributed leadership in action.

Because Dr. Fey wants to move quickly on this work, I am helping with project management to ensure they meet their aggressive timelines.

A photo of Manny, Dr. Fey and Community Partnership Specialist, Selena Madrigal, in conversation in Southwest ISD offices.

Manny and Dr. Fey work together to develop the capacity of a high-potential leader, Community Partnership Specialist Selena Madrigal. Dr. Fey has asked Selena to lead the quarterly Southwest ISD Leadership Collaborative by developing a project plan, objectives for each session, and ensuring that everything from presentation slides to snacks are in order.

Building capacity and developing new roles

In the next phase of the 5-year Holdsworth Partnership, my role in Southwest ISD will scale back. To prepare for that, I have been focused on developing the capacity in the district’s leaders to carry on the work. This includes building skill and comfort around project management, presentation building, and iterative processing in order to test the efficacy of ideas.

One of the most impressive things the district has done is to develop a new role in the district called a multi-classroom leader, or MCL, which is based on Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture model. The intent is to maximize the impact of the district’s best teachers and expand their reach to more students.

MCLs are still classroom teachers but dedicate 50 percent of their time to developing and coaching other teachers in a core content area. This can take the form of leading professional learning communities, analyzing data trends, co-teaching, co-planning and observations.

Southwest ISD piloted the role this year with five MCLs in two middle schools and are expanding it to all of their middle schools this fall with another 10 MCLs.

Next year, the district is considering a pilot for a role called the multi-school leader, or MSL. The district would take its highest-performing principals and expand their impact and influence across several campuses, giving the next generation of campus leaders the opportunity to step up while benefitting from mentorship and coaching from a seasoned school leader.

Any role I can play, however small, in helping Southwest ISD forge a strong culture of leadership and growth fills my heart with gratitude.