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The Secrets Of Successful Women: Dr. Meria Carstarphen, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent

This article is part of an ongoing series The Secrets of Successful Women. Articles focus on providing valuable career advice targeted to women professionals in particular.

A powerful combination of charisma, grit and undeniable results, Atlanta Public Schools (APS) superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen is a force of nature advocating on behalf of Atlanta students. While many C suite executives can be surprisingly underwhelming in person – not so with Dr. Carstarphen. Her passion and conviction is contagious and seems to be just the leadership needed by such a large, complex public school system – a district encompassing nearly 52,000 students attending 87 schools and programs with a $1B budget. The school district was reeling from an embarrassing cheating scandal when Carstarphen took the leadership reins in 2014. Since then, her office has touted a number of clear victories on behalf of Atlanta’s public school children not the least of which is an 18.8 percentage point increase in graduation rates since she became superintendent. An undeniably accomplished leader, she was happy to share her secrets to success.

Career Advice – Big Ideas

1.    Know Your Field – Become an Expert

Dr. Carstarphen considers her pursuit and completion of Harvard’s specialized Ph.D. program among her smartest long term career decisions. While she already had Masters of Education degrees from Harvard and Auburn University and would have undoubtedly been successful without a specialized doctorate, she insists that becoming a true expert in her craft was a key secret to her success in the pursuit of the highest levels of executive leadership. She reflects on her choice,

“I think at the graduate school level it’s important that you go to the best program for the area of expertise in which you want to excel. So, I didn’t just go to graduate school and get a doctorate in education. I went for a very specific program that was designed to be rigorous for urban superintendency for districts with large numbers of black and brown kids who live in poverty where the hardest work was going to take place in America…and I trained like crazy!”Dr. Meria Carstarphen

2.    Invest in thought partnership

As a leader, Dr. Carstarphen insists that “thought partnership” is a necessary ingredient for authentic collaboration. She describes what thought leadership looks like in her organization. “You have to be able to clearly articulate your position, then let people poke at that, ask questions, dig into that and vice versa. Anyone can challenge my idea, and then I say, ‘That’s great, but bring the thunder!’ Once we agree, then we have to commit and see it through.” When asked whether this type of authentic give and take could realistically take place without high levels of trust, she responded “That’s how you build trust. You have to take the risk at the outset, and you have to be prepared to adjust your position.” Indeed, it seems that this investment in thought partnership doesn’t just build trust but also engenders better decisions and outcomes.

3.    Provide social/emotional leadership and build a strong culture

Referencing her Harvard professor’s book (Susan Johnson’s “Leading to Change: The Challenge of the New Superintendency”), Dr. Carstarphen shares that she learned about three primary types of leadership during her doctoral program: 1. Educational 2. Managerial and 3. Political. As is often the case, her on the job experience illuminated the importance of a fourth type of leadership – social/emotional leadership. She shares, “What I’ve learned over time is that you have to work with and through people to carry the vision and mission of the organization, and they only carry that through if they feel you’re not the opaque box. They want to know what you’re thinking, why you’re thinking that, and how did you get to that decision?”

She elaborates to define social/emotional leadership as the ability to set inspirational goals, overcome obstacles, develop healthy relationships, demonstrate caring for people, and in her case establish a student centric, team focused organizational culture. She acknowledges that of course, the added challenge is balancing this nurturing culture with a focus on results.

How Dr. Carstarphen Puts Social/Emotional Leadership into Action

One example of her focus on social/emotional leadership and building a strong, healthy culture is the fact that she personally conducts new employee orientation sessions. This active exchange with new employees provides an invaluable opportunity for her to not only begin making the social/emotional investment early, but also provides a platform for her as an executive to clearly outline the culture that she wants to cultivate. She uses the orientation sessions as an opportunity to be laser clear about the purpose, direction, and culture of the organization and asks each new person to assess their alignment early on. To optimize transparency and specificity she shares clear expectations and also provides insight into her personal day to day reminders. She references the engagement questions (prominently displayed at her desk) to provide a framework for each of them to check in periodically to be sure they’re on track and to infuse a spirit of accountability throughout the entire system.

Engagement Questions – (Based on Gallup’s Engagement Hierarchy)

–       Has my supervisor explained my job?

–       Do I have the resources I need to be successful?

–       Do I know what is expected of me at work?

–       Do I have the materials to do my right work?

–       At work do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?

–       Has someone given me recognition or praise for doing a good job?

–       Does my supervisor or someone at work care about me as a person?

–       Is there someone at work who encourages my development?

–       At work do my opinions count?

–       Do I know the mission and vision?

–       Do I think that my coworkers do a good job?

–       In the last 6 months has anyone talked to me about my progress?

Engaging with these new hires, she references three post it notes prominently displayed at her desk that reinforce her desired culture (and provide insight into how she keeps this student centric, team focused culture front of mind).

Dr. Carstarphen posts visible reminders of her desired culture at her desk.
Dr. Carstarphen posts visible reminders of her desired culture at her desk. CREDIT: ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Goal: Relationship Management by…

1.    Quality exchanges – No transactional behaviors, No basic interactions

2.    Time – meaningful period to match the importance of the issue

3.    Frequency – must see the person and invest my time too

Only Hire For…

–       Skills

–       New Culture Expectations – New Mindset

–       Natural Alignment

–       Resilience

–       Grit

4.    Be disruptive and own your recommendation

One of Dr. Carstarphen’s reminders is “The status quo is prohibitively expensive. The threshold of it is no longer a good idea!” As a turnaround leader, she recognized the importance of resisting the alluring temptation of the “status quo” and instead forged a different, albeit more complicated and controversial new path to yield radically different results.

One example of this disruptive approach is her commitment to minimizing the gross inequities that persist between children of color and white students or those from high and low income households. Without missing a beat, she refers to the glaring difference as “immoral and unethical.” While we’ve become more accustomed to leaders spouting safe, politically correct platitudes that too often sound like circuitous, evasive “executive speak,” it’s undeniably refreshing and impactful to hear her call out the truth as she sees it with unapologetic passion even if that means ruffling some feathers, sparking unavoidable controversy and challenging the status quo. She shares one of her best pieces of advice for rising leaders, “Even when it’s unpopular, own your recommendation. If you believe it, stand behind it and know your rationale. What I’ve learned in this District is that the status quo is prohibitively expensive. We cannot stay the same.”

One of Dr. Carstarphen’s proudest achievements – free breakfast and lunch for all APS children – is a great example of her “radical disruption is OK” motto in action. Discussing the impetus for the change, it’s clear that she refuses to be limited by the status quo and instead maintains singular focus on doing what she feels is right on behalf of Atlanta’s public school children. Dr. Carstarphen insists,

“We radically disrupted the way people talk about poverty and food and nutrition. We just went all in. Everybody knows when certain kids are punching in the number on the machine that means you’re poor. Eating shouldn’t be a stigma. Let’s just remove the stigma. How do we figure that out? What do we have to do? And we did that this year. Anyone can go get their meal. If you’re poor, this might be your only meal of the day. If you’re a rich kid, go get your meal. If you forgot your lunch, go get your meal.”Dr. Meria Carstarphen

Referencing her broader attempts at closing the inequity gap she insists, “We want to see if the way we’re doing things, could be a game changer. We couldn’t keep the status quo. It was just killing the future of kids. You can’t have a choice-filled life if you can’t read on grade level. Period!”

Career Advice – Practical Tips

1.    Avoid transactional behaviors (just checking the box)

Particularly for those leaders who are naturally wired to be more task focused than relationship focused, it can be so easy to fall into the trap of transactional behaviors. Dr. Carstarphen warns – “Don’t do it!” Leaders often fail to realize the opportunity cost of transactional interactions. For example, while you might be checking the box by sending the email announcing the new telecommute policy, you missed the opportunity to see their reaction, take questions, hear their ideas, consider suggestions, or just get a sense of how the news was received. Those are the critical missed opportunities when leaders operate from a paradigm that emphasizes just getting it done without really engaging.

2.    Schedule meaningful time periods (to match the issue)

Virtually all leaders struggle with the ongoing challenge of time management and in particular the difficulty of managing the plethora of meetings and other demands on one’s time. Dr. Carstarphen’s suggestion to schedule meaningful periods of time (to match the issue) reminds me of the Japanese proverb “Go slow to go fast.” Indeed, rushing or short changing a meeting or task might seem like you’re saving time in the short term, but you often end up paying the price down the road (through revisions, additional meetings, questions or necessary iterations.) In fact, when her office scheduled our interview, I was surprised that they booked a full hour. Most executives schedule only 30 minutes, then there are typically a flurry of emails over the following days/weeks in many ways compensating for the lack of time invested initially.

While it might sound counter-intuitive, this advice seems not just smart but also desperately needed in an environment where professionals are undoubtedly tempted to force big, thorny issues into tiny timeframes just hoping by osmosis they’ll get completed because time is up! We’ve all likely experienced “meeting déjà vu” where the same issues keep cropping up in part because they weren’t sufficiently dealt with previously. Another passive benefit of this practice is that it reduces the temptation to be transactional and instead provides a greater opportunity to really engage with the person sitting across the table. While leaders will rarely have enough time to apply this best practice to all issues (hence the importance of matching the time allotment to the issue), the concept is a particularly important one in today’s era of drive by communications.

3.    Be accessible and visible – stay connected

Successful leaders have invariably learned that being viewed as accessible, relatable, and an active part of the team is a key to their ultimate success. The brilliant genius who seldom steps outside the corner office rarely becomes the beloved leader that commands widespread respect and loyalty. Instead, it’s the leader who is seen as working alongside, in the trenches, etc. that staff invariably adore and support. Dr. Carstarphen shares, “I’m in the deep south. People want to be able to put their hands on you. They want to know that you’re with them. So that’s why you’ll see me at a school concert event or a football game.” Dr. Carstarphen says that in addition to being active and visible throughout the community, she uses social media to stay connected and share where she is and what she’s doing. “I post my running activities and my training schedule especially if I’m doing a marathon. I want people to know that when I stop to get a drink of water you can talk to me. I try to make sure it’s easy for people to have access to me.” 

Dr. Carstarphen with football team
Dr. Carstaphen celebrates with the South Atlanta Hornets high school football team. CREDIT: ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Her office is peppered with memorabilia from her interactions with students and others in her school community. On her desk she proudly displays a signed helmet from one of the local high school football teams. Indeed, she’s realized that being visible, accessible, and engaged with the community is not just nice to do – it’s a leadership requirement.

Dr. Carstarphen proudly displays a signed team helmet on her desk
Dr. Carstarphen proudly displays a signed team helmet on her desk. CREDIT: ATLANTA PUBLIC SCHOOLS
Carstarphen Fun Facts