The cheating scandal. Firing administrators and teachers. Disappointing student achievement. Redistricting. Financial issues.
Erroll Davis has been in the thick of controversy since being lured out of retirement and tapped as superintendent 15 months ago to turn around Atlanta Public Schools. But at 68 and with a number of leadership positions under his belt, he’s no stranger to tough jobs. He’s led the University System of Georgia and two large utility firms, and sits on the boards of General Motors and Union Pacific.
Still, Davis finds himself under the microscope now, waiting to hear whether his contract to lead APS will be extended beyond June. The decision by the APS board became more complicated after Davis created an uproar when he surprisingly removed six administrators at North Atlanta High School to the dismay of many students, parents and teachers. Davis talks about how his breadth of experiences have shaped his decisions.
Q: What did you learn about leading people from your service in the U.S. Army?
A: The one lesson I learned is that you’re accountable for everything that happens on your watch. Saying I didn’t know or I wasn’t involved is not acceptable. It’s your watch and you better risk manage everything that could possibly happen.
I try to do that today. We don’t always get it right, but it’s a mindset that says don’t make excuses. Don’t throw anybody who works for you under the bus, which I see far too much of in public life.
Good leaders step aside and give all the credit to their people when there’s success. When there’s failure, they take responsibility for it.
Q: How did running two utilities help prepare you for the controversy at APS?
A: As a CEO of a major corporation, I had to stand in front of thousands of shareowners and take questions. The hostility was a function of how well we did that year. I’ve been there before.
Also, the utility industry is highly regulated. You have to deal with the public, with legislators and regulators, particularly if you’re interested in raising rates.
Still, nothing matches the intensity of a K-12 experience, because you have parents and their children. They all want the same thing — the absolute best education for their child. I want that as well, but I want it for 50,000 children. Sometimes, what they believe to be in the best interest of their child may not be in the best interest of many of the other children.
One of my greatest frustrations is to try to get everyone to rally around one thing and make it strategically understandable. Our goal is to improve student achievement. To do that, it’s like an orchestra model. You have to get excellence out of every player and then you have to make that excellence work together.
Q: At North Atlanta High School, you made a decision that pulled people apart, the opposite of your stated goal. In hindsight, should you have handled the situation differently, possibly by better telegraphing your decision before removing the school’s administrators?
A: I don’t know that I would have. One of the things I found surprising, in retrospect, was the lack of awareness of the performance of the school. That is something we depend on the school’s leadership to convey.
I am surprised that someone was surprised that I said the school has not made AYP (adequate yearly progress) for five years running. They should have known that. And, in retrospect, I should not have assumed that they knew that.
The other thing I find challenging, in retrospect, is the loyalty to people because they are good people versus a loyalty to outcomes. There are certainly high-quality programs at the school, so there are some kids who are getting high-quality experiences there. But there are some students who are not, which is why they have not made AYP for five years. My view is that overall the school is not high-performing.
We were at a point in time where I could transfer people and have a completely new management team in place. I made a judgment and that’s what you get paid for. I am probably more vulnerable on how I did it than what I did. Why not leave [the previous administrators in place] longer?
Based on my experience, this is a community where change is very difficult and it’s going to take time. I don’t have the luxury of time. I want some changes made quickly.
Q: From your varied experiences, what’s your best advice for students and younger workers?
A: I tell young people to do two things. Prepare yourself with a broad-based education and make a personal commitment to do well, no matter what job you’re working in.
While working, you should seek candid feedback from your boss, and I do mean candid feedback. Often, you get pablum responses like “you’re doing fine.” Never accept pablum feedback.
Ask: “Does that mean that I’m ready for your job? What do I have to do to get your job?” Then you get a different answer. Then they tell you more specifically what you need to do. Then the choice is up to you to decide to make the sacrifices and the effort to do those things.
It’s a dangerous question to ask. If they tell you and you don’t do anything about it, they can say you’re not ambitious. You have to be relentlessly focused to do better.
Q: Do you have any other tips for advancing in a company or organization?
A: One of the things I learned in a corporation is that your boss can’t promote you. Your boss can keep you from getting promoted. Others will promote you — others who have seen you, have observed your performance and want you on their team.
If you really want to move up, it’s those outside of your immediate area that you have to impress that you’re flexible, quick and have a willingness to do more. That means working on broader, interdisciplinary projects. There are sometimes hard things to do and they ask for volunteers. Volunteer. Tell them why you think you can be successful. Then go do the work and do it well. Add value.
The meek are not going to inherit the earth. It’s not going to happen. The aggressive are.
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.