Full Speed Ahead

By Martin Booe

Nov. 1, 2004

As the doors heave shut and the elevator begins its ascent to the human resources department of the Los Angeles Unified School District, a smart-looking young woman in her 20s smiles just a little nervously and strikes up a conversation.

    “Are you going in for an interview, too?” she asks a stranger. “I hear L.A. Unified is a great district to work for. They really back up their teachers, give them a lot of support. From what I hear, they treat you really well. Way better than most districts.”

    Her enthusiasm is palpable. Clearly, she wants to work for LAUSD in particular and would feel privileged to be hired.

    Talk about a turnaround. From the grunt’s-eye view, within fairly recent memory the district had a less than stellar reputation among prospective recruits. Its hiring process was cumbersome and discouraging to applicants: long lines, surly attendants, misplaced records, endless shuttling back and forth between at least two locations, a jungle of red tape and, all in all, an infuriating hall of mirrors. It was not a user-friendly institution, and the school system suffered enormously because of it.

    But in a breathtakingly short time, the recruitment and hiring process has changed dramatically. The district was previously known as an employer of last resort, but in a brief two years, it has metamorphosed into a desirable employer. At the same time, it has saved taxpayers $10 million by reducing staff, eliminating redundant programs and improving employee efficiency through automation.

    And much of the credit goes to retired Navy Capt. Deborah Hirsh.

Problem child to role model
When Hirsh became LAUSD’s chief human resources officer two years ago, she inherited a system that by any measure was seriously fractured. Her task was daunting. LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country, with 80,000 full-time employees, 100,000 employees in total and a budget this school year of $5.5 billion.

   Within its domain are 806 schools and more than 740,000 students. There are 36,000 full-time teachers, 6,000 substitutes and 2,000 administrators. What’s more, the No Child Left Behind Act had recently upped the ante considerably. The legislation requires that all teachers be designated as “Highly Qualified,” which is defined as either having a valid teaching credential or holding a bachelor’s degree with subject-matter “expertise,” as demonstrated by passing a subject-matter test.

    When Hirsh took the helm, only 83 percent of teachers (including teaching interns) were ranked as highly qualified. The stats for new hires were even worse: only 67 percent of annual new hires were highly qualified. In hard numbers, this meant that 30,000 out of 36,000 teachers made the mark.

    Today, it’s a dramatically different story. Ninety-eight percent of teachers are highly qualified, and 95 percent of all new hires either possess a full credential or have passed their subject test and are participating in an internship program that allows them to earn a credential while they teach.

    Hirsh accomplished this salvage job with a combination of upgrading recruiting techniques and enrolling existing teachers in appropriate training and educational programs to bring their credentials up to snuff. In fairly short order, the district went from being, as Hirsh and others put it, the state of California’s “problem child” to a role model for other districts in the state.

    At the time Hirsh, 50, was recruited to join the district by Korn Ferry International in 2002, a sea change was in the works. Former Colorado Governor Roy Romer had been appointed LAUSD superintendent a year earlier, and he swiftly embarked on a shake-up of a well-entrenched educational culture.

    Romer, a well-known political maverick and father of seven, took a characteristically unconventional approach to shaking up the district. He took aim at the district’s long-standing policy that non-educational administrative positions should be filled by educators.

    Classroom experience was considered essential for any advancement, and that applied to human resources, too. The policy was well intentioned but ineffectual. Romer targeted professionals who’d excelled in their own areas of expertise, and he has displayed an obvious appreciation for military experience.

    In addition to Hirsh, Romer brought in two other retired military officers: Megan Klee, chief information officer, a retired U.S. Navy captain; and James McConnell, chief facilities officer, a retired captain with the U.S. Navy’s civil engineer corps.

    At first blush, a military background might seem to be a double-edged sword in the realm of human resources. After all, military commanders have at their disposal a power of coercion not available to civilian bosses. But Hirsh was an anomaly.

    “I never was your authoritarian type,” Hirsh says. “With the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a widely used psychological-assessment system, I tested pretty much the opposite of the standard military officer profile. I’m an extrovert, I use intuition a lot, I feel and I have an emotional sense. And I’m a ‘perceiver’–whatever that means,” she adds with a laugh.

    “I’ve always been different,” she continues. To ascend in the military, she says, you have to “see the bigger picture,” which is the exact opposite of what’s expected of those working their way through the lower ranks. “My first few years in the military were rocky, but when I became a more senior officer, my ability to see the big picture worked well because I could go into an organization and improve it.

    “I liked to get into the hearts of people and get them pulling in the same direction. I just knew when I came here it was going to be the same thing.”

    Military experience runs in her immediate family–to a point–and now so does education. Her husband, Michael Hirsh, is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who recently went to work for LAUSD in the facilities division. (Her two children, however, have taken different courses: son Greg is an aspiring filmmaker, and her 16-year-old daughter, Hallee, has been an actress since age 3. She portrayed Tom Hanks’s 8-year-old aunt in You’ve Got Mail and currently plays Mattie Grace Johnson on the television series JAG.)

    Hirsh, who spent most of her 26-year military career in recruitment, is an ardent believer in the military as a top-notch training ground for leadership. Its “up or out” system has built into it an undeniable “survival of the fittest” factor. Each job is progressively more responsible and involves the leadership of ever-increasing numbers of subordinates.

    What’s more, those on an upward trajectory, such as Hirsh, are repeatedly thrust into unfamiliar situations with the expectation that they will bring order to a realm in which they have little or no primary experience. The assumption is that if a leader is first-rate, the ability to be resourceful and to solve problems will follow.

“If you’re a leader in the making, you’re going to be thrown into situations that are completely out of your area of expertise. Then, if you’re successful once or twice, you develop an innate confidence. You learn to figure out what the core mission is and work from there.”

    “If you’re a leader in the making, you’re going to be thrown into situations that are completely out of your area of expertise,” Hirsh says. “Then, if you’re successful once or twice, you develop an innate confidence. You learn to figure out what the core mission is and work from there.”

    Hirsh cites an added bonus for employers that hire former military people: “We’re a bargain,” she says. “We come at a much more affordable price tag since our salaries are easier to match than what most people coming from public and private sectors were making.”

The 70 percent solution
    Predictably, the introduction of non-educators into the LAUSD system raised a few hackles. “Educators in general have a strong bias toward consensus management, which is often dysfunctional,” says Tim Buresh, the district’s COO and Hirsh’s immediate boss. “But there’s a time for consensus and there’s a time for moving people around. It’s taken time for people to recognize the value of the latter because around here, if you hadn’t participated in the classroom, the attitude was, ‘How can you understand what’s really going on?’ “

    What Hirsh brings to the table is leadership, a tribute to her military background, Buresh says. “Deb’s focus was on client service, and that’s certainly the most visible change we’ve made,” he notes. “Making that change has been profound and very difficult. To maintain that commitment to change really requires an optimist, which Deb certainly is.

    “The fact that Deb wasn’t an educator really rankled a lot of people,” Buresh adds. “But the superintendent’s strategy was to inject new blood into the system.”

    The first time Hirsh heard about working for LAUSD was during a phone call from a headhunter. “My first reaction was ‘no way,’ ” Hirsh recalls. “I didn’t want to go back into the public sector. But I started thinking about it, and I realized I needed to go after something big and challenging.

    “Then, two days before my interview, the district sent me a huge report, 300 pages, that just laid out all the problems. So I went in with a really good understanding of what was ahead of me.”

    Hirsh began her tenure in the district’s human resources department with 400 employees. Counter to most reasonable expectations, she didn’t ask for extra funding, though she did insist on handpicking an able lieutenant. That was her former boss, Roger Buschmann, now deputy chief human resources officer. He’s a former naval commodore who’d also been the deputy superintendent at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where Hirsh was the director of human resources for two years before her move to Los Angeles.

    Buschmann doesn’t mind the inversion in rank a bit. “Deb is the visionary, and I’m there to implement her vision,” he says. “She’s very bright and very smart. She’s a great believer in the 70 percent solution, which means if you wait until you’ve got 100 percent of the solution, you’re never going to move forward.”

    In fact, Hirsh further defied convention by whittling down her staff from 400 to 300 while still managing to improve efficiency and productivity. This and other cost cutting measures such as automation have saved the district more than $10 million thus far, a very conservative estimate, she says, that is derived from the superintendent’s final 2004 budget.

    Her motto: necessity is the mother of invention. She put this into practice by insisting on a modest $65,000 investment in technology that has paid off in spades. Previously, the application process was cumbersome and fraught with delays that were discouraging to prospective hires. Now an online application system from SearchSoft makes it possible for applicants to receive responses within 24 hours, and the best and brightest are promptly called in for interviews.

    Hirsh, who is responsible for an annual human resources budget of $30 million, marshaled computer hobbyists from the human resources staff to help with applicant tracking and other technological issues. She is a firm believer that, given the opportunity, workers sincerely want to be useful.

    Previously, the district received 35,000 paper applications a year, many of which were lost or went unacknowledged. Applicants might wait months for a response, and by that time many of the best had gone elsewhere.

    “Once our recruiters had the proper technology and tools, they approached their work with a new enthusiasm,” she says. “Before, their frustration level was a drag on the process.”

    To that end, Hirsh made a case study of 12 recruiters, quantifying how many interviews they conducted vs. the number of teachers actually hired after the interview process.

    “At first there was a lot of fear and mistrust at this level of accountability,” she says, noting that her inspiration came from former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s success in reducing crime by providing individual police precincts with comparative data on their performance. “But they got over it very quickly because suddenly they had a tool to measure themselves by,” Hirsh continues. “They could see themselves as compared to their peers. Those struggling could look to successful recruiters for guidance.”

    She also switched the hiring process from seasonal recruiting to year-round recruiting, offering contracts to budding teachers in advance of their actual employment, thereby smoothing an onerous seasonal hump in the rush to fill positions. While the district’s retention rate is now an impressive 67 percent after five years, as compared to 50 percent at other large school districts, 3,000 to 4,000 new hires must still be made annually.

    Hirsh acknowledges that her efforts were buoyed by external factors. “I’ve got to give some credit to the economy,” she says. “There were a lot of districts that suddenly weren’t hiring, so that gave me a boost right in the beginning. We were depending a lot on mid career changers, and we got quite a few of them.

    “Math and science teachers are the hardest to get,” Hirsh adds. “But I knew as a professional recruiter that if you ask a desired recruit why they accepted a job, the first thing they’ll tell you is, ‘They really wanted me.’ So you call them immediately and roll out the red carpet. You really treat them well, and that gets them off to a good start.”

Nurturing leaders
Another area where Hirsh’s military background played an important role was her instinct to zero in on school principals. “When I looked into the role of the principal, I realized that the best had all the qualities of a successful commanding officer,” she says. “But we have to hone our ability to identify the ones with the most potential and get them onto an appropriate career path so they’ll be ready to take on the role as principal of a big high school. It’s a monster of a job, and there needs to be a set career path, and that’s one of the things we’re working on.”

    LAUSD board member Marlene Canter, chairwoman of the human resources committee, says Hirsh’s skill at reorganization is her biggest triumph. Job applicants are no longer caught up in a cobweb of papers and people. “We’re also able to keep the people we want and attract the best,” Canter notes. “By far her best quality is her can-do, enthusiastic attitude.”

    Part of that means staying focused on the big picture. “I so much want human resources departments–not just here, but everywhere–to be about much more than just bringing in personnel,” Hirsh says. “I want us to be a central player in the whole organization. I want people to be engaged in their work, to feel good about what they do.

    “How do you create that situation? That’s the real challenge.”

Workforce Management, November 2004, pp. 54-58Subscribe Now!

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