In this episode of the 3rd Question we talk with Dr. Quintin Shepherd – Superintendent of Victoria Public Schools as he discusses the challenges COVID posed over the last couple years, budget constraints, and his approach to taking on challenges.
Ryan James: Hello, and welcome to The 3rd Question, an interview series with public sector thought leaders from around the country. And today I'm excited to be joined by Dr. Quintin Shepherd. Dr. Shepherd is the superintendent of Victoria Independent School District in Texas, and really excited to have you join me today.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Thank you. Thank you. It's a pleasure to be with you.
Ryan James: So before we get into our three questions, I'd love if you could just introduce yourself to the audience, give them a little bit of your background, your role there, and a little bit about the district itself.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Happy to do that. I started my career what seems like a former life ago. I was a pre-K through 12th grade music teacher. So I got to see everybody from three years old, up through 18 every single day and I loved it. Did that for a few years and then moved on to an elementary principalship, which I did for a while. I was a high school principal shortly after that. And then I got my first superintendentcy not too far after that. All of this happened in Illinois, central Illinois. From there I was recruited to the first suburb that you would drive into as you left the city of Chicago, heading northwest, Skokie. So I served as a superintendent there for a while and then was recruited to Iowa, very high performing district in Iowa and served there.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: And now find myself in Texas and could not be happier. This is a total of 18 years as a superintendent in three different states. And what a wonderful journey it has been and how much I've learned about leadership in general, and public school leadership, especially. So Victoria's just over 13,000 students, right on the Gulf Coast, a couple hours south of Houston, a couple hours north of Corpus Christi.
Ryan James: Okay. And I understand you have recently had a book release?
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: I did. Yeah, just last week. Week before last, as a matter of fact. The Secret to Transformational Leadership, and I'm sure we can drop the link in the chat bar somewhere. Really excited about that. And that's really just a reflection on my own leadership journey over the past 18 years. And essentially, the premise of the book is so many leaders want to be transformational, especially in the public space. And it's very different than it is in the corporate world. But in the public space, leaders want to be transformational. And over time, I started to notice that leaders who are trying to do transformational work are actually using language that communicates transactional intent. And that may seem really like, "So? Who cares?" But the thing is, we're sending a message to our public. It's not actually transformational. It's really transactional. And as such, there's power dynamics and there's hierarchies, and there's judgment involved, and so on and so forth. And so the community revolts against what we're trying to do in leadership. And we're seeing it all around the country now, right?
Ryan James: Yeah.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: I mean, you're seeing people left and right losing their jobs. And districts or in disarray, and so on and so forth. And I'm convinced a huge part of it is because we haven't learned essentially the language of transformational leadership. Or we know bits and pieces of it, but don't know how to speak the language. And so the book is really simple in concept. It takes a phrase that we often use, transactional, and says, "This is the phrase you need to be using in transformational. And if you use a transactional phrase in transformational leadership, you're actually working against yourself, you're confusing your public, and you're setting yourself up for disaster." And then we just go through eight of these as concepts.
Ryan James: That's really interesting. So you obviously you've got the history to have experienced a lot, and probably some really interesting insights there. It's funny that you say that. And I probably, if I was a really professional interviewer, I would've read the whole book. I would've taken quotes and we'd be talking more and more about that. But transformation in the public sector... I've been in this space for 15 years, myself. I've always seen those log jams or those barriers happen. I never thought about it from a language perspective. I often see it from a, "We've always done it this way and we don't want to make the change." And so it's the... I don't want to call it the political capital to make a change happen or transform, but it does seem like that tends to be a biggest issue.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: So that's something that happens after the fact. And you're absolutely right. It's an outcome. And it's the typical outcome. And so you have to ask yourself a question of, "Well, why did that happen in the first place?" And the reason that the community is resistant to change is because the leader, whoever it is, they came up with some version of a plan in their head. They said, "This is what we want to do." If it's rezoning, or if we want to be closing down schools or running a bond campaign or whatever. Then they trot it out to their community. Well, by doing that, you're asking the community for buy-in or engagement into this plan. Right? But buy-in and engagement are both transactional words. Right?
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: So the leader has to go all the way back to the beginning and say, "Wait a minute. This is not a complicated problem." That's an important word. Complicated problems have one right answer and there's one right way to do it. I have a staff that does that, or I'm responsible for it. Complex problems are inherently unknowable. When's the best time to run a bond? What's the right amount to run a bond? What schools should we be closing? Complex, inherently unknowable.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: So the leader then has to make a decision. "Oh, I'm going to be transformational all the way, which means I can't come up with a plan and then trot it out to my community because they're going to see it as transactional and they're going to resist. I have to go to the community first." And the way you go to your community first is you say, "Look, there's this really complex issue. And there's no right answer. I don't have the right answer and neither to you. But I think if a bunch of really smart people come together and try to solve this problem, we could probably come up with a better solution." And then is the community likely to resist something that they came up with by themselves?
Ryan James: No.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Never.
Ryan James: No. Right.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: That's transformation.
Ryan James: It's funny. So we're segueing perfectly into my first question, because as I was researching your district and seeing how some of the communication is going on with your community, listen, I know the last couple years, obviously for schools have been a huge challenge. COVID while slowing down and luckily the numbers are going the direction they are. As a father of three and knowing how important schools are, I know there's been a lot of challenges with teacher resources, safety, online transferring, transformation, transactions transitions. So in understanding that, I saw this emphasis on communication with your students and the parents, the community. Can you talk a little bit about how that's helped worked through the challenges? I think we already started talking about it. And really even going forward, some of the lessons learned to improve your district going forward.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Absolutely. And I'll resurface this notion of complicated versus complex. Essentially those are the only two types of decisions that come to a leader's desk. They're either complicated or complex. If they are complicated, and lots of what we do in schools are complicated. You have a staff for that and you should be doing that work, and you should expect that you're going to be graded on that work. Like my ability to put together a bond defeasement schedule or textbook purchasing program, or federal grants. On and on and on and on. But if it's complex, it requires a leader to say, "I actually don't know the right thing. I think I know what we should be doing, but it's based on an assumption. And the way that you know something is complex is you just imagine throwing this idea out in a room, the level of disagreement that you'd have about what to do, that's the level of complexity that you're facing.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: So we actually put it in board policy. Four years ago, our board, one of the more forward thinking boards in the United States said, "Let's put it in policy that whenever we're faced with a complex issue, we'll take it to our community first." So I'll give you a very, very, very clear example of what we did during the pandemic and why communication is so important around this. What's the best way to educate kids during a pandemic? If ever there was a complex question, that's it. None of us knew the answer to that question.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: So when we were putting together our pandemic response plan, one of the things that we did is we held a mega Zoom. And we invited every teacher in the district who wanted to be a part of it, come and show up. I think we had 700 or 800 teachers show up in this digital space, if you can imagine that. And we used a number of crowdsourcing tools, online crowdsourcing tools. And so we just pitched it to the teachers. We lay everything out there. "This is what we're facing. This is what we're worried about. This is what we think our challenges are. What would you do? What should we be focused on?" Instantly 700 teachers, all sharing ideas, they're rank ordering the ideas based on what makes the most sense to them. And so we basically crowdsource the best thoughts of 700 or 800 teachers who were in this digital space.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: All we did is harvest the language from the genius of our staff, wrote it into a pandemic response plan. Then we took it to our kids. We had 300, 400 kids on mega Zoom. We're like, "This is what the teachers said when it comes to the pandemic response plan. What are your thoughts? What should we be focused on?" Kids are the same way, shooting out these brilliant ideas. The genius of our students, bolded all that in.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Then we took this plan out to our community and we're like, "We've got over 1,000 people, teachers and students who helped write this plan. We think it's actually pretty good. What do you think?" And the community was like, "Check. Yeah. More of that." Right? And so the trick with communication is you can't just be open. You can't just be transparent. See, transparent is one of those words. Transparent is one of those words that says, "I'm going to be transparent and vulnerable when it suits me." As opposed to radical transparency, where you were saying, "I'm going to give you unprecedented access to both people and information. Nothing's off the table. You get to know everything. And we're not going to talk about communication because it means different things to different people. So let's talk about unprecedented access. Let's talk about that."
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: And so the recognition about vulnerability, I wanted to mention this too, is that as a leader, you don't choose when you want to be vulnerable. You're just vulnerable. That's just how it works. And so you accept that vulnerability. And the trick when it comes to communication, the act of communicating, the trick, the secret... This is the secret of transformational leadership. I'm giving away the secret. The secret is compassion. And I use that word very, very thoughtfully. Compassion. Passion means to suffer. Compassion means to suffer with. And so what it means in a communication sense is that the leader, whoever it is, at whatever level, goes forward to the group, to the community, and says, "This is the thing I'm suffering with. I don't know how to solve this problem. I don't know what to do. And I'm going to ask you to share your suffering around this problem as well."
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: So when the pandemic first hit, one of the things that we did, we did a crowdsourcing thing with our community. One of the things that the community said we're suffering with is we rely on the schools for food for our kids. "Oh, great. Now I'm suffering around that too. We're going to solve that problem right away, posthaste." And within days after the pandemic hit, we'd set up food sites for all of our families so that everybody could drive through and get... That was priority number one, right? And then we just went back to the community and said, "What are you suffering with now?" And then we went back to the community and said, "What are you suffering with?" And at every step along the way, it was just trying to connect to suffering.
Ryan James: I love that. I know one of the things, and this is not a plug for our company, but one of the things we're known for is our... I think it's five, maybe six years now we've done a study on empathy in the workplace. And empathy very often is tied with compassion.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: It is.
Ryan James: Right?
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Yeah. Can I jump in on that?
Ryan James: Yeah, go for it.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Strong feelings about that. I think empathy is a precursor to compassion. Empathy by itself is, "I'm having this feeling for you."
Ryan James: Yes.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Compassion is essentially empathy plus action. I'm having this feeling for you and I'm going to do something about it. I'm going to make this-
Ryan James: Yeah. It's been fascinating to watch. Maybe the last two or three years have kind of put gasoline on that fire, but it's been fascinating to watch how the empathy studies we've done have just continued to grow and be adopted into organizations, both private and public. So this is right down my alley, I guess.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: And I think empathy, my prediction is... And you're right. And you see it everywhere in the business literature as well. Everybody's talking about empathy right now. If we're trying to skate to where the puck is going, I think that the new conversation a few years from now is going to be all about compassion.
Ryan James: Yep. That's interesting. Well, that's awesome. And I'll be excited to follow your school district as you continue to go forward and take this approach. It's really a forward thinking process. So I'm going to change a little bit and talk about what the other thing I hear a lot. When I talk to your peers across the country, it's around budgets and budgets are always a challenge. Private sector, public sector, but public sector, it's taxpayer dollars. And the constraints around it, how budget is allocated and what to, obviously that's a little different in a school district versus a municipal account. But can you talk a little bit about how your district's leadership, both the board and your executive team, and I'm assuming this also works with your community as you just discussed. But how do you identify and prioritize the needs for the district? And then kind of to follow that, with students being the core mission, student education being the core mission, and your teachers being a huge part of that process, what are the ways that you've been able to provide for both of these groups with budget in mind?
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Great question. And there's a couple of different avenues I'm going to take with it. The first one is the very direct question you asked me. How do you prioritize? What's most important? And again, I think part of it is always keeping in mind complicated, complex. There's stuff that we have to do as a district that's complicated, and there's a budget for that. But it's actually not as much as most people might think. We can keep business operational. It's pretty easy. That's a pretty straightforward process. The complex part is the part of the budget that, what's the biggest priority right now when it comes to unfinished learning? A lot of folks talk about learning gaps. And I don't like the way that phrase lands.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: So unfinished learning, what's the biggest focus? There's lots of different budget priorities. So you asked the right question. How do you prioritize it? In that sort of a context, the answer is you crowdsource because it's complex. And it's not just the digital tool, but we used the digital tool. We used traditional focus groups. We did virtual focus groups during the pandemic. We now do regular focus group. We call them task forces here, not committees. Committees last in perpetuity. Task force has a beginning and an end, and this is the focus. And we're very, very clear about the deliberate charge of the task force.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: And so when we're creating our budget priorities, we're often doing this through the taskforce work or some version of crowdsourcing. That's the first part. The second part is why are budgets always so difficult in public schools? Three of the four districts I've been a part of have had significant budget challenges when I showed up. And I'm stealing heavily from the work of Clayton Christensen. But he actually framed this up in a way that made more sense to me than anybody else I ever read on the subject. And it's this notion of capacity. So the real budget question is, "What's our capacity to do the work as it relates to whatever it is that we're talking about?" Right? Closing the achievement gap. So we'll just call that one [inaudible 00:15:49] What's our capacity for doing that work? And he says that this is a three-legged stool. And without all three legs, of course, just imagine a stool without three legs, it's going to fall. You just don't have the capacity to do it.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: And so the three legs he describes are first, is it a priority? Well, if everything in your district is a priority, you actually don't have the capacity to do anything well. There's problem number one. Just start there with every school district around the country. And you got plenty of work to do, keep you busy for a lifetime. Right? But if you can get those priorities in order and say, "We're going to tackle this and that. That's it. When it comes to closing the achievement gaps, these are the two things that we're going to focus on most." Priority is number one, the first leg, and it's most important. And the great part is, doesn't cost a penny. Right?
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: The second leg of this stool is where I personally think... Clayton Christensen doesn't say this, but I personally think where we fall flat on our face in the public sector. And that is resources. Now, you have to have resources. There's no question about it. You have to have staff, you have to have money, you have to have time, you have to have materials. But whenever we see a problem in education, our natural inclination is to throw resources at the problem. Well, that becomes a budget bloat over time. Every district I've worked in, three of the four districts, they're budget bloated on resources, and we still don't have the capacity to do what we want to do. And I'm like, "This is interesting to me. How do we fix this problem?"
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Well, the third leg of this stool is the one that at least in the public sphere, we give very little attention to, but it's actually where we get the most juice for the squeeze. And that's all about processes. Right? Now we're talking like a magic formula. Priority, resources, and processes. And how much does it cost to focus on processes? Nothing.
Ryan James: Yeah.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: So what I've found 100% of the time is if you focus on the processes, your need for resources decreases. Right? Because the processes get tighter. It's systemic architecture is really what we're talking about. Once you build systems inside of systems in the systemic architecture processes to go after those very clear goals that you have in front of you, there's actually a resource savings to the district that can then be redeployed to other areas where you want to focus your capacity. So it's insanely complicated. And at the same time, it's actually not very complicated at all. It's just a very straightforward way of thinking.
Ryan James: So I'm going to ask a follow up, because I know that people who watch these interviews, some of them are right in line with what you're saying. But they also find a hurdle when it comes to process change. So I'm a VP of HR, I'm a CFO, I'm a superintendent. And I see the need for process change. And you said, "What's the cost for change of process?" Very little. Right? But process has been done. I said it earlier. Process has been done a certain way forever. How do you get over that hurdle? How do you convince to make the change to the process?
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Now we're back to where we started. This is awesome. We almost planned this out. We go back to full circle of, if we're making a process change, you can frame it in a way that's complex. We think that this process needs to be changed this way, but you have a different opinion on the matter. And whenever there's a difference of opinion, there's a certain level of complexity in there. And so the trick is, connect that back to the beginning and create a sense of ownership around what we're going to do.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: We recognize there's this need for change. It's not working. Our capacity to do... And it doesn't matter, whatever we're trying to do, is just not there. And on the table currently, we're saying we need more resources. Okay. That's possible. But what if this change in process would actually give us greater bang for the buck? Let's talk about that, because I want to connect to where your pain points are with that and see if we can alleviate some of it. Back to suffering. Let's talk about where you anticipate suffering. Because it's all about the grief process. It's grief and loss and all the rest of it. That's change management 101. Right? But starting at the beginning and creating a sense of ownership will make for greater ease of process changes down the road.
Ryan James: Yeah. Well, this has all been really good. You and I probably could talk about this for longer than our few minutes. It's fascinating to me, and I know that... I'm lucky to talk to cities and counties and school districts across the country. And I hear the challenges, the complex, and the complicated, and everything in between. And so you see people trying to make these changes and struggle to get it done.
Ryan James: But in that vein, season three of The 3rd Question, the fun time I have been... I've leaned into as a big fan of Ted Lasso, the TV show. And as you can see, over my shoulder here, I've got the well known Believe poster that he has in his locker room. For some don't know who Ted Lasso is, you should definitely watch it on Apple TV. But Ted is known as the epitome of confidence and positivity. And he's also known for his quotes. So I'm going to give you a quote and I'm going to leverage it into a question. Ted has been known to say, "You say impossible, but I..." Actually he says, "You say impossible, but all I hear is I'm possible." And I know the last few years probably have at times felt impossible, but I want to take a positive spin on all this and how we approach challenges as well. So as you look at closing out this school year and the coming years for Victoria ISD, what are you most excited about for your district when you take on that I'm possible attitude?
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: I'll give you a couple of real world examples. I am more hopeful than I've ever been. 18 years as a superintendent, I'm more hopeful now than I've ever been. And the reason why is because if you believe in this... What's called in sociology it's called the Three Generation Approach. First generation it's founders, and it's startups, and everything is a good idea, and you're off to the races. Right? Second generation is all about sustain. Keep things the way they are, keep power structures in place, kind of solidify all of that stuff. And then third generation comes with it a choice. A choice of we're going to hold onto this thing through a state of decay, or we're going to reinvent ourselves and take on this founder's attitude and do something different. The pandemic, if you think about education, we are clearly in the third generation right now. There's no question about it. The pandemic is now this opportunity. It's this pivot point for us to truly think different or to hold onto these structures that are not serving us well.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: And you see people doing this around the country. And it's going to be to their dismay. I mean, this is going to fall apart. But let me give you two examples of just things that have happened as a result of the pandemic right here at the very end. We had a major mold infestation at one of our buildings, and had to evacuate a middle school, had to push all the kids into a disciplinary campus, a campus is our DAP and credit recovery campus. Credit recovery, as you know, often has students who have little or no credit at all. They're basically on a path to drop out if we don't figure out some way to make it work for them. We just placed a number of these kids, over 200 kids.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: And what we did is we went to the local community college and we formed a partnership. We said to the community college, "If we could get six classrooms, we could get 120 of our credit recovery kids." And then we went to the kids and we said, "Look, this is a once in a lifetime golden ticket opportunity the pandemic has handed you, and this mold infestation. Here's the deal on the table. No more discipline issues, no more attendance issues. Come to school and earn your credits for credit recovery. We'll sign you up for college classes. We'll give you more support than you've ever had in your lifetime up to this point." And our goal, our challenge goal to ourselves was to see how many of these kids out of 120 we could get enrolled in college. The number currently is 120.
Ryan James: Oh wow. That's amazing.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: 120 kids who are on a dropout path are now college enrolled and taking college courses while they graduate high school. I get goosebumps saying it. Right? Here's another fact that I love to drop on people because it usually just lands so well with people. If you're a homeless student in Victoria ISD, you have a better chance of graduating high school than if you're an average student in any average district, anywhere in the state of Texas. We actually have a higher graduation percentage for homeless kids than the average kids in the state of Texas. So my point is, what am I hopeful about? I'm hopeful that this is a time like no other where we can think differently about how we do business and we can make honest and meaningful change for kids in their life trajectory. This is a great time to be in education.
Ryan James: I love it. I love it. That is taking impossible to I'm possible in a nutshell. Those are startling numbers. That makes me excited for you guys. And I'm still a few years away with my kids before that gets to that point. But man, that's awesome. That is a great story. Well, Dr. Shepherd, I appreciate the time. You've been generous to spend a little bit of time with me and the audience. Again, why don't you share really quickly again, the name of your book.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: The Secret To Transformational Leadership. It's available on Amazon.
Ryan James: All right. Well, I'm going to go look up a copy myself, because this has got me all juiced up. But thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it. Excited for the rest of your school year. I hope it all goes really well.
Dr. Quintin Shepherd: Thank you. Thanks so much.