the Kentucky Board of Education last month began crafting a list of
desired characteristics for candidates to be the state’s next
commissioner of education, they didn’t start out with “strong leadership
skills,” or “experienced in school- and/or state-level decision
making.” The first trait mentioned and discussed in detail was that of
being a good communicator.
Commissioner Terry Holliday has been routinely praised – and panned –
in this arena. Communications comes up in Holliday’s annual performance
review by the state board – almost always in glowing terms. Yet Holliday
also has had detractors on his message delivery talents.
is what I hope is an objective look back at what Holliday has done – or
has caused to happen – in terms of communications during his tenure.
It’s one more heavily measured with pros than cons.
Quantity and quality
begin with, Holliday loves technology like a teenager with the latest
personal electronic device. And he uses that passion to reach broad
Superintendent and Fast Five on Friday email blasts always come with the
point that these are crafted to reduce the volume of Frankfort-out
communications. Granted, these outreach tools put information at local
educators’ fingertips on a regular basis.
in his work in Frankfort, Holliday began a weekly weblog in which he
shared insights – usually his own – on education challenges of the day
in Kentucky and across the nation.
streaming has become an important asset to the Department of Education
during Holliday’s residency. Monthly superintendent webinars,
task-specific online updates and state board meetings are available to
those who want to hear first-hand from state officials. An important
element of the superintendent webinars is the live Q&A email option,
affording viewers the chance for on-the-spot clarification.
communications efforts during the Holliday commissionership include
stakeholder advisory group sessions, presentations at regional education
cooperative meetings, an annual superintendents’ summit and, most
years, an online poll for school staff to rate the inquiry response
performance of KDE staff. And I haven’t touched on his national voice as
a proponent for how Kentucky schools are improving.
other communications standard that Holliday set that will be impossible
for his successor to top, but is worthy of a bucket list: a visit to
each of the state’s 173 school systems. Let no one discount the impact
of any Frankfort leader getting out of the capital city on a dedicated
mission to show that teaching, learning and leading in Jenkins
Independent is just as important as it is in Jefferson County. Anyone
who attended one of Holliday’s stopovers could see the local pride in
being able to show off to the state’s top school executive.
Listening while leading?
in this assessment, Holliday has done much with the mantle of
Kentucky’s K-12 communicator in chief. But, if there is a communications
skill that his successor can improve upon, here is a vote to also
become known as KDE’s listener in chief.
district leaders and some KDE staff have shared examples of times when
Holliday has frustrated them with his approach when exchanging views on
challenging topics. Even with all of the listening examples cited above,
Holliday’s tendency for blunt rebuttals and the appearance of planning a
rejection while a speaker is talking have dogged him to several
Educator and author
Stephen Covey – he of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – could
have been talking about Holliday when he wrote, “Most people do not
listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to
Of course, that’s a lesson for lots of people in a leadership role, not just Holliday.
The Last Word
K-PREP ratings applied here, this observer would give Terry Holliday a
grade of “distinguished” as a communicator. That certainly doesn’t mean
he achieved all of the things addressed in this column on his own. Nor
does it suggest that his successor can’t come in and rewrite the
communications mark of excellence.
when it comes to the important stuff, Holliday has been sufficiently
skilled to get his message out, and that of public education in Kentucky