NYC school chancellor: Head of the class

Fortune interviews Joel Klein, Chancellor of New York City public schools.

By Jia Lynn Yang, Fortune reporter

(Fortune Magazine) -- Onetime Microsoft archnemesis Joel Klein has traded prosecuting the government's epic antitrust court cases for a task no less ambitious: fixing the New York City public school system. Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped the hard-charging lawyer in 2002 for chancellor, Klein has been rankling the teachers' unions and bringing a CEO mentality to education. (He's also working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has donated more than $125 million to the city's schools.) Fortune's Jia Lynn Yang checked in with Klein during a break from overseeing 1.1 million students, 80,000 teachers, and a budget that's larger than the revenue of a Fortune 200 company.

Apply business know-how to education.

We're converting the role of the principal into a CEO role rather than, if you will, a cog in a top-down administrative machine. For far too long the system has been run for the benefit of the adults, not the kids. One of the things we're trying to do is drive more authority to the school and for the school to become the unit that matters. I've talked to a lot of people about this who have retail outlets, banks, bookstores or what have you. If you think about change, you think about what's the key unit in your organization, and for me that's the school.

Pick two big issues.
School supplies: Klein relies on note cards to help him remember details, a 'Berry to keep him connected, and Taryn Rose shoes for long walks around Manhattan.

If you want to lead an organization, think: What are the two or three things that I can do that are really going to have an impact? That's the role of leadership. I try to ask myself what the really big ideas are. And how can I get them right? And then I think, What are the implementation challenges? And do I have the right people in place, and if not, do I have to bring in somebody or reorganize or restructure? And how do I make the case publicly?

Schedule think time.

I'll never forget when Lloyd Bentsen retired as Secretary of the Treasury and was asked, Well, what did you think of working in the Clinton administration? And he said, "Those are the meetingest people I ever met." I learned when I was in the federal government that most people like to go to meetings all day, and I just don't. I try to block out chunks of time where I can read things more easily and think through the next moves and strategies. And during the day I'll have an hour of just think time. I make that part of my schedule.

Take a walk.

I think through problems by walking. I never go out to lunch if I don't have to. Sometimes in that hour I will go out and just walk [around City Hall] and say to myself, "How are you tackling this problem?" Like recently we've been trying to convince the state legislature that it should lift the cap on the number of charter schools. When it's warmer, I go more frequently. Same on the weekends. Sometimes I'll go for a walk with my wife. We'll go three or four miles. We talk, and I ask her views on issues. She's been an advisor to me. She's an extraordinary lawyer, thinker, consigliere.

Learn from criticism.

I wake up every morning feeling like I'm the luckiest man in the world, getting up fighting for kids in the city I grew up in. Then I read the papers. But that's the nature of the enterprise. You want to listen to the criticism because some of it is right and you learn from it. I'm not especially thin-skinned, but the things that really bug me are when we execute poorly. The hardest part of the job is answering this question: Chancellor, how could you send my kid to a school you wouldn't send your kids to?


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