NOTE: Even though this post is ancient history (2010!), it’s still a textbook description of how to not win friends and influence people.
A Little Bit of Background
Like most New York City public school parents, I was against Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of Cathie Black — a publishing executive with no education experience — to be NYC’s Schools Chancellor. (Bloomberg’s first Chancellor, Joel Klein, was also a publishing industry executive with no education experience.)
Here’s how a lack of respectful communication tanked Black’s appointment, days into her Chancellorship.
Former Chancellor Klein: “You Have to Break Some Eggs…”
My antipathy to Mayor Bloomberg’s “If-You-Can-Sell-Books-You-Can-Run-A-School-System” approach began when my daughter was a freshman at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School.
Just before she arrived, then-Chancellor Klein had closed three “failing” schools (that’s a federal “No Child Left Behind” description) and dumped 1000 extra kids into Murrow.
Since a building intended for 2600 kids now held 4200, the school’s parents asked for a meeting to discuss what we viewed as dangerous overcrowding. (And that isn’t even getting into the knifing incident.)
Klein didn’t attend that meeting himself. Instead he sent a stiletto-heeled, expensively-suited woman of about 35 who clearly had neither educational experience nor children of her own.
Klein’s representative famously told a lunchroom full of very concerned parents that:
- “You should be grateful that you’re not at 150% of capacity, like Fort Hamilton High,” and
- “The Chancellor is looking at the big picture, and you have to break some eggs to make an omelette.” (Presumably, our children were the “eggs.”)
I’ve never seen a bunch of working- and middle-class parents come that close to rioting.
Corporate Girl left the building in a hurry!
So Bloomberg Appoints Another Publishing Executive as School’s Chancellor
Several years later, Bloomberg chose Cathie Black to succeed Joel Klein.
The controversy that Black faced when she first took the job was around whether charter schools should be “co-located” (housed) in public schools. This practice saves the system money, but is opposed by many parents who feel that charter schools already pull too many resources away from their kids’ public school classes.
Here’s what Black, in her first few days as Chancellor, had to say about those parents:
“Most of [their] screaming and yelling is staged. But some of it is just fear of the unknown.”
Thank you, Ms. Black. Your empathy and tact are staggering.
Public Speech Isn’t Like Speaking in the Private Sector
How did a woman who was smart enough to run a major company get caught saying such a stupid thing?
I think it’s because she confused the difference between public and private speech.
Just as some people confuse public forums like Facebook with private ones (like speaking directly to a friend after you’ve checked to make sure no one else can hear you), Black — who lost her job several days after making that remark — had confused insulting a public audience with insulting a private one.
She was used to speaking privately (to employees), and let’s face it, the boss of a company can pretty much say any ugly thing they want to their “underlings.” Out here in the public arena, however, we push back when we’ve been demeaned, dismissed, and insulted — especially by people who aren’t experts in the field.
With that in mind, if you find yourself in a controversial role,
- Keep your private opinions private.
- Try to consider your opponents’ point of view, and
- Whenever you open your mouth in public, always respect your audience!
Of course, we all make communications mistakes.
But if you’re in a public role… and you have strong opinions… and you suspect, even dimly, that you’re about to put your foot in your mouth, it might be better to just… shut it.