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Meet the New Bosses

Eau Claire’s new top leaders say they’re ready to work with the community – and each other – to overcome obstacles

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by Tom Giffey, Nick Meyer photos by Andrea Paulseth

It’s a challenging time for the public sector, but Eau Claire’s new top leaders say they’re ready to work with the community – and each other – to overcome obstacles and move things forward. We sat down in the V1 Gallery for a conversation about fresh eyes, old problems, and new opportunities.

It's big news when a new leader takes the helm of one of a community’s biggest institutions. It’s really big news when, in the space of less than a year, a community finds itself with new leaders at its three largest public-sector entities – organizations that combined employ more than 3,200 people and serve well over 75,000 constituents. In July, UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt joined City Manager Russ Van Gompel (who started in November) and Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck (who became leader of the Eau Claire school district last September) as the newest member of an elite group – the folks whose inboxes hold the region’s toughest assignments. All three are new to the Chippewa Valley, but they say their past experiences and unbiased, fresh perspectives will help them steer our city, schools, and university through rough waters. In a wide-ranging interview with Volume One, the trio opened up about being asked to walk on water, combating “La Crosse envy,” and squeezing into the State Theatre’s seats.

V1: All three of you were in your prior positions for a while. Why make the leap and come somewhere where you are brand new? It’s not as if you started at a lower level and worked your way to the top in an organization. You’re coming and taking that top job in a brand-new place. Talk about what motivated you to do that.

CITY MANAGER VAN GOMPEL It’s no secret I was in Brown Deer for 15 years. But it was an opportunity to come to a community that I thought had its act together. It was an opportunity to come to a larger organization in my case doing kind of the same thing. But it was not only coming to a larger organization in a larger community, it was really the quality of life that Eau Claire had to offer. That was the selling point for me. I was not looking to leave, so I would have been entirely happy staying in Brown Deer, but the more I came into Eau Claire, the more I fell in love with the community. So for me it was a no-brainer once the opportunity presented itself. After coming up and visiting a couple of times and visiting with staff, it was clear that it was the right thing for me.

SUPERINTENDENT HARDEBECK I’d say it’s very similar to what Russ said. It was an opportunity to lead a school district. I was very taken with the idea that the board had gotten out in front of what the state was doing with their vision for post-secondary success, the idea that every student would be a graduate (and) college and career-ready. That very much echoes what’s going on in the state, but the board had taken this action prior to these things happening in the state. (It’s a) good school system, a lot of good work has been done here, and I think there’s more work to be done. … Coming out of northern Virginia, which is very congested and busy, and coming to a community that really feels like a community, where you feel like you know your neighbors and they know you, it was just very appealing to us.

CHANCELLOR SCHMIDT I’ve been asked that question a number of times. I was in Winona for just about 15 years, I had deep connections there being an alum, and having served on the alumni board for eight years before going back to work (there), multiple generations of family members with Winona State degrees. My last four (university) presidents had encouraged me to go off and be a president, but it really had to be the right place and the right fit. It was really only the last couple of years that I thought, “You know, I am ready to do something different, I’m ready to lead an institution.” And so I started looking more seriously a little over a year ago. Universities publish these profiles of what they’re looking for. They’re 20 to 40 pages long. The whole walking on water and everything else is usually listed explicitly in the profile. And I’d read a number of them, and none of them resonated – none of them. …

And why (Eau Claire) got my attention was it had been a school, a university that I had admired my whole time at Winona State. It’s one of Winona State’s primary competitors. In my business I want to understand what’s good about other institutions. … Once the profile was published, I was surprised at how well what they said they were looking for in a chancellor seemed to align with my strengths as I perceived them. You never know going into a process: Just because you think you’re a good fit doesn’t mean they think you are. But I thought the alignment is better. Coming to the community was really the icing on the cake. … That’s been the neatest thing to me, how wonderful the community is. How everyone universally says, “We have great schools, you’re really going to like the schools.” That doesn’t happen everywhere. I would tell you as father of two kids in the school district, they didn’t want to move. And it’s been a bumpy period, but all of them have said they like their teachers, they like the schools. And that’s the kind of true test that a parent needs to know about making this decision.

V1: Talk about the strengths and advantages of coming in at the top of an organization, rather than rising through the ranks. What are the challenges there?

VAN GOMPEL I went through that once, prior to Eau Claire. When I went to Brown Deer, I was coming from outside the organization into the role of manager. Prior to that in my previous opportunity in Little Chute, which was my hometown, I was promoted up from within, so I had exposure to them both. It’s a little bit different coming in from the outside. Not only (do you lack) the tie-ins to the community, but also the tie-in to your organization. My style is basically one where you come in and listen and try to understand. I’ve had other colleagues that come in with their own set of ideas and they try to not necessarily push, but are a little bit more heavy-handed in getting their perspective and their viewpoints implemented maybe too quickly, and sometimes you alienate people within your own organization. One thing I found is that if you … try to understand the culture of the organization as well, and you do that in a respectful manner, that you can build a lot of trust within the organization, and that goes a long way. The thing I’ve learned is being a leader you have to get people to buy into your support and buy into your ideas.

If we’re going to attract business and do economic development, we need to recognize people come to a community because of schools and education and the services we provide. ... We can  do all we can on the municipal side of things, but if we’re not growing our tax base, we’re going in the wrong direction. – EC City Manager Russ Van Gompel

SCHMIDT I think that there are advantages to each. I’d been at Winona a long time, and had I stayed there, I think you have the advantage of knowing the place, being able to set out and really understand what you’re trying to accomplish. I think the advantage of coming in from the outside into the top job is you bring in fresh eyes. I think I’ve gotten the best of both worlds, because I have a seasoned executive staff, people who I respect and trust and have a good understanding of the institution. …

I just had my first administrative half-day-long meeting. … I got their ideas on the table – similar to what Russ said, doing a lot of listening. … But towards the end I started making a few observations to this team, and I said these are just from a new guy on the block with fresh eyes, these are things I’ve noticed, what do you think about them? And I listed a number of them, and I said the reason I bring it out is pretty soon I will have been here a while and you won’t get my first impressions anymore. … And I think there is a value to coming in without necessarily any baggage. Certainly as the three of us look for opportunities to collaborate, we’re all kind of new and we can get by with asking what some people think are dumb questions. You say, “What do you think of this?” And they’re like, “Really? You’ve been here how long, and you don’t know the answer?” Sometimes you do know the answer, but you ask the question because you really want to get their perspective on it, and I think in many ways it’s easier, as the new guy or gal on the block, and the advantage of having us each in a senior leadership positions is they’ll tolerate it, and usually attempt to give us a straight answer.

HARDEBECK I think initially you’re hired for a certain set of skills and experiences you bring to the position, but I think ultimately coming in as a brand-new person is such a great opportunity to build relationships, and to build relationships in perhaps a different way than you would if you came up through the ranks. You’re looking at it through a fresh set of eyes and doing a lot of listening. I think initially you have to come in with the idea that it is about relationship-building, because if you don’t built those strong relationships, you’re not going to be around long to get work done. It’s very exciting to come in, there’s so much to learn, there’s so much history to learn. What I say to the people I work with is I may not always know exactly how you got to this place or all the history that went with it, but I do have a broad range of experience and certainly training, and I can be a resource.

VAN GOMPEL I think some of the difficulty is that if you have the history – I’m trying to find the right words to say it – when you have that history, sometimes you bring in previous grudges or biases that have developed over a period of time. Right, wrong, or indifferent, you have a certain perspective based on things that might have happened in the past, and it sometimes makes people a little bit more cynical. I think it’s helpful to the organization to have that fresh perspective. That’s not saying it’s wrong to build upon previous experience within an organization, but I think when you come in from outside the organization and you’ve seen things handled a different way or conducted a different way, at least you get people to think about why they’re doing what they’re doing.

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V1: This question is especially for the two of you who are from out of state. There has been a great deal of turmoil in Wisconsin in the past few years over the state budget and over public employee compensation, a lot of division between the public and private sectors. Why come to a very high-profile public job in that sort of situation? You would think that might turn some people off.

HARDEBECK I’m going to go back to what I said before. I think it’s a great professional opportunity and a great challenge to bring all your skills and knowledge to a very unique situation. Because things are in a state of flux, you have a lot of opportunity to kind of create a continuous improvement model, but you also have an opportunity to develop new kinds of relationships, and I think about the new kinds of relationships we’re developing with various work groups that were in our organizations before – with the teachers union, with the classified ranks, all of that – and it’s really exciting to see … the positive working relationships you can develop. We just finished a working conditions survey, and we got a lot of feedback from the staff about how they would like to see their working conditions improve, and a lot of it is about having more input into the decision-making, being able to predict what’s coming next, have a say in how these changes are being made for us. A lot of the change that’s being imposed upon the school district is coming from the outside with the higher standards and educator effectiveness, so we know what we have to do, and it’s a great opportunity to involve your organization and the people in your organization in that decision-making, determining how you’re going to move forward as an organization.

SCHMIDT I think public higher ed has had a difficult time across the country, so the types of cuts that we’ve seen in Wisconsin maybe have been a little worse than other states, but universally, with very few exceptions, public higher ed has taken a bit of a beating. … I believe that higher ed leaders have to take part in changing the dialogue. … The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (was) founded almost 100 years ago. Why was it founded? It wasn’t to give Johnny an education. The community came together and said, “We need this. We need a normal school teacher’s college. We will be improved by the establishment of this school.” A hundred years ago people understood that society was improved by the improvement in education of individuals. Individuals change society. Somewhere along the line, and it’s one of my biggest regrets as a higher ed leader, is that this was lost through neglect. … When I was a student at Winona State in the ’80s, the state of Minnesota was picking up almost 80 percent of the cost of my education. … Today in Minnesota and Wisconsin our respective states are picking up between 20 and 30 percent, depending on which set of numbers and how much of the budget you look for. As people in Eau Claire look at the hillside where our campus is, know that the public is picking up one out of every five dollars they see happening there. My point is, it’s a public good and a private good, and somewhere along the line we bought into the notion that higher education is primarily a private good. I would argue in our schools, that the inspirational teacher who’s teaching my sons … those individuals who are Blugold grads have been improved personally, but I believe the biggest value has been to society.

HARDEBECK You make such a good point, in that as your sources have dwindled from the state, I don’t think we can say that locally. I think locally here there’s great support for education, for services, and for taking care of your neighbor. I walked into a situation where there had just been a $55 million referendum passed for the improvement of the schools buildings. … I think it speaks to a strong commitment for the community, for the value that they place on public education, and on creating a stronger community, because we see across the nation, as your schools go, so go your communities.

SCHMIDT So to really answer your question, I wasn’t afraid to come to Wisconsin because of what had happened here. I believe in some ways I was drawn or called to be a part of this dialogue, and I do believe it’s one of the reasons I was hired was to have that conversation. I am privileged to be at a very strong institution. I will tell you that one of my messages to our faculty and staff was to lift their heads up, that they should be proud of their work, because I am proud of their work. And I know that a lot of unfortunate things get said in the heat of a political environment, and regardless of what’s happened in the past, I’m here to send that message that they are valued and that they are important, and I’m going to work to try to make sure that we create a joyful work environment.

HARDEBECK And yet one of the things that we see is that our employees are very shy about bragging about themselves and the work that they do.

SCHMIDT A Midwestern thing.

HARDEBECK I think it might be kind of a national thing.

VAN GOMPEL It’s not just higher education. It’s just delivering the local service: the person in the street maintenance position or park maintenance position, or the person working in inspections. The issue is public perception of the service we provide. And I think society in general – and I hate making generalizations – has been accustomed to a pretty decent delivery of service, whether it’s on the educational front or local services, and the perception has changed in my 20 years from one of gratitude for service being provided to one that now sometimes society looks at it as a benefit, (that public employees) should be privileged to be in the position we are. I think we are, I think we are providing a service. But the negative perception out there that it takes three guys to fill a pothole – one guy doing the work and the other two to watch – is pretty prevalent in today’s society, and it has a huge impact on morale. I truly believe that like any other profession, 90 to 95 percent of the folks doing the job are doing an excellent or outstanding job, and it’s that 5 or 10 percent that give everybody else a bad name. The unfortunate thing in Wisconsin’s environment is there’s been a lot of that festering that everybody is critical of the service that they’re getting. We’re not in a McDonald’s or a vending machine mentality, where you put in a dollar and you’re only going to get a dollar in service or product that you want. We’re in here doing things that are good for the society in general, and the community as a whole.

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