Terry Holliday’s communications legacy: Tough act to follow
Kentucky School Advocate
By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support/Communications Services
When 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.
Retiring 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.
Here 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
To begin with, Holliday loves technology like a teenager with the latest personal electronic device. And he uses that passion to reach broad audiences.
The Monday 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.
Early 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.
Live 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.
Other 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.
One 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?
So 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.
Privately, 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 spectators.
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 reply.”
Of course, that’s a lesson for lots of people in a leadership role, not just Holliday.
The Last Word
If 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.
But when it comes to the important stuff, Holliday has been sufficiently skilled to get his message out, and that of public education in Kentucky as well.