Podcast: Terry Grier on Developing More than 80 System Leaders

Terry Grier (@tgrierhisd) grew up in rural North Carolina. Based on the confidence of one teacher he went to college and then became a biology teacher. He began coaching sports and pretty quickly realized he could impact the future of a community as a school leader. 

When Grier became superintendent in Williamson County Schools (south of Nashville) he learned two lessons that became central to his career. First, hire very bright creative people. And second, never hire anyone that didn’t have the ability to become a superintendent.

Back in North Carolina, Terry became superintendent of Guilford County. The board said they wanted to boost their graduation rate but hadn’t made it a budget priority. He learned the importance of aligning the budget with strategic priorities. They stated nine of the first early college high schools in the country and cut their dropout rate and boosted their college-going rate.  

In San Diego where he found a lot of opposition, he learned a high involvement way of leading. 

His seven-year tour in Houston reinforced his belief in the importance of great leaders in every role–and that includes the school board. He appreciated working for a great board and learned that superintendents have a roll in cultivating a good board.   

Grier learned from the best charter networks in the country. He used some of their strategies to improve the lowest-performing schools and created magnet schools to expand competitive offerings. 

With progress on all fronts, Houston won the 2013 Broad Prize and many of us it considered it the best big urban district in the country (see a 2014 feature).

Ironically, the day we spoke with Grier, the state of Texas took over Houston ISD whose combative, dysfunctional board behavior prompted the state takeover.  Leadership matters.  

America’s Talent Engine

To date, 81 women and men that worked for Grier have gone on to lead school districts–an amazing legacy. Because it’s so much more than anyone else, it suggests it was more than being a big system superintendent for 20 years–Grier hired and thought differently about talent. 

“I’ve always tried to seek out unusually gifted people–all of whom are smarter than me–that could approach problems from different angles, learn quickly, and had a knack for getting things done. In fact, I would not hire a direct report that I did not feel had the capacity to develop into a good superintendent.  

Grier wasn’t afraid of hiring nontraditional candidates. “I can recall hiring Darryl LeGase who had been in Lemon Grove as my Chief Information Technology Officer in San Diego.  He only had a high school degree. He went on to serve as Sr. VP for LightSpand once I left San Diego.”  

“I promoted Rick Cruz from a fifth-grade teacher to an Assistant Superintendent for College and Career Readiness in Houston ISD,” said Grier. “He helped develop their EMERGE program that helps poor students with high potential to get into and graduate from Ivy League and Tier I Universities.”  

Grier is most proud of promoting and developing a very diverse group of educators. He won an award from the superintendent’s association for his support of women and minorities in education. “Kids need leaders that look like them, talk like them, and are models of success,” explained Grier. 

Key Takeaways:
[:51] Terry speaks about where he went to high school.
[1:19] When and why did Terry decide to become a biology teacher?
[2:52] After teaching, when and why did Terry decide to lead a school and then a system?
[5:52] Terry recounts his time as Superintendent of Williamson County Schools from ’96 to 2000.
[10:17] Tom and Terry speak about a prominent figure in education, Cecilia “CeCe” Cunningham.
[10:51] Tom and Terry reiterate the lessons learned from Williamson County Schools.
[12:40] Terry speaks about his time spent as Superintendent at Guilford County Schools in North Carolina from 2000-2008 and shares some of the lessons that he learned.
[16:10] Next up in Terry’s superintendent journey, he speaks about his time leading the San Diego Unified School District, and recalls the challenges he faced and the lessons learned.
[8:27] In his last role as superintendent, Terry reflects on his time spent at Houston ISD and shares some of the lessons that he learned.
[24:21] Terry and Tom discuss the change of Houston state taking over Houston ISD.
[28:11] Terry elaborates on his hiring philosophy; what it is that he looks for when he’s trying to hire someone in a leadership role in a district.
[36:17] Terry speaks about his ‘talent first’ approach in hiring.
[39:42] Terry speaks about what he is most proud of during his time in education: the 81 women and men who have worked for him that have gone on to lead school districts for themselves.
[42:29] Tom thanks Terry for joining the podcast!

Mentioned in This Episode:
Terry Grier
Williamson County Schools
Cecilia “CeCe” Cunningham
Guilford County Schools
San Diego Unified School District
Houston Independent School District (Houston ISD)
Terry Grier’s Twitter: @TGrierHISD
Union County Public Schools
Spring Independent School District (Spring ISD)

For more, see:

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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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1 Comment

Liz Griffin

Great interview. Terry Grier continues to inspire me with all he's accomplished and all he's done to develop talent.

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