A group of colleagues smiling around a laptop communicating and building accountability within the organization.

Join us as Dr. Janet Pilcher sits down with Mr. Rob Clayton of Warren County Public Schools for a compelling conversation about accountability, leadership consistency, and the transformative power of intentional communication. Tune in as Mr. Clayton describes the role of accountability in achieving organizational goals and how he is actively embedding his commitment to accountability into the district’s culture. He also discusses how he uses the core values of being respectful, ethical, professional, and nurturing to establish consistency in leadership practices across the entire organization. Listen as Mr. Clayton delves into his experience of practicing intentional listening and soliciting and using feedback to help him build strong relationships and achieve positive outcomes within the district.

Part Two
EP320: Build Trust to Strengthen Culture

This episode addresses questions such as:
  • What role does accountability play in achieving organizational excellence?
  • How does consistency in leadership practices provide support for eventual transitions?
  • How can leaders successfully demonstrate intentional listening?

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Episode Transcript



[Intro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s Accelerate Your Performance podcast. I’m your host, Janet Pilcher. Thank you for tuning into our show today.

This podcast is all about leadership, and I don’t mean leadership as a position. It’s about how we can all see great leadership in action so that we can all be leaders in our organizations. And the focus of leadership is connected to the Nine Principles Framework highlighted in my new book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education.

Let’s jump into today’s episode. It’s my pleasure to welcome back Mr. Rob Clayton. Rob is the Superintendent of Warren County Public Schools in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Warren County Public Schools is the 4th largest district in Kentucky. As Superintendent, Rob has supervised the growth of the district to more than 18,000 students, representing 120 different languages spoken and 94 countries.

Under Rob’s leadership, Warren County Public Schools has consistently performed in the top 10% in the state student assessments. Under his tenure, the district has grown its workforce to over 3,000 employees as they serve the district’s 15 elementary schools for middle for high schools and 10 alternatives programs.

Rob has also been part of being an integral leader as the district began the journey of implementing Franklin Covey’s Leader in Me program. They recorded the state of Kentucky’s First Lighthouse Certification School in 2014, which is the highest attainable standard. Currently, the district has ten schools that have received this highly regarded certification.

Under Rob’s leadership, the district opened the Commonwealth First International High School, which has since graduated nearly 300 students.

Rob holds many professional memberships and leadership roles, a few of which include American Association of School Administrators Governing Board, Vice President of the Council for Better Education, South Central Kentucky United Way Board of Directors, Kentucky School Board Association, and Kentucky Chamber of Commerce Leadership Institute for School Principals Advisory Board.

You can see Rob is very involved in leadership. And then specifically, Rob was named the 2022 Superintendent of the Year by the National Association of School Superintendents and the 2023 Superintendent of the Year by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators, a testament to his great leadership at Warren County Schools.

So, it’s with great pleasure that I welcome Rob Clayton to our show today and highlighting the story behind the story and Principal 6, Be Accountable.

But Rob, you are a model for almost all principles in the book, but I just know how much you hold yourself accountable and that transfers to holding others accountable and such a productive and good way, so I wanted to let our listeners hear the story behind the story as we connect today.

So, thanks for joining us.


Rob Clayton: Thank you, Janet. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you and looking forward to our conversation.

Janet Pilcher: Sounds good. So, let’s get started. You’ve excelled, as I mentioned in a number of areas, but really excelled in building a good workplace culture where you have that commitment to accountability to organizational goals.

As long as I’ve known you, you’ve been highly connected to that. Can you share with us and our audience how you hardwired this into the school culture?

Rob Clayton: Well, first let me begin by sharing that hardwiring still remains to be a work in progress for us. Especially when I think back to the last several years with the workforce shortage we’ve seen, just like many other entities a larger volume of individuals coming in and out of our organization.

But I will tell you that really for us. It starts with ensuring that we’re attracting, hiring, and retaining the very best people. We truly believe that if we have the right people within our organization, then the results are gonna follow.

And so, when we think about our ability to hardwire our core strategies, our core principles within the work that we do. A lot of that came out of our partnership with Studer Ed, and Nannette Johnston was the first executive coach that helped us along those lines.

I think we knew the importance of having these processes and systems well ingrained into our organization to ensure success. But I’m not certain that we were as intentional about ensuring that all entities within every layer of our organization understood what we were trying to achieve, which also takes me back to that core concept of understanding the why.

So, we really have tried to be more intentional in terms of explaining and communicating to all of our stakeholders. Here’s our purpose. We’re about kids. We wanna attract the very best individuals to work with our students.

And then from there we came together collaboratively to determine, okay, what do these key processes need to look like? Before we got into the process as we identified, what are those core values?

In Warren County Public Schools, we call them our actions of excellence. And so those are the core values that we want each entity to be not only familiar with, but to exhibit in their behavior on a daily basis.

And for us it’s respectful. It’s being a ethical professional. We want to create a nurturing, learning environment for our- our students. But then also for our staff cause we’re all learning. We wanna be a united front. We wanna make sure that everyone’s on the same page and supporting one another.

And then finally, and this is not in any particular order. We want individuals to be dedicated to the work. Fortunately, in education, we tend to attract, the very type of individuals we want working with our kids, for the most part. But we also know that we have to do more to ensure that we’re attracting the best.

So, I think for us, it really starts with our- our people. We came together collaboratively, not only to identify what are these core values, but what is it that we wanna create? It’s gonna ensure that we achieve our- our 3 priorities which are ensuring safety, achievement, and opportunity.

And so, what we determined was, we need to create a best place to work for our staff. We need to create a best place for students to learn. And then, especially, this is really relevant today. Now keep in mind. We began this venture almost a decade ago. But we want to be a best place for parents to send their children and boy that really resonates today in 2,000-

Janet Pilcher: Yes, it does.

Rob Clayton: We- we start to hear more feedback and comments, whether it be school choice and so forth. But we feel very fortunate that keeping that narrow focus will help us ensure that again we meet those 3 priorities.

I think another term that we had to really be more mindful of, other than just being transparent and communicating the why, but we had to become more intentional with the work that we’re doing. And that’s really benefited us in our partnership with Studer Ed because that becomes an accountability partner for us, we get caught up in the day-to-day challenges.

That needle moves very quickly and so we also speak a lot about having an accountability partner to ensure that we can remain focused on our work. And I think the final piece to that, because you gotta have a plan. You know, those things sound good, and but what does it look like in reality? And I think from our leadership standpoint, when we think about how we’re trying to hardwire these strategic actions into our school culture. We really follow a very simple plan that I’ve come to learn that is very similar to Covey’s 4 disciplines of execution.

You want to state the goal or the purpose. What is it that you’re trying to achieve? And then you want to develop a process for achieving that. And what we’ve learned over time is if you don’t involve the right people upfront to determine what that process needs to look like you’re gonna find yourself battling some unintended consequences down the road.

So, we wanna identify what is the process that we feel, as a group, that’s gonna help us ensure we meet the goal. And then that monitoring that third piece, and I’ve often shared in some cases. If you build the right culture your people will do the monitoring for you right. They’ll let you know things aren’t maybe working as intended, or they’ll let you know because they find themselves in a safe environment to share. “Hey, this concerns me,” or “this is not happening. Did you know that?”

And so again it goes back to that culture piece.

And then that fourth component is the accountability. And that’s where I’ve seen most leaders struggle. And primarily, I think, because, especially in the education sector, when you’re charged with holding others accountable it may not be a difficult decision to make, but it’s very likely to be painful, right?

And the reason is because you’re dealing with other people. Being in a position where you can hold each other accountable for following through with the expectations or demonstrating the specific actions that we, as a- as an organization feel are important to be demonstrated. You have to have that accountability piece.

And then when people see that there is gonna be accountability, it’s been our experience that in many cases you’re mitigating some of those unnecessary distractions that really just solve off of our path.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good, Rob, I mean so many things in terms of how you’ve laid that out. And as you’re talking I’m thinking, you know that- I mean leadership is everything you know. The ability of having good leaders to execute and build those consistency of leadership practices across the organization.

And you’ve done that. I mean, you’ve dedicated yourself to that we had, like your other podcast is really, very specifically focused on how you’ve connected personally to your leaders. But you know, how have you talked a little bit about as you- as you’ve laid out the plan of what you’ve done in the school district and work with other people and your teams to get that accomplished.

You know. How does the consistency of leadership practices in your organization supported that? And then how have you strengthened and deepened that leadership pipeline to make sure it’s sustainable over time?

Rob Clayton: Well, as I mentioned earlier, it, it remains a work in progress. Just this year we were in a position where we needed to fill 2 of our 3 cabinet level positions. And as one can imagine, that’s a shift in an organization. We had a really strong leadership cabinet that had worked together, I think approximately about 8, 9 years together.

And so, a lot of success followed that the continuity we were really in a good spot. And so, then when you have this transition. it’s gonna require a number of things, and one of the things that we did try to be mindful of and are even doing this at the school level as well, but being very mindful of transitions will occur. What are we doing today that will position us to be able to satisfactorily navigate those changes when they do occur?

So, I think the importance of sharing that collective leadership, the importance of being very open and transparent with information will lend itself to a more successful transition when that time comes. I think communication is key. I don’t know what the most important leadership skill is. I think you probably can have some pretty good debates, but I can think of nothing that’s more important than being effective as a communicator.

And so, we spent a lot of time discussing that as a leadership group, not just at the district level, but across the school level. We are becoming more engaged in our Nine Principles work through Studer Ed, which we feel is a very systemic approach to growing leaders. Just like many school districts, we’ve long known that some of our best and brightest will come up and grow through our organization. So, we’ve had those pathways in line, whether it be our administrator support network or aspiring administrator’s network.

We have a minority leadership program where we partner with our university to make that a more attainable pathway for minor minority prospects. Of course, now everybody’s trying to grow your own.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Rob Clayton: Universities are not in a position to be able to fulfill all those needs. But we again recognize that if we can have a strong leader within each department, or a strong leader leading each of our schools, many of these daily challenges that we kind of grapple with, they get removed. It- It’s truly remarkable.

And I think you could say the same about hiring an educator. It’s amazing what a superstar teacher can accomplish in a classroom, regardless of the amount of time, regardless of the number of students and really regardless of the levels of students, right?

Superstar teachers. And in some cases, we can’t even describe how they’re getting it done. We can just tell you they’re getting it done. It’s just truly remarkable.

So,- again going back to it’s all about attracting the best talent and then growing them within the organization. And I think the last piece there is we’ve really tried to use our scorecard to monitor and measure our success.

I think every district wants to be data driven. We know that that’s the best way to make the most informed decisions. But at the same time that consistency of reevaluating the data, and then making those pivots when necessary.

I’ll finish with this; I think as long as we’re doing it collaboratively and we have the right people at the table, I have total confidence that continuous improvement will occur. I think the danger is when we position ourselves where we’re not working collaboratively, and maybe leaning on one person too much in that particular area which can in some cases have negative consequences. If you’re not traveling the right path, or if the right decision was made.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, you know one of the things as you were talking through, you referenced communication as a key, Right? I talk about Rob in Principle 8 is communication.

That principle is one of the threads that runs through every other principle. If we don’t do communication right and really learn how to be great communicators, it’s very difficult to execute the other principles well.

Nanette Johnston, who’s been a mentor of yours over the years, you know, described you as a master communicator.

So, talk a little bit about the intentionality that you use with communication and listening to others, and how the intentional listening has really helped you build relationships and helped you teach others, I’m sure, to do that.

Rob Clayton: Well, first I have to acknowledge that Nannette is way too kind with her words. But you know, for me it really started back as a middle school principal. I can still remember reflecting on the week and it dawned on me that almost every challenge that I was dealing with that particular week came down to some form of communication, whether it was a lack of communication, miscommunication, perhaps even untimely communicate-

And so, when I realized that much of what I appeared to be chasing or trying to solve came down to communication, it dawned on me that I had to be more clear and transparent about how important it is to communicate.

And then what are those attributes that lead to effective communi- And I’m not even gonna tell you at the time I knew. I was doing a lot of self-reflection on my myself and learned that if we could become more effective at communicating, not just from a leadership standpoint, but through every level of the organization. We were gonna mitigate some of the challenges that we were faced with, and of course, like any school district, and I think probably many private sector organizations would say, share the same comment. That is, we’ve got enough work to do already.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Rob Clayton: Let’s not add to the workload. And so, with that it dawned on me that the first and maybe most important step in that would was to be more open and transparent when communicate right, and then that would help build that culture where- cause it did not start. I wish I could sit here and share with you, it started with. I told myself I had to be a better listener. Right? I mean that just, wasn’t that sharp. I had to learn over time. That part of being an effective communicator was being an effective listener. And understanding what either A’s being communicated, what’s not being communicated and so forth.

I think another piece to that is you’ve got to build trust. Right? You’ve got to have an organization of trust if you’re gonna be successful. So, a couple of things there that really resonate. I found it was important to assume the best in others.

So, until you communicate to me differently, I’m gonna assume that your heart’s in the right direction. I’m gonna assume that you’re doing it the best way you know how. And then I’m gonna approach it from that lens.

And so, we’ve tried to instill that type of mindset in our organization as we try to help others grow in that area. But what you find, what I found over time is when you build that type of trusting community where people feel comfortable sharing their thoughts, sharing their input we know how important it is to solicit feedback from others, but then they’ve got to see you do something with it.

Janet Pilcher: Yes.

Rob Clayton: And I will go back to that’s communicating, you know. A lot of times when we speak to communicate about communication, we’re thinking about okay, what was said orally. Which I find to be really a very small part of the communication, very important, but a very small part. because I think most people are going to evaluate judges on our actions.

Well, our actions are communicating our values. They’re communicating our beliefs. They’re communicating, you know, what our priorities are. So, we talk a lot about the importance of our actions being our primary communicator. And I think when you accomplish those key pieces strong positive relationships will evolve.

The other piece to this. The work is so comprehensive. The target does seem to move quite a bit on us. You really have to tackle this as a group, right? No one individual really has the capacity to perform and lead, at least at the level that we expect. Because we expect excellence.

And so, in order to achieve that, you really don’t need to be trying to navigate that alone.

Janet Pilcher: Yes.


Janet Pilcher: Next week we’ll continue our discussion with Rob as we dive deeper into how he and his team stay accountable and in alignment while achieving goals.

He’ll also share how he has led his executive team to build trust, courage, and ownership, as well as reflections over his time as a leader. I’ve enjoyed the conversation I’ve had with Rob today, and you can see why Rob is such an excellent leader and a model for all of us to follow. I look forward to our continued discussion next week.

I hope you enjoyed our conversation today.

Please continue to connect with us and love the connections that you make. If there’s a question that we can answer or topic you would like us to cover, we’d love to hear from you. You can e-mail me at jpilcher@hcg.com or e-mail our podcast Producer Mary Stackhouse Consoli at marystackhouse@hcg.com.

[Outro music plays in the background.]

We’ll always love to hear from you and help us know the things that are most important to you. Please reach out and as always, I thank you for tuning into this episode of Accelerate Your Performance.

I look forward to connecting with you next time as we continue to focus on the Nine Principles Framework so that we can be our best at work. Have a great week everyone.

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If you enjoy the podcast, explore Janet’s latest book, Hardwiring Excellence in Education. Each chapter focuses on the Nine Principles® Framework offering tools and tactics to enhance leadership skills and elevate organizational performance.

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