“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” – Jack Welch
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay with her bachelor’s degree in business administration, Hilary Cordova went on to work at the School District of Phillips in Wisconsin as a secretary and eventually becoming an accounting clerk. After five and a half years, Hilary took a job at CESA 9 as the assistant fiscal administrator in 2010 before taking over as the leader of the department in 2015. “What I love most about my role at CESA 9 is the freedom and the autonomy to take our mission and vision and move it forward in my department in my own way. I’m in charge of the processes and procedures. I have a goal and I can go and make it happen,” says Hilary.
CESA stands for Cooperative Educational Service Agency. The name is long, but what CESAs do is very simple. There are 12 CESAs in the state of Wisconsin that make it possible for schools to work together and extend educational opportunities to all. CESA’s provide services without mandates or levying taxes–and with no direct state appropriations. CESA 9 consists of 22 school districts in north central Wisconsin serving more than 2,800 teachers and 35,000 students in 102 public schools, plus two technical colleges and one UW System campus.
Hilary Cordova was recently nominated in a Leader Spotlight by the Agency Administrator, Dr. Karen Wendorf-Heldt, who stated that “Hilary has worked diligently to put into place processes and leadership practices that provide for fiscal strength while allowing for customization, encouraging creativity, nurturing collaborative solution-finding, and building a culture of high expectation, high engagement and high performance.”
Leading the Way
From the beginning of her career at CESA 9, Hilary saw opportunities for improvements and efficiencies. One of the first things she did in her new role was change the accounting software and change banks. If you’re not in the finance field, you might not think that this is a big deal; however, it was a huge undertaking. Additionally, she changed their time-tracking system, or lack there of. When Hilary took over, her team was still sending in paper calendars. They were always at the mercy of “waiting for those pieces of paper to come through the fax machine.” So, Hilary jumped in and switched everybody to a digital format that is accessible at any point in time.
“This was really a big undertaking. I feel like it took a few years to get people where I wanted them. It was a great learning experience as far as being a leader. I just kind of jumped in assuming that everybody knew what I knew. It was really helpful to go through that experience because I was able to understand that not everybody in our agency is at the same level of tech savviness. So I don’t want to say that I learned the hard way because I do think it went well. However, I could have done a much better job if I would have thought through who was on the receiving end of the change,” says Hilary.
On top of the changing systems, Hilary has also been working on updating the onboarding processes at CESA 9. Often times when you start a new job, you’re handed a stack of papers and are told, “Here’s your pile of papers, now have a nice day!” Hilary noticed this trend from the beginning of her career, even before CESA 9.
“We give people these papers, and it’s very clear that no one is reading them as I was spending a lot of time answering questions. So, I wanted to get on the proactive end of onboarding and create a more formal process. So instead of giving people a bunch of papers to read, I would actually sit down with each new employee. And what that did for all the questions I was getting was great. But what I learned along the way was even better! It created a way for me to develop a relationship with new people, and that was super valuable. I didn’t plan it that way. It just worked out. They felt comfortable coming to me when they had a question or if something major in life was happening.”
At CESA 9, there is a core group of staff that works right in the office. However, most of their staff is out within the districts. So, new hires will often come in for orientation and then might not step foot in the door again for another year. With that, Hilary set out to improve this process by creating an employee website so that all resources were easily accessible. “The employees are my customers. It’s their job to serve the kids and serve our customers, but my job is to serve them,” explains Hilary.
On CESA 9’s most recent Employee Engagement Survey, colleagues made comments about Hilary’s hard work stating things like, “I’d like to give a shout out to Hilary for always accomplishing more in one day than what seems possible” and “Thank you, Hilary, for putting all of your time and effort into making our jobs easier.”
Advice for Leaders
Hilary offers three key pieces of advice on what makes a great leader.
1. Always follow through.
“One of the things that serves me well is following through. My top goal for every day is to follow through. If I say that I am going to do something, I do it. If I say I am going to find out about something and get back to someone, then I better do it — and do it in a timely manner. As you get more responsibilities, this gets harder and harder to do. But it is so important to keep following through at the forefront.”
2. Communicate until you are blue in the face.
“Communicating adds confidence, trust and respect for the person on the other end. And I just think you can’t do it enough! I’ve learned that the more intentional I am about communication, the better things go. Whether it’s day to day things or big changes, the more time people have to think and process, the less unsettled they will be about a change.”
3. Make connections with your peers.
“My happy place is definitely in my cubicle with my green visor and calculator. But I think getting out of my comfort zone and going out and networking with my peers and learning from others has proven to be worth my time and then some. I’ve always been obsessed with learning the skill and checking off the tasks; however, somewhere along the way the lightbulb finally went on. I realized that there is a huge people component to all of this. I can’t be successful without recognizing that and doing a good job at the ‘people piece’ in order to make connections. Now, I have connections and resources. I have people who have been down the same roads or maybe we’re going down a road at the same time. They’ve really helped me take my game to the next level.”