Teacher showing young students different kinds of plants. Strengthening culture through trust building.

Join us for part two of Dr. Janet Pilcher’s thought-provoking conversation with Superintendent Rob Clayton of Warren County Public Schools. In this episode, they dive into how Mr. Clayton has built trust, courage, ownership, and commitment with his team by leading with intention and transparency to achieve organizational excellence. They also discuss the importance of data-driven decision-making and systematic review processes to encourage a culture of accountability and alignment. Lastly, Mr. Clayton highlights the ultimate goal of ensuring student success by focusing on the continued investment in and development of the adults who play a pivotal role in students’ educational journeys.

Part One
EP319: Achieve Accountability Through Consistency and Communication

This episode addresses questions such as:
  • How does collaboration positively influence the executive decision-making process?
  • What is the beneficial influence on students when support is provided to the adults within an organization?
  • How does instilling a sense of pride and ownership within a team create a culture where employees are assertive and empowered?

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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. Today, Rob Clayton joins us back on our show. Rob is the Superintendent of Warren County Public Schools in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Last week, Rob shared with us how he has hardwired commitment to accountability to achieve organizational goals into the district’s culture. He also discussed how he has built consistency in leadership practices across the organization.

Today, he’ll share how he leads his executive leadership team to build trust, courage, and ownership. He’ll also discuss how he and his team stay aligned and moving forward in the right direction to achieve results.

Before we begin the conversation, I’m going to share a bit about Rob’s background as well as the school district he leads. Warren County Public Schools is the 4th largest district in Kentucky. Since 2013, as Superintendent, Rob has supervised the growth of the district to more than 18,000 students. Rob has received an honor of being named the 2022 Superintendent of the Year by the National Association of School Superintendents. And this year he was named 2023 superintendent of the year by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.


Janet Pilcher: Rob, it’s been important to you to build trust and courage and ownership and commitment in the team that works with you and leads in that way, so what have you done? What are some ways you’ve done that with your executive team?

Rob Clayton: One of the things that comes to mind first is trying not to lead by mystery. What I’m referencing there is, I watched a lot of leaders growing up, and there were some that were very successful by leading what I kind of call by mystery.

In other words, you didn’t really know what they were thinking, but you didn’t necessarily want to find out. So, you did the right thing right.

Janet Pilcher: [Laugh.] Yeah.

Rob Clayton: So, you know, maybe you want to call it intimidation. My point in that is, I think, that can lead to a high level of compliance. But I don’t believe it can lead to organizational excellence. And so, what we’ve tried to do is be very open and transparent with our thoughts and our beliefs to the point where it’s so well ingrained that perhaps you might know that the answer to the question, you’re getting ready to ask before you ask it.

I shared this with our- our 2 new members this year on our cabinet, that my goal, unlike, maybe what you’ve heard in the past from others is I want you to be able to speak on my behalf.

Now think back we’ve all been around a leader that’s like, let me be my spokesperson. You don’t answer for me, right? Cause I think if we are to become and again that that’s our goal. We’re not there.

But if we are to become an organization of excellence, then I would think the leader in their actions, their beliefs are so well understood by everyone in the organization that people can get behind and support, take ownership. You know all these nice adjectives that reflect high performing organization.

And so, by being open, by being very transparent, by being collaborative, we’re trying to create a culture where people approach our adaptor problems in the same fashion as an example. Or if we have a personnel issue, there is no ambiguity on okay, what is next step, right?

I mentioned earlier, I think most of the decisions we make are very easy to make. I truly believe that it’s rare that I find myself making a real, difficult decision. Now I didn’t say they’re not painful.

Many of them are painful, because in some cases you find yourself kind of picking between this group or that group, right? Winners and losers cause there’s no clear-cut answer at time. But if you’re operating in a collaborative manner, your focus is doing what’s best for kids, which, oh, by the way means you’re taking care of your adults because they’re the very ones that are taking care of the kids, right?

Janet Pilcher: Yeah.

Rob Clayton: And so, if you’re doing those things, typically, you know which direction to go in terms of the decision. But if you’re not doing it in a collaborative manner, there may be pieces of information that you don’t know, you’re not aware of, and then you make a decision, creates unintended consequences. And then, in some cases can really chip away at your culture.

So, we try to let eliminate as best we can what I would call mistakes by co-mission. In that words we’re contributing to the challenge. Again, really keep the focus where- where it needs to be. But I think it all comes back to, what are you trying to do to build trust, to build a culture where people can speak up?

You know, we were having this discussion earlier. Because when you have 3,000 employees, you’re always dealing with a potential employee situation. And one of the conversations we had today was really trying to determine, okay, is the challenge because this individual doesn’t feel comfortable stepping up and taking a larger role? Or is the person sitting back purposely to see if a potential implosion may occur?

And you’re not gonna know that answer if you’re not developing a culture where everybody feels a sense of pride and ownership.

And one of the comments I share with our leadership team is one of their primary responsibilities is to help the superintendent be right. Now, the good news is that’s also one of the primary responsibilities of the superintendent, is to help others be right. But if we’re right, our kids win. And that again needs to be the focus when we’re trying to educate students.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah. Such good advice, and such good processes and approaches that you use.

I love what you just said. I just wrote it down, Rob, that you know it- we all- we tend to say we’re making difficult decisions. But you’re right, when it boils down to it, we know the decisions we need to make take based on, you know, our values and what we’re achieving and what’s right by students and what we’re trying to achieve as the overall goal.

But it’s painful right, and it’s the painful part that makes it difficult. That is, that’s such a great way to think about that. And it means we have to act on it.

As you think about what- what you were talking about earlier again, the consistency of leadership practices and how you really build leaders. You know, we’ve talked about communication and just the way you work with executive teams, and the way you establish the approach of building trust in the organization that connects back to communication.

The other thing you mentioned was the scorecard, and really driving toward results and continuously improving to drive toward results and moving in a positive direction. And although you say you haven’t achieved organizational excellence. I mean none of us, you know. You’re the kind of leader, Rob, that you’ll never think that you’ve achieved it because you’ll always think that you can improve, and that’s what makes you a great leader.

We never kind of arrive to a place and say, “Done”, right? I mean, we’re always trying to get better.

So, as you think about what you’re driving to in terms of achieving goals. How do you and your team stay accountable and aligned to achieving those goals?

Rob Clayton: Well, we have a few processes in place to help us with that. I mentioned earlier about being a very collaborative school district, and part of that is, we seek information from our constituents. So, we survey our students, our staff, our parents and in a in a variety of surveys to find out how we’re performing.

We do rounding, which is another best practice where we go in and find out what’s going well, what are areas for improvement, and, as you know, we also take that opportunity to build our culture by highlighting an individual or an entity that is, is doing extraordinarily well.

And we found that to be very beneficial. We began a golden apple or day, one here back in 2,013 to try to recognize our best and brightest both classes, every department, and we’ve given out well over a hundred of those recognitions. But what I learned through the rounding process, even though that was an award, and we bring them before a board meeting, and we do a surprise visit at the school.

So, we really go to great lengths to show that we truly value our people. That that’s our winning edge, right is to ensure that we have the best and brightest working with our kids. But the rounding process also opened my eyes to it can really be something as simple as just a short note: “Hey, I was having a conversation with Principal Young yesterday, and he mentioned how well you’re doing in your particular job.” That that again helps us build that that culture that we’re- we’re striving to create.

The other piece of that is, we’re we’re trying to be very systematic about coming back and looking at our data through short cycle reviews. We have, as I mentioned earlier, the assessment. Excuse me, the survey results, but we also come through and look at our school card to evaluate how are we progressing with the identified goals that were created by a collaborative group.

They’re not created by the board. They were created by the the superintendent, because we know, in order to ensure that we have ownership, which is what you have to have, you’re not going to have sustainable results. If the organization as as a collective is not pulling together and trying to achieve those results, you know, you’ll have little what we call pockets of excellence. Right, it’ll pop up here or there depending on the talent of that individual. Well, that’s not good enough when you have well, over 1,000 classrooms, you know.

We need 1,000 plus teachers performing at a high level, right? We have 26 varieties of schools. Well, we need 26 principals performing at the highest level, and not to mention anything about the districts or offices and all the departments. We know that we have to have that that quality in in every aspect of the organization.

So being sys- systematic about looking at the data, every district says, every school says their data driven right with their decision-making. But the reality is. And it goes back to that that communication piece.

Are you demonstrating that your data driven through your actions? And so, what processes are you implementing? Are you and sharing fidelity with that’s gonna help drive and achieve those results?

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good, you know, as just as we’re talking through. And you’re answering these questions, you know. Just you’re such a model, I mean, Rob, you really are. I mean just your continued learning and your continued openness to learn working with your people.

You know, it’s just a model for superintendents and other leaders. In in education to really look to. So, I just, I appreciate so much the conversation today.

But you know, I’d really like you to close, you know, you’ve been in the business for a long longer time now, right? I mean, you’ve been superintendent for quite some time, and you know again congratulations for winning the Kentucky Superintendent of the Year, and so well deserved.

But, you know, just as you look back, I mean, as you’re sitting in in the seat now, and you’re looking back, and you’re thinking of, you know, what am I most proud of as as a leader? You know? What does leadership really mean to me personally, if I were to walk out, which or not?

But if I were to walk out tomorrow and I said, and you said, you know. Gosh! You know this- this was meaningful right? This is what it was all about. Now, what would that be?

Rob Clayton: Wow! Without a great deal of reflect, a couple of thoughts come to mind. I think, first and foremost, that what I think the most satisfaction in this job is really just seeing our kids perform.

And when I say “perform,” I’m talking about perform at anything, whether it’s a service project. Whether it’s a classroom experiment or it could be in one of the extra curriculums. But just knowing that we’re creating an environment where kids have opportunities to perform.

And you know, we all wanna see our students when they graduate have multiple opportunities, multiple pathways, right? It’s what we want for our own kids and certainly want it for all 18,000 plus here in Warren County.

But I have found myself here this is year 11 and and I hope my health continues, and everything enables me to continue in this role. So, I always pref with that. But really, what I think is is resonating most is, I want to see a lot of the the tremendous work that has occurred in this district over the last decade. I want to see it continue on.

And so, I spend a lot of time thinking about how do we ensure that these best practices that are now being implemented, that they stay? And then the next individual comes in and just grows it right? Because what I have learned and observed over time is when you get change and executive lead leadership that that top spot. They can take it in a different direction, of course.

And mine is not about ego in that sense. But it’s like, okay, if what we’re doing is working, and it’s best for kids, then how do we ensure that- that continues on?

So, it’s not all for, not so to speak. And I think the way you do that is, you build a culture where the culture will drive it. So that’s what we’re trying- we’re trying to position this district where? Yes, there’ll be changes at the top, but these core principles won’t change. Great example is there gonna ever be a time where being respectful is not a core ingredient of the culture of this organ. I mean, I think we could. We all would agree. Well, it should be right. Well, what about ethical? Should that? Not always.

Okay. I’m going right down our options of excellence here. Professionalism, nurturing, being united. Right? I mean, I think everybody would say. But those core ingredients need to stay. Well, that’s what we’ve tried to achieve. We’ve tried to create those core tenants that people won’t debate whether this is important or not that that can add to it.

But they’ll make sure that these pieces feedback, right? We’re very heavily invested in feedback. Now, is there going to be a time we’re soliciting stakeholder feedbacks not important? I mean, I just can’t imagine. So then how do we do that because we don’t want the next leader to come in and say, well, that wasn’t my idea. So, we’re gonna do something different.

Well again, it’s not about our singular ideas. It’s about what is truly best for our kids. Of course, we’re also talking about the organization.

Janet Pilcher: Yeah, so good. And you said it so well there and so well with, you know, our kids. If we’re gonna do the best for our kids, we have to do the best for our adults, because our adults are the ones doing the best for kids.

Such a great statement that you made, and which is what our work is really all about, we’re about the kids. And also really focused on, how do we as adults- how can we be the best that we can be so that we can provide the greatest service to our kids and their families. That’s what we’re here for, and you certainly do lead in that way.

Thank you so much for being with us today, Rob.

Rob Clayton: Thank you, Janet, and thank you for all your kind words.



[Outro music plays in the background.]

Janet Pilcher: It’s such a pleasure to have an opportunity to host Rob on this show. I think you can see that he leads as a model to others. He is a person who continues to learn, continues to grow because Rob is not someone who knows he has achieved excellence. He’s always striving to better and better himself to continuously achieve excellence.

He’s an excellent leader, but you’ll never hear him say that he has arrived to be to that place of excellence because he will always push people and himself to get better.

We’ll include a link to part one of our interview with Rob in the show in our recommended resources so that you can be sure to catch that part of the show in case you missed it. I hope you tune into part one, and I’m glad you’re here with us today.

Don’t ever hesitate to reach out to us if there’s a question we can answer or a topic you’d like us to cover. We value your input, and we love hearing from you. You can e-mail me at jpilcher@hcg.com or you can e-mail our podcast producer, Mary Stackhouse Consoli, at mstackhouse@hcg.com.

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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