Develop Accountability to Develop Leadership

In this Accelerate Your Performance podcast episode, Dr. Janet Pilcher invites Nannette Johnston, former Studer Education Leader Coach and 2014 Superintendent of the Year, awarded by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators. She joins us to discuss what it takes to succeed in the continually changing K12 education landscape and also share her experience serving one of our partners, Rob Clayton, Superintendent of Warren County Public Schools in Kentucky. Mr. Clayton is a model leader who is committed to excellence and improvement. Listen now to hear about Nannette’s journey and to hear her share how Rob has built an inspiring workplace culture, applies excellent service, what key actions he’s taken to focus on developing leaders intentionally, and how he models accountability within his district.

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 


Before we get started, our biggest leadership conference of the year is coming up: What’s Right in Education. You’ll hear about key strategies to shift culture, improve processes, and exceed results. Like our podcast, this conference will highlight specific tactics from the Nine Principles Framework, actively driving results and highly effective organizations. You can view our future featured speakers and find out more about What’s Right in Education at studereducation.com/events. The conference is set for October 24th through the 26th. We hope you will join us there.  


So now let’s jump into the episode. It’s my pleasure to welcome back on to our show Nannette Johnston. Nannette has served as a leader coach for Studer Education, and prior to that, she served working in the Hardin County School District in Kentucky for 35 years. Nannette began her teaching career as a kindergarten and elementary level teacher before serving as the District’s Director of Early Childhood and then a Superintendent for 10 years. Nannette achieved many honors throughout her career including being named the 2014 Superintendent of the Year by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators.  


During Nannette’s tenure, the Hardin County Schools Early College and Career Center was built providing tremendous opportunities in early college coursework and career pathways. Because of her vision and leadership, the Hardin County Board of Education named the training and presentation hall at the Early College and Career Center the Nannette S. Johnston Hall in her honor. So well deserved. Currently Nannette works part time for the Kentucky Association of School Administrators with the new superintendent onboarding program and the Coordinator of Mentor Services for Kentucky Women in Education Leadership.  


Nannette serves on the Baptist Health Hardin Foundation Board, the core team for Heels Together of the Central Kentucky Community Foundation, and she sings in the music ministry group Testify. Nannette has served as a coach for one of our partners, Rob Clayton, the superintendent of Warren County Public Schools in Kentucky. Rob is a model leader when it comes to communication and building a strong workplace culture. He’s highlighted in Hardwiring Excellence in Education very specifically on principle six, but Rob demonstrates all the nine principles which you’ll hear about from Nannette and as we talk about Rob and his leadership in our episode today. 


We’ll discuss more about that and hear from Nannette’s lens as his coach. We’ll also discuss what it takes to succeed in the continually changing landscape of K12 Education.  




Janet Pilcher: It’s with great pleasure that I bring back to the show Nannette Johnston. So good to have you back with us, Nannette. It’s been a while since we talked, and it’s always good to see you.  


Nannette Johnston: Oh, it’s good to see you as well. Once you’ve been a part of this group, you just always feel very connected, so thanks for having me.  


Janet Pilcher: Absolutely. And I know you’ve still been highly connected to the educational field. And as you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background, you’ve been on the show before. You’ve coached with us, and we miss you a lot, Nannette. You know, one of the things that you do so well, and that this podcast episode is about is going back a little bit to principle four: you know, developing leaders to develop people. And we’re going to talk a lot about Rob Clayton today. And you’re coaching of him through his- the beginning of time to all through his superintendency. And, you know, tell us a little bit as you, as you talk about you, why being a coach of leaders is so important to you.  


Nannette Johnston: Sure, I will be happy to do that. Well, my background is really in early childhood education. I started as a teacher, and I guess you would say those were the first days where you really get that love for developing people, and they were little people. But I was I was doing that as a teacher in early childhood and then as an early childhood director at the administrative level now developing teachers and then moved on to the superintendency and was a superintendent in the school district for 10 years to look at the big picture of developing across the organization.  


But upon retirement, I started with, I was with Studer Education for six years and then continue from 2016 and continue now, overseeing the new superintendent onboarding program and do executive level coaching with new superintendents, new leaders. That is probably one of the most fulfilling things and then coaching with Studer Education, you feel like as a leader, you’ve arrived, because your fulfillment now is seeing the success of other people. You really, in the past, I really wanted the district to excel and for us to do very well. But now, it’s about seeing those leaders excel and helping them, helping craft their leadership skills so that they’ll be successful.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah, and it’s- it’s- there’s nothing to describe that feeling in when you see, you know, it is kind of I love what you just did, and taking it, we all started as teachers, and we felt that way, when our students succeeded, you know- we were developing them, and we had very- we’re very proud of that. And now, you know, just kind of taking that up to developing superintendents and really supporting and coaching them, we have that same pride when they really excel and our stories, you know, I think about as we sit around as, as coaches for Studer Education, you know, what we’re talking about, our, our how- how our- how our leaders, the people that we work with each day are excelling, right, the very specific things that they’re doing, and I’m very proud of them. And I know you have a lot of pride in that.  


Nannette Johnston: Absolutely. And I guess, because now the power of that is that, you know, if you impact their leadership, that they’re going to impact those that they serve, and the students. And so really, your level of reach is so much deeper. Because now you’re broadening out and touching other school districts, and they’re touching those that they serve. And that’s just very rewarding to feel like you can really give back to the profession in that way, by developing leaders. 


Janet Pilcher: You know, Nannette you had. So when we were focusing on principle six, be accountable, and we were, you know, I could have put Rob’s story in so many of the chapters because it crosses the principles. But as I really thought about, you know, where it fit, I just felt like at the end of the day, you know, Rob reminds me of principle six, because he is the person who takes very serious, being accountable for his himself as a superintendent and then really developing his leaders, and being accountable in a way that people can count on him.  


And so, in a later episode, we’re going to talk to Rob, but I also wanted to talk to you because you had an important part of, of coaching Rob, and then us really telling Rob’s story, so that others could learn from it. So, one of the things that Rob has done, he’s done many things, but he’s excelled in building an inspiring workplace environment, excelled in providing excellent service and building that culture. He consistently has high district survey results, so he looks at feedback as a gift, which is really important. But you know, can you share looking at that culture piece? Can you share with us what it takes for a leader to build that inspiring culture and, and to make that occur across his leadership team and be that committed to success in that way?  


Nannette Johnston: Sure will. When I look at Rob, and I look at these leaders that are successful, they all share that commonality of building a- they’re very- they treat people with dignity and respect. And they build such a strong trusting relationship. People, they don’t, they don’t see him as with a lot of surprises, he’s, he’s very transparent, and the way he works with his district, he goes first. He wants that feedback. He shared that as far as the survey results, and if he’s going to ask others to do something, he’s going to lead the way. He’s going to get out there first and be the one to model what that looks like.  


But I do think it all goes back to building those trusting relationships. If you don’t have the trust, and they don’t trust the leader and don’t trust the messenger, they’re certainly not going to trust the message. So, he starts with that, and I think that’s why Warren County’s got such a strong culture.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah, you know, and I just in the last book study that we did, I asked the question, you know, do you change attitudes or behaviors first, and you know, this usually 50-50, most people tend toward attitude. And so, I land on “Well, you’ve got to change the behavior. If you change the behavior, you’ll get to the attitude.” 


You know, just thinking about that from a teaching standpoint, too. Not everybody wants to do what it is that we want them to do, but when we start doing it, we start seeing the results. And, you know, that’s always what I’ve, with Rob, with, like, I think about surveys and leader rounding, you know, he’s done the behavior and that, right? And he’s consistently done those behaviors that then builds that trust, right? He didn’t, he doesn’t go in and he’s anointed with trust. He’s working hard at really doing those behaviors. I mean, have you seen that with him? I know you’ve seen it firsthand, but do you see that in Rob?  


Nannette Johnston: I do. I see him take that feedback. And that, you know, and I’ll share that even more, as we as we discuss of how he uses that feedback to change his behavior. He’s very conscientious about the perception of others. And I think that attributes to a strong leader, self-awareness. If a leader isn’t self-aware, of taking, is seeing from other people’s seat, how they are viewed, then you’re going to have a problem with the relationship building. You’ve got to- you’ve got to understand the perception of others. And he uses that feedback to have a pulse on that perception.  


He’s very strong, which I think is part of his culture. I would say he listens differently. Now, listening is a big part of his strength in communication. But it’s also a strength in his relationship building, because he listens to understand where people are coming from, which is perception. He doesn’t listen to try to respond. So, when I say he listens differently, I think people respect that because they feel like their voice is heard. Because of his actions based on what he learned from them, where they are with their experience. And that- that again, strengthens- that’s the strength of a great culture. 


Janet Pilcher: It is yeah, in such a model for other leaders. So, you know, let’s think about that as well. You know, he, he definitely applies the behaviors and leads by example. But he also surrounds himself with great leaders with intentional focus, and he has an intentional focus of developing leaders. That’s, that’s very clear in his story, and just my conversations with him. So, what key actions demonstrate that he does that well?  


Nannette Johnston: Well, we go back to that going first, he leads by example. So, we talked about the feedback and why his scores are so strong, those district scores are so strong, he takes that feedback. And he sets the example by being accountable. By putting that visibly out for everybody to see: “This is what you said and here’s what we’re going to do about it.” That’s on the scorecard. Even some of his own scores are on that district scorecard as far as the district services survey and things they need to do to improve communication. So, he’ll take that employee feedback and really values that and puts, puts his words into action. 


But he also cascades that because he expects the principals to do the same thing. So they see him go first on the district scorecard and on their school scorecards, you will also see their goal for their employee engagement improvement on their school scorecard. And then at a deeper level, he holds them accountable by having it on their, their own personal professional growth plan.  


So that accountability, again, it starts with the leader, but the expectation is it cascades to the principals, and they own it. It’s very much a part of the success that they have in their district. And I think that again, that goes back to their culture.  


Another thing he does very well is they’re a very, very large district, so he certainly cannot evaluate every leader in the district, but he always takes the new principals under his wing. And every year he’ll take that new principal group, and he is their evaluator, visits them frequently, and I would say he’s really as much of a coach for them as an evaluator to help them understand the way they do business in Warren County and the expectation. He takes that very personally and, and helps them to be their very best that first year, which is really, really tough. 


And the third thing I think that Warren County does well under Rob’s leadership is not only does he look at those new leaders, but they have a, a deeper level of support with a structured leader development program, so they bring those new administrators together each month in what they call an administrative support network. And it’s more of an onboarding, it’s a support system, collaborative discussion, just kind of learning the ropes together, as those new leaders in that district in that new role, and he builds his pipeline too with an aspiring administrator program, so they’ve got the next level of folks that are, that they go to when- when they have that domino effect that sometimes happens in a district. So that’s how you build capacity.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah 


Nannette Johnston: And they do that well. 


Janet Pilcher: Yes. You know, what you’re talking about, that’s why I put him in Be Accountable. You know, that’s why I was like- that’s- it’s because again, you can see how he applies all of the principles. But at that centerpiece, he is so committed to the accountability component within the district in such a positive way, because it’s through development and coaching, you know, not that hard layer of accountability on top, although I’m sure he, you know, is really pushing toward results. But I mean, he’s really, really building that development component that attaches to how we help people do, be their best so that they can be accountable in ways that are meaningful for the district. And he just- he’s such a model for that.  


One of the other things, you know, that that he talks about, too, and, and that you’ve talked about, is he sees communication as key to being accountable. So, can you describe how- how Rob leads his executive team because that’s key? Yeah, the executive team is key to build the ownership, that ownership and commitment because Rob’s the model, but that executive team is also, you know, the people that the whole organization’s looking at, the whole district is looking at, to see if they’re following. 


Nannette Johnston: Absolutely. You know, I’ve been in many of his executive level team meetings, and he is a master communicator. And I think it’s because he is very intentional about making sure, especially when tough decisions need to be made, having the right people around that table even expanded from an executive level team, who are the people that need to be around that table. And he asks for their opinions. In fact, the more differing opinions he can get, the better. He has what I call a, maybe a scenario-thinking mentality. He likes to ask these people, “What are the unintended consequences here? What are we missing? What is the blind spot?” Because he said, “If you come out with good decisions that are well thought out, that builds trust.”  


You know, you can’t use education. We’re not in the weather businesses to say, “Well, what’s a 50-50 chance.” You know, we have to come out with the right decision and have the facts to support that. So, he really, really seeks input.  


And as I said, he listens. Strong communication starts with great listening, listening deeply to understand all angles of the situation. We talked yesterday for quite a while and talked about the power of the pause. Sometimes if you can give it a little time- your- your answer and your decisions will be even more clear. And you’ll make a better decision with purpose. So, he’s very, very strong at those things, scenario-thinking and listening.  


Another thing he does very, very well and he- he shared that he said he learned that from Studer Education, is what we did during the pandemic to survive, called those huddle meetings, is now a great tactic to continue to create clarity in those moments when you’ve got people all over the county and you can’t bring everybody into the office. But you can have a quick huddle meeting virtually just to talk through and make sure the key words you’re getting ready to communicate are clear, on spot, and delivered with accuracy and timing. And those- those things that we use, again to survive have been have carried through to be tried and true… [laughs] 


Janet Pilcher: Yeah. 


Nannette Johnson: …tactics to continue to cascade very clear, transparent, concise communication, the best that you can with the information you have in the moment.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah, first of all, I mean, just the, the intention and the listening and then the acting on that listing and feedback. You know, I mean, that’s such a great learning as we’re going through the conversation you and I are having, Nannette. I mean, there’s so many points. I hope people are taking notes because there’s so many points that really represent, you know, what does it really take for us to be the best leader we can be and to be a great leader?  


You know, one of the things that has come out is we had to, there were things that we did during COVID that were different than what we’ve done before. And some of those are sticking. I- I laughed the other day. We were going through some of our toolkits on the website, and we still have the reentry toolkit up there. And I was kind of like, “shouldn’t we like, take that down? Because we’re kind of past that.” And they’re like, “but it’s one of our like, it’s one of our most downloaded [laughs] toolkits.” And so it just, I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, then that tells us something” which has the explanation, the huddles, and the communication pieces that were really significant.  


So, you know, that was just a lesson for me, well, maybe we should still keep those pieces but refocus it to what the current state is and keep those. I’ve heard that, I think the huddles, the survey rollout process and gathering the feedback and leader rounding, you know, the combination of those three tools… 


Nannette Johnston: Absolutely. 


Janet Pilcher: …and tactics are just powerful, right, that’s my learning so much over the last several years. And we and- and, you know, building the trust and changing culture, it does take a lot of intentional effort that you’re talking about. But it also didn’t take 100 things in order to for that to occur. And I think that’s what Rob does so well. He picks the things and he does, he executes to fidelity. He holds himself and others accountable. And he truly listens to that feedback and does something with it. And I’m like “if we if we just do that, right?” 


Nannette Johnston: Absolutely. 


Janet Pilcher: If we just do that, we start changing culture. 


Nannette Johnston: And I think those things you just mentioned, the survey, the voice, the huddle meetings, and the rounding, it all goes back to listening for people to feel like someone cared enough to sit down with me and to listen to my voice and act on that. And sometimes we can’t do exactly what people are sharing with us, but they just basically want to be heard. And to know that somebody really listened and understood where their where they were coming from.  


Janet Pilcher: Absolutely. You know, I’d like to as we close today, I want to, I want to take it back to you. We’ve talked a lot about Rob, and by talking about Rob, we have talked about your excellent coaching. You’re a stellar leader, Nannette and still are, and you know, now coaching other leaders, just a great coach, and you have excellent skills altogether from a leader perspective. But now you’re able to look back a little bit and reflect, you know, as you look back over your profession, and looking back to reflect on the skills that leaders need to navigate this continuously changing landscape.  


It’s going to continuously change for a long time, and there are external factors that are really tough right now. But there are skills that leaders have that, you know, that they can apply, that you’ve learned, as you reflect back. I’m just curious, as we close, you know, what do you think those skills are?  


Nannette Johnston: As we started, and we talked about those skills that build a strong culture, I don’t think they’re ever going to go away. I think that’s got to always be there. That’s that strong emotional intelligence to where they’re very self-aware, but they build those, those trusting relationships, and they have good self-regulation, they are driven. That’s not going to change for great leaders that are successful.  


I do think it, you’re right, the changing landscape, they’ve got to have some strong skills and adaptability. Because of things that are coming at them, change that’s constantly happening. They have to know they can’t always stay with the plan that they were going to have. They have to adapt to what the situation is and use what they know when their facts and trust their instincts to move forward. They have to be adaptable, problem-solving, problem solvers. And they have to have humility.  


Janet Pilcher: Yes. 


Nannette Johnston: You always have to be humble. But more than ever, you have to have humility to be able to say, “that original plan isn’t going to fit with the changes that are coming our way. We’re going to shift a little bit and here’s the ‘why’ behind that.” They have to be prepared to own it and be humble, and I think people appreciate and trust that in a leader that will own it.  


And I think they always have to have empathy, more now than ever before because people bring a lot of different variables and challenges to the table. That strength of listening helps them to seek to understand where those people are coming from and make decisions based upon the big picture of what’s going to be best for everyone.  


So, I think those, those root rooted skills are still there, but the others I think are gonna be necessary for the future and the continuous change that I think our leaders are going to experience in the future.  


Janet Pilcher: Yeah. Great, great suggestions and recommendations. And again, so many notes for people to take from this, this episode. I’ll just close you know, as I think about from- from with you being coach here and, and doing our Strength Finders, Nannette, I tend to tell people this. So, you and KK and Robin were high in execution on the Strengths Finders. And so, you and Robin have retired. And so, I’ve always depended, I always depended on the three of you, because I need–I don’t have–even though I- I talk a lot about solid execution and believe it and discipline myself to do that, that is something I have to work at doing.  


But I also have learned to count on people who do that well. And you and Robin and KK were the people that I counted on. And now I just, you know, I miss you for that. I miss so much. And KK is like the, my go-to, people are like “why is she always your go-to person?” 


Nannette Johnston: [laughs] 


Janet Pilcher: ‘Cause, I like, I need that- I need that head. I need that mind. I need that help. And I you know, I just, I just say that because, you know, I think what we what you do so well and what Rob does so well and what I’ve learned from people like you is we’re not expected to have all the skills, and when we depend on people who have strengths in those areas that help us, you know, we become better. And I just want you to know, I appreciate that in you. And I know that you give that gift to so many.  


Nannette Johnston: Well, thank you so much, Janet. It’s about a team. You know, Rob’s strong with that. Studer Education is strong with that. And I think organizations that do well depend upon the gifts and talents and differences of the people on their team that make it what it is. And so, we can’t all be perfect in every area. And we don’t, I always say, the leaders don’t have all the answers, you need to always ask the right questions. And then you can help get all the right people around the table to help move forward. And that’s what great organizations do.  


Janet Pilcher: Thank you so much. Thanks for your time today. 


Nannette Johnston: Thank you, Janet.  




Janet Pilcher: I appreciate Nannette being with us. It was so great to have the connection with her again. And she serves our profession in such a valuable way. As I mentioned, she is a great coach of so many. And as we’ve highlighted Rob’s leadership today and her coaching of Rob through the years, I’ve mentioned throughout, there are a lot of notes to take,,, 


[Outro music plays in the background.] 


…from this episode to really look at what great leadership looks like. And I am appreciative of Nannette and appreciative of Rob, and we’re gonna hear from Rob in an episode that follows today’s episode down the road so that we can hear from his voice as we connect the dots on how he applies the nine principles framework.  


We have a new virtual book club that’s underway, and I’d love to invite you to join. I love doing this book club. We meet twice monthly to dive chapter by chapter into my new book Hardwiring Excellence in Education the Nine Principles framework. No matter what your position and your organization, if you want to grow as a leader and lead at the next level, this club is for you. Everyone’s a leader. We all need to exhibit great leadership skills to be at our best in our profession.  


Our next book club meeting is happening next Monday at 2pm Central Standard Time. It’s free, and if you have time to attend, I invite you to jump right in and join us. Each meeting we’ll go over a chapter and go chapter by chapter as we dive into each of the nine principles over the course of the book club. For details on how to register, please head over to Studereducation.com/hardwiringexcellence.  


Thank you for tuning into this episode of Accelerate Your Performance. If today’s topic resonated for you, please share this episode with a friend or colleague. 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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