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Cross-Boundary Leader: Kent McGuire (CO EPFP 80-81)

Posted By Shaina Cook, Tuesday, April 7, 2015


Cross-Boundary Leader: Kent McGuire
(CO EPFP 80-81)

Dr. Kent McGuire is the president and CEO of the Southern Education Foundation, where he leads the Atlanta-based organization to advance equity and excellence in education in the American South. Prior to joining SEF, Dr. McGuire served as dean of the College of Education at Temple University and was a professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. He has also served as senior vice president at MDRC, Inc., and as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and has previously worked in the education programs at the Pew Charitable Trust and the Lilly Endowment. Dr. McGuire has also written and co-authored various policy reports, book chapters, and papers in professional journals, and he currently serves on many boards, including the Institute for Educational Leadership, Cornerstone Literacy, The New Teacher Project, and the Alliance for Excellent Education.

EPFP Experience

I was in my 30s and was the perfect program for me to do as I was beginning to look ahead to my career. To meet people who older than me and who worked in similar ways in different spaces was really eye opening and a confidence builder. As I got to know people, I learned the program wasn’t all work, but work and play. The informal time allowed us to build relationships and helped us understand how similar we all really were. It was a perfect way to show how big the world is and how much you had in common with people. It was also my first foray into demystifying Washington at the local level. I still remember my experiences as a Fellow and have sponsored a few employees from organizations I have worked at to be EPFP Fellows as well.

Cross-Boundary Leadership

In my role, I work across many different sectors. I am currently working in philanthropy and have worked in that sector before, and have held roles in the government, higher education, and research companies. I’ve been an elected school board member, worked with schools and school districts, and, as an EPFP Fellow, I worked on state policy at the Education Commission of the States. Within my work in education, I’ve focused on questions of equity and opportunity from a broad range of vantage points and have found myself needing to work across sectors several times. K-12 and higher education, for example, don’t communicate easily and are like ships passing in the night, so conversations between the two have to be mediated. Research and practice have the same problem—they speak different languages and have different incentives but focus on the same thing.

To effectively lead and function across sectors, you have to become bilingual and learn the languages and norms of each sector to gain the trust and confidence of players. You also have to learn to facilitate relationships and communications across sectors, and you get better at it the more you do it. In doing this, I have been able to develop networks in each of these worlds, which gives me perspective and intelligence that is useful to my work.

Lessons Learned

I’ve learned to listen and honor the differences, norms, and traditions that operate in the education world. In the research community, I’ve learned to value evidence as the basis of deciding. In the world of practice, data-driven as it has become, I’ve learned to honor procedural and craft knowledge and observe how experienced people do things. The real trick there is learning how to blend those ways of knowing and standards of evidence. In the policy and philanthropy arenas, I’ve learned that interest groups are key. While there are some commonalities among everyone, each group honors different traditions and norms you need to be aware of. The cross-sector aspect is challenging to sustain because it runs against the grain and can get complicated, but it’s important. You have to have power and patience and respect the cultures, norms, and metrics that groups operate by. As you develop relationships with them, however, you become a bridge that mediates relationships and pulls people together.

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