Fast Company

How's This for a Tough Assignment?

You think you face a tough battle for talent? Carlos Ponce's assignment is to get really smart people to take really tough jobs -- as teachers in Chicago's public-school system. Here's his recruitment curriculum.

Carlos Ponce starts work each day with the same question: How do I attract top-notch performers to a field in which talent is scarce and competition is fierce? That's hardly an uncommon question. But for Ponce, finding the answer is uncommonly difficult. As chief human-resources officer for the Chicago Public Schools, his assignment is to persuade the best and the brightest to join a system in which the vast majority of students come from low-income families, in which buildings are crumbling, and in which violence is a fact of life. By the way, he can pay new teachers only $34,000 a year. Is Ponce deterred? Not exactly. "Our role here is to redefine urban education," he says. "And to do that, we have to redefine the teaching profession."

Ponce, 49, was recruited a year ago to help rebuild Chicago's public-education system -- a tangle of 589 schools with a long tradition of failure. His mandate: to rebuild the human foundation of the enterprise. How, Ponce wondered, could Chicago compete for talent with suburban systems that offer more pay and greater personal safety? Indeed, how could public schools compete with companies like Microsoft and GE for the nation's best young minds? How do you market broken-down buildings to ambitious college graduates?

First, he concluded, you aim high. Last year, for the first time, Chicago's recruitment staff visited more than 55 universities across the country, including Harvard, Columbia, and other schools with first-class teaching programs. The goal was not only to recruit teachers but also to establish relationships with faculty members. "We have to make them understand the needs of Chicago's public schools," says Ponce.

Second, you target "fierce crusaders" -- people who are truly passionate about their work. "We need change agents," Ponce says, "people who are not afraid of change, who are not afraid to address issues."

Third, you market your crusade. You don't offer people the chance to work in a drafty old building; you offer them the chance to change one little corner of the world. "We're not settling for second best and neither should you," declares one of the system's new recruitment brochures.

Ponce -- a spry, well-dressed man with a soft, friendly smile -- was born in Mexico. When he was four, he moved with his family to Chicago, where his father worked for a gasket-stamping plant and his mother worked in an industrial-instruments factory. The only one among his siblings to go to college, Ponce held several HR jobs in the private sector before entering city government.

Today, part of his success depends on his ability to overcome city-style bureaucracy. Hiring authority resides in local schools, which operate with a great deal of autonomy. So Ponce has repositioned his department as a head-hunting agency -- one that serves not just teachers who are looking for a job but also principals who are looking for teachers.

To that end, Ponce lured Toni Hill away from Motorola's HR department to head up teacher recruitment for the system. (See "She Reinvents Recruiting," at right.) He also hired Brenda Bell, an HR consultant who has worked in the health-care industry, to revamp the system's substitute-teacher operation. His idea: to use the substitute-teacher program as a gateway for new full-time teachers.

Bell, 49, is developing a teacher-survival kit that will contain everything from advice on classroom management to sample lesson plans. And she has convinced 50 principals and assistant principals to work with her as advisers -- to share their experiences and their ideas. "The energy is out there," Bell says. "All I have to do is harness it and direct it."

Ponce agrees: "What we have here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change an organization. Yeah, we'll have to fight for our ideas. Yeah, we'll face some challenges. But what an opportunity!"

Contact Carlos Ponce by email (cponce@csc.cps.k12.il.us).

Sidebar: She Reinvents Recruiting

"We will either prove or disprove the myths surrounding inner-city schools by the relationships that we build."

So declares Toni Hill, 37, who left Motorola last June to become manager of teacher recruitment for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Three principles figure in her lesson plan.

1. What people think depends on the people they know.

Hill and other top-level CPS executives have been visiting top universities in order to establish relationships with administrators and faculty members at those schools. Traveling with Hill and her crew are "ambassadors" -- CPS teachers and administrators who love what they do and who are excellent motivators. "We want them to tell our story," Hill says.

2. Getting people to opt in requires understanding why they opt out.

At any given time, several thousand student teachers are training in Chicago's public schools. Yet, until recently, CPS had no idea who those trainees were, how many of them left the system, or why they chose to leave. So Hill had a manager create a new, more interactive program that enables CPS to keep track of student teachers and, ultimately, to keep them in the system.

3. Stand by your principals.

Hill's staff spends a lot of time building relationships with local principals -- in other words, her "customers." Before, says Hill, virtually all communication took place over the phone: "Now I go to meetings with principals and hear things like 'I'm so glad you came. It's nice to interact with real people.' "

Contact Toni Hill by email (thill@csc.cps.k12.il.us).

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