The Emergency Manager of Detroit Public Schools describes his labors of love and how he’s helping to bring the Motor City roaring back
“I’d say that health care and education are co-passions for me,” said Jack Martin, Emergency Manager of Detroit Public Schools (DPS). “I think both education and health care consume such a significant portion of the gross domestic product in the United States, and they are really huge consumers of public resources.”
Martin has extensive experience in both fields, as well as private-sector expertise. He has been in the latter most of his life. His public-sector involvement typically has been gained through political appointments, first by President H. W. Bush to the Provider Reimbursement Review Board at the Department of Health and Human Services, where he remained through the first two years of President Clinton’s term.
“I went back to Washington in 2001 under the second President Bush,” he said, “so it was more public service as opposed to strictly employment opportunities when I worked for government.”
A practicing Certified Public Accountant, Martin has maintained his consulting firm, which he started about 35 years ago, throughout his public-service work. While it has taken some juggling, he has excellent leadership at the firm—people who have been there almost as long as he—so it has been a little less difficult for him to leave and do other things. Martin says he learned quite a bit from working at an international accounting firm and from his self-employment that helped prepare him for public service. Something he found particularly valuable was cultivating his people management skills.
Labors of Love
Martin describes his work in health care and education as labors of love. He says health care is a complex field, but also a fascinating area.
“When I was in Washington, I think we talked about the regulatory scheme for Medicare and Medicaid as probably the most complex set of regulations in the United States government. So for me, this is the challenge of being involved in health care: looking at how many folks are not receiving the health care that they need,” he said. “If you look at the United States, we probably spend more per capita on health care than any other country in the world, but we don’t have outcomes to match those expenditures. Trying to help solve that problem, trying to help develop a more efficient health care system so we’re covering folks but not spending money needlessly, is something that excites me.”
Martin is Vice Chairman of the Board of one of the largest health systems in the country and Chairman of the Board of a notable health maintenance organization. Not only is this public service, Martin noted, but it is also “a great way to stay in touch with what’s taking place in the field, particularly with the Affordable Care Act.”
Regarding education, he explained, “If we look at the performance of our 12th graders, both minorities and non-minorities, I think we perform worse than all but three Western countries in terms of math and science. I think we’re only better than Spain, Mexico and Portugal. So that is a tremendous challenge: the number of our children that are not receiving a good education, not receiving an education that allows them to compete internationally. Trying to fix that problem is something that excites me in terms of public service.”
During the George W. Bush administration, Martin served as Chief Financial Officer for the U.S. Department of Education, and under his leadership it went from being the worst-performing cabinet agency with respect to financial performance to the best. For this they received the President’s Award, which is equivalent to the Baldridge Awards in the private sector.
Turning this department around was quite a challenge, and the first thing Martin did toward it was speak with every employee. He had roughly 400 employees in the chief financial office, and he spoke to each of them about what needed to be done. Martin determined that people weren’t engaged where they should have been, so he tried to fix that. The other main solution was to change the information technology infrastructure. He worked with his Chief Information Officer and installed a new Oracle financial management system.
“That install and having all the employees engaged in trying to fix the problems helped turn us around,” Martin said. This experience helped in part to prepare him for his current role with DPS.
“They were both turnaround situations,” he said. “I think the management, the people aspect, getting people engaged and committed to accomplishing the common objective carries through no matter what entity one is working for, if it’s troubled. DPS and the Department of Education (DOE) at the time had some similarities. They both were restructuring opportunities or challenges, and we’re still working with that at DPS.”
Another commonality is in technology. DPS recently implemented a new PeopleSoft system, and Martin says that has helped, as did the Oracle system at the DOE. “The systems are part of it,” he said, “but people have to be engaged, committed and hardworking.”
The Spirit of Detroit
Martin and his team are operating under a law called PA 346, which provides for emergency managers at the governor’s discretion to be assigned to troubled city school districts. The work is complicated. They have real budget constraints, and while they’ve raised some money through the sale of excess properties, “selling your assets gives you a short-term fix for cash infusion, but it doesn’t fix long-term problems.”
“You have to deal with your infrastructure, financial management systems, the training of people, those sorts of things,” Martin said.
In Detroit, he added, not only do they have a unique situation in that they have a declining school-aged population, but they also have school of choice. This said, students can choose to go to charter schools or suburban schools. Now that they are not “the only game in town,” Martin said, “we think the way we can be competitive is to have a superior education product. If you have really good schools, then parents will send their kids to your schools.”
As a leader, Martin stresses the importance of putting people in the right positions to succeed. Instead of bringing in a fresh team and hiring new people to fix a particular problem, Martin works with those who are already there.
“They’ve got the knowledge from having been on the job for quite some time, so you want to direct their work toward the goals that we’ve set out as an organization,” he said.
And he has seen this have a positive impact on his employees’ careers, past and present. When Martin turned the DOE from the worst-performing department into the best, it benefited his employees as well.
“If you are able to turn around a complex problem, in this case restructuring government entities, then the people that are a part of that become highly marketable,” he noted.
Trust & Confidence
Many of the people who have worked with Martin have gone on to get highly desirable jobs. “And I’m happy for them,” he said. “That’s a reward.”
Martin himself had two mentors who helped him early in his career, when he was at Control Data Corp. Manny Otis and Ray Nienburg gave him excellent opportunities and put him in challenging rolls. When Martin was a young man, Otis and Nienburg sent him to Canada with 60 engineers and technical people to contribute to the design of Canada’s first computer mainframe. Their confidence in Martin gave him confidence in himself.
“If people trust in you and you can get the job done, it gives you the self-confidence to build on that experience and do other things,” he said.
He’s taken this lesson with him, and when managing others he stresses the importance of not being “an unreasonable taskmaster, but letting people know what you expect. And if they have deficiencies, then help them get the skill sets they need.”
In whichever of the many positions Martin has found himself, he is always following his passions to achieve positive change. ♦
Getting Involved in the Community: Altruistic & Career-Advancing
One effort that Martin finds essential, regardless of one’s profession, is community involvement. He says he adopted this attitude when he worked in public accounting for the first time and it was something the firm promoted.
“Being involved and helping others, whether it’s education or health care, is personally gratifying, but it also helps from a business standpoint,” Martin said. “I think most corporate executives are involved in one or more charities of their choosing, and that kind of community involvement not only helps other citizens, but it helps career-wise.”
“For example, I served on the boards of a major hospital and on the board of a health maintenance organization, and being involved in that volunteer work helped me get in the spotlight in Washington, where the President or the administration of a President asked me if I was interested in an appointed position. I think there’s a clear nexus there.”
“You are known for working hard and being involved in certain sectors of the economy; you meet people; people get to know you—leaders both in the public and the private sectors know each other. So if you’re working with somebody at a major health facility and they know someone in Washington who’s at the Department of Health and Human Services or in the White House, when they’re looking for people for jobs in Washington, you’ll frequently get referrals.”
“Whereas if you hadn’t done that volunteer work, you wouldn’t be on anybody’s radar. So when you volunteer, you’re doing a service to the country and the community, but you’re also creating opportunities for yourself. And I try to stress this with young people all the time, that it’s something you should do to help others who are less fortunate than you are, but it’s also something that will inadvertently create opportunities for you.”
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