Holdsworth Center's inaugural cohort of school district leaders visited H-E-B Headquarters and various H-E-B stores around San Antonio
The Holdsworth Center's inaugural cohort of school district leaders visited H-E-B Headquarters and various H-E-B stores around San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy / H-E-B

Over the past week, The Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership‘s inaugural cohort of school district leaders visited H-E-B‘s headquarters and several of its store locations around San Antonio.

Schools and grocery stores might seem like entirely different institutions, but they have a few critical things in common, The Holdsworth Center Executive Vice President Kate Rogers said.

“High-performing organizations in both the private and public sectors share some of the same traits,” she explained. “They clearly define what great leadership looks like, they foster a culture where people are continuously receiving feedback and improving their performance, and they evaluate people with systems that help them grow, both in their current role and into new roles.”

The week at H-E-B was more than just a seminar with randomly selected high-performing executives – The grocery store chain and The Holdsworth Center are deeply connected. H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt has pledged to personally contribute $100 million to the center, which is named after his mother Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth, a longtime teacher and public education advocate. The training institute will offer continuing leadership training to public school educators in Texas. The inaugural cohort of seven districts began a five-year program in June.

While retaining skilled teachers is a challenge for many school districts, others struggle to inspire growth in staff and faculty. H-E-B executives consider “people development” one of the grocery chain’s competitive advantages.

While at H-E-B Headquarters just south of downtown, participants heard from President and COO Craig Boyan and Executive Vice President of Partner Stock Plan and Partner Communications Suzanne Wade. They spent Saturday in workshops with Ram Charan, one of the world’s most sought-after leadership coaches.

“The caliber of people we are bringing to the program is a testament to how much we believe in public schools,” Rogers said. “Why shouldn’t schools have the same quality of leadership development as the world’s top private companies?”

Participants also toured stores to hear from managers who have proven to be effective in leadership roles. H-E-B stores vary in size and serve a wide variety of neighborhoods. Likewise, the seven districts in the cohort – Southwest ISDArlington ISD, Grand Prairie ISDKlein ISDRound Rock ISDPharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, and Lamar CISD – serve students from a variety of communities. With around 13,000 students, San Antonio’s Southwest ISD is the smallest district of the cohort – less than half the size of Lamar CISD, the next smallest district. Arlington ISD serves more than 62,000 students.  

Leaders froH-E-B and The Holdsworth Center tour local H-E-B stores. Credit: Courtesy / H-E-B

While best practices and principles apply broadly, context matters, Boyan said. “The world is changing fast in retail and in education. There is no average. The average school serving the average student is a totally dead proposition. The notion of the average store serving the average customer has way passed.”

Sales numbers let H-E-B executives know if the company’s products, services, events, and marketing are relevant to its communities, Boyan explained. “Sales is how we judge relevance. As schools, you have to figure out how you judge relevance.”

District teams debrief relevance, leadership, and other topics in end-of-day sessions. It makes for long, intense days, Southwest ISD Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft said, but it allows teams to process information and start thinking about how certain concepts would play out on Southwest ISD campuses.

“It’s about being part of a process and going back and being part of the dialogue,” Verstuyft said. 

The leadership cohort will continue with the Holdsworth program for five years. Superintendents and “district champions” began their training in June, and were joined by four additional leadership staff from their districts this month. With six district leaders carrying on sustained discussion, it is more likely that good ideas will catch, Verstuyft said.

“Bringing those [additional four] people on board provides a better opportunity to plan,” he explained. 

Eventually, this kind of intensive workshop environment will carry over to The Holdsworth Center campus in Austin. Initial designs for the campus depict a retreat-like atmosphere, with open space for impromptu brainstorming sessions or personal reflection. Until that campus is complete, the cohort will travel around the state meeting in different districts and cities.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.