Interview with Steven Rothstein
President, Perkins School for the Blind
Leaders Speak Series
Founded in 1829, Perkins School for the Blind operates in more than sixty countries with revenue of over $50 million. It offers free audio, Braille and large print books, and hundreds of newspapers by phone. The operations are complex, including a school, early intervention program, library, teacher training initiatives, publishing house, manufacturing division, technology division, and special services for the elderly.
Marty Linsky, who teaches leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, described Perkins and its President, Steven Rothstein, to us:
“Rothstein took an organization that had barely left the 19th century and turned it into the signature organization in the world in services to the blind. He is in my managerial hall of fame. He has completely changed the internal culture, moved the organization into services and places it had never even imagined, and increased the budget and fundraising exponentially.”
Here are excerpts of our interview with Steven Rothstein for Triple Crown Leadership.
Tell us a little about the Perkins School for the Blind.
Rothstein: We were the first school for the blind that started in the United States. It is the school that Helen Keller and her teacher attended. Perkins is a leader in services for children who are blind and deafblind. We operate now in 63 countries and have a staff of about 750 employees.Helen Keller
We provide direct service to over 600,000 people in the U.S. and around the world, ranging from running a school to seeing hundreds of babies for early intervention, and running a library where we have books on tape in large print.
We have a publishing house. We have a manufacturing division where we make products for people in this field. We’re the largest reseller of a specialty technology. We have services for elders who are losing their sight, and a variety of teacher training initiatives.
Our mission is very simple: To promote independence and opportunities.
Our tagline is: “All we see is possibility.”
How would you describe leadership at Perkins?
Rothstein: I guess there are two things. I start with the enormous platform and opportunity we’ve been given based on our legacy and quality of services. So, it’s our job, and my job as a leader, to ensure that we maintain and build on this. I try not to think too much about what people are going to say next week, but rather how will this fit in over the long term. There will be people at our 250th anniversary looking back on the decisions we’ve made. So, I am taking a long-term view.
The other aspect is we have a dual bottom line, as do many nonprofits. We have a mission-driven focus, but we also have to make sure we pay the bills and hire great staff, all those management issues. So, we need to balance the social mission with the financial.
I work in the same building with high school students, and I see kids every day that have challenges, not just being blind or deafblind, but other challenges, and I am motivated every day to make a big impact because I see the impact on individual students.
Part of leadership is looking at what is possible. If someone says “no,” they just haven’t figured out how to get to “yes” yet.
How do you approach your leadership responsibilities?
Rothstein: It depends on the issue. For many issues, I try to be very inclusive because in the long run if people understand why they are involved, where Perkins is heading, then they are going to be more engaged and supportive. I believe in the long run that, if I’m doing my job, I’m working with them, educating them, then they’ll agree with me, not because I’m right, but because it’s logical. If I can’t convince them, then either I haven’t done a good job communicating, or I was fundamentally flawed and drank too much of my own Kool-Aid.
I spend a lot of time informing, communicating, educating staff to come along. Then, ultimately, I’ll make a decision if I have to or, in some cases, bring it to the board of trustees if that’s appropriate. But in the long run we will go farther and faster as an organization if people understand why we’re heading in that direction.
Is your approach always inclusive?
Rothstein: No, not always. There are times where, because of the nature of the issue or the timeframe, a tactical decision has to get made. But on big decisions, I will engage people, maybe getting five people together and making a decision, or it may be over a six-month process.
A year after I started, we developed an alternative strategic plan. I said if we have a new initiative, and it doesn’t seem to fit in the plan, you have the right to ask why.
Have there ever been instances where you just had to exercise your positional authority?
Rothstein: Yes. John Kennedy once said of politics and government that it is fine if you compromise your ideas, it’s wrong if you compromise your ideals. Perkins has a unique leadership role because there are literally five million children today who don’t go to school someplace in the world because they’re blind.
Some countries don’t let kids go to school because they’re blind. It is inexcusable, morally unforgivable. Perkins can change that, and we are changing it.
So, I’m not going to compromise on the ideal that kids who are blind or deafblind have every opportunity. We have to be financially responsible, but if I believe something is absolutely core, then I will find a way to convince the key stakeholders. If it is more of a nice thing to do, but not core, then I would be willing to compromise. I do a lot of compromising on timing. I may want something in six months, and it may take two years.
Can you give us an example of sticking to your guns?
Rothstein: When I came here, not all the staff received an annual performance review. Some staff had been here 20, 30, 40 years and had never been reviewed. In my mind, people must get feedback. People, overall, do a great job, but everyone can learn to do a better job.
But the staff was opposed to this idea and felt threatened by it. So, I negotiated on the form of what the reviews looked like and the timing, but not on the basic idea.
Now, we’re in our fourth year of everyone having a review. That issue was core because I felt, if we weren’t measuring our staff, we couldn’t measure our students’ progress.
What is the organization’s culture like?
Rothstein: There are multiple cultures. I believe an organization’s strength is also its weakness. One of our strengths is we’ve been around for a long time. We’re very stable. One of our weaknesses is we’ve been around for a long time. We’re very stable. So, when you want to introduce change, some people don’t want to do that.
There are different cultures. There is a culture among the educational staff, who are highly competent, skilled, compassionate, dedicated, and used to doing it the way they’re used to doing it. So, overall some change is hard for everyone. Someone said, “I love progress, but I hate change.”
We have a manufacturing division whose culture is very business-oriented. We have groups internationally, working in the poorest countries in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere. So, we have many different cultures.
At the headquarters, the overall culture would be thoughtful, creative. Part of the balance for me is to find ways to work with every culture within Perkins.
Have you changed the culture during your tenure?
Rothstein: Yes. We did some tactical things, using technology, computers, speeding up communication. And accountability. It used to be that people would ask a question and not follow up. We now have a system of reporting back and deadlines.
I believe that at least half of management is measurement. Now, they get monthly numbers. They know the numbers.
There are many things that, if you care about them, and everyone is clear what the objectives are, then you know where you’re going. That has to do with student achievement. Our students take standardized test, and we have a system to track scores. I get those highlights. We track how many people attend training. I care about attendance records. That accountability was an enormous change.
Was the board involved in driving all that change?
Rothstein: Part of my job is never to surprise the board of trustees. You never want to surprise your boss. So, I will bring them along on issues way before I’m going to ask them to make a decision so that they’re not surprised. If I surprise them, I haven’t done my job in communicating.
The board has been incredibly supportive. We talk about things at a strategic level before they have to make a decision, and I’ll often say, “Next month I’m going to ask you to vote on this. Let me know if you want to talk about it. If not, I’ll send you a specific vote for the meeting.”
So, managing up and managing down, I believe that a good leader drives the agenda. That doesn’t mean they will always vote the way you want, or subordinates will vote, or external legislatures, parents, or anybody else, but if I’m not driving the agenda, I’m not doing my job.
Like every nonprofit around the country, we’re facing cutbacks from the State in government assistance. Part of the issue is to think through how you raise your issue and get attention. So, today we delivered to every state representative in Massachusetts a letter that was talking about our need, but in the letter was a blindfold. We said that they had a lot of choices of how they got information, but, if they put the blindfold on, they would understand why our service is critical because our clients don’t have choices. Then we called the newspaper and sent the blindfold to some newspaper reporters, so on two of the local TV stations, and in two of the newspapers, there were articles about this. That’s driving the agenda.
Do you consider Perkins a high-performance organization?
Rothstein: Yes, but that doesn’t mean every element of it is high-performance. I am aware of our shortcomings. We change children’s lives one at a time and country by country.
Perkins sued the federal government. If you look in your wallet, the ones, the fives, the tens, they’re all the same size and shape. In the 180 countries that print currency, 179 of them print their ones, fives, tens differently. There’s only one country that doesn’t: the United States.
So, we sued the federal government, saying they were discriminating and keeping kids and adults who are blind from getting jobs. We won. So, they are going to be changing currency.
Do you find you have leaders in your organization who don’t manage their emotions well?
Rothstein: Yes, we’re all humans with shortcomings. In some cases, they are no longer here because I felt those were so profound that they clouded everything else. There are a few things I would fire somebody on the spot for. Some of the moral issues are in that category.
Who was involved in updating your mission, values, and strategy after you arrived?
Rothstein: After I came here, we worked on updating the strategic plan and mission statement. Hundreds of people were involved. Every employee got a questionnaire, every student, every parent, donors, trustees, lots of other folks with meetings and briefings. Hundreds of people were involved, not all equally, but they all were involved.
For every board meeting and every agenda item, I footnote it to which part of our strategic plan it is. Three times a year, I do a town meeting with all employees invited to a presentation and open questions. Every slide of the PowerPoint notes at the bottom what part of our strategic plan is involved.
Do you find people making tough decisions on the basis of your values?
Rothstein: Yes. Most people don’t like to make tough decisions. It’s human nature. Probably the hardest decisions in almost every organization are personnel ones. It’s easy when someone does something so outrageous.
I’ve been called in where senior management says, “I think we should either fire somebody or not fire somebody, and here’s what they’ve done.” There is a conflict between loyalty to that person and the values.
In those cases, my job is to support the senior manager. I view my job as not to make the decision myself if I can avoid it, so I’ll ask them, “How does this fit in with our values, our mission, our plan, and what example does it set?”
We have a clear goal to have all of our students be able to be accepted in society. To do that we have to be a leader in hiring people with disabilities. We have had some cases where I’ve gone to a senior manager saying, “You’ve rejected this person who is in a wheelchair or is blind. I understand why, but how can we make this work?” It may make it a little harder for them, but if we’re not modeling how to do that, who else will?
So, sometime you use the hard edge of leadership and sometimes the soft edge?
Rothstein: Yes, in one of Marty Linksy’s books about leadership, he talks about how a leader has to know how far you can piss people off. You can’t do it all the time on everything because then they won’t follow anymore, but if you’re in an organization where there’s some change needed, if you do everything by consensus, you won’t go fast enough.
Is the leadership at Perkins widely distributed or is it concentrated in the hands of a few key people?
Rothstein: Every year it’s more widely distributed than the year before.
My job should be to make me irrelevant. So, if a car hits me, the organization almost wouldn’t notice it. If I, or the top two, or five people make all the decisions, then people won’t make decisions. When I came here, the top twenty managers had never seen their budgets. You couldn’t ask them to make a cut or change anything because they’d never seen the budgets. Now they get monthly numbers. They know the numbers. When I say to them, you need to look at this, they may not like making a decision, but they understand the tools.
Most people, if they’re given the training and support, will do the right thing most of the time. When they have the information, they’re closer to it and will make better decisions than I will.
What is it that empowers the people to make the decisions?
Rothstein: It’s not one thing. It’s me being clear about the objectives. Having a clear strategic plan that they understand. Seeing how tactical decisions fit in. Having the tools to read a budget. Getting information on a monthly basis. Getting it in a form you understand. For one of our senior managers, who’s blind, getting it in Braille. And then supporting them.
Did the organization ever lose its high-performance edge, and why?
Rothstein: I don’t think Perkins as a whole organization did, but parts of it did. When that happened, it just stopped reinventing itself, stopped asking questions. It took for granted the history would be the future. “Oh, things were great last year, so they’ll be fine next year.” It took some effort to rebuild the urgency to go forward.
What caused that complacency?
Rothstein: Lack of leadership in my mind. I inherited some things, and it took me a while to get around to dealing with some of those issues. Some of it is choosing when to fight your battles. Why do organizations fail? For every reason you can think of, but if I let that problem continue, I no longer have the right to be called a leader. I could still be a manager, but I’m not a leader.
What really distinguishes leaders from managers is a tireless focus on excellence. For us that means, if five million children didn’t go to school today because they’re blind, our work isn’t done.
How would you define great leadership in a sentence or two?
Rothstein: It’s about having a clear vision and finding ways to bring out the talents in those around you around a common set of goals.
Have you ever experienced great leadership in action? What did it feel like?
Rothstein: It was always in some mission-related work I was doing: education, nonprofit, government. I’ve seen it among people who have worked for me, with me, collaborators, bosses, boards. It was so exciting, so energizing, so inspiring, and rewarding. You want to find ways to keep it going.
Any final thoughts?
Rothstein: I don’t want anything in any of my answers to imply that I consider myself a great leader, because I consider myself a work in process.
Bob and Gregg Vanourek are authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill, 2012), based on interviews with 61 organizations in 11 countries.