Politics & Government

Why Charlotte’s new leaders might need name tags

Clayton Wilcox starts in July as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent. This week, he attended the Tuesday Breakfast Forum and then held a 10 a.m. press conference at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.
Clayton Wilcox starts in July as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent. This week, he attended the Tuesday Breakfast Forum and then held a 10 a.m. press conference at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Offices from Washington to Raleigh to Charlotte have begun sporting the same sign: “Under New Management.”

Friday’s presidential inauguration will usher Republican Donald Trump’s new administration into power. Earlier this month Democrat Roy Cooper took office as governor of North Carolina.

But other changes are closer to home.

Charlotte’s new city manager, Marcus Jones, started last month. Two weeks later the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board tapped Clayton Wilcox as the new superintendent. He’ll start July 1.

And Democrat Ella Scarborough became chair of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners last month, unseating her predecessor in a surprise vote.

This month Kandi Deitemeyer became Central Piedmont Community College’s first new president in nearly a quarter-century. And Ron Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University for nearly a decade, steps down this year.

Within the last year, new CEOs have come aboard at Carolinas HealthCare System, Belk, Family Dollar, Piedmont Natural Gas and other companies.

The changes come three years after unprecedented turnover at local non-profits, when at least 35 leaders left their jobs over a single year.

“On one hand, it is an indication that we’re becoming a national city where people are heavily recruited both from us and to us,” said Tom Hanchett, a former historian at the Museum of the New South.

“But this is a city where people have known each other. They’ve known people in power. It’s a little sad to see us moving from kind of situation where there’s this extra layer of trust that comes from knowing people and watching them live and work in the community over time.”

Cyndee Patterson, president of the nonprofit Lee Institute, which trains local leaders, said new faces in power can be a good thing.

“Sometimes they bring great new ideas and ways to break out from how we’ve always done it,” she said. But she advises leaders to take time to get to know their community and their colleagues. Her mantra: “Go slow to go fast.”

Wilcox, leaving his post as superintendent of a Maryland school system, seems to know that.

“I don’t know what I don’t know, and I’m conscious of that,” he told reporters this week.

Less than two weeks into the job, Deitemeyer is still getting to know people at CPCC.

“I’m trying to approach it a day at a time,” she said. “You kind of start over when you join a new community. It’s new relationships. It’s learning the culture of the institution. … It’s learning where to park.”

She said she was looking forward to what she called the “best” day, the arrival of students.

Karen Geiger, a leadership consultant and coach, said leaders can be less important than an organization’s established culture and existing strategy.

“A change of leadership is less of a disruption if the direction and culture are clear and aligned,” she said. “Is the direction of the organization clear? And is the culture supportive of the direction? And if it’s supportive, the new leader can come in and ride the wave.”

The transitions in Washington and Raleigh will lead to other changes. The Trump administration is expected to name a new U.S. Attorney. Cooper could name Charlotte-area people to leadership positions in Raleigh.

“Change is inevitable,” said Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber.

But he said new leaders are getting engaged in the community. Many showed up last week at a meeting focused on increasing economic mobility in Charlotte.

“Whatever talent may have exited the stage, we have others stepping up to lead,” Morgan said. “And that’s important.”

CPCC’s Deitemeyer said the focus on new leaders shouldn’t obscure one fact.

“There remains more exceptional leaders already established and tied to the community than those of us who are coming in,” she said. “I’m looking forward to getting linked to those folks and really engaging with them.”

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