Honor Roll: Smooth Sailing

A career in the Navy lays the groundwork for Deborah D. Hirsh's transformation of HR in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

By Carol Patton

Several years ago, Deborah D. Hirsh attended a meeting with roughly 30 senior-level administrators from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). When the superintendent entered the room, she jumped out of her chair and shouted, "Attention on deck," before remembering she was no longer in the Navy. She had recently retired as a Navy captain after a 26-year military career and accepted the position of chief HR officer at LAUSD. "Everybody laughed."

But no one's laughing now, certainly not at what Hirsh has been able to accomplish at the district within three years, thanks in large part to the character, discipline and leadership skills she honed in the military.

When Hirsh came to the school district three years ago, educators were just starting to grapple with the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required all teachers to be highly qualified by June 2006, meaning they must possess a full credential or pass a subject-matter competency test while serving as an intern. At the time, only 81 percent of its 36,000 teachers were qualified to teach; now, 98 percent are. Likewise, most HR tasks were handled manually. Today, almost all have been automated. While Hirsh is quick to credit her staff for these accomplishments, she is recognized for leading HR's transformation and creating a model department for schools nationwide.

Her strong management skills and passion for excellence are why Human Resource Executive® has chosen her as one of its HR Honor Roll recipients. Her story reflects a long history of successes as both a commander and visionary.

Fast Track

As a young girl, Hirsh was determined to become an airline pilot, just like her father. At the time, women were beginning to enter the field of military aviation, so Hirsh joined the Navy in hopes of fulfilling her childhood dream. Because aviation training wasn't immediately available, however, her attention shifted to her second choice -- becoming a naval officer. She entered the ROTC and attended the University of Colorado. In 1976, she graduated college with a bachelor's degree in anthropology and a minor in physics and received her commission as an officer with the rank of ensign.

The Navy didn't waste any time testing her leadership skills. At the age of 22, she served as a communications security officer for the commander in chief for the US Pacific fleet. After that, she held three other positions with increasing responsibility, graduated from the Royal Naval Staff College in Greenwich, England, and earned a master's degree in business administration from California State University. But it wasn't until 12 years into her military career -- that she discovered HR.

When Hirsh was executive officer of recruiting for the Navy in Omaha, Neb., she managed 180 staff working in 31 recruiting stations stretching over nearly 200,000 square miles. "I had to motivate and organize them to do their job," she says. The Navy named her recruiting district the best in the nation in 1989.

That same year, she moved up again, this time to deputy chief executive officer. Three years later, she became the commanding officer of the Navy recruiting district in New York.

"I was the first woman to do the job," she says. "I learned that I had the skill of basically setting high standards, organizing the effort, articulating it with staff and getting them to do it on their own. . . . I'm very team-oriented and . . . believe that staff does the work and needs to be rewarded and encouraged."

After two years, she accepted another position, explaining that the Navy's philosophy is to move officers up or out. Between 1994 and 2000, she held four more positions, the last being director of HR Naval Postgraduate School, where she provided full-service HR support ranging from organizational development to employee relations.

After serving twice as a commanding officer and holding director positions at the Pentagon and Office of the Secretary of Defense, she was ready to retire from military life and rejoin her family in Los Angeles. When she learned of the HR job opening at LAUSD, she applied and was chosen in 2002 to head up HR for the nation's second-largest school district.

Full Steam Ahead

Although it took several months for Hirsh to abandon her Navy ways -- including saluting on occasion and speaking in military terms -- her skills were an instant hit.

Her first month on the job, she implemented an online teacher-application system that produced a dramatic change. In the past, the district received approximately 37,000 paper applications each year. Since there was no prioritization system, all applicants were interviewed. Not anymore. The online system screens out poor-quality applicants. Only the most promising are interviewed and offered binding employment contracts -- prior to completing their teacher course work -- for agreeing to sign early.

Teacher records are also stored online and performance appraisals are tied to the district's teacher placement system. Principals are even invited to a virtual interview room to review teacher applications or video interviews, which has streamlined the hiring process, she says.

Next on her to-do list is to create some type of incentive pay for good principals to serve in troubled schools, a career path for administrators and a more effective selection and assignment system. Currently, she says, teachers can become principals at the same school they taught at for years without ever working in another school or learning environment. She believes their effectiveness as administrators will be strengthened if they work at multiple schools and are exposed to different challenges.

"If we put a really good principal in every school, really focus on whatever it takes, staff will be motivated to come to work and, in turn, kids will be motivated to come to school," Hirsh says. "It's as simple as that. I have a passion and a mission to help facilitate that for education."

Oct 2, 2005
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