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The Servant Leader

Christina Picha used her law degree and a healthy dose of transparency to heal a vast rift between the administration of a Minnesota school district and its employees' unions.

Friday, October 2, 2009
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The situation facing Christina Picha in December 2002 as the incoming director of human resources for the Austin (Minn.) Public Schools system could not have seemed more stressful. A vote of no-confidence had just ousted both the previous HR director and the superintendent of the district -- in part over the handling of contract negotiations with the six unions the district works with -- and the relationship between the district's management and the unions were at an all-time low.

"There was a real sharpness and antagonism in all the dealings," says John Sullivan, the chief negotiator for the Austin Education Association, which represents the 315 teachers of the district. "There was a lot of antagonism on both sides and it spilled into the community. It was a pretty rough go."

So when Picha stepped into the fray, she knew communication would have to be the first thing returned to the table if both sides were to eventually move forward. She says the previous bad blood had "broken down all the relationships that had been built and there just wasn't any trust."

She immediately began to meet with union representatives in an attempt to heal that rift.

"A lot of it had to do with transparency," she says. "The first few meetings were 'get to know you' meetings, but eventually, I would actually bring my issues to them. I saw that you just have to open yourself up and be transparent, and they would share right back."

Once everyone agreed that, ultimately, all sides were there "to have the 4,300 kids of the district become empowered learners for life," things started to move more smoothly, she adds.

"There was no discussion on how the sides felt about the issues" before Picha arrived, Sullivan says. "That's now changed, and I give Chris a lot of credit because she listens and I think she really, sincerely, tries to hear our side, and that's a huge difference, in my opinion.

"Chris is very honest. If she's wrong, she admits that. If I'm wrong, she tells me so," Sullivan says with a laugh. "She's tenacious too, but not in terms of holding on to something no matter what. She's let go as much as she's held on to, and I appreciate that."

Since that tumultuous time involving years of contentious negotiations and ill will on both sides before her arrival, Picha says, the administration and the six unions have signed between 12 and 15 contracts with apparent ease.

"Prior to me getting here," she says, "[administration and union representatives] had never negotiated a tentative agreement prior to the expiration of the current contract," she says. "Now, it happens quite often."

For her ability to bring transparency to a cloudy issue and foster a spirit of common goals between opposing sides, Picha is being recognized as a member of HRE's 2009 HR's Honor Roll.

Seasoned to Succeed

In order to succeed in the Austin HR role, Picha needed to call upon both her 14 years of HR experience at Northwest Airlines -- where she spent her last two as an HR generalist -- as well as the six years she spent as a school board member with the Big Lake (Minn.) board. She also holds a juris doctorate from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., and a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from St. Cloud (Minn.) State University.

"Chris has strong ethics and a legal background that provides expertise not usually found in HR directors," says Bruce Anderson, the interim superintendent of Austin schools, who nominated her.

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Picha's legal background also comes in very handy when the various legal pitfalls inherent to a school district arise.

"[A law degree] definitely helps, especially with the growth of complaints with EEO or ADA complaints," she says. "You have that knowledge and can train others. ... I'm just a resource for our administration team on how to handle employee issues."

Picha also keeps an eye on the district's bottom line and has had success in moving the school district and its unions toward a more consumer-driven approach to healthcare by negotiating health-savings accounts and a high-deductible health-plan option into employee contracts, which saved the district thousands of dollars. Again, Picha's communication skills were crucial to making this happen.

"We held several employee meetings where we made comparisons to old plans and what the new plans had," she says. "The employees had a lot of questions; however, the union's bargaining representatives really understood the concept" and helped drive employee participation in the new plan. Besides, Picha adds, the union's leaders "were ready to get a little more consumer-driven as well" by that time.

Picha says that, when the healthcare plans were being discussed, she guessed only 20 percent to 25 percent of the staff involved would go for the high-deductible plan.

"We have about 57 percent now taking the high-deductible plan," she says, adding that insurance rates for the district in 2010 "are going up zero percent."

"Chris is a servant leader," says Anderson. "She sets high expectations for all colleagues and subordinates as well as herself. She is a tireless leader who models expectations and performance. She has moved the standard of excellence to a new level."

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