Steering Houston School District Through COVID, Hurricanes
Jolivette's meticulous approach to facility management and intimate understanding of HISD's processes and workflows has helped her navigate some pretty difficult crises.
By the time Jolivette came to lead the facilities department, she had an intimate knowledge of the interconnected processes and workflows which made the business operations side of HISD work. "I think that being that systems thinker has really given her a lot to offer to business operations," says Felicia German, HISD business operations consultant with German Consulting and retired 30-year HISD employee. "Especially at HISD. It's like the Titanic. It's huge."
And when facing a crisis, understanding how all the pieces come together, being able to hold that massive data set in your head and being able to see how process flows can be improved, is exactly the kind of skill set a leader needs.
"Alishia always approaches any situation with a focused mindset, " says German. "She's been very successful because she's very intentional when she takes on tasks." Having a meticulously organized thought process is just part of Jolivette. As a kid, a middle child in a family of 10, she was known as "the secretary" because she was constantly writing things down and bringing agendas to family meetings. At work she jokes that she's known as "the binder queen." One of the first actions she and the team took when responding to Harvey was creating binders for each facility, filling them with photos and other documentation of the storm's damage to best position the district to coordinate with FEMA.
"We had a hurricane preparedness guide, " says Jolivette. "It was (only about) preparing for the hurricane. But what about preparing us so the district was ready to receive students and staff? So we needed to figure out how to reassure the district that we were ready to open and had addressed all of the issues."
That same instinct took over when COVID-19 went from being a remote illness affecting a distant location, and instead became the invisible storm shutting down her own school district. Much like having to write the playbook on recovery while in the midst of it, facing the pandemic has been a novel situation. Right away, Jolivette knew she needed data. "As soon as we closed for the pandemic, my mind went to wondering and my mind went to wandering," she says. And she quickly formed a task force. "We've never been through this before, so we need information from everyone."
Months of research, networking with peers across the industry and nation, and refining ideas with her team culminated in 25 model campuses which showcased the strategies HISD is planning to use throughout its portfolio once students report back into the buildings. In addition, the recovery plan Jolivette proposed to the superintendent was adopted and expanded as the district's reopening guide. This did not surprise German. "With the confidence she has and her preparation, she's able to take on those major tasks," German says. "She just has the innate ability to think through those things. That's how she's wired."
With the guidelines from the CDC and other bodies as a baseline, Jolivette says she and her team considered what effect the physical changes will have on the mindset of the students. At HISD, they focus on educating the whole child, and for Jolivette this begins at the edge of the campuses, where the grass should be neat, the buildings feel fresh, and all the processes of facilities should operate so seamlessly as to fade entirely to the background. "I quickly left the physical side, and went to the mental/emotional side," says Jolivette, as she evaluated what the students would be coming back to. "How can we make it inviting for the students to say, 'You're welcome here.'"
Though she is meticulous, Jolivette still has had to contend with any number of road blocks. Take the mockups, for example. On a recent walkthrough with a principal and the administrative team, Jolivette's hard work — the Plexiglas dividers, hand sanitizing stations, desks physically distanced all following the latest guidance, to say nothing of the new cleaning protocols — was greeted with: "This isn't going to work."
Jolivette had to take a breath. Perhaps several breaths. She could have pushed back and said it was enough. Instead, she listened to their pain. "Tell me what you need so we can come together and make it work,” she told them.
That patience and focusing on the problem to solve, regrouping when the initial tack doesn't quite work, is a leadership skill honed over the years. When she first came into the officer role, Alfred Hoskins, general manager of facilities maintenance and operations, says he remembers her as a person who "wants to know the answer before the question comes." In truth, she might still have that impulse but "her patience and nerve has calmed down."
Jolivette remembers the situation slightly differently, as a woman coming in to lead a department of veterans, mostly men. "They weren't listening," she says. This tension came to a head at a particularly memorable meeting and Jolivette had to find a way through to an accord. She recalls saying, "Here's what I can help you with, now what can you help me with?" From there a working relationship was formed. "And then I calmed down."
Jolivette is not a micromanager and trusts in her team's expertise. "She lets you be you," says Hoskins. She will set the directive and the expectation, but then it's up to the team member to pull from their experience and do what needs to be done, Hoskins says.
Hoskins was there for Harvey, in the command center with Jolivette. If she was panicking, she didn't show it, he says. He appreciated that the new officer didn't try to come in as a "know it all," he says. "She was a team player," he says, saying the focus was on getting through it together, moving forward, and keeping a positive attitude.
Jolivette was in the trenches with the team for five days straight. Sometime on the fifth day, after everything that could possibly have been done in the initial push of response was done, Jolivette went outside to take some breaths. Then she went back inside, and the team played a round of cards.