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WILLOUGHBY: Hank Bounds has his eye on education

Dr. Hank Bounds has been a key figure in education and moving Mississippi forward for the last two decades. Only 44 years old, he is currently serving as commissioner of higher education and is one of the youngest people to hold such a position in the country. He was appointed in 2009 after serving four years as state superintendent of education. Before becoming the state superintendent in August 2005, Dr. Bounds served as superintendent of the Pascagoula School District, and he served as principal of two high schools and one K-12 school. He holds both a bachelor of science in sports administration and secondary education and a master of education in educational administration from the University of Southern Mississippi as well as a doctor of philosophy in educational leadership from the University of Mississippi. I was intrigued by the meteoric rise of his career, and I wanted to learn more about his thoughts on leadership. We recently had the opportunity to visit on these topics, and I learned about some of his key innovative leadership principles that are applicable to any organization.


My first observation is that he is a leader who gets results and has demonstrated the ability to lead a team to overcome tremendous challenges. In his first role as principal, Dr. Bounds stepped into a challenging situation at Pascagoula High School. There had been over 60 fights the previous year and the student test scores were below the state average. After the first year, the student fights had been virtually eliminated, and the test scores were above the state average. Over a three-year period, his team completely turned around the school and the U.S. Department of Education recognized the school as a “Blue Ribbon School.” Dr. Bounds has trained school districts around the country on his detailed methodology for turning schools around.

On Aug. 1, 2005, Dr. Bounds took over as state superintendent. Less than 30 days on the job, he faced the momentous challenge of dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. More than 440,000 children were out of school and dozens of schools were completely destroyed or severely damaged. Despite the obstacles, Dr. Bounds and his team were able to reopen all schools in the state by Oct. 15 of that year which was earlier than New Orleans opened any of their schools. As state superintendent, he also helped Mississippi move from one of the weakest curriculums in the country to one of one of highest. During his tenure, reading in the schools for fourth grade improved faster than any other state in the country, and he tackled the high school dropout problem in this state with the “On the Bus” program which was nationally recognized.

One of the core tenets of his leadership philosophy is to keep the focus of the organization on the “main thing.” For schools, he focused on the mission of keeping kids safe and accelerating learning. All of the activities of the organization should be centered on the main thing. Dr. Bounds noted that, “too often people within organizations focus in scattered directions and nothing gets accomplished.” It takes tremendous discipline to make sure that all of the activities of the organization are focused on aligning the organization around the main thing. Dr. Bounds teaches school leaders how to stay focused on the main thing by paying attention to the details and optimizing the experience of the students from the time they first get on the bus until the time they are dropped off at the end of the day. He shared, “We can’t control what happens outside of the school, but we can control the intervening variables that exist during the day to make sure that everything we do is focused on safety and learning.”

Similarly, in a work setting, employers can’t really control the home life of the employees. However, the employer does have the ability to address the intervening variable to optimize the experience of employees and customers. Paying attention to this kind of detail is what makes organizations like Disney world-class in customer service. Dr. Bounds is a lifelong learner and student of great leadership. His impact has been far reaching in this state both in the realm of education and the private sector. He serves on numerous boards, and is actively making a difference in our state. As a nationally recognized expert on leadership and education, Dr. Bounds is an asset for our state, and I am sure he will be a driving force in our future success.

Martin Willoughby, a business lawyer in Jackson, is a regular contributing columnist for the Mississippi Business Journal. Willoughby can be reached at martin.willoughby@ butlersnow.com.


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